24 Frames: Safe

At 21, I knew I had to get out of Milwaukee. Mind you, I didn’t exactly hate my hometown. During Marquette University’s Freshman Orientation, I was practically a cheerleader for it, extolling the city’s many parks and local cuisines to any other student newly arrived from outside the metro area willing to listen. Three years later, however, I deeply regretted that I hadn’t gone away for school. Although I received an above-average education at the college of my choice, it gradually dawned on me that I was missing out on something. Nothing wrong or inferior about pursuing higher education as a commuter student, but I did so mostly out of fear. I had held back when I could’ve easily set my ambitions much higher. I realized I’d personally never become legitimately independent if I continued to stay put.

For me, the easiest way out was to attend graduate school in another city. Having discovered a passion for my minor (Film Studies) far more fervent than anything I had for my major (Journalism), I looked into master’s programs for the former. In those embryonic internet days, I had to consult a thick reference catalog at the campus library to determine which schools I could apply to. UW-Madison was the obvious choice—at 90 minutes away, it was a baby step of a move but far enough for me to adequately feel like I was on my own. Besides, over the past few years I’d visited friends there often enough to the point where it already felt familiar.

I was superciliously certain I could get into Madison but just to be safe, I also applied to two other schools. The first was Boston University—my roommate’s girlfriend had recently talked up the city, deeming it the ultimate college town and more “European” than other US metropolises. The other was New York University, as they had a program at the Tisch School For The Arts and I thought, “Eh, why not? I’m going to Madison anyway.”

Alas, Madison might’ve accepted me had I submitted my application on time. In the rush of taking my GRE, drafting the required essays, procuring recommendation letters and getting all the forms out in the mail, I miscalculated that school’s relatively early cutoff date. I also never seriously expected to get into NYU (nor can I imagine green 22-year-old me flailing about New York City); fortunately, I received a welcome packet from BU in mid-March. I could stick around Milwaukee for another year, maybe reapply to Madison for the spring semester; instead, I chose to see this little exercise’s outcome as a sign. I was moving to Boston.

*

I’ve previously written about my first 48 hours in my new city. On the third day, having partially acclimated myself to my neighborhood of Allston and the BU campus, I showed up for orientation at the College of Communication building (hereafter shortened to COM), an unassuming, three story, mid-20th century structure that paled in the shadow of the gleaming, luxurious new School of Business Administration down the block. At the time, COM’s only distinguishing feature was a moderately short radio tower on its roof, which I soon learned no longer carried any broadcasting function whatsoever.

COM in all of its boxy, utilitarian glory.

I met my fellow classmates in the Film Studies program (seven of us in all) and received syllabi and reading lists for my courses. They included one on horror films, another on the work of British director Mike Leigh (who’d won the Cannes Palme d’Or for his film Secrets & Lies the year before) and a self-explanatory through-the-decades survey called “American Masterworks”. As with most of my BU courses, these were all open to both graduates and undergraduates, allowing the latter’s non-arts majors to fulfill their fine arts requirement. In subsequent semesters, I’d even serve as a teaching assistant for a few of these hybrid courses which basically meant I got to grade the undergraduates’ writing assignments and work the VCR and Laserdisc player whenever we watched movies in class.

That first semester, I also took a fourth course—one limited to graduate students included my fellow Film Studies majors along with all the new students in the Film Production and Screenwriting programs. Called “Ways of Seeing” (a simple but perceptive summation), we learned not only how to watch and assess a film but also how some films beg us to watch them differently from others. The semester kicked off with an intensive examination of Psycho. After one complete run-through the entire film, we returned to various scenes, watching and dissecting them again and again. So thoroughly did we pick it apart frame by frame that I haven’t watched it since—while our professor dutifully showed us why Hitchcock’s film was an example of major Hollywood studio cinema at its best, he also singled out in painstaking detail what he saw to be its many, many flaws, to the point where I simply couldn’t watch it again because all I could see were those imperfections.

From there, we studied films suggesting various “Ways of Seeing” that diverged from Psycho. Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu presented a cinematic canvas composed less of shot-reaction shot editing than figures constantly, freely moving in and out and around the frame, engaging in moral complexities far more advanced than Psycho’s Freudian constructs. John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence further blurred such distinctions, its characters (and director) making unexpected, irrational, just plain messy choices with a raw impulsivity that felt less written than captured by a documentary film crew. Caveh Zahedi’s A Little Stiff was low-budget and contained to the point of seeming handmade, its filmmaker starring as a fictionalized version of himself and anticipating by a decade a genre critics would dub “mumblecore”. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, on the other hand, came off as immense and enigmatic, a personal sci-fi allegory that was the anti-Psycho for how it raised all sorts of questions and just left them there hanging and unanswered.

*

Late in the semester, we watched Todd Haynes’ Safe, a study of a woman suffering from environmental illness who seeks solace at a new age rehabilitation facility. I’d heard of the film when it came out two years before and recalled it briefly playing at Milwaukee’s Downer Theater. From what little I read regarding it, I imagined it to be a satire about suburban living, allergies caused by household products and the lengths people will go to find alternative solutions to combating such ailments. I pictured something not far off from, say, Alexander Payne’s screwball abortion rights fable Citizen Ruth (released the year after Safe.)

From the ominous, mournful, droning synths accompanying its opening credits, which appeared over a point-of-view shot of a car slowly driving at night through an upscale Los Angeles subdivision, I promptly understood that Safe would be absolutely nothing like Citizen Ruth. The next scene confirmed this: an uncomfortably drawn-out shot of the film’s heroine, Carol White (Julianne Moore), lying in bed, her face to the camera as she’s engaging in man-on-top sex with her husband. Her expression’s not completely indifferent but she doesn’t appear to be gleaning much pleasure from it.

Does anything give Carol pleasure or even joy? She’s a Sherman Oaks housewife living in a gigantic McMansion in 1987 (set eight years before the film’s release.) She spends her days running errands, attending aerobics class, gardening, and going out to lunch. With a maid at her disposal and no job or profession to speak of, she seems to have a charmed life; she also seems barely there, often physically engulfed by her environment, sometimes appearing as small as a speck within the symmetrical, immaculately arranged wide shots inside her home.

About fifteen minutes into the film, she drives on a congested expressway behind a truck belching out exhaust fumes and suffers a coughing fit that’s alarmingly more severe by the second. She pulls off the road and into an underground parking garage where she stops, gets out of the car and continues to violently hack away, worryingly short of breath; as with the interior home shots, she appears tiny in the garage’s expanse, its darkness nearly encompassing her.

Similar attacks occur at a friend’s baby shower, the dry cleaners and the hair salon when she’s getting a perm. During these moments, Haynes often utilizes horror film tropes like dramatic bursts of sinister music or sudden jump cuts or close-ups—when the other ladies at the shower attempt to comfort Carol, it’s a sideways nod to the shower scene in Rosemary’s Baby (however, not Psycho.) Meanwhile, her doctor casually dismisses Carol’s claims, concluding that, despite the incessant coughing, headaches and general fatigue, there’s nothing physically wrong with her. He recommends she consult a therapist.

Perhaps the problem is psychological: after she attends a seminar on environmental illnesses (the first shot of an audience member donning a surgical mask is enough to elicit a visceral reaction in 2021), her husband, stumbling upon a pamphlet she’s brought home from it asks her, “Who told you to go to this?” His exact words and accusatory tone say more about how he and the other people perceive Carol than anything she says herself. Haynes further corroborates this by deliberately withholding what another film would regard as key information about her, like the fact she has a ten-year-old child (revealed 25 minutes in) and that it’s actually her husband’s son from a previous marriage (38 minutes in.) And Moore completes the picture of Carol as a blank by nearly disappearing into the role—a perfectly nice individual with barely a trace of discernible personality.

