September 13, 2016


“The June moors whispered and rustled and shook their cloaks, yellow with broom and powdered faintly with purple – that was the heather but not the full passion of its colour yet … and maybe the wind would veer there in an hour or so and you’d feel the change in the life and strum of the thing, bringing a streaming coolness out of the sea”. – Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (1932)

Chris Guthrie, the young protagonist of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel of rural Scottish life Sunset Song, is introduced as part of the landscape, an adornment to the hinterlands of Aberdeen. Her family suffers mightily, with an abusive father, a depressed mother, and the coming of WWI, but Chris always remains loyal to the land which bore her. Terence Davies’ 2015 film adaptation, now available on DVD and VOD in the U.S., is an elegiac heartbreaker which presents Chris as an iron-willed witness to the end of Scotland’s pre-industrial way of life. Played by model Agyness Deyn with stiff-backed reserve, Chris remains fiercely loyal to her conservative town despite the continued thwarting of her artistic ambitions – she is an enigma, and her mystical devotion to home is something that Davies dares not try to explain. She has absorbed an entire country’s worth of tragedies, but carries on anyway, as Davies’ camera floats around her, keeping her mystery intact.


Sunset Song was voted “The Best Scottish Book of All Time” by a poll conducted by the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2005. It is as central to Scottish culture as Tom Sawyer is to the U.S. It had been adapted for television by BBC Scotland in 1971, but this was the first attempt to bring it to the movies. In his adapted screenplay Davies maintains the dense Scottish-English used in the book, and I found it helpful to view with the subtitles on (I learned that “bairn” means “child”, and it is now my new favorite word). The film condenses the book down, but retains the essentials: it follows the path of the Guthrie family in the fictional town of Kinraddie on their estate of Blawearie. The father John (played with fearsome intensity by Peter Mullan), is a taskmaster who treats his wife and children as hired help. The mother Jean (Daniela Nardini) has already borne three sons and Chris, but is now pregnant with twins. Chris is closest to her older brother Will (Jack Greenlees), who bears the brunt of their dad’s rage. The family unit implodes, leaving Chris alone at Blawearie, where she can begin to live for herself. So she flirts with and marries Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), a cute friend of Will’s who is guilted into joining the fight in WWI. When Chris has finally recovered from her family’s traumas, the world provides her with another.


Davies frames characters in theatrical tableau, and they can shift tones dramatically from scene-to-scene, as if they have become entirely new people. The father is introduced as a avuncular sort, smoking a pipe and praising Chris’ reading of a poem. In the next he is a brutal sadist whipping Will with a belt for a minor infraction. Ewan goes from a tender, sensitive soul on his wedding night to a snarling animal when he returns from the front on leave. As one of the voice-overs states, people are changeable, while the land is constant. This is a lesson Chris seems to have learned early on, since she takes these monstrous transformations in stride, almost as if she was viewing them from a distance, as performers on a stage slipping on a different costume. Chris is there and not-there, hiding her true self somewhere deep underneath her lacy undergarments. Agyness Deyn is remarkable at portraying this withholding, using her modeling skills to turn her long Modigliani face into an impenetrable mask, suggesting much more than she shows.


The joyful highlight of the film is the wedding between Chris and Ewan, which allows the entire town of Kinraddie an opportunity to breathe. The film loosens along with them, lingering over the couple’s caresses and mutual regard. It is a wedding rushed into, as Ewan proposes soon after their first kiss, but both are desperate for happiness, or the illusion of such, and they pull all of their neighbors into that cocoon. The privileged moment of the entire film is after the exchange of vows and the kiss that makes their bond official. Ewan and Chris look slightly away from each other and exhale, smiles creeping at the edges of their mouths. It is a massive release of stress, of fear, and a momentary acceptance of joy. It lasts no more than a few seconds, but it provided me with an intense sense memory of my own wedding, also joined into with speed, of the intense relief that the whole thing was over, and that the true joy of marriage could begin – being fully present once again with one’s beloved.


