In westerns cowboys are usually depicted as symbols of ultimate freedom. In John Huston’s epitaph to the western, 1961’s The Misfits, Clark Gable’s character explains the life of a cowboy as “Well, you start by going to sleep. You get up when you feel like it. You scratch yourself. You fry yourself some eggs. You see what kind of a day it is; throw stones at a can, whistle.”* And this notion of freedom is part what makes Raoul Walsh’s 1947 film Pursued so interesting. Billed as the first ever western-noir, Pursued takes the vastness of the old west and transforms it into a stifling landscape where you can run but you can’t hide.
Pursued stars Robert Mitchum as Jeb Rand, a man haunted by the scattered memories of a traumatic event. The film opens with Jeb hiding out in the dilapidated remains of a weathered ranch. Then through a series of flashbacks Jeb narrates how fate led him to this point. This narrative framing device is often used in noir* as a way to start off the movie by letting the audience know how it’s going to end: badly. It steeps the rest of the film in an ominous dread because no matter how good things look for our characters we know their ultimate and unfortunate fates.
One night, a few summers ago, when it was too hot to sleep I remember lying in my bed and listening to the heat drive one of my neighbors insane. It was around two in the morning and for about twenty minuets he was pacing back and forth screaming “Enough! I’ve had enough of this!” He never went into further detail but anyone who could hear him knew he was talking about the heat. I remember lying there and thinking, if only he had some ice cream.
Ice cream sales rise and fall simultaneously with murder rates. The more ice cream people buy the more murders there are. Of course this isn’t the ice cream’s fault. It’s the heat’s fault. It drives people crazy. I’d even go so far as to bet that if people didn’t have ice cream to cool them down the murder rates would go even higher. We don’t often think of mayhem and ice cream as being close but the two are old friends. It’s been the subject of news reports, podcasts, and was even the premise of Bill Forsyth’s 1984 comedy Comfort and Joy.
I’m a dog movie apologist. Sure, they’re mostly vapid fluff but then again so are dogs. The thing about dog movies is that they all follow the same story: person obtains dog, dog throws person’s life into playful chaos, dog is punished, person encounters real problem, dog helps person overcome problem, and person learns to love dog for flaws because dog loves person. Sometimes the dog dies at the end too but the dead-dog-movie is it’s own subgenre if you ask me. My favorite part of any dog movie is when the dog helps their owner overcome a real problem because this is where all the action usually is. This is where you’ll see a dog stop a bank robber or help mend a troubled marriage. This is also where the person then perceives the dog’s actions as an inherent love of the person rather than regular doggy nature. This is where the myth of “man’s best friend” comes to life.
Most dog movies can be seen as examples of our own narcissistic and insecure tendencies; they’re stories about animals that risk their lives because they wuv us very much (even if we’re still mad at them for ruining that important business lunch with David Duchovny). Yet despite the fact that we share such an odd relationship with dogs there is only one film I’ve ever seen that dares to explore the darker side of it.
Jérôme Boivin’s Baxter was released in 1989. Billed as a horror film about a “murderous bull terrier” I was expecting something along the lines of a haute Cujo but ended up being enthralled in a serious drama about isolation, obsession, and unnatural thoughts. Told through an insidious voice over from the Baxter’s point of view, the film follows him from owner to owner as we get a glimpse into the lives of several families, all who play a part in shaping Baxter’s perception of the world.