She winds up in the hospital following her attack at the dry cleaners. From her bed, she sees a TV commercial for Wrenwood, a new age-y rehab clinic in New Mexico specializing in treatment of people like her. In the very next scene, she’s in a cab, sans husband or stepson, riding through the desert on her way there. However, something seems off about the place when Carol’s cab first pulls in and she’s accosted by Nell, an older masked woman furiously screaming at her to turn back (the car fumes upset her because her husband is immune compromised), then creepily taunting her from a distance, “I see you,” after she exits the vehicle.

Wrenwood would seem a target overripe for satire given its remote location and inclination towards spoken and sung affirmations (a woman sings a Judy Collins-esque anthem to the assembled patients with such pithy lyrics as, “Give yourself to love / if love is what you’re after.”) Then, there’s Peter (Peter Friedman), the facility’s middle-aged owner who presides over the organization with an aw-shucks folksiness crossed with the understated but palpable fervor of your average cult leader. He concludes his talks by leading the group in the following inspirational credo: “We are one with the power that created us, we are safe, and all is well in the world.”

Despite all that, Wrenwood doesn’t particularly seem like a heightened or ridiculous proposition, at least not on the surface. The group therapy sessions feel straightforward and potentially constructive, especially when Peter advises Nell, “The only person who can make you sick is you, right?” Conversely, he doesn’t acknowledge Nell’s husband’s then-recent death, which for all we know might’ve been suicidal. He also never mentions to the congregation his own status a person living with AIDS (one of the other patients reveals this to Carol.) In 1987 (and, to a lesser extent, 1995), this was almost a certain death sentence; its revelation amplifies the notion that Peter is attempting to heal himself and his patients with the power of positive thinking in lieu of a (nonexistent) medical cure or treatment.

Carol doesn’t seem to be getting any better at Wrenwood; the film’s tone does not brighten once it shifts to New Mexico. She soon requests to change cabins because of “the fumes” she perceives (perhaps by way of Nell?) coming from outside the compound. Mask and oxygen tank in tow, she makes her way around the facilities in stilted movements, increasingly resembling Lester, a fellow patient only shown from a distance. When she first spots him, Peter remarks to Carol, “Poor Lester… he’s just very, very afraid.” Rather than improving in health or even disposition, Carol further withdraws into herself.

Poor Lester…

She does take tentative steps towards making a new friend in Chris (James LeGros), a fellow resident with whom she signs up to cook something for a communal potluck. The event itself seems a joyous one, with the dinner followed by its participants dancing to Kenny Loggins’ “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend’”. Then, Chris and the group surprise her with a cake (her birthday’s the next day), a genuinely sweet and selfless gesture. They ask her to give a speech, and she does, confessing to the group, “It’s just that, I really hated myself before I came here,” rambling on about such things as “education” and “AIDS” before gradually trailing off. She’s smiling but is also seriously emaciated, her face and skin disconcertingly blotchy.

Chris walks Carol back to her cabin, which is now the “safe house”, a metal igloo-like structure once inhabited by Nell’s husband. Alone inside, Carol’s white, colorless clothing and skin blend into her stark, sterile, prison cell-like surroundings. She breathes from her oxygen tank and looks directly into a little mirror on the wall: the film’s final shot is of her staring into it, at us, her face partially in shadow. Blankly, she says to her reflection, “I love – I love you. I really love you. I love you.” Fade to black and credits roll.

*

I recall sitting in the classroom at that moment, figuratively chilled to the bone. Thoughts escaped me as how to process this deeply unnerving ending to an altogether unsettling film. Normally, a story about illness and rehabilitation would conclude triumphantly, the subject overcoming an affliction and having learned more about themselves in the process—perhaps even learning how to love themselves. Carol’s final words to us are as such, but they don’t at all reassure or convince. She struggles to get them out and indeed, they’re something a facility therapist instructed her earlier to say. As much as we’d (and, for that matter, she’d) like to believe they’re true, they come off as just words—a recitation.

It’s easy to view Safe through a cynical lens: most likely, Carol’s illness is psychosomatic, a physical manifestation of her psychological damage, self-punishment for the fact that she doesn’t love herself. A few critics at the time, most notably Jay Carr in The Boston Globe dismissed it as just that. However, I didn’t see it that way, not entirely. Safe’s austere conclusion genuinely shocked me—I was willing to believe something was physically wrong with her, that there must be an exterior reason for her symptoms, that she’d learn how to live with if not entirely combat them during her time at Wrenwood.

Then again, that’s only one of two parallel readings that Haynes thoroughly maps out in Carol’s trajectory; the other, where it is all in her head is just as present in the film’s overall design. For a character who appears in every single scene, she’s often deliberately spectral and insignificant, a non-entity. Moore’s subdued but internally complex performance only further serves this notion, that we’re looking both at and through the eyes of someone with so little self-esteem and sense of purpose that, instead of “getting better”, all she can do is further recoil into herself where she thinks she feels “safe” but in truth can’t feel anything at all.

Before Safe, I hadn’t seen a film attempt such a bait-and-switch (or at least wasn’t aware of one attempting it) and do it so seamlessly and effectively. And yet, I don’t believe what it does is a cheat or a clever way of saying, “Okay, here’s what this film’s really about.” Instead, Safe is about exterior and interior lives and how one’s physical and the psychological selves can be out of balance or even at opposition to each other. As for that title, it throws into relief its definition as an ability, an affirmation, a state of mind. Does the concept of safety ultimately imply a sense of feeling protected or does it come entirely from self-worth? Upending my life and moving to Boston at 22, I took a risk and deliberately tried to be unsafe, although one might argue that by opting for grad school instead of a job in the real world, I had deployed a safety net of sorts for myself. I’m willing to bet this conundrum lingered somewhere in my subconscious as I watched Safe, a film that asks its viewers to consider whether the desire to be “safe” is to simply crave comfort or inevitably give oneself over to fear.

Essay #6 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #5: All That Jazz.

Films Watched, August 2021

I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to watching 12 Angry Men. Perhaps I’d seen it used so much as a cultural reference point that I felt like I didn’t need to see it—after all, one could easily summarize the plot in a sentence or two, tops. Sidney Lumet’s a filmmaker whose workmanlike agility I’ve always felt more admiration than passion for, but his first feature film conveys a mastery of pacing, blocking and framing to transform what is essentially a single set play into cinema, albeit one best viewed as a period piece that intrigues most when it offers occasional glimpses of self-recognition. Either way, as essential as you’ve heard it to be.

With all his shorts expiring on Criterion at the end of the month, I took a semi-deep dive into Georges Méliès, the first filmmaker to utilize optical effects and thus take serious advantage of what one could do with the new medium. Every cineaste knows A Trip To The Moon (especially the two that made this music video 25 years ago), but follow-ups like The Impossible Voyage and The Merry Frolics of Satan are even better, experimenting with textures and a fine-tuned whimsy. They are records of Méliès exploring film in real time, trying out new techniques and occasionally finding magic in them.

Not much new stuff to write home about (apart from Annette, reviewed here), with re-watches mostly confirming first impressions: Elliot Gould still iconic as a 1970’s Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, Point Blank still pretentious but oddly fascinating, etc. On the other hand, Limbo feels more like a future classic the second time around and Pink Flamingos proves far more watchable with John Waters’ predictably entertaining, motor-mouthed commentary track.

On that note, I’m taking a break from these watchlist essays after 18 straight months of doing them in order to focus on other writing (including this series) and some new endeavors. However, I’ll still be posting (mostly short) reviews of everything I see on Letterboxd.

