Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Very Positive November Capsule Reviews

These three capsule reviews are very positive!

One-Eyed Jacks (d. Marlon Brando) - I'm not entirely sure when I first saw One-Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando's singular Western, his one and only film as a director, but I was probably just old enough to appreciate it. The problem has since become that for many, many years it's only official home video release was on VHS. Due to what I have to assume are all sorts of reasons, the rights to the film subsequently fell into the public domain, which means that very few cared about it. But the drive to save, preserve, and restore films of the classic era -- from the silents to I'd have to guess the 60s -- has ramped up in intensity over the last decade or so, and with the help of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, as is the specific case here, the people doing the actual hands-on work have been able to pull many films back from the precipice. Including, I think I hardly need say, Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, which as of yesterday is out on fucking Blu-ray, from fucking Criterion. Forgive me, but I have been waiting a long time for this.

And watching the film for the first time since the VHS era has been, let's say, rewarding, because while I used to think One-Eyed Jacks was that good, it turns out it's actually this good. In plot terms, this is a fairly basic Western revenge story (based on a novel called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider which itself was inspired by the legend of Billy the Kid, a legend that has no actual bearing on this movie, but anyhow, please ignore me), what ends up happening in One-Eyed Jacks is Brando uses basic genre ideas to, not create, but insist on the power of formulaic myths. That's a compliment. The plot's this: Rio (Brando) and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are bank robbers. After a job with partner Woody Strode, who lasts a few minutes, they get into a serious bind, and the plan is, Dad takes off with the money to buy some a horse to replace the one Rio lost and come back so the two old friends can flee the law together. But for a variety of reasons, Dad doesn't come back, and Rio goes to prison. Then, with new friend Modesto (Larry Duran), Rio escapes from prison, with the single goal of tracking Dad down and killing him. He finds Dad because a couple of bank-robbers led by Ben Johnson want the help of the legendary Rio, and know that he's been asking around about the target of his revenge.

And so one thing leads to another. It's not too very long into the 140-minute film that Brando and Malden meet up again as hunter and prey, and in a scene where Brando, who lies to Malden about what he's been up to for the last five years, shares a glass of tequila with the man who left him behind, but who might actually buy into Brando's "you and me are okay" spiel, it occurred to me that pure cinema is and was achieved when Marlon Brando and Karl Malden were in a scene, any scene, together. Furthermore, later, Karl Malden, during a suspenseful chunk of that One-Eyed Jacks last third, rides along a ridge above a gorgeous VistaVision crashing waves, and it's as languorously beautiful and slow a moment during a period of rather heightened suspense as I can imagine. In an extra on the Criterion disc, Scorsese says Brando waited for those waves a long time. And it works, don't it? Most importantly, though, Brando, as Rio, plays the film hero as a figure of massive physical menace. I'm not sure Brando is as in love with Rio's drive for revenge -- in the face of other things the film is offering to him, anyway -- as, well, I was, and those doubts, my doubts, set in when I saw how ruthlessly Brando was playing it. He has moments when he's past reason, is on the edge of violence. In every instance, I hated -- and I suspect you do or will, too -- the men he's about to hand back a handful of their own brains. This doesn't mean Brando's Rio isn't unnerving in his heroism. Which should not suggest to you that he's not the hero.

Café Society (d. Woody Allen) - So it's fair to say, I guess, that Woody Allen's career since, arguably Bullets Over Broadway in 1994, has been the most contentious period in his nearly fifty years as a filmmaker (it would be exactly fifty if I was counting What's Up, Tiger Lily?, a film I like but which I can't pretend is the work of a director). Since then, some films, like Sweet and Lowdown and Midnight in Paris, have been widely embraced, while others have had at least the good fortune to be divisive, like Deconstructing Harry and Melinda and Melinda, while many others -- Hollywood Ending, Anything Else, Whatever Works, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion -- are basically despised. I myself, a defender of some of the unbeloved Allen films of this period (I like Scoop and think Cassandra's Dream is pretty danged good), made it only thirty minutes into Whatever Works. But I do think, overall, his films since 1994 have been, on average, better than popular opinion would indicate (though even the positive reactions can get iffy: in my view, relatively appreciated entries like Match Point or Blue Jasmine are marginal. It's possible aesthetic opinions are very personal, who among us can say?). We may never know why this has happened.