In 1956 Don Siegel’s science fiction masterpiece Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released to much acclaim. Turning the vague yet omnipresent paranoia of the Cold War into terror from another planet, Don Siegel’s film tells the story of a small town doctor who slowly realizes his town is being taken over by intergalactic doppelgangers. After “space seeds” land in a farmer’s field just outside town giant pods begin to grow. Then from the pods replicas of the closet sleeping human are reproduced. What happens to the original human body? What do the aliens intend to do after they have the planet? No one is quite sure. What we can be sure of is although the replica looks, smells, speaks, and acts like us they are definitely not us. They are not human.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is primarily concerned with humanity, what defines our humanity, and how it slips away. The invaders switch places with the humans while they sleep making their biggest threat our own passivity. The main symptom of the switch is that you fall into a hive mind presence losing your autonomy. So in Invasion being independent and aggressive are the only way to maintain one’s humanity. The final shot of the film is a close up of a sweaty and exhausted Dr. Hill finally having convinced the police of the oncoming swarm after barely escaping the madness himself. On his face we see the terror he lived through but have the feeling help is finally on the way; however, Hajime Sato saw something completely different. Hajime Sato saw total bunk.
Frederick Wiseman is a documentarian who began his career with a controversial film that featured a Massachusetts correctional facility for the criminally insane, Titicut Follies. After receiving permission to shoot the film on “verbal agreement” Wiseman showed up with his cameraman and started shooting footage. Unlike many other documentaries Wiseman presents his footage without any subjective narrative sequence or a guiding narrator, via voice over. Instead Wiseman gives you the opportunity to just observe but that’s not to say that he leaves his voice out entirely.
After Wiseman cut his footage and was preparing to distribute the film he faced several censors who felt he painted an unfair portrayal of the Massachusetts facility. In fact, the film shot in 1967 was banned from being shown in Massachusetts until 1991. If you see the film you’ll understand why. One particularly upsetting scene involves a nude patient being taken out of his room for a shave. During the shave the staff continually harass the patient by repeatedly asking him the same two or three questions. The scene goes on for about fifteen minutes and the patient responds in cycles of ignoring them, giving monotone answers, and shrieking in confusion and anger. Another scene features an emaciated patient being force fed soup through a tube inserted in his nose; however, the scene is intermediately interrupted for close ups of the same patient’s body being prepared for incineration.
Whenever I’m watching a film I love being able to sense the moment when it turns from entertaining to outright enthralling. I love a film that will take a moment to telegraph Margo Channing, turn to the audience, raise an eyebrow, and say “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” Nicholas Ray’s 1956 melodrama Bigger Than Lifeis just such a film.
Bigger Than Life tells the story of an overworked schoolteacher who struggles to make a name for himself in the larger academic community after being granted a second chance at life. Well, that’s the polite version. I suppose another way of putting it is that after being diagnosed with a fatal disease, then being treated with a breakthrough miracle drug, an average man sinks into a psychotic meltdown characterized by his megalomaniacal obsession with morality and knowledge. It’s a gripping technicolor drama that skewers the nuclear family over a hotbed of corrupt doctors, overturned suburban values, and some top notch blasphemy.
Earlier this month the New York Times ran a short article on itinerant filmmaker Melton Barker. Referring to the man as a “huckster” and to his profession as a “racket” the article tells the story of a man drifting from town to town reshooting the same script over a hundred different times in over a hundred different towns. In each new place Barker found himself, he’d put out a talent call looking for child actors. Then, after charging them a small fee to appear in his film (anywhere from $1-$9), Barker would shoot them in a short usually titled The Kidnapper’s Foil. The film would have an invitation-only premier for the families of all the actors. Afterwards The Kidnapper’s Foil would run as a short before feature films giving locals the ability to go into their theater and see their own town on par with the all the glitz of Hollywood. So my question is, who was he conning?
Melton Barker’s most notable achievement in life was finding and backing child actor George McFarland, better known as Our Gang’s Spanky. So when Barker came to town it’s easy to see why parents were quick to pony up the dough for their kid to be in his film. After all, everyone thinks their child is the best child so what’s to stop them from reaching Spanky-level fame and riches. Jumping forward to 1993 when auditions were being held for a reboot of The Little Rascals I remember my own mom going on about how perfect my brother and I would be as an Alfalfa and Spanky duo. To be fair to my mom’s perhaps overestimation of how talented we were, we did somewhat fit the mold.