One of the Big Deals of the 70s films we’d later refer to as the New Hollywood was their use of contemporary music, as opposed to a scripted score or relying on the classics. These choices could comment on the things happening on the screen, underline them, or invert them: Robert DeNiro’s entrance in Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumping Jack Flash” manages to do all three at once. Previous entry McCabe & Mrs. Miller did something similar with Leonard Cohen dirges: they seem to be tailor-made for the scene, but we know they exist outside of it. It’s sort of showoff-y, this impulse to sync radio hits with camera movement, but when it works, it really works.

And after all, Fellini and others had music playing on set to provide a rhythm to the actors’ movement; it’s just we didn’t get to hear the music. In New Hollywood cinema – and, unfortunately, in attempts to replicate it – the music sometimes seems to come first: the mood and perspectives hinge on it, the score clues us in on what the script leaves out. After the creation of MTV and all the montages we’ve suffered under, we might wonder if it was worth it, given how shitty most people are at this.But it’s worth remembering it was new and dangerous once.

Scorcese’s Goodfellas, released far after these 70s breakthroughs and their inferior replications were over, is essentially a master lesson in how to use songs to further plot points, focus energies, and contextualize perspective. Each period of the lives of its protagonists is perfectly scored, so that we both know when and where we are, and what these people are like. It comes off a bit like a stunt maybe, song-wise: “Oh, Aretha Franklin’s “Baby, I Love You”? Got it!” But at least everyone can probably admit the songs they chose are pretty rad and would make a good mixtape.

The genius in Goodfellas, though, is how Scorcese matches song with moment. This is nowhere more apparent than in the famous Copacabana scene, where rising mobster Henry and Karen – the girl he was set up with on a double date, spurned, and then fell for – go on their first proper outing as a couple. The song is The Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me.”

This is in many ways the easiest choice imaginable, on my part. It’s a great song and it accompanies one of the most impressive scenes in modern cinema, as the Steadicam tracks Henry and Karen leaving a car with an attendant, descending through a secret entrance to the club, winding their way through corridors, bantering with people Henry seems to know, palming $20 bills on everyone, gracefully side-stepping people as they pass through a working kitchen, and emerging in the club, talking charmingly all the while and occasionally guiding, gently, his awestruck lover.

It’s an undeniably virtuoso job, technically amazing. As they arrive on the floor, a man swoops in with a table to seat them, someone buys them a bottle of wine, and the camera itself almost seems out of breath; it hasn’t stopped either. It might be the most exhilarating, dinner-related sequence ever filmed.

Karen’s question when finally seated: “What is it you said you do again?”

Which brings us back to the song. “Then He Kissed Me” is as breathless as the scene: it describes a whirlwind romance, moments of doubt. It’s a song for a prom: nervous, hopeful, longing, and a bit awkward. It even starts with the word, “Well….”, like it was in mid-sentence. Its thundering production insists that something earth-changing is afoot, even if it’s just kissing a boy, and its use here immediately position us with the characters (and mostly with Karen). We sort of luxuriate in Henry’s privilege and are as wowed by it as she is: the song and the shot keep us on everyone’s team, ultimately, at least for the time being. It’s a wonderful moment when anything seems possible.

Of course, all things aren’t possible, if you stop to think. It makes complete and total sense for Karen to finally sit down, catch her breath, and wonder aloud what it is this guy does. But the dizzying motion and excitement of everything that preceded her question also explains why she might want to hang around, even after she finds out the answer.