The highlights of any Davies film tend to be musical in nature, as he is a master of utilizing songs to establish mood, center locations, and isolate emotions. At the wedding, Chris sings an acapella version of the Scottish folk tune “Flowers of the Forest”, a mournful tune “commemorating the defeat of the Scottish army of James IV at the Battle of Flodden in September 1513″, per the fine folks at Wikipedia. In Chris’ steady, serious voice, it is both a memorial to lives lost but also to a country lost, as her precious Blawearie will never be the same after WWI will soon rob the town of its young men. She sings, “Sighing and moaning on ilka green loaning/The Flowers of the Forest are a wede away.” To translate: “Sighing and moaning on every green lane/The Flowers of the Forest are withered away.” Davies starts on a long shot of the villagers standing stock still around her, as if in a theater in the round. Chris is seated in the center, with Ewan to the right. Davies and his DP Michael McDonough push the camera in slowly, then dissolve from a long shot to a medium as she starts the “Sighing” verse. Now only Chris and Ewan are visible – this group memorial has now become private – and as she reaches the closing lines, she looks to Ewan with love and affection. It is as if Chris already knew that Ewan would wither away in the war, so she honored his memory while he was still in the room, before the land took him back and left her alone with the moors and the heather and the streaming coolness of the sea once again.


December 23, 2014


Let the proliferation of year-end lists wash over you with a resigned calm. And let me add another one to the ocean of opinion. Today I’m presenting my top ten new-to-me movies of 2014. That is, older films that I have seen for the first time. They are the backbone of any movie-going year, whether it’s catching up to acknowledged classics (for me, The Best Years of Our Lives) or going trawling for obscure auteurist gems (Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead).  It’s a way to draw attention to a wider range of filmgoing possibilities, so you don’t have to read about Boyhood for the bazillionth time (though, if you do, my appreciation is over here). All credit goes to prodigious blogger Brian Saur from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, who collects “Favorite Film Discoveries” from writers, programmers and filmmakers every year, and asked me to contribute once upon a time. I found the exercise invigorating, more so than the usual end-of-year recycling, so you have him to thank or blame.

The films are presented in alphabetical order


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, directed by William Wyler)

I had been indoctrinated in aversion to Wyler, from half-remembered slams by Andrew Sarris. This is not Sarris’ fault but my own, as he was a persistent re-evaulator, trying to undermine his own biases. But now that I’m here, my goodness what a movie. Wyler was a serviceman for three years, and knew who these men were and how they lived. The deep focus cinematography by Gregg Toland is justly famous, but it’s the gestures inside of it that make it work so beautifully. The orchestration of glances as the family silently reacts to Homer’s amputation isolates him even as he’s surrounded by well-wishers.

On Blu-ray from Warner Brothers


Broken Lullaby (1932, directed by Ernst Lubtisch)

Lubitsch’s only non-comic sound film is a post-traumatic post-WWI drama about a shellshocked vet who seeks penance for bayoneting a German soldier in the trenches. He travels to atone to his victim’s parents, but when he arrives, he can’t bring himself to admit his guilt. Instead he falls in love with their daughter. Like in many of Lubitsch’s comedies, it’s about a man who fakes his life so beautifully he almost makes it come true. It opens with a blast of dialectical montage, cutting rhythmically between a Paris belfry’s bells and a battlefield cannon, the drums of the soldier’s homecoming parade sliced in with a wounded vet’s screams. It is as potent a three minutes as anything Eisenstein concocted. But then, a stylstic shift into daring long takes and a subdued, declamatory kind of acting. There is an unbroken two-minute take of two mothers grieving over their sons that is devastating in its quietude.

Unavailable on home video or VOD


Carnival of Souls (1962, directed by Herk Harvey)

This miraculous motion picture is a dip into the Midwestern uncanny, ghosts haunting the long flat highways and abandoned amusements. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, undoubtedly aided by viewing it on July 4th weekend, where bottle rockets were popping off behind my head every five minutes. I was too gripped to turn around and look at the firecracking kids outside, for fear I would see that face reflected in the window.

On DVD from Criterion (I watched it on Hulu Plus)


The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974, directed by Bertrand Tavernier)

Tavernier’s debut feature is a subdued adaptation of a Simenon novel about a habit-minded watchmaker whose estranged son is wanted for murder. Shot in Tavernier’s hometown of Lyon, it traces the father’s ritualized walks through his city as he grapples with this rupture in his life. The outdoor photography is hushed and autumnal,the death of summer framing the father’s unspoken struggle over his son’s situation, which rouses the communist factory workers at which his son worked, as well as the accusatory owners. The father’s motivations and inner being are kept opaque, his inner workings as unfathomable as his clocks are understandable. So when his decision arrives, it is with the gathering force of a thunderbolt.