Films viewed in August in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches:

The Wild Pear Tree (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2018) 8

Joan of Arc (Georges Méliès, 1900) 7

The Dead (John Huston, 1987) 8

Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950) 7

Fully Realized Humans (Joshua Leonard, 2020) 6

Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972)* 7

The Hot Rock (Peter Yates, 1972) 8

The Kingdom of the Fairies (Méliès, 1903) 8

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) 10

Style Wars (Tony Silver, 1983) 6

The Dig (Simon Stone, 2021) 7

Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)* 10

Limbo (Ben Sharrock, 2020)* 9

Wild Mountain Thyme (John Patrick Shanley, 2020) 3

Tower (Keith Maitland, 2016) 8

A Trip To The Moon (Méliès, 1902)* 8

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) 7

Hotel New York (Jackie Raynal, 1984) 6

Never Gonna Snow Again (Malgorzata Szumowska, Michael Englert, 2020) 8

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973)* 10

Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967)* 8

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011) 7

The Witch (Méliès, 1906) 7

Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor, 1935) 6

Annette (Leos Carax, 2021) 9

Undine (Christian Petzold, 2020) 7

Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin, 2014) 6

The Impossible Voyage (Méliès, 1904) 9

The Merry Frolics of Satan (Méliès, 1906) 8

Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2013)* 8

ANNETTE

Annette is a tough film to wrap one’s head around and you wouldn’t expect anything less from an epic, operatic musical directed by Leos Carax (whose last film was the bonkers Holy Motors) and written/composed by brothers Ron and Russell Mael, better known as the long running cult duo Sparks. It’s a work that revels in its extreme artifice from the opening scene where Carax, the Maels and the cast march from the film set/recording studio through the streets of Hollywood at night, singing the self-referential anthem “So May We Start”.

The story that unfolds is similarly insane, charting the tempestuous romance between Henry (Adam Driver, possibly never better), a popular shock comedian and Ann (Marion Cotillard), an opera diva. Diametrically opposed in approach to their respective arts (Henry aims for laughter, Ann for tears as her character dies on stage every night), they have a child together, Annette; she is portrayed by a puppet.

From there, things gradually spiral, occasionally alluding to such iconic Hollywood tales as A Star Is Born and Mulholland Drive. There’s murder and manipulation, emotional and philosophical crises, and a heightened sense of fantasy and self-awareness that lends itself completely to the predominantly sung dialogue–if there is an analogue in the music here to Spark’s wildly diverse back catalog, it’s their great 2002 album Lil’ Beethoven, a quasi-classical work of melodic repetition and lyrical recitation.

The film sustains a teetering-on-the-edge-of-sanity feel that rarely lets up during its 140 minute running time and it’s not difficult to see why that makes for such a polarizing watch. Often reminiscent of similar musical/film balancing acts like Phantom of the Paradise and, to a lesser extent, Moulin Rouge!, Annette’s weird hybrid of emotion and artifice manages to feel more personal than either. After one viewing, I don’t yet know if it’s a great film or just a great effort at one, but it lingers on like a dream (maybe a nightmare?) that I’m still attempting to fully assess.

Films Watched, July 2021

O Fantasma

No film festivals or reoccurring themes this month, unless you count two starring Veronica Lake (the silly one’s much better than the serious one) and another two with Gena Rowlands (though her role in Mazursky’s forgotten, half-misbegotten modern Shakespeare riff is relatively tiny.) I did celebrate Independence Day weekend with two concert films: Summer of Soul is one of the best in years, adding incisive context to its rare footage with a “can you top that clip” momentum that never lets up; Monterey Pop, on the other hand is more noteworthy for its historical value than anything Pennebaker adds to it, although the lengthy Ravi Shankar number at the finale could be an excellent short in itself.

Caught up on a few new-ish acclaimed titles, including the polarizing Promising Young Woman (thoroughly entertaining, pulls few punches but I don’t think I could sit through that scene again), Minari (more than adequate but only exceptional when Youn Yuh-jung’s onscreen) and the recently re-released Between The Lines, which intrigues for its depiction of a circa-1977, pre-gentrification, pseudo-bohemian Boston, even if it feels a little sitcom-y at times. Also finally saw A Quiet Place: wasn’t expecting Krasinski to meld Raimi-esque sci-fi/horror onto what could almost be a more commercial version of Malick, although I still do not have high hopes for the sequel (which I’ll likely watch in August.)

All my re-watches this month hold up nicely, especially Altman’s gambling picture, which gives a most vivid sense of its time and place and The Conformist, which offers a dazzling simulation of its time/place that could only exist in the mind but resonates strongly anyway. This also marks the first time I’ve made it through Fallen Angels without having to look up (much of) the plot online and the first time I’ve seen American Movie since it was in theaters—as a native, I can’t say it’s the best Milwaukee movie, but it’s certainly the most.

Standing out from the remaining hodgepodge of mostly middling titles new and old (though Mandibles is almost genius in its relentless stupidity) are two highly recommended first-time watches. O Fantasma brilliantly navigates a stunning turn in its third act from agreeably kinky to deeply unsettling, making me want to watch everything else Rodrigues made between it and The Ornithologist, while during the first ten minutes of It’s A Beautiful Day I thought, “Is this all Hertzfeldt can do?”, only to conclude by the end, “No one else has ever done this.”

Films viewed in July in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.

The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall, 1946) 5

Wildwood, NJ (Ruth Leitman, Carol Weaks Cassidy, 1994) 8

Sweet Thing (Alexandre Rockwell, 2020) 7

Land (Robin Wright, 2021) 5

Summer of Soul (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, 2021) 9

Monterey Pop (D. A. Pennebaker, 1968) 7

A Story of Children and Film (Mark Cousins, 2013) 7

Promising Young Woman (Emerald Fennell, 2020) 8

It’s Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012) 9

All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)* 10

The Perfect Candidate (Haifaa al-Mansour, 2019) 6

Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020) 8

Labyrinth of Passion (Pedro Almodovar, 1982) 7

California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)* 9

Between The Lines (Joan Micklin Silver, 1977) 7

The American Sector (Pacho Velez, Courtney Stephens, 2020) 6

Tempest (Paul Mazursky, 1982) 5

Pillow Talk (Michael Gordon, 1959) 7

American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999)* 8

Asako I & II (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2018) 6

Lisztomania (Ken Russell, 1975) 4

O Fantasma (Joao Pedro Rodrigues, 2000) 9

A Running Jump (Mike Leigh, 2012) 6

Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, 1995)* 8

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)* 10

A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018) 7

Minnie and Moskowitz (John Cassavetes, 1971)* 9

Obsession (Brian De Palma, 1976) 6

Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Bunuel, 1964) 6

I Married A Witch (Rene Clair, 1942) 8

Mandibles (Quentin Dupieux, 2020) 7

Incoherence (Bong Joon-ho, 1994) 6

24 Frames: All That Jazz

In the semester after Trainspotting came out, I took two more courses at Marquette University to complete my Film minor. The first, “Gangster Films” was exactly what the title declared, covering crime movies from the original Scarface up to the likes of Point Blank and Serpico; the second, “Film As Communication”, fortunately ended up far less generic than its title insinuated. An overview of various cinematic techniques, I no longer remember much of what we watched apart from Black Orpheus (for its use of music), Throne of Blood (as an example of a literary adaptation) and for its editing, All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s 1979 autobiographical, nontraditional, phantasmagorical musical.

When the course got to that Fosse film, I settled into my wobbly desk chair, taking in the brief opening credits (just the film’s title laid out in lightbulbs over a musical fanfare) and first iteration of its recurring “bathroom montage” (more on that later.) A strong sense of déjà vu kicked in as All That Jazz soon transitioned to a much longer montage of dancers auditioning on a massive stage for the film’s lead/Fosse alter-ego Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), all of it set to George Benson’s up-tempo funk cover of the old Drifters song “On Broadway”. I immediately recalled watching this sequence at home with my mom about ten years earlier. I hadn’t considered it since then, but I recognized it and thought back to that distant afternoon when I was 11 or 12.