In any case, as I've said, I think there's lots to admire in this stretch of films, and in fact last year, Allen's Irrational Man, one of his "murder" films (a clutch of movies that I find among his most intriguing) played for me as a deeply clumsy yet fascinating moral investigation. Most people hated it because, from what I could see, they badly misunderstood it. Still, though: clumsy but fascinating is one thing -- what was Allen's last great film? As it happens, I have the answer: 2016's Café Society is the best thing Allen has not only written, but directed, in I don't even know how long. A 1930s Hollywood-set love-triangle that features Jesse Eisenberg as an initially naive (but not entirely likable, as an early sketch-like scene between him and a prostitute played by Anna Camp, indicates) young man trying to find his way into the movie business through his hugely successful producer uncle (Steve Carrell), Café Society suggests, quite strongly, that Allen, who has, it must be said, long ago abandoned any claim to being well-acquainted with modern society (I do not consider this an unforgivable artistic crime) should focus now on period pieces.

It's also one of his better-plotted films in a long time, as well. The center of the love triangle is Kristen Stewart, Carrell's assistant with whom he is cheating on his wife, and with whom Eisenberg falls in love. There's also a gangster subplot involving another of Eisenberg's uncles (one of the great ancillary pleasures of Café Society is its occasional shifts back to Eisenberg's blue collar and/or gangster Jewish family in New York), which begins as a lark but transforms into something else. While remaining within the boundaries of the PG-13 rating, there are a couple moments of surprisingly blunt violence, which in turn help to turn Café Society into something resembling a mix between Crimes and Misdemeanors and Purple Rose of Cairo. On some level, that latter film is the more interesting link (if I do say so myself) to this new film as it's been a very long time since Allen has been able to connect to the kind of average human life depicted there. Cairo and Radio Days are his masterpieces in this respect, and he's not too far off it in Blue Jasmine, in all fairness. But with Café Society, which is mostly concerned with the high-life of Hollywood, manages to quietly show the tension between these different sorts of lives. Which is largely what Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days are also about, while also being utterly gripping and visually beautiful, entertaining movies. As is Café Society. When you make as many movies as Woody Allen, the argument goes, you're not going to be able to tend to each work as closely as you should. But apparently, sometimes you can manage it.

Phenomena (d. Dario Argento) - Though a long-time Argento skeptic -- I love Suspiria, was bored sideways by Opera, have perhaps not chosen entirely wisely when selecting the other half-dozen-or-so Argentos I've seen -- I nevertheless have been genuinely and sincerely excited to see this one, from 1985, for a very long time. The problem has always been that for many years its availability as a home video item has been dicey, and those VHS and DVD releases it's enjoyed have not, I'd gathered as I kept my eye on things, told the full story of Phenomena. A film whose reputation, at least among fans and critics interested in horror, is that of a film which is utterly sui generis, thoroughly insane, and the work of an individual artist who, for good and ill, is following his vision wherever it may lead him. "Off a cliff" is always in the cards.

And yet, no. Before explaining why not, I should probably say that Phenomena is a horror film about a young teenager (Jennifer Connelly, fifteen at the time, and whose admirable refusal to buckle to certain requests kept the film from being a uncomfortably prurient as you might justifiably have feared from Argento), the daughter of an Italian movie star who winds up in a girls' school in Switzerland. That's actually not the problem though. The problem is that someone is serial murdering the students at this school. Homicide detectives have indeed been summoned, including Inspector Geiger (Patrick Brachau). Geiger is hoping the expertise of local entomologist McGregor (Donald Pleasance), who is studying, via maggots, the forensic evidence made available by the previous beheading murder, will, with the help of his chimpanzee best friend....

Hm. Also, Jennifer Connelly's character (named Jennifer, let's not make anything out of that) loves and is worshiped by insects. And my concern is that certain members of its cult love it because they think it's "so bad it's good." To be sure, it is utterly ridiculous. And I absolutely laughed at things Argento may not have wanted me to laugh at. But it's well made, and in its own way Phenomena is no less a jarring look into the brain of a singular filmmaker than Eraserhead. Besides which, it's so much fun. Phenomena ends many times, but each time I realized that one climax was going to droop and then build into another, I didn't sigh impatiently. Instead I thought "Oh good!" And I was never disappointed. Plus there's a chimpanzee who thinks she's people.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Vote Yes on Prop. More November Capsule Reviews!

Here are two.

