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by Joel Bocko

“Fixing a Hole” is a new series on Wonders in the Dark whose sole purpose is to review films that have not yet been covered on that site. The theme for October is “Universal Horror.” Some spoilers are discussed below.

The Old Dark House (1932/United States/directed by James Whale)

stars Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Charles Laughton, Melvyn Douglas, Gloria Stuart, Lillian Bond, Raymond Massey, Brember Wills, Elspeth Dudgeon

written by R.C. Sherriff and Benn Levy from J.B. Priestley’s novel • photographed by Arthur Edeson • designed by Charles D. Hall • music by David Broekman • edited by Andrew Cohen

The Story: On a dark and stormy night, a married couple and their bemused third-wheel friend are forced to stay the night at a gloomy old home, inhabited by the very strange Femms, a family full of neuroses and dark secrets.

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See a movie called The Old Dark House and you think you know what to expect. Well, unless you’re psychic, half-mad yourself (you’d have to be to come up with this scenario), or have already seen it, you’d be dead wrong. Sure, there’s an old house on a hill. Okay, a bickering young couple and their friend wind up having to spend the night there. Yeah, the residents of the house are a bunch of freaks, weirdos, and psychopaths. But the devil’s in the details and if the outline sounds familiar, the details are anything but. Every line of dialogue, every gesture, every plot development is unexpected and off-the-wall.

Who could predict the lesbian onslaught of sister Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), pausing every now and then in her overbearing religiosity to a cop a feel from the heroine? Who would expect the appearance of 102-year-old Sir Roderick Femm, bedridden, cackling, and despite the misleading cast listing (actor’s name supposedly “John Dudgeon”) quite clearly an old lady with a scraggly beard glued to her wrinkly chin? And best of all, who should foresee the climactic revelation of Saul Femm (Brember Wills), outcast brother locked in his room for twenty years, set free to plead sanity – almost convincing us (we’ve certainly seen how nuts his siblings are) before the hero turns his back and Saul’s meek expression dissolves into a mask of fantastically cunning dementia?

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by Joel Bocko

“Fixing a Hole” is a new series whose sole purpose is to review films that have not yet been covered on Wonders in the Dark. The theme for October is “Universal Horror.” Some spoilers are discussed below.

The Black Cat (1934/United States/directed by Edgar G. Ulmer)

stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi

written by Edgar G. Ulmer, Peter Ruric, and Tom Kilpatrick from Edgar Allan Poe’s story • photographed by John J. Mescall • designed by Charles D. Hall • music by Heinz Roemheld • makeup by Jack P. Pierce

The Story: On a dark and stormy night, the Allisons, a honeymooning couple, find themselves sidetracked by an auto accident. Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), whom they met on the train, takes them the home of architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), a camp commandant who mistreated Werdegast during World War I. The two men fight a battle of will and wit, with the hapless newlyweds caught in the middle.

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What do secluded mansions, wartime prison camps, violent fear of black cats, modernist architecture, satanic cults, semi-incestuous marriages, floating corpses, and sadomasochistic feuds have to do with one another? Not very much, come to think of it. Except that you can find them all in The Black Cat, along with wickedly stylized sets, idiosyncratic classical music, and – in their first pairing – two pitch-perfect larger-than-life performances from Universal’s biggest horror stars. Neither one cracks a smile or lets a wink betray that they’re in on the joke (though Karloff’s arched eyebrow occasionally suggests a saucy self-awareness), leading us to wonder if it is a joke at all. As he would later with the noir Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer twists genre conventions, stylistic norms, and tonal expectations into perfect pretzels, until we’re left wondering whether the result is subversively brilliant or merely ridiculous.

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text by Arlene Croce – images from “Night and Day” in The Gay Divorcee (1934) – edited by Joel Bocko

If writing about movies is like dancing about architecture, then writing about musicals is like trying to draw a blueprint for a tap dance. Here I try to make both ends meet.

The words below the fold are from Arlene Croce’s seminal “Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book.”

The images (some fragments, some fully framed) are from a single number, “Night and Day,” the only sequence in the film where Fred & Ginger dance by themselves, three minutes out of nearly two hours but the very essence of the picture and their partnership.

Make sure to check out a full clip of the dance on You Tube. Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, choreography by Fred Astaire, dancing by you-know-who.