Although I spent my childhood glued in front of the TV each day after school watching stuff I’d picked out for myself (cartoons, game shows, sitcom reruns) like any other kid, once in a great while I’d take an interest in a movie my mom selected or more likely stumbled across while flipping through channels. This was how I first saw The Out-Of-Towners, where a suburban Ohio couple’s (played by Jack Lemmon and the magnificently daft Sandy Dennis) trip to Manhattan goes horribly, hilariously wrong and Sweet Charity, Fosse’s film debut and musical adaptation of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (which he’d previously directed on stage), starring Shirley MacLaine as a “dance hall girl” in ultra-groovy late ‘60s NYC.

I’m sure I dutifully watched other “films for grownups” with my mom, but few were as striking or unique as those first ten minutes of All That Jazz. Cut together from what I can only assume was a mountain of footage, the “On Broadway” montage comes off like a casual, modern ballet, shifting between synchronized movements, rapid-fire edits and occasional asides to the theater seats where a group of producers sit and watch along with Gideon’s ex-wife and his young daughter. It leads the audience through the entire audition process as applicants are gradually winnowed out, but it’s often more like an impressionist painting of such. A bravura edit of seven or so twirling dancers staged to seem as if one is magically changing into the next (well over a decade before the morphing technology implemented in Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” video) is as technically impressive and emotionally stirring as a simple, slow zoom-out wide shot of Gideon kneeling center stage before hundreds of dancers performing the same routine: the artist as director scrutinizing the massive throng of hopefuls.

Audition Montage

After that bravura opening sequence, I soon realized that I didn’t remember anything else from the film because my mom likely changed the channel before my prepubescent self had a chance to see all the bare breasts, witness teenaged Gideon’s premature ejaculation while performing onstage at a burlesque joint or hear Josh (Max Wright), Gideon’s film producer exclaim with the wailing anxiety only the future Willie Tanner could covey, “The BRASS is eating my ASS out, Joe!” All That Jazz was unambiguously R-rated and thus not something I was allowed to watch at that age.

In retrospect, I’m a little astonished that our professor, a Jesuit priest (!) felt comfortable screening such a racy film for us; just five years earlier, one of my teachers fast-forwarded through all the action sequences in the film adaptation of Man of La Mancha because, Catholic hippie that he was, he abhorred violence of any kind and didn’t want to expose us to it (a quaint notion even then.) I suppose that’s one distinction between high school and college—we were technically adults, so now it was appropriate to watch nudity and hear foul language (or perhaps my professor was just a Cool Priest.)

Either way, I’m certain I had more fun watching All That Jazz than anything else in “Film As Communication”. Fosse’s thinly veiled portrait of himself—a talented, middle-aged, self-loathing, workaholic stage and film director whose bad habits push him toward an early grave—never lets up on the “ol’ razzle-dazzle” (to quote a song from another landmark Fosse production, the 1975 stage version of Chicago.) It’s his own take on Fellini’s 8 ½, but bolder, brassier and more vulgar. An opulent feast of sight and sound, forever blurring fact and fiction, reality and dreams and striving to entertain while also being almost excruciatingly personal, it walks a fine line not unlike the quick, silent shots scattered throughout of Gideon descending, slo-mo onto a net after failing to walk steady across a tightrope of his own devising.

After the audition montage, the film veers from one elaborate set-piece to another. The aforementioned bathroom montage, which recurs a few times, consists of a rapid series of cuts of Gideon getting ready to face the world for yet another day, showering and popping pills, eyedrops and alka-seltzer tablets, all of it set to the stentorian strings of Vivaldi’s “Concerto in G” and ending with him gesturing in front of his mirror with feigned gusto, “It’s Showtime, Folks!” With each iteration, however, the cuts are less frequent, Gideon’s smoker’s cough more prevalent. By the last go-round, he can’t even bring himself to intelligibly exclaim his self-motivating catchphrase because he’s nearly out of breath and hacking too much. One also gets a sense he’s increasingly having trouble mustering up the gumption to believe what he’s saying.

It’s Showtime, Folks!

Centerpiece “Take Off With Us” is a musical number for the stage production Gideon’s directing. About midway through All That Jazz, his company of about a dozen dancers runs through it in a rehearsal space for the show’s producers and investors. Gleefully displaying all of Fosse’s trademarks (brimmed hats, finger snaps, sensual movements), it’s the act of creation brought to fruition: we’ve already seen most of these steps and have heard the number’s A Chorus Line-esque title song in numerous rehearsal scenes—here, Fosse shows us the thrill of it all coming together. But it’s not enough: Fosse/Gideon then pushes it further (“It’s not exactly over yet,” Gideon sheepishly says to his selected audience) as the number mutates into a dimly lit, smoke-machine enhanced, explicitly sexual ballet that might be the most elaborate, poetic and outrageous thing Fosse’s ever conceived of (on film, anyway.) Afterwards, the producers, gobsmacked, can only respond, “It’s… interesting!” while Paul (Anthony Holland), the song’s composer frets to himself, “Now Sinatra will never record it!”

Take Off With Us

Still, Fosse’s concerns extend far beyond pushing artistic boundaries while impatiently waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with them. As if directing a big budget stage production isn’t enough, Gideon spends his off-hours in an editing booth, doing post-production work on a feature film called The Stand-Up, which suspiciously resembles Fosse’s own previous feature Lenny, a biopic on comedian Lenny Bruce starring Dustin Hoffman. In All That Jazz, Gideon struggles over a sequence of the film where the title character (played by Cliff Gorman, who starred as Bruce in the original stage production of Lenny!) delivers a comedic monologue on Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief”, ruminating on each one (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) in elaborate detail.

All this death talk is a gateway into the film’s most ambitious framing device. From the opening of All That Jazz, we catch glimpses of Gideon in a darkened dressing room, casually conversing with a beautiful, veiled woman done up in white played by a young Jessica Lange. They almost scan like therapy sessions, with Gideon confessing various sins to her about the ladies he’s wronged in his life and other regrets regarding his career choices. These interactions are playful and reflective rather than morose: “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,” he wryly warns her at one point, and it’s surely more solid and candid a core philosophy/mantra for Fosse/Gideon than “It’s Showtime, Folks!”

Such interactions between Gideon and this woman are key components of the film’s grand design. They arrive often, sometimes cutting midway into a scene, suggesting that All That Jazz is all going on in Gideon’s head as he looks over a lifetime of memories. It’s only following the “Take Off With Us” sequence that the woman in white’s identity comes into focus. Scenes of Gideon suffering a heart attack and entering the hospital are cut with her slowly removing her veil, flashing a thousand-watt smile at Gideon, inviting him to come closer for she is his manifestation of the Angel of Death (referred to only as “Angelique” in the credits.) “No, not yet,” he warns her as it dawns on him what’s happening. She temporarily disappears from the film as we get another montage, this one of Gideon behaving badly in the hospital, partying with his visitors and sexually harassing his wet nurse—a rather poorly aged sequence in the “Me Too” era that nonetheless acknowledges (with a healthy dose of self-loathing) what a scoundrel Gideon can be.

Angelique

Watching All That Jazz in “Film as Communication”, we did not make it beyond this last montage for time was up—not an uncommon occurrence for some of these MU film courses. Occasionally, some film professors would fail to keep track of the class’ three-hour running time and we wouldn’t finish the movie. In this pre-streaming age, we weren’t required to see the rest of a particular film unless we chose to write a paper about it. At the time, I was bummed to have not been able to watch All That Jazz’s remaining forty minutes; fortunately, a month later, I spotted a VHS copy of it on sale for $4.99 at Best Buy (of all places) via their weekly newspaper ad. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, on the way to a bowling night with friends, I stopped by the Blue Mound Road location in suburban Brookfield and secured my very own copy for a fiver and some change.