The Alchemist Cookbook (d. Joel Potrykus) - In 2012, Joel Potrykus made his feature film debut with Ape, about a struggling stand-up comic, played by Joshua Burge, who gets angry a lot. I thought it was awful, and found his 2014 follow-up Buzzard, also starring Burge and angriness, to be not much better. These movies complete Potrykus's, I guess, "Animal Trilogy" which began with a short film called Coyote, which I haven't seen and which Wikipedia describes as a "minimalist werewolf film." There are tinges of horror in Ape (there's a devil figure, of sorts) which are jumped up a bit in Buzzard -- a major element of that movie involves Burge's character adding Freddy Krueger knife-claws to a Nintendo Power Glove, and eventually using it. That last bit might you some idea of where Potrykus's brain's at, decade-wise. In any case, both Ape and Buzzard are fundamentally juvenile in a way that suggests Potrykus believes that he's grown up, and one thing you do when you grow up is you make genre films that tear the guts out of "traditional" genre films and show what's really behind them.

Hence The Alchemist Cookbook, which is I suppose technically his first horror feature. It stars Ty Hickson as Sean, a young man recently released (escaped?) from prison, who is now hiding out in a trailer in the woods, where he conducts obscure experiments which seem to be equally scientific and occultic. Mostly alone save for his cat, he is occasionally visited by his old friend Cortez (Amari Cheatom), who brings Sean food, supplies for his experiments, and Sean's medication. The moment that Cortez realizes he forgot to pack that medication, the rest of the film that follows this moment has been explained to us.

The one positive I could find in Buzzard and Ape was Joshua Burge, who is, I think, very good in both, and once again the disaster of The Alchemist Cookbook can't be blamed on Hickson (or Cheatom, but Hickson's basically it for the whole show). But like Burge before him, Hickson has been burdened with a bunch of bullshit to do. In Buzzard, Potrykus films Burge eating spaghetti and meatballs for minutes on end, apparently to prove to his audience that he will put something like that into one of his movies. His weird and unamusing relationship to things that are ingested continues here: one scene holds on Hickson eating many Doritos in a row. A "funny" scene involves Cortez proving that the incorrect cat food he brought is fine by, now get this, I'm not kidding, this is just how crazy Potrykus is, eating it himself. (Because Cheatom was very clearly eating ordinary canned tuna, I had a tough time believing it was as rancid as Cheatom was told to pretend it was.) Another scene in which Hickson guzzles juice is foley-ed almost to death. Does Potrykus think it's funny or edgy to make it sound like instead of a man swallowing juice, a walrus is swallowing blended-up penguin? I can't imagine his motivation, but it seems to be his big move.

Eventually the "horror" (Sean thinks he's summoned a demon or whatever) asserts itself, or fails to do so, and the emotional climax is reached in a monologue delivered by Sean in which he imagines what his perfect world would be. It would involve things like unlimited Capri Suns and I think Cap'n Crunch, and he probably at some point mentioned Snarf from Thundercats. It's an embarrassing scene, and I can't imagine caring what Potrykus does next.

A Flash of Green (d. Victor Nuñez) - The crime writer John D. MacDonald wrote something in the neighborhood of 60 books in his lifetime (he was 70 when he died, so put those numbers together and have a long hard think about it all). Though he's best known for his series of novels about the noble houseboat detective Travis McGee, The majority of his books were written before he wrote The Deep Blue Good-by in 1964. "Prolific" may not even begin to cover this. Anyhow, among the three novels MacDonald published in 1962 was A Flash of Green, not a crime novel, but a social problem novel that uses certain criminal acts to drive the plot. I recently read this book, and while I'd count myself as a wary fan of MacDonald (I've read bad, I've read good), I found A Flash of Green to be close to disastrous. Using the conservation of nature as his theme (something MacDonald, a Floridian who was aghast at the relentless destruction of the natural world he'd grown up with, would build his novels upon throughout his career), the novel A Flash of Green is a series of speeches about ethics and feelings and explaining exactly what all the characters think at all times. The dialogue in this novel is relentlessly unconvincing, and often appalling, and, on top of that, usually telling the reader about things that happened, when the reader might have actually been given a first-hand look, had MacDonald not been so busy writing lines like (paraphrase, but not by much) "I fell in love glamorous lady called the newspaper game." (This leads to cynical thoughts about that newspaper game, if that helps at all.)

In 1984, the director Victor Nuñez adapted A Flash of Green as a film. Outside of festivals, its release to the public was as an episode of American Playhouse, which makes very little since to me (it was released on VHS, but no other form of home video since then), but there you go. Nuñez's career has always struck me as that of an honorable filmmaker who has always struggled. He had a brief period of semi-prominence in the 90s, with Ruby in Paradise, which more or less introduced Ashley Judd to the world, and Ulee's Gold, which briefly boosted Peter Fonda. But his adaptation of A Flash of Green may stand as his most interesting film. It's better than the novel, to begin with, by a lot, the casting is exquisite, and Nuñez, as the screenwriter, absolutely hacks to the bone all the shit MacDonald couldn't shut up about.