Yes, three “Song for a Sunday” features and two of them are Robert Altman films. (Wait until we get to Nashville!) The only connecting thread in these is that I like them and think the songs are used well in the movie, and Altman definitely knows how to deploy songs to structure the plot and mood.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is an austere version of that skill, and maybe the best non-Nashville example of it. The story – of a travelling gambler and would-be whorehouse entrepreneur teaming up with an experienced madam to make a life in the mining town of Presbyterian Church, just as the mythic West of the American imagination is being overrun by the trappings of civilized society – is scored to exactly three songs, each by Leonard Cohen, which fade in and out of the film at distinct points. Cohen’s vaguely, ambiguously mournful melodies, the enveloping strumming of the guitar, the barebones nature of the recordings, and his seemingly wise, exhausted crooning suit the film perfectly. It’s a funeral for something or someone – a way of life, a possibility of a kind of freedom, and, eventually, for a flawed hero who told himself he had poetry in him, even if no one else could see it.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of my favorite films, so it’s easy to wax rhapsodic about it, but as far as the music goes, it really is singularly effective. In terms of the washed-out images, the scenes so damp you feel kind of cold just watching them, the lamp-lit interiors that Stanley Kubrick apparently phoned Altman about, to find out how he got those shots – these are natural environments for a Leonard Cohen song.

And, in terms of plot, it’s amazing: when Cohen sings, “He was just some Joseph looking for a manger,” how could he be speaking about anyone except Warren Beatty’s McCabe, rising and falling and searching for rebirth in a town called Presbyterian Church? When, in “Winter Lady,” one of the two other songs, he intones, “I’m just a station on your way / I know I am not your lover,” how can he possibly not be referring to McCabe’s melancholy desire for Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller, doomed by their partnership, his impetuousness, her aloofness and addiction, all the dangers and distractions of this self-creating town?

And yet Cohen had already written and recorded the songs before the film was even in production. (In fact, he didn’t even initially like how Altman used them, if “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Peter Biskind’s rather disreputable catalog of 70s New Hollywood gossip, is to be believed … which is a big if.)

In any case, the lyrics and mood are almost too on-the-nose … or would be, if they had been written for the film. That they weren’t ends up feeling mysterious, like a lot about McCabe & Mrs. Miller. A few more: “Like any dealer he was watching / for the card that is so high and wild / he’ll never need to deal another,” for example. Or: “I was waiting, I was sure / we’d meet between the trains we’re waiting for / I guess it’s time to board another.” That’s, of course, part of Cohen’s genius as a songwriter and part of why he’s so intensely admired by his fans: these are lyrics from everywhere and nowhere, oddly specific and yet taking on the feel of a universal statement. You can enter into them from wherever you stand, and imagine they were written specifically for you.

But notice the past tense in each of those lines, and the resignation: these are, if nothing else, songs written from the future. McCabe’s dream unfolding in the film, and Mrs. Miller’s too, weren’t even impossible … they were already over while they were beginning, in the rain and snow and creeping politics and sudden violence of a non-place in the middle of nowhere. They were just some Josephs looking for a manger.

Opening scene:

Full song, live version:


Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre – a “horror” movie steeped in ritual, wacked-out symbolism, and the surreal – achieved what no other movie could: it made me enjoy an Alejandro Jodorowsky film.

I have tried and tried to like his earlier films. I am told, on good authority, I really should. They are midnight-movie staples which helped define the notion of the midnight movie and clearly important, singular, weird, maybe visionary … but they leave me cold.

I recognize their crazed passion, but what can I say? El Topo, with its ponderous long shots and elaborate set pieces and kind of half-baked shamanism and ludicrousness, and The Holy Mountain’s ostentatious framing and inscrutable cosmology … they come across to me as Hippie Cinema By Way Of Bunuel, at its most desperate. Watching them, I just feel each time like I showed up at a party where everyone dropped acid two hours ago, and they ran out. It’s amusing enough to look at, but I probably should just go to a bar.

Santa Sangre is different, and not just because decades have passed.

Where El Topo and The Holy Mountain operate in a genre netherworld – mostly constructed around naked people offering words of wisdom and dread, in between shots of the sun – Santa Sangre felt actually rooted somewhere (ironically, in a traveling circus, a fantastic image of rootlessness).

It has characters we care about – the woman defending her people’s church, the boy born into this life who longs for something and someone else, the girl who longs for him, the elephant who can’t stop bleeding and whose closed-casket funeral procession is the most striking image in the whole movie.

Yes, the elephant funeral, with its Fellini-esque march of musicians, clowns, knife-wielding womanizers, heretical priestesses, and child-magicians. Don’t worry: This is still an Alejandro Jodorowsky film.