The next day, I popped in the tape and fast-forwarded to the moment where we left off in class. Prior to starting the film, my professor remarking that its ending was a prediction of sorts of Fosse’s own death, which would occur less than a decade later. Dropping this tidbit only heightened my curiosity about the film’s remainder. Finally finishing it a month later, I have to admit I did not even come close to correctly imagining how it would actually turn out: in All That Jazz’s third act, the surrealism gently alluded to in dribs and drabs throughout the film’s first eighty minutes comes to the forefront, escalating into a delirious finale that is at once as iconic an onscreen Fosse musical number as Sweet Charity’s “Hey, Big Spender” or Cabaret’s title song and also possibly the most 1979 thing ever.

But first, there’s so much more to cover. Like the negative TV critic’s review of The Stand-Up, which manages to drag Lenny-basher Pauline Kael and the Siskel & Ebert “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach to film reviews. Or an extended hallucination where, during surgery, Gideon’s girlfriend (played by Fosse’s own gf Ann Reinking!), ex-wife and daughter perform a quartet of musical numbers (accompanied by surgeons mockingly keeping rhythm with tambourines and a clapboard) for him, incapacitated and semi-conscious on a gurney while another Gideon directs the whole thing as if it were a film. Or a producers/investors meeting (including Wallace Shawn as a number-cruncher!) where they discuss what Gideon’s health financially means for the show (and their insurance policy), intercut with actual graphic footage meant to stand in for Gideon’s own heart surgery. Or another sequence where Gideon, bleeding from the head, escapes his bed and runs rampant through the hospital as the Kübler-Ross monologue from The Stand-Up fills the soundtrack.

All these set pieces and their overall trajectory imply that Gideon isn’t long for this world. After two orderlies find him happily singing “Pack Up Your Troubles” with an amused janitor in the hospital’s basement, they wheel him back to his bed, where, about to go under for the last time, he says of his life, “This is just a rough cut, you know.” From there, a pan up to his EKG machine dissolves into a TV screen airing another episode of a variety show (with a host played by Ben Vereen) we’ve seen Gideon watch in the hospital several times before. In each version, Vereen introduces the show as a tribute to “a great entertainer, a great humanitarian and my dear friend…” This time, the subject is only “a so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian and this cat was *nobody’s* friend.” Vereen also notes that this guy “Didn’t know where the games ended, and reality began… for this cat, the only reality – is Death, man.”

Of course, the honoree is Gideon, and his “final appearance on the great stage of life” (as Vereen puts it) is a full-blown rock concert duet the two perform for an audience of everyone Gideon’s ever known: a take-off of the old Everly Brothers tune “Bye Bye Love” called “Bye Bye Life”. Decked out in an ultra-sparkly shirt, backed by a rock and roll band cloaked in wacky, futuristic (for the period) garb and flanked by dancing girls in vein-covered, inside-out body suits and gleaming-eyed robotic heads dispersed throughout the crowd, Gideon goes for broke, giving (along with Scheider, it must be acknowledged) the performance of his life, at one point taking a massive victory slide across the stage. The song plays like an extended vamp, the camera often cutting in time with handclaps, the music and melody swelling and sighing as Gideon signs with wistfulness and joy, “I think I’m gonna die / Bye-bye, my life, goodbye.”

Vein Girl 1, Vereen, Scheider, Vein Girl 2

For Fosse, this all goes back to that previous notion, “Life is a cabaret, old chum” and it’s only fitting that Gideon ends his life on stage as the star of his own showstopper. A year after I first saw All That Jazz, a friend of mine watched it in another film class. He liked it, but derisively described its finale as “Pure Cheese”. He wasn’t entirely wrong—the up-to-the-minute aesthetic Fosse suffused it with would feel awfully dated even four or five years after it was first released. Its disco-friendly glitz and Star Wars-era sci-fi regalia is honestly not far off from the likes of The Apple, even. And yet, I wouldn’t change a thing about it—frozen in time as it is, what Fosse’s expressing within it is crystal clear. For Gideon, the end of his life is an about-face, the audience a reminder of what it means to love and be loved in return (in the number’s final minute, he runs down into the crowd, shaking hands and hugging those closest to him), a state of grace, a rejection of his own misanthropy, proof that he’s ready to leave the material world behind. After he’s exited the stage, we see him moving closer and closer to Angelique, ready to receive the Kiss of Death.

It’s a touching, resonant concept but remember—for Fosse, the only reality is Death, man. Thus, just as Gideon makes contact with Angelique, there’s an abrupt cut to him, motionless on a gurney, getting zipped up in a body bag. Ethel Merman’s rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” plays. The end credits roll. When Fosse died eight years later, on the way to attending a show with his ex-wife/longtime muse Gwen Verdon, who knows what was going on in his mind during those last moments, if they were anything like All That Jazz. It ultimately doesn’t matter, for the vision he shared of himself, channeling so many thoughts and dreams, conveying so much brilliance and messiness into a challenging yet cogent work of art is enough. This notion of a fine line separating life and art was on my mind as I prepared the following year for a major change in my own life and the role art would play in it.

Essay #5 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #4: Trainspotting.

Go ahead to #6: Safe.

Films Watched, June 2021

A Bread Factory

Another month, another online film festival. While I’m yearning to go back to such things in person and could’ve feasibly done so for the 23rd Annual Provincetown International Film Festival, other travel plans and some lingering trepidation (I haven’t yet set foot in a theater) left me opting for the virtual edition, itself actually pretty fulfilling: a ten-day window to watch most of the fest’s titles (save for things like Opening Night selection In The Heights) anytime, anyplace. My favorites included Sundance winner CODA (coming to theatres and Apple+ later this summer), charming dating app doc Searchers, filmed-in-lockdown two-hander Language Lessons and profiles on Aussie diver/marine life activist Valerie Taylor and the aftereffects of a fifty-year-old stunt pulled by wealthy hippie weirdo Michael Brody Jr.

However, June’s best first-time viewing was A Bread Factory, Patrick Wang’s two-part, four-hour dramedy about a struggling arts organization in small town upstate New York, with an ensemble led by Tyne Daly and mostly unknowns plus a few ringers (Glynnis O’Connor, Janeane Garofalo, James Marsters). It received a miniscule release in October 2018 (I don’t think it played Boston) but came to my attention via rave reviews from critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Wang’s humaneness may initially seem at odds with his occasional absurdist slant, but he’s crafted a universe that, as finite as it physically appears, just continues to expand without ever obscuring the constants that embody and define it. Available to view on Kanopy and a must watch for any devotee of American indie cinema.

Solid new titles included the economical fractured marriage story of The Killing of Two Lovers, the thoroughly entertaining Some Kind of Heaven, which examines a fascinating example of artifice made “real” via a ginormous Florida retirement community and Slow Machine, a baffling but never boring pretzel-twist indie full of shifting identities and people playing versions of themselves. Paper Spiders, on the other hand, is fully skippable despite the ever-great Lily Taylor in a rare leading role.

Gypsy 83 was nearly worth a twenty-year wait (kept waiting for a theatrical release back in 2001!) and about as good as director/writer Todd Stephens’ latest, Swan Song, noteworthy for its tour de force work from the inimitable Udo Kier. House of Games was worth watching for Joe Mantegna’s barked-out reading of that old phrase, “Thank you sir, may I have another?” in its climax. Burn! was worth seeing for Marlon Brando donning an English accent and having it come out sounding like Michael Caine.

Perhaps Cruising was the worthiest screening of them all—not really a “great” film as it was neutered by its studio to get an R rating, but intriguing as a record of pre-AIDS Manhattan gay fetish bars. Also, it has undercover cop Al Pacino being asked by his boss Paul Sorvino if he’s ever been “porked”.

Films viewed in June in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.)