Ideally, senses sharpened by the indirect evocations of Croce’s prose and the lingering snapshots of motion, you will view the dance with renewed appreciation. Much as one might press one’s nose up against a pointillist painting, viewing all those little dots as isolated phenomena before stepping back to take in the big picture, all without losing sight of the magical details which give it its essence.

As Arlene Croce says, opening her study of the sequence, “This incomparable dance of seduction is a movie in itself.” Enjoy.

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by Joel Bocko

Click here to visit The Complete Archive for Wonders in the Dark. The rest of this piece is a long, and perhaps long-winded, revisiting of the site’s history – humor me, if you will. Or don’t – but either way, check out the archive, as well as the more searchable Cinema/TV archive. Enjoy – these are my birthday presents to the readership and staff of Wonders in the Dark. The rest is just the greeting card, and we all know what you do with those…

Today, September 7, 2008, a new blog is born. The main thrust of this cultural endeavor will be the publication of reviews, which will examine films, theatre, concerts and opera. Several writers will be on board to bring the steaming excitement of Manhattan culture to the internet world. In the area of film, there will also be ongoing attention to classic and contemporary cinema by some terrific writers and a tracking of new DVD releases of art house product. As the site matures, it is also anticipated that pictures and photos will be utilized. This is a most exciting project and I am thrilled with the prospect of rewarding discourse by way of posts and comments. -Sam Juliano

So it began. With a modest, one-paragraph opening statement and a small band of supporters, Sam Juliano dipped his toe into the blogosphere. A dozen or so writers, two million views, and 2,000 posts later (we won’t even get into the amount of comments) we must conclude that it was a mighty big toe, so great was the ripple effect it created.

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By refusing to broadcast Honorary Awards for the second year running, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is blowing a raspberry at the luminaries of film history. Perhaps we should return the favor.

by Joel Bocko

This is not a clever “Top 10” list of reasons why not to watch the popular broadcast this Sunday. There are many reasons to ignore, criticize, or make fun of the Academy Awards, but right now I’m only interested in one. That said, a brief bit of background may be in order.

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(by Joel)

Contains some spoilers. If you want a more concise and suggestive take on the film tune in on Tuesday; coincidentally, Allan has made Paris (under its French title) his next entry in The Fish Obscuro. Then check out the film itself (it’s not the most difficult of “unavailable” films to find) and read this. Or heck, just plunge in here and now, in the spirit of Rivette…

Paris Belongs to Us, France, 1960, dir. Jacques Rivette

Starring Betty Schneider, Giani Esposito, Françoise Prévost, Daniel Crohem, François Maistre, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Luc Godard

Story: Anne Goupil is slowly drawn into a mysterious and complicated plot involving her brother’s bohemian circle of friends, one of whom is directing her in a play. She slowly discovers that Juan, a young musician and supposed suicide, may have been murdered, either by the femme fatale Terry or a worldwide conspiracy of fascists…or both, or neither.

“I want to tell you that the world isn’t what it seems.”

– Philip Kaufman

“It’s shreds and patches, yet it hangs together over all. Pericles may traverse kingdoms, the heroes are dispersed, yet they can’t escape, they’re all reunited in Act V. … It shows a chaotic but not absurd world, rather like our own, flying off in all directions, but with a purpose. Only we don’t know what.”

– Gérard Lenz

“I speak in riddles but some things can only be told in riddles.”

– Philip Kaufman

• • •

Whether you find Paris Belongs to Us a richly original debut, a frustrating mess, or a bit of both depends on how you come at it. The first time I saw it I loved it, falling deeply under its spell; more recently it seemed somewhat more limp than I remembered, its ragtag assembly less charming, the aloofness of its allure more challenging (you must be willing to approach and enter it before it unfurls its tentacles and wraps you in its embrace). If you are in the right mood, Paris Belongs to Us intoxicates – and the ambivalence of its appeal reflects the nature of the conspiratorial mindset itself: to those prone to paranoia, all the loose and dead ends add up to form a complex puzzle that only the “in” can see – if you are lucid enough to step aside and maintain your skepticism, the bits and pieces fall apart and toxic anxiety is exposed as its own self-poison. Ironically, Rivette is able to capture the mood of the first mindset while himself embodying the second: this conspiracy belongs more to the imagination than reality, and Paris Belongs to Us is in part a cautionary tale about the dangerous allure and self-fulfilling prophecy of paranoia.