The basic story is, a bay in a small Florida town is being threatened by local businessmen and government who want to develop it. Kat Hubble (Blair Brown) is a prominent member of the group who strives to stop this, and she enlists the help of her late husband's best friend, reporter Jimmy Wing (Ed Harris). Unbeknownst to her, not only is Wing in love with her, but he's also in the pocket of Elmo Bliss (Richard Jordan), the man behind the development plan. Bliss has hired Wing to dig up dirt on the conservationist group so that he can blackmail them into backing off. Wing does his job.

Jimmy Wing is the most interesting part of the novel and the film, and casting Harris in the role was a masterstroke. The tortured, lustful, everyman cynicism that is the root of the character is also, arguably, the root of Harris's genius as an actor. Add to this Nuñez's minimalism, which is not so much at odds with MacDonald's maximalism as it is a force that completely dominates and reconfigures this story. Surprisingly, Nuñez adheres very closely to MacDonald's plot -- there's some combining of storylines and characters, but that's about it. Nuñez's great achievement as a writer here is how he slashes the dialogue, and turns MacDonald's endless moralizing into searching, hesitant, simple everyday language. The film is a wonderful transformation.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Capsule Reviews for November? Indeed So.

Here are reviews of things.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (d. Tobe Hooper) - Though I count myself among the many horror fans, and film lovers in general, who consider Hooper's original 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be one of the great masterpieces of the genre, and as an admirer of other Hooper films (I consider The Funhouse to be especially underrated), I have nevertheless been resistant to Hooper's 1986 sequel. In fact, prior to this past Friday, I'd tried to watch the film twice before and failed to get through it. My problem has always been, essentially, that amping up the comedy isn't something I thought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre especially needed. And while I realize that there is a lot of black humor in that first film, it's never been the thing that really appealed to me. In many cases, the jokes, such as they are, in that film played differently for me. If you ignore the joke Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel were going for in a given moment (which, and this may seem an odd thing to say, given that I've said I love the film, is easy enough to do because I don't really think the jokes are funny), the horror of that moment remains. And that's what works for me.

But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is beloved by many, so I had to finally bite the bullet. And I don't know what put me off those other times. Well, yes I do: the comedy, which is located much closer to the surface, in that it is right there on top of the surface, than it was in 1974, still didn't strike me as actually funny, or even interesting. Setting that aside, which I found surprisingly easy to do, as a mad, alarmingly graphic (far more so than the original, which fans will never stop telling others is actually surprisingly bloodless), brilliantly designed, and propulsively ruthless bit of slasher insanity. The plot (ripped off by Rob Zombie for his awful The Devil's Rejects) involves an obsessed cop named Enright (Dennis Hopper) hunting the family of cannibalistic killers we met in 1974 (with some changes, including a new actor, Bill Johnson, as Leatherface, and a new family member, Bill Moseley as Chop Top; only Jim Seidow, as Drayton, makes the transition from the first film to the sequel). The two murders that open the film are witnessed, in a sense, by a night-time DJ named Stretch (Caroline Williams, in a performance that struck me as potentially as exhausting to give as Marilyn Burns's in the original), who provides Enright's best lead in years, and becomes his, sort of, partner. And off we go, ending up in a very long sequence set in the family's phantasmagorically nightmarish underground lair of tunnels and skulls and skin and shadows.

Among the pleasures of the film is seeing Lou Perryman, who I know best from Eagle Pennell's The Whole Shootin' Match, another major piece of Texas cinema (and whose fate in this film is both awful on its own terms, and even worse when you know Perryman's own terrible end), and also Hopper's performance, which is better and more committed than I, unfairly, would have expected him to bother shooting for in a film like this. By saying "like this" I'm accusing Hopper of a kind of snobbery I have no actual reason to believe he actually felt. Anyway, he's real good here, is what I'm saying. And that long last set-piece is, as I've suggested, one lunatic visual after another. Even if it recreates the original's climactic dinner scene more specifically than it probably should have, it makes up for that with other, different insanities. Personally, I consider this to be a film completely separate from the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre. To me, they're both just riffs on the same idea, with different tones and employing different styles. Both valid, both terrific.