A Sunday in the Country (Bertrand Tavernier, 1984) 8

Iris (Albert Maysles, 2014)* 8

Sordid Lives (Del Shores, 2000)* 6

Jerichow (Christian Petzold, 2008) 6

Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980) 6

The Killing of Two Lovers (Robert Machoian, 2020) 8

The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987) 6

Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask Isaac Julien, 1995) 6

Four Roads (Alice Rohrwacher, 2021) 5

Gypsy 83 (Todd Stephens, 2001) 7

A Bread Factory Part One: For The Sake Of Gold (Patrick Wang, 2018) 10

A Bread Factory Part Two: Walk With Me A While (Wang, 2018) 9

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2011)* 8

Paper Spiders (Inon Shampanier, 2020) 4

Halston (Frederic Tcheng, 2019) 6

Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim, 2020) 9

House Of Games (David Mamet, 1987) 7

Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls (Russ Meyer, 1970)* 9

Slow Machine (Paul Felton, Joe Denardo, 2020) 6

Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich, 1937) 8

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Jim Mallon, 1996)* 6

To Sleep With Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990) 8

The Big Picture (Christopher Guest, 1989) 7

Burn! (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969) 8

PIFF 2021:

Beans (Tracey Deer, 2020) 7

Breuer’s Bohemia (James Crump, 2021) 6

Ailey (Jamila Wignot, 2021) 7

Searchers (Pacho Velez, 2021) 8

Swan Song (Stephens, 2021) 7

CODA (Sian Heder, 2021) 9

Dear Mr. Brody (Keith Maitland, 2021) 8

Being BeBe (Emily Branham, 2021) 5

Language Lessons (Natalie Morales, 2021) 8

Sublet (Eytan Fox, 2020) 6

Mogul Mowgli (Bassam Tariq, 2020) 5

Playing With Sharks (Sally Aitken, 2021) 8

Potato Dreams of America (Wes Hurley, 2021) 7

Yes I Am: The Ric Weiland Story (Aaron Bear, 2021) 4

Take A Deep Breath, Count With Me: Halfway Through 2021

It’s been a weird six months—for us all, no doubt. What has made them particularly odd for me is that, since January 1, I’ve been unemployed for the first time in over 15 years. I’ve had to make greater adjustments processing and navigating this than I did with the early days of the pandemic last year.

I’ve spent this additional down time ticking off project after project (Emptying out old files! Digitizing old photographs!) and trying to adhere to a daily routine that, in addition to job hunting makes ample time for reading, exercise, neighborhood walks when the weather permits and, as always, watching movies. I’ve also had to acclimate myself to this strange limbo; not entirely sure what my professional future might resemble yet, though I feel like I’m getting closer (check back with me in another three or six months.)

As for the music and movies I’ve been consuming, I’ve compiled two lists of 2021 favorites-to-date. Some of the albums (below in alphabetical order) come from long-beloved artists including three who’ve released their first full-lengths in over a decade (Liz Phair, Kings of Convenience, Arab Strap). Others are fresh discoveries: Wolf Alice’s reclamation of female-fronted alternative pop, Another Sky’s chewy but hooky soundscapes made distinct by androgynous vocalist Catrin Vincent and Cassandra Jenkins, whose singular, seven-track second album has remained in heavy rotation since I first heard it in March:

Another Sky, Music For Winter, Vol. 1

Arab Strap, As Days Get Dark

Cassandra Jenkins, An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

Field Music, Flat White Moon

Gruff Rhys, Seeking New Gods

Julien Baker, Little Oblivions

Kings of Convenience, Peace or Love

Liz Phair, Soberish

Lord Huron, Long Lost

Morcheeba, Blackest Blue

Quivers, Golden Doubt

Wolf Alice, Blue Weekend

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet

I’ve also seen nearly thirty new films from two festivals plus a smattering of other new releases, mostly via Chlotrudis’ weekly discussion group. Within the next six months, I hope to even return to the cinema as well! Below is everything I rated at least four stars out of five in alphabetical order by title:

CODA

Dear Mr. Brody

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet

Holler

I Was A Simple Man

The Killing of Two Lovers

Language Lessons

Limbo

Playing With Sharks

Quo Vadis, Aida?

Searchers

Shiva Baby

Some Kind of Heaven

Strawberry Mansion

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

Two of Us

Films Watched, May 2021

I planned on seeing 4-6 movies at this year’s virtual edition of IFF Boston; I ended up watching 13, enough for a separate post about the festival, I guess. Regardless, even with slim pickings due to the crazy year we’ve just had, I saw some gems. My favorite was Strawberry Mansion, a deeply surreal but charmingly handmade film where dreams and reality overlap and coalesce but with a sustained gentleness that sets it apart from the work of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. It led me to co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s previous film, Sylvio, a similarly unique study of viral fame and audience perceptions.

Other festival picks: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, an Argentinian tale which rivals Strawberry Mansion in its unique approach to narrative; I Was A Simple Man, a Hawaiian film about mortality that’s soothing and unsettling in equal measure; Luzzu, Maltese neorealism about adapting to and reconciling a changing world; and Holler, which attempts to do for industrial small town Ohio what Winter’s Bone did for the Ozarks and has fine performances from Jessica Barden and Becky Ann Baker (more ferocious than you’d ever expect from her work on Freaks and Geeks and Girls.)

I had to ramp up my Preston Sturges re-watch because all his films left Criterion Channel at the end of the month. While The Lady Eve (see my April 2021 entry) is still his peak, The Palm Beach Story, with its madcap travails and characters nicknamed “Captain McGlue” and “The Weinie King” is not too far behind. Sullivan’s Travels remains an interesting experiment more than a realized apotheosis; the later Eddie Bracken films aren’t perfect, but their wartime reverie connects more than the internal fantasies of Unfaithfully Yours (still better than I was expecting, thanks to a perfectly-cast Rex Harrison.)

The rest is typically all over the place: a new Roy Andersson film that, while pleasant, continues the diminishing returns of his last few features; The In-Laws, whose late scenes with Richard Libertini as a deranged dictator made me laugh harder than anything else I’ve seen during this goddamned pandemic; and Francis Ford Coppola’s cult passion project, which feels quaint in a “Let’s look back at the 40s in the 80s” way but gets by on Vittorio Storaro’s streamlined, transcendent camerawork.

It was a treat to see both Tom Noonan’s Sundance-winning, one-of-a-kind first date film What Happened Was… and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H again after twenty-odd years. The former resonates far more deeply with me now (my own dating experience back then was pretty scant); the latter, while not on the level of McCabe & Ms. Miller or The Long Goodbye nonetheless feels almost casually miraculous a half-century on, not so much tapping into the zeitgeist as corralling it and formulating a new way to see and partake in it.

Films viewed in May in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches. Titles with a ^ are selections from IFF Boston 2021.)

Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019) 7

The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller, 1979) 8

The Heart of The World (Guy Maddin, 2000)* 10

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson, 2019) 7

Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)* 8

High Society (Charles Walters, 1956) 5

What Happened Was… (Tom Noonan, 1994)* 9

Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)* 10

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Ana Katz, 2021)^ 8

A Reckoning In Boston (James Rutenbeck, 2021)^ 6

Holler (Nicole Riegel, 2020)^ 7

Thunder Force (Ben Falcone, 2021) 3

I Was a Simple Man (Christopher Makoto Yogi, 2021)^ 8

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun, 2021)^ 5

The Palm Beach Story (Sturges, 1942)* 9

Dream Horse (Euros Lyn, 2020)^ 6

M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970)* 8

Strawberry Mansion (Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney, 2021)^ 9

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche (Paul Sng, Celeste Bell, 2021)^ 6

Luzzu (Alex Camilleri, 2021)^ 8

Marvelous and The Black Hole (Kate Tsang, 2021)^ 6

Last Night in Rozzie (Sean Gannet, 2021)^ 6

The Woman In The Window (Joe Wright, 2021) 5

Weed & Wine (Rebecca Richman Cohen, 2020)^ 7

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, 1943)* 7

How It Ends (Zoe Lister-Jones, Daryl Wein, 2021)^ 4

Chinese Portrait (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2018) 7

Love Is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969) 6

The Fall (Jonathan Glazer, 2019) 7

Fantastic Planet (Rene Laloux, 1973) 8

Hail The Conquering Hero (Sturges, 1944) 8

Sylvio (Audley, Birney, 2017) 8

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)* 9

Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges, 1948) 7

The County (Grímur Hákonarson, 2019) 6

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, 1988) 7

The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967)* 8

24 Frames: Trainspotting

Friday night, late August 1996: my friend Rachel and I settle into our seats in a packed cinema in one of Milwaukee’s hipper enclaves. Following some ads and previews, the lights dim and the din of the crowd suddenly dissipates. A beat or two of darkness. Then, with the force of a gunshot, Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” permeates the air as an image of two young men running furiously down a sidewalk, being chased by authority figures fills the screen. In a thick Scottish brogue, one of them kicks off a voiceover with the following, methodically recited litany:

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers.

