Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Affinity #12


"Death is good."

-Val Lewton, in response to a question about what the
message was in his film The Seventh Victim

59 comments:

Ed Howard said...

Nice. Lewton was a genius, and his first 5 films or so are virtually unparalleled: Cat People, Leopard Man, I Walked With a Zombie, Curse of the Cat People, Seventh Victim. I think Ghost Ship is in there too though that's a somewhat lesser one if you ask me. What's remarkable was how much thematic and emotional complexity he managed to inscribe into the rather simple plots and titles he was given to work with. I love the idea of horror junkies going to see Curse of the Cat People expecting something scary, and just being puzzled by the sensitive, quiet, mostly eventless childhood drama they're seeing.

bill r. said...

Lewton is tops in my book, although I would agree that Ghost Ship is a lesser film. So is -- based solely on the ending -- Leopard Man, although the scene of the girl trying to get home, being chased by the panther, is flat-out brilliant.

My own favorites are The Body Snatcher, The Seventh Victim, Curse of the Cat People, and maybe Bedlam, which I think is underrated. I also liked Isle of the Dead, though I know you're not a fan.

I think Curse of the Cat People is a great film, and actually pretty spooky, though it is also sensitive and quiet (most of Lewton's films are pretty quiet). And I love the shot when the girl is in her bedroom, and is visited by Simone Simon. When you see Simon against the window, and the camera pans across the room, past the chair, and once it's on the other side of the chair, Simon is gone...I mean, all she probably did was duck behind the bed, but goddamnit, it works beautifully. I shudder to think how a remake would handle that.

Ed Howard said...

The ending of Leopard Man is silly and abrupt, but it's rather consistent with the ambling nature of the plot to begin with; it's a very episodic film. Which is, for most of its length, what I like about it: the willingness to continually shift focus and give precious screen time to the stories of minor characters. Of course, that leaves little room for a satisfying resolution. But it's gorgeous and has some of the best horror set pieces Lewton ever did.

I'm not as big on Isle of the Dead, and I'd say despite a strong Karloff performance, Body Snatcher is a couple notches below Lewton's very best work. I still need to see Bedlam, though. My picks are predictable: both Cat People films, Zombie (my favorite, probably, and I'm surprised it's not on your list), Seventh Victim.

bill r. said...

I Walked With a Zombie is a great film, and I'm not really sure why it's not on my list, either. I think I just feel a bit closer to the ones I did list.

Speaking of which, The Body Snatcher was the first Lewton I saw, and maybe that has something to do with why I consider it my favorite, but I don't think so. Not only is Karloff superb, so is Henry Daniell, and even Lugosi, who I generally don't think much of as an actor. I just love the look, feel, story, and moral ambiguity of the thing. The hero is a drip, bust most horror protagonists were in those days.

Ryan Kelly said...

Plus Lewton discovered Tourneur and took him under his wing, which gives him major brownie points. It's funny (to me) to see the visual and thematic consistencies in Tourneur's career post-Lewton... Lewton certainly seems to have tauhgt him everything he knows.

Either of you gentlemen seen Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful? Kirk Douglas' character in the beginning of the film is very clearly supposed to be a substitute for Lewton.

Ed Howard said...

Haven't seen it, Ryan, though I should one of these days.

Bill, this thread prompted me to watch Bedlam tonight, and sure enough, you're right, it's a great film. The script was maybe a bit too talky and mannered, but it's still raw, compelling stuff. And Karloff is great.

bill r. said...

Ryan - I have seen The Bad and the Beautiful, and I did pick up on the Lewton connection. I was bothered by the fact that they seemed to deride the horror genre, when I'm not aware of Lewton ever doing that.

Ed - It's great, isn't it? What a last shot!

Adam Ross said...

THE SEVENTH VICTIM and CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE are my two favorites, in that order. I wrote in my review of THE SEVENTH VICTIM that Jacqueline's surprise entrance has to be one of the most underrated moments in horror history. Until that point we had no idea we would even see Jacqueline at all, and BAM -- there she is at the door.

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE is the epitome of Lewton's talents. It's hard to pinpoint exactly why it ends up being so scary, but there's always an underlying feeling of dread. I'm also fond of the subtle tension between Alice's mother and teacher.

bill r. said...