On Region 2 DVD from Optimum



Forgotten Faces (1928, directed by Victor Schertzinger)

The undisputed highlight of this year’s Capitolfest in Rome, NY, this is a visually extravagant crime melodrama. The story is a convoluted stew  involving gentlemen thieves, orphaned daughters, scheming mothers, and a devoted sidekick named Froggy (William Powell). Not memorable material, but the clarity and elegance of its late silent film style are often overwhelming. There are elegant tracking shots, provocative use of off-screen space, and complicated spiraling sets that are split in half and filmed in a Wes Anderson-esque dollhouse style. It’s enough to make one shake a fist at the sky and rue the coming of sound.

Unavailable on home video or VOD

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Good Sam)_NRFPT_08

Good Sam (1948, directed by Leo McCarey)

I am morally obligated to write about every Leo McCarey movie someday, so this year it was Good Sam, a complicated moral fable about the unintended consequences of doing good. Gary Cooper is Sam, an inveterate do-gooder whose charity consistently leads to troubles, whether its debt, permanent visitors or missing cars. The film’s central theme is the impossibility of saintliness in a consumer society – one in which Sam becomes an object of ridicule (by his boss, his wife and the world at large), rather than lauded for his selflessness. Cooper is appropriately skittish and perpetually aghast, but the real star is Ann Sheridan as his put upon wife. Her acerbic realism cuts the sweetness of Sam’s saintliness, and she provides the greatest laughs in the film – especially when she busts out cackling at Sam as he uncharacteristically runs down a neighbor (who happens to be sitting right behind him).

On Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films


The Long Day Closes (1992, directed by Terence Davies)

Note perfect reminiscence about growing up lonely and growing up in the movies, usually the same thing.

On DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection



Mongo’s Back in Town (1971, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky)

A relentlessly downbeat telefilm noir starring Joe Don Baker as the titular Mongo. Mongo is a beast intent on destroying his hometown. His milquetoast brother summons him back to San Pedro, CA in order to knock off a local competitor, but instead Mongo brings the whole criminal edifice down around everyone’s heads. Baker is gruff and relentless, an analogue to Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank (1967). Nothing will sway Mongo from his own disgust. The rest of the cast includes Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen and Sally Field, all dumb witnesses to Mongo’s clumsy, bloody vengeance.

On MOD-DVD from CBS Films


Redhead (1941, directed by Edward L. Cahn)

I am contractually obligated to write about 10-12 Edward L. Cahn movies this year, and this one was my favorite (When the Clock Strikes finishing a close second). It’s a downbeat suicide comedy about a pair of mismatched lovers(one rich, one poor) who meet each other both on the precipice of leaping off a cliff. They save each other instead, opening a roadside diner and learning how to live on modest means. It’s death-driven, class-conscious comedy only possible in the dark, delightful world of Cahn.

Available to stream on Amazon Instant Video



A Touch of Zen/The Valiant Ones (1969/1975, both directed by King Hu)

One of the major events in NYC was the BAM Cinematek’s King Hu retrospective. I was only able to make it to these two, but they are jaw dropping spectacles. I preferred the relentless logic of The Valiant Ones, in which the intricately choreographed battles are mapped out on chess boards, and each faction is eliminated with unforgiving procession. The earlier Touch of Zen is more inside the head than the hands, a Buddhist fable of enlightenment in which blood turns into told and only through self-abnegation can come glory.

Both are out of print on DVD


Utamaro and his Five Women (1946, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi)

Wherein the life of an artist (here woodblock print portratist Utamaro) is presented as one of continuous battle, in which everyone suffers, his models most of all.