Instantaneously, the theatre’s energy has been corralled and transformed as if we were all watching A Hard Day’s Night or heck, even Star Wars for the first time.

***

While earning a Film Studies minor at Marquette University, I continued frequenting the suburban multiplexes of my youth like Budget Cinemas South (even though I no longer had a friend on the inside), various first-run Marcus Theatres (the predominant local chain) and occasional screenings at other isolated second-run movie houses—most notably, the then run-down Avalon Theater in Bay View, its ceiling dotted with peeling paint and twinkling neon stars (which my mother once confessed to me she thought were real as a child.)

I spent most of the summer preceding my undergraduate senior year viewing mainstream stuff like Mission: ImpossibleThe CraftThe Rock—essentially, anything my friends or roommates wanted to see. I still primarily thought of moviegoing as an opportunity to socialize, which is not to say I wasn’t affected by all the other stuff my film courses exposed me to. Earlier that year, I’d taken a Documentary class where I saw everything from Nanook of the North and Racetrack (a Frederick Wiseman cinema verité most notable for its uncensored, lengthy account of “stud service”) to charmingly quaint mid-60s surf doc The Endless Summer and 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, a recent, experimental, piecemeal portrait of the quirky Canadian classical pianist that stretched the boundaries of what a non-fiction film could contain.

Thus, a split emerged: movies I could see leisurely with other people vs. those I could watch in class or on my 19-inch TV at home (I wasn’t yet ready to venture off to the cinema on my own.) While mid-90s Milwaukee was certainly no beacon of film culture, there were a few outliers in the local exhibition landscape, i.e., places to see arthouse and foreign language cinema. Two of them were older theatres, both of which happened to be on the city’s East Side (my preferred hangout neighborhood) and about a ten-minute walk from each other; they were also part of the national Landmark Theaters chain, which happened to specialize in this stuff.

The more prestigious one was the Oriental, an enormous Art Deco movie palace dating back to 1927. About seventy years on, it had three screens, two of them smaller rooms carved out of the back of the original one. That main auditorium, however, was still glorious with over one thousand seats (and a balcony!), its interior done up in opulent East Indian décor. A sense of long-forgotten luxury encrusted the space, extending out into the equally grand lobby, all the way to the vintage ticket booth at the front door looking out at the sidewalk on Farwell Avenue (where, back in the early 80s, one night before a concert there, a member of The Pretenders spotted a gangly acoustic trio called The Violent Femmes busking on the sidewalk.)

The Oriental Theater

Over the next twelve months, at the Oriental I’d see such Academy Award winning hits of the day as Shine and The English Patient, plus smaller, less celebrated fare like Cedric Klapisch’s Parisian drama When The Cat’s Away and Finn Taylor’s voyeurism-centered, American indie flick Dream With The Fishes (not to mention a few midnight screenings of that already old standby, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) I gradually learned to get over my fear of going to the movies alone. It’s imbedded in us at an early age, this idea of watching movies (and dining in restaurants and going to concerts and plays) as something you simply do with other people. And yet, movies in particular are ideal as a solitary activity: like going to church, they allow for but don’t technically require a companion.

Just a few blocks away, although somehow far enough to feel like it was on an entirely different planet, the Downer Theater predated the Oriental, having first opened in 1915. Coming from an era prior to that of the ridiculously opulent movie palaces, it was more of a utilitarian neighborhood place. Twinned in the early 90s, each of its theaters were narrow and rectangular, two sets of seats separated by a center aisle. And yet, cooler stuff often played the Downer, titles that were perhaps too small to open in the Oriental’s main auditorium and yet too big to be instantly relegated to its two carved-out rooms. I had gone to see Bullets Over Broadway at the Downer with my mom two years before and also Dead Man Walking earlier that year, but Trainspotting wasn’t something I’d ever drag her to.

The Downer Theater

Although we saw Trainspotting on a Friday, it wasn’t the film’s opening night. Rachel and I had talked about going for a few weeks and finally found a date when both of us were free. Still, the near-standing-room-only capacity of the audience felt like it could’ve been opening night. I easily picked up on the anticipation in the room, an electricity that I’ve felt perhaps a dozen times in a quarter-century of regular moviegoing since then. The crowd was mostly young, 20s and 30s if I had to guess. Being 21 myself, the film’s characters were mostly just a few years older even if Rachel and I (and most of the audience, I assume) had precious little in common with a bunch of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Beyond those fragments I can still recall of that first screening of Trainspotting, what an emotional roller coaster ride it must have been. If some films are more interior experiences where one has to put in the work to make sense of and ultimately connect with what transpires onscreen, this was nearly the opposite: a rapid-fire sensory overload of pop songs, jump cuts, humorous graphics (i.e., “The Filthiest Toilet in Scotland”), fantasy sequences, cheeky wordplay, situations both outrageous and painfully relatable, the greatest ecstasy you’ve ever known immediately followed by the direst pain you’ve ever felt, all related by a narrator who’s not always entirely, shall we say, reliable.

Despite what I said earlier about the cinema being a perfectly fine solitary activity, this was the sort of film practically made to be seen in a packed theater as a collective experience for the first time. Just over 90 minutes later (I used to think it was much longer than that for all the plot it jams into that average-sized frame), I left the Downer with Rachel positive about two things:

  1. This was the greatest movie I had ever seen, and
  2. had to go out and buy the film’s soundtrack the next day. (Which I did! At The Exclusive Company (a local record store chain) on Farwell, six blocks away from the Oriental.)

I spent the following months thoroughly absorbing that soundtrack (I’ve already written about it in greater detail here.) The film likely played at the Downer long enough for me to go back and view it again, but I waited until mid-November, when I had the opportunity to see it on the cheap. Every Friday night, Marquette would screen popular films at its Varsity Theatre that had played in first-run houses usually within the preceding six months. Admission for students was a buck, maybe two. It was where I saw such hits of the day as Toy Story, the original JumanjiApollo 13 and Casino. When Trainspotting appeared on the schedule, I knew what I had to do. This time, I brought along another friend, Laura, with me.

Closer in size to the Oriental (but without the 1920s splendor), the Varsity was as jam-packed as the screening at the Downer, the audience (this time exclusively students) just as receptive and vocal to the film’s breakneck momentum. Laura became an instant convert, borrowing my copy of the soundtrack the next day. Over the rest of the school year, we rented it on VHS from Blockbuster multiple times; after I moved to Boston the following September, we more often than not watched my own VHS copy (purchased from one of those Columbia House-like “10 Movies for a Penny” deals) whenever I returned to the Midwest for a visit.

I must’ve seen Trainspotting more than a dozen times those three or four years after it was first released; I would not be surprised if I’ve seen it more often than any other movie, period (it’s at least up there with Monty Python and The Holy Grail and Young Frankenstein.) I finally got to see it in a cinema again in 2016 with a decidedly older crowd, a good portion of whom I’m guessing hadn’t seen it before (there were a few walkouts.) Viewing it again at home for this essay, I put the subtitles on to make sure I didn’t miss anything, which turned out a most redundant exercise as I found myself still able to recite all the dialogue save for a few words and phrases due to all those thick accents.