Carnage Park (d. Mickey Keating) - The films of Quentin Tarantino have been enormously important to Mickey Keating. Which is weird, since judging by Carnage Park he hasn't bothered to think at all about any of them.

Masques (d. Claude Chabrol) - The above shot is unquestionably my favorite from Masques, Claude Chabrol's 1987 thriller about about a young mystery writer named Roland Wolf (Robin Renucci) who for whatever reason wants to write the authorized biography of the famous game show host Christian Legagneur (Philippe Noiret), and for a period of time is a guest in Legagneur's expansive estate, so that he may interview the older man for the book. During this time, Wolf meets Legagneur's servants, which include a mute chauffeur/chef named Max (Pierre-Francois Dumeniaud), a flirty masseuse (Bernadette Lafont), etc., and most importantly, Legagneur's goddaughter (her parents having died in a terrible car accident when she was a child) Catherine, played rather brilliantly by the luminous Anne Brochet, a young woman, we're told, who is recovering from a strange illness the treatment of which left her briefly paralyzed, and is now terribly nervous, afraid, panicky, and sensitive to light. That's her up above. As Roland's motives become perplexing to the audience -- when he's hanging out in his room on his first day at the estate, we see him unpack a gun and randomly say the name "Madeline" to his reflection in a mirror -- it becomes clear that whatever mystery is about to unravel before us, Catherine is the key to it all.

That shot (look up) isn't static, it's a camera move, and I don't want to spoil what it signifies to the viewer, but it is so elegantly done, so precise and smooth, artful at the same time it is utterly free of ostentation. Though I wouldn't rank Masques among Chabrol's greatest films (of those I've seen), I would not hesitate to cite this shot as evidence that Chabrol was a brilliant director (and Brochet a terrific actress), or even film itself as a uniquely powerful artform that can depict true human emotion in its most naked and simultaneously most subtle forms. If you know the film and think I'm overstating things, I understand. But sometimes these moments can be so thrilling that I can't help myself, and I imagine it's the same for you.

What's interesting to me is that as much as I enjoyed Masques (I enjoyed it a great deal), it's probably the lightest film of Charbol's that I've seen -- it ain't exactly Pleasure Party, for example. There's one completely goofball shot showing Wolf, alone in his room, after an encounter that has left him feeling either happy or smug (which one is up to you). He was getting ready for bed when the thing that occurred occurred, and he's wearing a gray shirt. That's all we've seen of his outfit, until the camera pulls back to reveal that he's wearing cartoonishly colorful boxer shorts. It's an odd choice, but one that indicates the level of playfulness Chabrol's trying to get at. And which he gets at. Masques isn't unserious, but it's fun, more than anything. It's playing around so much that I think it loses track of itself now and again (I don't know what the point was of a revelation about one character), but any missteps are small. And they're further dwarfed by an ending that actually sort of recalls Network, but with an even better stinger of a last line.

Venom (d. Piers Haggard) - Speaking of significant shots, how about this one? While not significant to Venom in the same way that the shot in Masques I wouldn't shut up about is to that film, the snake in the liquor cabinet rather neatly symbolizes one reason, perhaps the primary reason, that Venom is such a cult favorite. Which is that somebody at some point, or maybe several people working together, decided that the best way to get this suspense film about a group of ruthless criminals who kidnap the young son of a wealthy family, only to find themselves penned into that family's home not only by, eventually, the cops, but also by the presence of a deadly black mamba snake loose among them, was to cast a giant handful of the most psychopathic alcoholic hellraisers in motion picture history: Oliver Reed, Sterling Hayden, Nicol Williamson, and Klaus fucking Kinski all star in this crazy thing. Very early on in Haggard's commentary track for the Blue Underground disc, the director says that he took over from the original director (Tobe Hooper, as it happens) who, Haggard says, may have suffered a nervous breakdown during his time on the film, though he's not sure about that.

This was more or less all I knew about Venom before watching it, and what's unfortunate about this undeniably alarming and curious fact about its production is that it suggests the film probably isn't very good and is nothing more than a curiosity. But the truth, as I see it, is that Venom is actually a pretty terrific little film. Whatever drove Hooper back to the US (this being an English film) isn't on-screen. As unpleasant as it must have been to actually spend time with that quartet (my guess is that Hayden was, on average, the most palatable), they were each, to begin with, immensely talented actors who all showed up to, at least after Haggard called "Action", do the work they were paid to do. Reed in particular is pretty superb, as the dumbest, most cold-hearted of the criminals, while Kinski, as the boss, tamps down on his natural, and probably genuine, psychopathy to play the smart (but probably no less evil) one. Williamson is the cop on the case, and Hayden is the grandfather of the little boy who, with snake scientist or whatever Sarah Miles, are the people in the house trying to keep things from spiraling out of control, have the least showy roles among this cluster of madmen, but their performances are just as good, in their way (plus Michael Gough is in there too, and Susan George, as the criminal partner of Reed and Kinski).