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(by Joel)

Cleo From 5 to 7, France, 1962, dir. Agnes Varda

Starring Corinne Marchand

Story: After a bad visit to a psychic, pop star Cleo Victoire (real name Florence) fears that her recent medical tests will offer a sentence of death. As she wanders the streets of Paris, flitting from rehearsals to sickbeds to restaurants to strolls through the park, the artifice of her persona and appearance is slowly stripped away, until only Florence is left to find out what fate has in store.

The visual touchstone of French New Wave cinema is a character wandering down the real-life streets of Paris, trailed by a handheld camera or preceded by a makeshift dolly: think Jean Seberg shouting “New York Herald-Tribune!”, Jean-Pierre Leaud playing truant, Bernadette Lafont pretending to ignore flirtatious overtures from a passing car, or Betty Schneider ducking into a cafe to discuss a mysterious disappearance with Jean-Luc Godard. This visual tradition traveled through time when Jules and Jim brought the New Wave spirit to prewar bohemia, parading down the period avenues and alleys, Truffaut’s big hit seemed to capture the restless motion of a whole generation at the dawn of a new, exciting era in art and life alike (although in its ending it contained foreshadowings of the frustrations, disappointments, and uncertainties to come).

Then “the walk” crossed the Channel in 1963 with Julie Christie’s daffy, free-spirited stroll through a Yorkshire town in Billy Liar, and it crossed the Atlantic when Liar‘s director John Schlesinger set Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman loose in a downbeat, grimy New York – by then, the sixties had taken a darker turn. (In 1974, Louis Malle would turn the French “city-walking film” on its head: rather than follow one character with a moving camera, he fixed the camera in place, allowing it to glimpse into the lives of all the passerby who crossed its path.) But no film more perfectly captures or fully explores the potential of this method than Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnes Varda’s second feature and her first fictional film since 1955’s Le Pointe-Courte, a documentary-narrative hybrid, which preceded the New Wave.

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Les Bonnes Femmes, France, 1960, dir. Claude Chabrol

Starring Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Stéphane Audran, Lucile Saint-Simon

Story: Four shopgirls while away the daytime hours in tedium, then spend their nights prowling Paris, looking for fun, excitement, and perhaps true love – only to find predatory jerks, cowardly boyfriends, lascivious bosses, and a mysterious motorcyclist who stands in the shadows, watching all like a wise demigod – or a prowling tiger.

When, all at once, a new group of young filmmakers arrives on a national scene, there may share some common wellspring. In the U.S., it was often an apprenticeship under Roger Corman (Coppola, Scorsese, Bogdanovich, and Hopper all made early B movies with the prolific independent producer). In Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries, the new generation came through the state-run film schools; in the UK, the “kitchen sink” realists were usually documentarians before they made narrative features. In France, the situation was more incestuous than most. If you were to pick the ten or so major French filmmakers to emerge in the French New Wave, at least half of them came from Cahiers du Cinema, the fiery, controversial, and influential start-up film publication. In the late fifties, right around the time Cahiers editor and New Wave mentor Andre Bazin died, Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer all began work on their first features. It was Chabrol who hit screens first, with Le Beau Serge (about a young urbanite visiting the provinces) but Truffaut and Godard were the ones who brought attention to the movement, with The 400 Blows and Breathless. In some ways, Chabrol was the odd man out of the five.

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(by Joel)

Miraculous Virgin, Czechoslovakia, 1967, dir. Stefan Uher

Starring Jolanta Umecka, Ladislav Mrkvicka, Otakar Janda

Story: As bombs fall from the sky, a beautiful young woman wanders into the lives of several young artists and a melancholy middle-aged sculptor. They treat her as their muse. Yet before long, she is overwhelmed by their aggressive attention, and they are frustrated by her aloof resistance to their overtures.