Available on Region 2 DVD from Artificial Eye


February 4, 2014


My memories are all knotted up with the movies. At times I fear I remember films more than reality. My first date with my future wife is nothing now but place names (Blue Ribbon Bakery, Film Forum) and an atmosphere of skittish anticipation. None of the words I spoke to her remain in my gray matter, though I recall the college fight song John Barrymore belted out in the B-Musical Hold That Co-Ed, the film which capped our evening. That tune imprinted itself, though not as much as that transformative parting kiss. No film captures the poetic arbitrariness of memory than Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, released last week in a sumptuous Blu-ray transfer from Criterion. Davies weaves together impressions from his mid-1950s Liverpool childhood in suggestive flashes, from the play of light upon a carpet to the audio of some of his favorite moviehouse memories (The Magnificent Ambersons and Meet Me in St. Louis feature prominently).  Davies claimed it was the happiest period in his life, set in the years after his father’s death, and before the crippling doubts of adolescence. The Long Day Closes is a rapturous experience, capturing the ebb and flow of sense memory in rich, tactile images, all underscored with the knowledge of their passing. These moments are gone and they will last forever.


Terence Davies began the archaeological dig into his past with the three short films Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980) and Death and Transfiguration (1983), known collectively as “The Terence Davies Trilogy”. These followed his alter-ego Robert Tucker through victimized childhood, depressed maturity, and lonely death. It continued in Distant Voice, Still Lives, in which Davies removes himself from the screen, instead investigating the aftereffects a violent patriarch has on his mother and three of his siblings. In the Criterion liner notes, Davies tells Michael Koresky (who wrote a forthcoming book on the director for the University of Illinois Press) that, “I couldn’t put in many things that happened, because nobody would have believed it. He was so violent.”


The Long Day Closes captures the slow restitution of a family following his death, though the patriarch is never mentioned. His mother (Marjorie Yates) is layered in the delicate latticework shadows of cinematographer Michael Coulter, blending her into the home, as if its foundation. She is introduced making tea, lilting the melody to “If You Were the Only Girl (In the World)”. It’s a song of escape, continuing, “and I were the only boy/Nothing else would matter in the world today.” Her face is content, almost blissful, imagining such swooning romanticism, a remnant of her youth. Davies uses songs as time machines, conjuring the emotions of their original reception and mourning their loss in the same move. He begins in the opening shot, as Nat King Cole sings Hoagy Carmichael’s ode to evanescent love, “Stardust”, over the image of a decrepit rain-soaked street. In his supple tenor Cole intones, “Love is now the stardust of yesterday/The music of years gone by”, as Davies dollies his camera to a collapsed staircase. Alec Guinness fades onto the soundtrack from The Ladykillers, “I understand you have rooms to let,” before a young boy’s voice yells “Mom!”, and the film proper begins. All that follows will decay, Davies shows, the staircase becoming a wreck, and the song “Stardust” itself will become the stardust of yesterday.

The film becomes a series of fragmentary impressions from Davies’ childhood, music and sense memories connected by camera movement. An observer since childhood, Davies depicts himself as separate from the rest of the family, too young to go out to dances or bars, his evenings spent staring out windows waiting for his siblings to come home. He also awakens to his own homosexuality when admiring a shirtless construction worker across the way. Then his is immediately overwhelmed with shame – further distancing him from society at large. His afternoons are spent in school or the cinema, both avenues for escape. Davies connects all these flickering memories in fluid camera movements, as if remembering in one breath. These worlds are connected through Davies’ graceful camera movements, which traverse space the way his songs travel in time.


In one bravura sequence, the boy is sitting rapt in the balcony of a movie theater, framed inside the cone of the projector’s light. The camera cranes downward, and the movement continues after a dissolve to an amusement park, the ferris wheel lights in place of the projector. The family walks in a military line perpendicular to the camera, agog at the sights, the shape of their lockstep single line formation repeated in the image of air rifle barrels at a carny game. The camera, still tracking rightward, then cuts to the boy in his mother’s arms, as she sings the Irish folk song “She Moved Through the Fair”, about a ghostly lover returning to see her beau. Mother and child sit in front of a flickering light, presumably a fire, as the Mother’s eyes brim with tears. The constant flicker against her tearful face is reminiscent of Major Amberson’s stare into flames in The Magnificent Ambersons. In that scene he was facing death, and in Welles’ voice-over, he was “engaged in the profoundest thinking of his life. He realized that everything that had worried him or delighted him during his lifetime, all his buying and building and trading and banking, that it was all trifling and waste, beside what concerned him now.” Mother is no industrialist, but she is engaging in the same, profound thinking. She tells her son, “my dad used to sing that”, and shudders with remembrances of her own childhood, one Davies is not privileged to see. She is of firmer stock than the Major, and is capable of handling the dissipations and disappearances of time, those which Davies mourns so beautifully..