The weirdest thing about Venom, really, is that it's almost a riff on Dog Day Afternoon, with Nicol Williamson in the Charles Durning role, and Klaus Kinski in Pacino's (I suppose this would mean that Oliver Reed is John Cazale's Sonny). But man, this thing plays like gangbusters, because Haggard, who off the top of my head I only know from The Blood on Satan's Claw (a good movie!), knows how to put together a damn movie. If the premise is goofy, no matter: Haggard and screenwriter Robert Carrington (and, in fairness, perhaps also author of the original novel Alan Scholefield) know how to make it plausible, immediate, and even frightening. And the whole film hinges, in truth, on the first death by snakebite. It's prolonged, because nobody realizes, at first, how serious being bitten by a black mamba actually is. But the character who was bitten is starting to get an idea. Though the character is quite unlikable, their death is horrifying (and beautifully acted). At that exact moment, if not before, Venom is on rails.

Fear of Fear (d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder) - Some time ago, and I honestly don't feel like linking to it, but some time ago I wrote, in another post collecting a handful of capsule reviews, about Francis Ford Coppola's Gardens of Stone, in which I said something to the effect of, Coppola has never considered any era of filmmaking style, from the earliest silents to whatever year he happens to be making a given film, out of date, or unavailable to him. It's not a matter of homage; it's a matter of exploration, curiosity, and a complete refutation of the idea that a mode or style is "dated" simply because some audiences are born later than others. The same, more or less, goes for Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I say "more or less" perhaps out of ignorance -- the man made a jaw-dropping number of films in his short life, and I've seen a mere handful -- but not as a criticism: Fassbinder wanted to rescue melodrama from the trash heap. Weaned on Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder's approach to that sort of classic Hollywood "women's picture" wasn't to recreate the florid style, as fellow Sirk enthusiast Todd Haynes has done on occasion, but rather to recreate it in his own image. When Fassbinder traveled this road, the results were a wild mix of that melodramatic intensity of Sirk and others, and a kind of grainy naturalism. You kind of can't just start watching Fassbinder blind. More than most filmmakers, it helps to know what's what.

Fear of Fear, one of four pictures Fassbinder made in 1975, is quite illustrative of all this. The film's title is seen over a dolly zoom, the shot Hitchcock invented for Vertigo, his masterpiece of what you might kind of have to call melodramatic suspense. What's being dolly-zoomed is an image of what might under other circumstances be seen as a moment of domestic calm, but which that particular camera move has informed us, on a primal level, is in fact soaked in dread and depression. Starring the great Margit Carstensen as Margot, a housewife with one young child and, as the film opens, pregnant with a second, whose grip on her life and happiness is threatening to slip away, Fear of Fear manages to be both frightening and sympathetic to characters you might not expect it to like very much. I'm thinking of Ulrich Faulhaber as Kurt, Margot's husband, who is initially ignorant and insensitive, perhaps even, at first blush, detestable, but Fassbinder allows him to become someone who we understand loves his wife, and who is truly scared that what seems to be her genuine madness might have been something he could have stopped in its tracks had he not been so self-absorbed. Other characters, such as those played by Fassbinder stalwarts Irm Hermann and Brigitte Mira, who make it their mission to make Margot feel as bad about her parenting abilities and as guilty as possible about the ways in which she tries to grab some happiness out of her day, aren't afforded quite as many levels, but if everyone in this world was at worst secretly nice, none of us would ever feel miserable.

It ain't a perfect film, though. One danger, the big one, I'd say, in what Fassbinder did is to confuse style with formula. It's a trap he was often able to escape -- look at Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, or, better yet, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The idea of narrative formula is, I've always said, a bit of received wisdom that needs to be stuffed in a bag and drowned, and I think on some level, at least in Fear of Fear, Fassbinder received it a bit too happily. But definitely consciously and knowingly, too, so there's that. Anyway, there's the added touch of eerie mystery revolving around the character of Bauer (Kurt Raab), who seems to haunt Margot like a ghost, though until the end she doesn't seem to understand the meaning of it. Though she probably will, eventually, after the credits.