Hey, Adam! Long time no...typing.

The Seventh Victim is so good, but it's honestly been a long time since I've seen it. I list it as a favorite primarily because of that shocker of an ending, but I don't remember a hell of a lot else about it. I need to watch it again.

Greg said...

You know, I just looked up Lewton. Since I came late to the conversation (I've been out of the loop due to work most of the last week) I figured I'd mention some other titles that maybe no one had mentioned yet and discovered he only produced 14 films, and I've seen almost all of them. I thought he'd done much more.

So I can't really bring up a new one to the discussion except to say I agree with pretty much all that's been said. Lewton was great, and The Body Snatcher and The Curse of the Cat People are my two favorites. And as Bill and I (and maybe Arbo) have discussed before, Karloff is simply wonderful in Body Snatcher. Just makes you hate the Academy even more that such a good performance would be snubbed because it was a horror movie.

Ed Howard said...

Greg, Lewton's career arc is really kind of sad. After watching Bedlam last night I watched the Martin Scorsese-produced documentary The Man in the Shadows, and I couldn't help but be kind of outraged by the way Hollywood allowed Lewton to decline. After his last horror production at RKO, he wandered around from studio to studio, being kept on but rarely ever getting his projects greenlit. He apparently wrote and worked on countless scripts after Bedlam, but only managed to get a couple of films into production. And then he planned to start a new independent production company as a partner of Robert Wise and Mark Robson, but at the last moment Wise and Robson decided to do it on their own, pushing out Lewton, the man who gave them both their first shots at directing and even went to bat for Robson when the studio didn't want him as director on The Seventh Victim. Shameful.

The documentary's no great shakes, mostly just stitched together clips from Lewton's films with sporadic commentary and sound bites, but it did make me angry that such an amazing talent was never really recognized as such within Hollywood during his lifetime. The critic James Agee apparently told one studio head that he had one of the greatest filmmakers in America on staff, and he should make use of him, and the guy had no idea that Agee could possibly be talking about Lewton.

bill r. said...

Yeah, Agee was a big admirer of Lewton. I keep forgetting that. But get any good collection of Agee's criticism, and you'll find high praise for Lewton's work.

It really is shameful how Wise and Robson treated Lewton. Wise had that and Ambersons on his conscience. People make excuses for him regarding Welles, and Wise made them himself, but given his treatment of Lewton, I have to wonder. Wise made some great films, but I don't think he was very brave or honorable.

I also agree, Ed, that the Scorsese/Jones documentary isn't that great. Much better is the one included in the Lewton box-set. I like that one a lot more because it includes interviews with a lot of the people influenced by Lewton, like Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, and so on. And it's where I first heard the "death is good" anecdote.

And Greg, I've never seen any of Lewton's non-horror films. I think we've talked about this before, but are any of them available?

Greg said...

I don't know if they're available, I'd have to check out Netflix or Amazon. I haven't seen that documentary and that's really disturbing to hear about his treatment from Wise and Robson. Maybe Wise wasn't that great a guy after all.

Ed Howard said...

Yea, I was pissed at Wise after hearing about how he and Robson treated Lewton. The Set-Up is one of my favorite films, but I'm sort of getting the sense that Wise himself was a bit of a tool.

I've never seen any of Lewton's non-horror films either. But the clips of Mademoisselle Fifi I've seen make me *really* want to see it; it looks strangely great, it has Simone Simon, and aesthetically it seems to be very much in line with the look and feel of Lewton's "period" horror pieces like Bedlam. I don't think any of his non-horror films have been released in the US, but it seems that Mademoisselle Fifi is at least out on DVD in Spain.

Maybe I'll be able to track down a download (cue Bill looking at me judgmentally again).

Ryan Kelly said...

Ed: See it, bitch. Along with Some Came Running, it's my very favorite Minnelli.

Bill: I'm not sure I think it's condescending to horror... I think it's very critical of the characters and the Hollywood machine, so it just kind of details Douglas playing the coprorate game and rising their 'ranks' from B-pictures to more 'legitimate' feature films. But I think it's more supposed to allude to Lewton than directly documenting his career.

Ryan Kelly said...