But it’s a Jodorowsky horror, and maybe the genre aspect is what I found appealing. It’s a ghost story, really.

The young boy, Fenix, is a sham magician in his parent’s operation, learning artifice as the family trade. A series of unfortunate events leave both his parents dead – his mom, with her arms cut off like the saint she worships; his dad, who slits his own throat after getting his genitals burned off with acid in retribution for infidelity. Life is hard in this circus.

Fenix grows up, and not very gracefully. When we meet him again, he’s escaping from some sort of mental health facility where he was being held (a progressive one: the proprietors were kind enough to install a tree inside so he can pretend to be a bird, as is his wont). Beckoned by his mother, now apparently corporeal, he ascends the tree and makes a break for it.

Fenix then finds himself back on the sideshow beat, with his main act being a pantomime with his ghost-mom, where he uses his arms in place of hers on stage. They have a good thing going, but the girl he loved so long ago (presumably not a ghost) has also been looking for him. It’s clear nothing good is going to come from any of this.

The things that have and continue to bug me about Jodorowsky are still here in Santa Sangre: the on-the-nose symbolism, the extravagant set pieces, the uncanny shenanigans that almost seem like they should come with a footnote in a corner of the screen, referencing other symbolic art you might enjoy.

But in a horror context, it works: I had no trouble believing that things would spiral this out of control, or that the surrealist touches would be there. It rarely felt forced – the basic notion, that the madness of the unconscious can be let loose at any minute and we’d be fools to even wonder at it, makes much more sense here. And in its closing moments at least, it’s legitimately scary.

He constructs striking images; that much is not in dispute. Even in the early films I’m sort of deriding, I recognize this is true. In some ways, I think he prefers images alone, rather than stringing them together to make a film. Jodorowsky’s Dune, the documentary about his failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, might hint at his true position: he sure does love talking through the movie from illustrated stills. It almost seems like it doesn’t matter to him that it didn’t pan out.

But in Santa Sangre, it all works – image, mood, ritual. It’s a great film, worthy of his visual genius.

It’s rare enough to find a film that believes in revolution, much less one willing to posit a post-revolutionary world. What do we do with one that imagines both, but worries about how oppression will be handled after the rev?

Born In Flames is flawed but fearless; it’s a masterpiece. Its creator, Lizzie Borden (yes, Lizzie Borden), is out to gut some motherfuckers. But her film cares about people, it’s democratic in its airing of voices, it recognizes difference, and it doesn’t have an answer. It’s a punk rock interrogation of radical culture and politics, and it’s as smart an independent film as any made in the last 50 years.

The title is taken from the Red Krayola song that plays no fewer than four times, always as a propulsive political force and a connecting thread. The pulsing of the song is the movie’s backbeat; watch the movie twice, and I guarantee the opening notes will make you want to beat up a rapist. As you should.



You can watch the whole movie here.

Reflecting, in 1967, on the experience of seeing old movies on TV, notorious curmudgeon/amazing writer Pauline Kael wrote, “Horror and fantasy films … are surprisingly effective, perhaps because they are so primitive in their appeal that the qualities of the imagery matter less than the basic suggestions. Fear counts more than finesse, and seeing horror films is far more frightening at home than in the shared comfort of an audience that breaks the tension with derision.”

As someone who just watched a bunch of old (and not so old) horror movies, often alone, on a laptop (not even a TV, fancy or otherwise), I will second that on several counts.

It’s true that there’s something reassuring when everyone giggles at the right time – we’re all in this together, after all, we say, and it’s just a dumb movie. And that dumb movie doesn’t even need to look that good: it just needs to look good enough.

But when there’s no one around to giggle, no one to point out the continuity error or how goofy everyone is behaving, no one to second-guess your identifications or chuckle when you tense up, you might find yourself a little freaked out.

Kael’s larger points about movies in that essay – that trash accumulates, that we can’t tell an epic chase scene from a shitty chase scene thanks to the proportions of “the box,” that everything is so simultaneously available that we lose historical continuity and can’t even determine which pictures were considered “good” back in the day (“as it is,” Kael notes, “people sit and watch movies that audiences walked out on thirty years ago”), that everything is leveled out and presented simply as “classic” because it is past … well, these things are true, too. More true now, in my opinion, than when she was writing.