An interesting element of the various European New Waves is their relationship with the recent past – namely World War II. I’ve often felt that the sixties were imbued with the displaced spirit of the forties, and that the cultural explosion and political upheaval of the era may have been impossible without the misery, death, and displacement of two decades before. This is not to say that the war played a huge role in cultural artifacts of the time; in some ways, the influence was indirect, in others displaced. In certain countries, for example the United States or Britain, the war was considered property of the older squares, and youthful revelers, rebels, or activists either satirized or ignored the earlier era’s sensibility. Elsewhere, the war haunted the cinema without necessarily being foregrounded: in France, it popped up in the films of Alain Resnais (about ten years older than most of the other New Wavers); in Italy and Japan, a sense of collective guilt fed into the bitterness with which young filmmakers scorned the societies of the past. Whatever the country, New Wavers tended to be born around the same time period, from the late twenties to the mid-thirties (some a bit younger in Italy, some a bit older in Britain), making them teenagers at the time of the war. This meant that most did not serve as soldiers, and would only have experienced the turmoil of the time to the extent that war came to them.

Czechoslovakia, in some ways, was spared the most brutal aspects of the war. Unlike Britain, Poland, Germany, or Japan it was not subjected to substantial aerial bombardment, one reason that Prague still remains the glistening city of the past, architectural jewels from earlier centuries still dominating its skyline. Yet this was precisely because the Germans didn’t need to bomb the Czechs – the country had already been handed over to Hitler by allies eager to appease, and Czechoslovakia was given the dubious honor of enduring Nazi occupation from months before World War II even began. Following the war, unlike the French, Italian, or British, the nation was not able to stumble towards a new sense of independence or democracy; it was occupied by the Soviets, democratic officials were killed, and a Stalinist dictatorship was installed within several years of the “victory.” In some ways, for Czechoslovakia, the war never ended. No wonder then, that World War II features so prominently in the Czechoslovakian New Wave (and here it makes sense to use the country’s full name, as Miraculous Virgin was directed by a Slovak, not a Czech). Some of its most famous films – including the Oscar-winning Closely Watched Trains and The Shop on Main Street – take place during the war. The best of these (and the least well-known) is the phenomenal Miraculous Virgin – while the setting is ambiguous, the film is tormented by a sense of occupation, persecution, death, and collaboration. Its themes are universal, but the historical experience of this beleaguered nation is the context out of which Miraculous Virgin was born.

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(by Joel)

Daisies, Czechoslovakia, 1966, dir. Vera Chytilová

Starring Ivana Karbanová, Jitka Cerhová

Story: Bored with their lives, two young girls (Marie and Marie) go on an anarchic and increasingly destructive spree of eating, drinking, partying, ridiculing conventions, while burning, cutting, or stealing every object in sight.

…Though I’m not sure I’d call it a “story.”

Daisies opens and closes with images of war. The opening credits intercut the grinding mechanisms of wheels and cogs with shaky aerial footage of bombardments. The film ends suddenly with one last image of a (Vietnamese?) countryside being strafed, along with the slow-boiling, deadpan tribute of the filmmaker to her would-be censors: “This film is dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.” The visual carnage is appropriate, for seemingly contradictory reasons. On the one hand, it gives a real-world analogue to the devilish destruction unfolding throughout the movie, and perhaps suggests that the aggressive but not physically violent behavior of its heroines could eventually lead in this deadlier direction – or at least that it’s part of the same continuum, selfish decadence leading to bloody chaos. On the other hand, there’s an apocalyptic tenor to the war footage, which contrasts sharply with the free-spirited bonhomie of our leading ladies – the suggestion is that this ugly world is what they’re rebelling against. Seen this way they are the embodiment of the contemporary countercultural ethos, thumbing noses at conservative social forces be they masked as American imperialists or Stalinist bureaucrats.

And on yet another hand (anatomically incorrect perhaps, but in the spirit of a film which shatters all rules of propriety and perspective) the documentary authenticity of those fleeting shots casts a gloom over the completely and flagrantly fabricated playfulness of the protagonists, giving it an unreal and desperate air. So perhaps there is no direct relationship (either positive or negative) between the world’s war and the girls’ anarchy, but rather a tension unresolvable in their favor – this grim reality lends a certain fragility to their antics, justifying their aggression and threatening their larks with an air of impending doom. All of these interpretations are, of course, valid but ultimately interpretations are – if not beside the point – at least after the fact. This is a film to be experienced more than “understood” – a wild ride through colors, cuts, iconic images, jagged suggestions, lavish set pieces, roundabout dialogue, and alarmingly incessant and aggressive noises (the sound collage “score,” mixing speedily-played classical compositions, random sound effects, and avant-garde atonal exercises, is as much a part of the experience as anything onscreen). It’s a tale told by an imp, full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

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