*corporate

Greg said...

it looks strangely great, it has Simone Simon...

That's all I need to know. Simone Simon makes me weak in the knees. When I watch The Devil and Daniel Webster I think, "Yeah, I'd totally destroy my life and sell my soul to be with her, and you wouldn't even have to tempt me with gold."

Greg said...

Discorporate and come with me...

Ryan Kelly said...

Discorporate, and we will begin.

Flower power sucks!

And Greg is only in it for the money.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, Simone Simon. I'm sure I'm not the only guy who watches Cat People and thinks, I don't care if she does turn into a panther and tear me to shreds, it'd be so worth it.

Ryan, it's been on my list to see for a while, ever since seeing clips from it in Scorsese's American movie documentary. My favorite Minnelli, though, is... uh, actually, I haven't seen any of his movies. Kind of embarrassing.

bill r. said...

Ed's a criminal everybody! Get a load of that criminal, Ed Howard!

Simone Simon seems very childlike to me. So you guys are all gross.

Ryan, it's been a long time since I've seen The Bad and the Beautiful, so maybe I'm being unfair. I would like to see it again, though. Except I also remembering thinking the ending was a bit weak. You know what? Fuck that movie.

I don't know if I've ever seen a Minelli film, either. How pathetic. Some Came Running is supposed to be excellent, of course, so maybe I'll knock that off the list soon.

Greg said...

You guys have all seen Vincent Minelli, you're just not thinking about all his films. I mean, you can't tell me you haven't seen at least one of An American in Paris, Lust for Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bandwagon, Brigadoon, Father of the Bride, Kismet, Tea and Sympathy, The Sandpiper, Gigi. I mean, it's just not possible that neither of you has seen even one of those.


And Bill, dude, if you're not getting how hot Simone Simon is something's wrong man.

bill r. said...

Greg, regarding your point about Minelli: All I'm going to say is that you'd be surprised.

As for Simon, I know she's gorgeous, that's obvious. But she does seem very childlike to me, at least in the films of hers I've seen.

Although I guess maybe not in The Devil and Daniel Webster. Okay, forget I said anything.

Ed Howard said...

Yeesh, Bill says Simone Simon is childlike and we're the gross ones?

And Greg, before I said I hadn't seen any Minnelli movies, I looked him up on IMDb to be sure I wasn't forgetting something. I have really never seen one of his movies. Yea, I know. My cinematic knowledge is very strange in its contours and includes all sorts of weird gaps like that.

Greg said...

Bill and Ed, we all know that we all have those gaps and just don't want to admit it. I'm not even a big fan of Minnelli and yet I've seen every one of those films I listed, some more than once. Then I'll find a director that seems much more interesting to me that I haven't seen at all and I wonder why I haven't. There are plenty of HUGE gaps in my film viewing. But as long as certain directors don't come up in conversation I don't have to worry about admitting to it.

And Ed, thanks for that pic!

Greg said...

BTW, I got a screengrab from The Sandpiper just recently that I made a banner out of. I should've used it today (it has Liz Taylor raging and would've worked well with the acting post) but I'll put it up soon. Oh, and the movie sucks.

bill r. said...

That picture won't work for me. Oh well. You guys are still gross, I guess.

I'm not at all surprised that I've never seen a Minelli film, but I'm flat-out shocked that you haven't either, Ed.

Ryan Kelly said...

Oh yeah, blind spots can be a killer--- Ozu, Charbol, Rohmer, Tarr, Ray, Rivette--- are just a handful of the film makers that I can think of off hand that I haven't seen a single film of.

Ed Howard said...

My knowledge of Hollywood film is pretty spotty in general, Bill. There are a lot of supposed classics that I haven't seen, many of which would be pretty embarrassing to admit. To give you some idea, I first saw both Citizen Kane and Casablanca within the last year. I tend to dig in deep with directors that interest me rather than spreading out wider, with the result that while I've now seen nearly every film Herzog or Godard ever made, there are many other "essential" directors and films where I haven't seen a single frame.

Ryan, if you mean Satyajit Ray, I'm with you there, though I've seen some Nicholas Ray. The rest of those are obviously favorites of mine, and I envy you having those directors' entire filmographies ahead of you. I wish I could go back and experience the wonder of Rivette for the first time all over again.

bill r. said...