The film is simultaneously a tale seen through the lens of its main character, Mark Renton (a breakthrough role for an impossibly young and emaciated Ewan McGregor) and a now-definitive pop-art rendering of mid-90s UK youth culture. As Renton proceeds from careless junkie to half-hearted attempts at becoming clean to sudden relapse, withdrawal, aspirational reinvention and, well, not quite redemption (some old habits die hard), Trainspotting vividly depicts his world and the ultra-specific talismans he and his friends value: the classic cool of James Bond movies, the pre-punk swagger of addict icon Iggy Pop, the camaraderie (or not) of the local pub, the ecstatic promise of release (and casual sex) at a dance club and most of all, the “better than sex” high of hard drugs, chiefly heroin.

It’s not incorrect claiming that the film’s early scenes tend to glamorize the characters’ drug intake. The one-of-a-kind pleasure whenever someone shoots up is palpably seen and felt. Renton’s attempts at rationalizing it are acceptable at face value, particularly when he says that his mother, from whom he steals a bottle of Valium, “is, in her own domestic and socially acceptable way also a drug addict.” The film’s attitude towards drug use shifts only when it delves head-first into relaying its consequences, often in graphic, brutal detail— most horrifically, the discovery of flat mate Allison’s baby lying dead in its crib from the neglect of a group of junkies too far gone to properly take care of it. There’s also the sad case of Tommy, who turns to drugs after a romantic breakup and rapidly deteriorates into AIDS-related illness and death.

What remains relatively unique about the film’s rendering of addiction is in how it admits it’s often an endless cycle. Renton’s cold turkey attempt at withdrawal (aka “The Bedroom Scene”) is arguably just as horrifying as anything before it (particularly when the dead baby reappears crawling on the ceiling in his hallucinatory state.) Getting clean enables him to begin again as a real estate agent in London, but he can’t fully escape his past, as hometown mates Begbie, a violent drunk and then Sick Boy, a sketchy dealer/pimp show up at his door, expecting him to take them in (“He’s a psycho, but a mate, so what can you do?,” Renton says of Begbie as a means to rationalize this.) Along with the sweet but easily coerced Spud, the four stumble their way into a “scag deal”, reselling two kilograms of heroin they’ve managed to acquire for peanuts to big-time dealers at a higher price. Renton is called upon to try the heroin and test its legitimacy when he notes in voiceover, “This was to be my final hit, but let’s be clear about this. There’s final hits and final hits. What kind was this to be?”

Trainspotting doesn’t provide an easy answer to that question. In the end, realizing “So what can you do?” will only get one so far re: toxic mates, following the success of the deal, Renton absconds with all the money (though he leaves some behind for Spud in a security deposit box.) As he walks away from the scene of the crime, perfectly, exhilaratingly in time with Underworld’s “Born Slippy” on the soundtrack, he says, in voiceover:

The truth is that I’m a bad person. But that’s gonna change … Now I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and Choosing Life. I’m looking forward to it already. I’m gonna be just like you.

He then reprises the litany of acceptable consumer goods from his voiceover at the film’s start (“The job, the family, the fucking big television…”), but something’s off. If you’re no longer taking him at face value (and you really shouldn’t be), you can detect the ever-so-slight smirk in his tone. For Trainspotting, a “final hit” isn’t a promise, not really; more like an aspiration, something we tell ourselves, almost automatically and out of obligation. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to “Choose Life”? The final shot, zooming into MacGregor’s smiling face until it blurs unto abstraction suggests this whole thing is not as easy as it looks.

I can’t help but feel I saw Trainspotting at exactly the right time. Had it come out five years earlier, it wouldn’t have been on my radar (I truly did not see an R-rated film until I was 18!) Had it appeared five years later when I was in my mid-late 20s, I might’ve dismissed its flash and cynicism or, at the very least, respected and admired it for its performances and skillfulness while feeling a little weary of its relentless, over-the-top artifice (which was exactly my reaction to Moulin Rouge! (also starring McGregor) when it came out in 2001.) However, as an adult recently of legal drinking age falling in love with film for the first time, Trainspotting had a seismic impact on my taste and perception of what the world had to offer to someone my age. Along with the Downer and the Oriental, it confirmed a growing sense of discord: I was getting ever closer to leaving those suburban multiplexes and my heretofore provincial worldview (mostly) behind.

Essay #4 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #3: To Live.

Go ahead to #5: All That Jazz.

Films Watched, April 2021

With respect to howlin’ wolf Frances McDormand in Nomadland (itself a deserving Best Picture winner) and all the other Oscar acting honorees this year, none of them gave as fierce and harrowing a performance as Jasna Đuričić in Quo Vadis, Aida? I would’ve also picked it for Best International Film over the affable if gimmicky Another Round—as a depiction of an interpreter desperately navigating the 1995 Bosnian genocide, it’s a nail biting, feel-bad movie that’s really good.

A few other significant discoveries this month: Sean Baker’s Starlet, which preceded Tangerine and affirmed his finesse with unknown actresses (including Ernest Hemingway’s great-granddaughter!) to be already fully intact; En El Septimo Día, a return-to-form (and feature-making) from Jim McKay, another director who excels with non and semi-professionals; The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, a classic I’d been meaning to see for years and well worth the wait (not least for Bogart at his most depraved); and The Watchmaker of St. Paul, my first Bertrand Tavernier (RIP) film and certainly not the last.

Re-watches offered few surprises except renewed confirmation that The Lady Eve might be my favorite Preston Sturges film (and the best screwball comedy ever next to Bringing Up Baby) and that Drugstore Cowboy (which I barely remembered from my last viewing decades ago) has Matt Dillon’s best, most sympathetic performance. Thrilled to see Shiva Baby receiving such a robust reception in its theatrical/VOD release—it was one of my faves at virtual TIFF last September, and I look forward to people discovering fellow newly released festival alums Limbo and The Disciple as well.

Somewhat let down by Sunset Song (the closest Davies has ever come to seeming banal) and a trio of inessential shorts that brought Maddin Mondays dribbling to a close (save for one Criterion is finally adding in May.) Really let down by The Staggering Girl, a high-pedigree pseudo-art-commercial with so much talent and so little substance. On the other hand, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar delightfully turned out more acid trip-y than expected and underground queer classic Pink Narcissus, while dutifully rough around the edges, answered a question that had previously never occurred to me: “What if Kenneth Anger had an ass fetish?”

Films viewed in April in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches:

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948) 9

En El Septimo Día (Jim McKay, 2017) 8

Cowboys (Anna Kerrigan, 2020) 6

The Hall Runner (Guy Maddin, 2014) 6

Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015) 6

Pink Narcissus (James Bidgood, 1971) 8

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers, 2012) 7

To Live (Zhang Yimou, 1994)* 10

The Fever (Maya Da-Rin, 2019) 7

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar (Josh Greenbaum, 2021) 7

Starlet (Sean Baker, 2012) 9

Lines of the Hand (Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, 2015) 5

Family Romance LLC (Werner Herzog, 2019) 6

Ashes (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2012) 7

Always Shine (Sophia Takal, 2016) 6

No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990) 7

Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982)* 8

Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Zbanic, 2020) 10

Pepi, Luci, Bom (Pedro Almodovar, 1980) 6

Spanky: To The Pier and Back (Maddin, 2008) 6

In The Soup (Alexandre Rockwell, 1992)* 7

Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932) 6

Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1990)* 8

The Watchmaker of St. Paul (Bertrand Tavernier, 1974) 8

Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, 2020)* 9

The More You Ignore Me (Keith English, 2018) 5

Nenette and Boni (Claire Denis, 1996) 7

Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989)* 8

Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932) 7

The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino, 2019) 4

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)* 10

The Man Who Sold His Skin (Kaouther Ben Hania, 2020) 6