I've seen three Chabrols, one Ozu, one Tarr, but no Rivette or Rohmer or Satyajit Ray. I have seen some Nicholas Ray, though.

Ed, was that your first Welles?? Because if you'd seen other Welles films before Kane, that would be even stranger.

Ed Howard said...

Well, I guess I'm even stranger. Before I saw Citizen Kane, I'd already seen Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai and The Hearts of Age. Incidentally, I like the first two much better than Kane.

And as long as we're counting, I've seen 5 Chabrols, 7 Ozu, 17 Rohmers, 13 Rivettes, and 2 Tarrs.

bill r. said...

Ha! I've seen 7 Welles! None of the directors of whose films I've seen more than 10 (I think that's grammatically correct, but boy it doesn't sound right) would particularly impress anybody. 13 Kurosawas, 23 Hitchcocks, that sort of thing. Big woop.

Greg said...

You just saw Citizen Kane? WTF? And Casablanca?

I'd already seen Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai and The Hearts of Age. Incidentally, I like the first two much better than Kane....

Oh no, don't tell me you're going to be one of those, "Oh Citizen Kane is sooooo overrated" people. Actually I'm half-joking, but only half. I can understand liking Touch of Evil more but Lady from Shanghai? That's like preferring Color of Money to Taxi Driver. And counting Hearts of Age is like counting Too Much Johnson which is to say, it's not a Welles feature film, so don't count it.

So anyway, I looked up Welles and I've seen 14, or just about all of his major feature films. I've seen plenty of Godard too Ed but I much, much, much, much prefer Welles. Did I emphasize that I much prefer Welles?

And Bill, I love the Hitchcock thing. He's like Spielberg. A major director that will come up in cinephile conversations but which the average person has also seen just about all their important stuff.

Ed Howard said...

I wouldn't call Kane overrated (although so many "best film ever made" accolades would threaten to overrate almost anything). It's a good film. I just don't feel much of a personal connection to it. It's probably just my own problem, trying to figure out a way to approach this seemingly untouchable monument. Touch of Evil on the other hand I adore, and Shanghai is an endearingly messy little film with an amazing final scene. I realize that it's nowhere near as "great" as Kane in any objective sense but if you ask me which one I'd rather see again, I know what my answer would be (hint: the one with all the mirrors at the end).

Anyway, I do need to see more Welles, though I doubt that for me he'd ever surpass Godard in my personal preferences.

Also, re: Hitchcock: A major director that will come up in cinephile conversations but which the average person has also seen just about all their important stuff....

I don't think that's really so true anymore. I would bet that it's not true for most people in my age group, for sure. I think Hitchcock these days is one of those directors who everyone thinks they know without even having seen any of his films. Anyone could tell you the basic plot of Psycho, but the proportion of those people who have actually seen it is wayyy lower.

bill r. said...

Ed, you're probably actually correct about Hitchcock, at least for younger non-cinephiles. I don't know how old you are, but I'd say Hitchcock's ubiquity (ubiquitousness?) is sadly on the wane. Some of his major films -- Psycho and Rear Window and...for some reason, I want to say The Birds -- are pretty well known, but you won't get too far expanding the conversation beyond those. That sounds really snotty, but I don't mean it to be. Some people just aren't that interested.

Greg said...

(hint: the one with all the mirrors at the end)....

That's actually funny because in the last scenes of Kane, after Susan leaves him and he destroys her room there is the famous shot of him walking down the multi-mirrored hall. So... you could be describing either movie.

As to prefering Godard over Welles there's obviously no arguing about what you or I prefer but to explain my preference I just don't think Godard has nearly the visual capacity of Welles and his works are too self-conscious. Kane is self-conscious too with Welles and Tolland making sure every single shot is framed as a stand alone masterpiece so don't get me wrong, I realize Welles could be self-conscious too. But Godard's self-consciousness, to me at least, has nothing to do with wanting the shot to wow the viewer, like Welles. Instead, he comes off as self-consciously clever like so many in the post-war avant garde and pop art movements. I don't get the feeling, and never have, that he really understands absurdity or surrealism or stream of consciousness storytelling but knows he's supposed to use it if he is to be considered cutting edge. I find his early works, his black and whites, to be his best. After that the self-consciousness takes center stage for me.

And with Hitchcock you're probably both right. Non-cinephiles in their forties and up were around for the big re-releases of Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much and so on in the late eighties so Hitchcock still loomed large and was on early cable (WOR, TBS, WGN) all the time! But now, not nearly as much. Too bad.

Ed Howard said...

Obviously we just disagree and that's fine, but I have some comments anyway.

I just don't think Godard has nearly the visual capacity of Welles and his works are too self-conscious...

It rather depends on what you mean by "visual capacity," but I find Godard's films rarely less than visually stunning, and they are often visually stunning in a much less self-conscious way than Welles, who as you point out meticulously set-up each shot like a photograph. Don't get me wrong, I love Welles' visuals, but there are always at least a few moments in his movies where I think, "come on, did you really have to place the camera there?" Raoul Ruiz does a great job parodying and paying tribute to this Wellesian instinct in Three Crowns of the Sailor, with some hilariously idiosyncratic camera placements.

And I think the loose, fragmented storytelling that increasingly dominates Godard's work is a result of him losing interest in traditional narrative to some degree. I don't think he's copping a pose or trying to be "surreal" -- the last word I'd ever apply to Godard -- but genuinely trying to use cinema as a medium for ideas rather than stories. He still maintains a connection to his early love of Hollywood cinema and genre forms and classical storytelling, so these things still appear in his films, but he's become much more willing to shuffle the elements around, to purposefully obscure things and leave things out. You can like it or hate it, but it's certainly not a self-conscious attempt to be arty or difficult. You can see in his late 60s and 70s features especially that he's very deliberately experimenting with the form of movies, trying to develop new ways of expressing himself.

So when you say: Godard's self-consciousness... has nothing to do with wanting the shot to wow the viewer, like Welles...

I think you're actually right. Godard is self-conscious in the sense that he is continually thinking about the form and ideas of his films, but his goal is not to "wow" the viewer (which would imply passive gaping) but to engage and provoke them. In his 80s films he does become more willing to include purely "wow" shots, however, images of classical visual beauty.

Greg said...

Yes we do disagree so I won't continue it except to say that I shouldn't have included surreal, but stream of consciousness surely.

I think Godard is an excellent filmmaker and I liked him a lot more when I was younger (not purposely trying to play the age card but there it is) but I'm curious what you on the whole think of his later work into the eighties and nineties. I haven't seen much of it but I remember watching Hail Mary and finding it bland, almost mundane. Quite a step down for Godard in my book. I haven't seen much else of his later output though and you only ever hear about his sixties output so as a Godard fan I'd like to know what you think.

And for the curious, as a Welles fan, I thought his movies after Chimes at Midnight were pretty mediocre affairs. I'm kind of glad he stopped in the early seventies before it got too bad.

Ed Howard said...

Well, I'm a Godard fan who actually prefers his 80s-90s work to his 60s work. I'm not sure what to think of the description of Hail Mary as "bland," since along with its spiritual sister film First Name: Carmen, it's one of the most visually sumptuous and sensual films Godard ever made. They're gorgeous, poetic films.

In the 80s, Godard emerged from a long period of experimentation and video work that lasted through most of the 70s, and then he returned to "proper" cinema in 1980. The films he made after this point tend to be elegiac and infused with themes of spirituality, sexuality, political/historical inquiry, and coping with the increasingly obvious fact that the radical ideologies Godard had supported in the late 60s and 70s had more or less failed and disappointed in various ways. They are mature films in every sense of the word, and Godard's 80s work in particular represents a streak of masterpieces on a par with his 60s oeuvre. He's been less prolific in later years, but the films themselves are, to me, amazing achievements.

I'd say his best later works, in addition to the two named above, are Nouvelle vague, Notre musique, JLG/JLG, and King Lear (which I've only ever seen from a lousy VHS; I'm so excited to see its visual splendor on film, finally, next week). Special mention should also go to the Histoire(s) du cinema, one of the greatest works of criticism-on-film.

bill r. said...

I do not like Godard.

There, I've just taken part in this discussion. Carry on.

Word verification: flutes!

Greg said...

Well Ed, I agree with what Ebert says in this review so rather than type it all out I'll just use that, not as a justification especially since I often disagree with Ebert, just a quick way to express it without typing out everything.

As for visually sumptious, well I didn't say anything about it visually, just that I found the movie bland. The Hunger is also "visually supmtious" and also in my opinion, bland. Although, I didn't find any more "visually sumptious" than just about any other eighties movie. It just doesn't do much with the story in my opinion. Maybe I'm lessening in my mind or you're heightening it in yours. I'll put it in the queue and give it another look.

Ed Howard said...

Eh, I've read the Ebert review before: I don't agree with his conclusions, but at least he gets the film's engagement with Christianity and spirituality, and does a good job of addressing the typical outraged accusations of blasphemy that surrounded the film back then (considering his profile now, it's hard to believe a Godard film was even publicly visible enough to earn such reactions!). But late Godard really tends to be a love it/hate it kind of thing, and it's hard to defend in concrete terms a movie as poetic and obtuse as this. Suffice it to say, when Ebert criticizes the film for its "lack of emotion" (and I take it you agree), I feel like we didn't even see the same film.

I'd be curious to see what you think after rewatching it, though. Maybe I should revisit it as well; I've seen several other late Godards multiple times but this one only once.

Greg said...

I'd be curious to see what you think after rewatching it, though. Maybe I should revisit it as well; I've seen several other late Godards multiple times but this one only once...

It's been practically since it came out that I saw it so when I see it again I might have a completely different viewpoint, I have many times before.

bill r. said...

I actually just put Hail Mary and Detective in my queue. I really dislike Godard, but I'm supposed to keep watching him or the movie police will have me killed.

Ed Howard said...

Detective is a pretty goofy movie. And I won't ruin it, but since I saw you make a comment about boob posts at Fox's, I expect a great post about boobs after you watch it. You'll see what I mean.

And I've told the movie police to hold off on the raid for now. But we're watching you, Bill. We're watching...

bill r. said...

Boobs...Detective is going right to the top of the queue!

Although I have a feeling you're setting me up for something unpleasant.

Greg said...

And I've told the movie police to hold off on the raid for now. But we're watching you, Bill. We're watching......

Didn't see Kane until last year and prefer The Lady from Shanghai over it?

We're keeping our eye on you too Howard. We know what you're up to and you're not fooling us for a second.

...

...

Bill, what's he up to?

Ed Howard said...

Not unpleasant, Bill, just kind of hilarious. So don't get your hopes (or anything else) up too much.

And Greg, I've got the movie police totally fooled. They don't suspect a thing. Oh wait, they don't read this blog, do they?

bill r. said...

Hey you guys, enough of this jibber-jabber: start naming random topics, and I'll blog about one of them.

My brain is really not cooperating today. Less so than usual, I mean.

Fox said...

Hey you guys, enough of this jibber-jabber: start naming random topics, and I'll blog about one of them....

Today is my wedding anniversary.

bill r. said...

No shit. I mean, congratulations.

Okay, brain, you got a topic. Now think, you son of a bitch...THINK!

Fox said...

I really dislike Godard...

OH MY GOD... Bill, punch yourself in the mouth!

As far as late period Godard, I yield to Ed on that topic, but I will say that Detective and Passion are totally brill.

bill r. said...

Feh.

Fox said...

Blog about this. It will be a good lead-in to TOERIFC # 5.

bill r. said...

Well, I've been looking forward to it for a while now. Does that count as a blog post?

Fox said...

Looking forward to TOERIFC or Anti-Christ?

Blog about your favorite boob movies of all time. Or rank your Top 10 Boobies Of All Time. #1 Carl Gugino.

bill r. said...

She probably would be number one in that list. Her or Salma Hayek.

I always look forward to TOERIFC, of course, but I was talking about Antichrist. I'm not in love with Von Trier, but I think he's at least interesting, and a horror film from him should be something. It has a shot at being genuinely horrific.

Fox said...

Did you think Salma Hayek is related to Friedrich Hayek?

Ed Howard said...

Over at the Fantagraphics blog, someone recently suggested Salma should play Gilbert Hernandez's character Luba. What a great idea. Compare: Salma/Luba

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