Horror, however, likes the small screen. Scary movies work in close confines, and especially in the dark. They’re “primitive in their appeal,” often unconcerned with finer nuances, and aimed at something visceral and barely-remembered and impossible to shrug off. They tap into the veins of those who hang around too long, and keep lookout for those who can’t turn away. The good ones are out to get us.

Recently, my cousin asked me why I even watched “horror movies.”  I said we should come to a definition of terms (yes, I’m fun at parties). I sensed he was talking about gore, about exploitation, about “extreme cinema,” I guess – basically, what’s with all the stabbing and the eyeballs and the nasty shit really, c’mon? But underneath that, the question was … why do you want to be voluntarily scared?

Personally, I don’t get very enthusiastic about the stabbing and think most movies would do better without it (apart from the sweet opportunities for effects folks to do their thing, which is worthy and rad), and that’s only become clearer over the course of watching movies this past month. I have enormous respect for the technicians and artists who make gross-out scenes happen, but I generally am not that enthused to be constantly grossed out at the movies. (The works of David Cronenberg are hereby exempted.) This wasn’t always true; maybe I’ve gone soft. My thinking is there’s plenty of carnage to be had in the real world.

But the latter is a reasonable question. You could watch a funny movie. It could be sad or bittersweet or melancholy or wistful, it could be inspiring or galvanizing or revolutionary. It could speak to your better nature, or amaze you with its beauty. Why watch a scary movie?

My basic answer: I watched Night of the Living Dead on network television when I was 6 or 7, and it blew my mind. I was certain the zombies portrayed were coming for me. The people seemed more or less like people I knew – they weren’t hamming it up in a Universal product of the 30s or 40s, or whatever else Channel 20 was showing on Sundays at noon. They were regular folks, and they were scared.

So I was scared, too, and it didn’t wear off when the movie was done. That’s an accomplishment – what was the last thing you read, heard, or watched that kept you up at night, thinking about it? What was the first thing? To me, as a child, Night of the Living Dead was art that mattered.

As an adult, and presumably a more informed movie viewer, that basic feeling is still there, along with an awareness of other nuances and connections. Watching these older films – the Val Lewton movies, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Vampyr especially – and newer ones – Peeping Tom, Sisters, Santa Sangre, Trouble Every Day, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 – is to be reminded of all the ways we cloak what we have to say, rework identities to fit with the situation, and manipulate those around us. We make monsters of the other, and of ourselves. We can’t help it. And horror movies know this.

Horror also tells us: If you can’t name a thing, it becomes a monster. And this is a problem: there are a lot of things we can’t name. So there must be many monsters, and they definitely aren’t just outside. Some are basic aspects of who we are as a species, society, and individual. The monsters are real, and they’re coming for us.

We kind of knew it was true, but no one wanted to say it, except for horror movies. And it’s nice to be told the truth every once in a while.



Martyrs is not a good movie.

No, I will go further: Martyrs is a bad movie, born of false pretense, disingenuously presented, and executed poorly. It is the only movie on this list I outright disliked. It wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t think it was so smart. It is not smart. It’s a stupid exercise foisted on the gullible for shitty reasons.

Here is the basic plot: A shadowy cabal kidnaps women to torture them into a state of grace, what they refer to as “martyrdom.” One can tell the martyred by the hollow look in their eyes as they stare to the Heavens, having emptied themselves of all hope. This cult wants to create a martyr and keep her alive long enough to relate what she sees before she dies. (It’s always a “she,” we’re told: women are somehow more inclined to grace through suffering. Why? Who knows, let’s keep this shitshow moving along.)


We’re introduced to these nice folks by way of an actually scary plotline involving a tortured child who escapes, but we only find out what it was about later. In the early scenes, the movie is filled with promise: is there anything scarier than a wounded child running away from some unknown horror house? I vote no. And right up until the middle of the movie, Martyrs is scary.

When we discover the plot underlying everything, the movie caves in on itself, in the most despicable possible ways. Scene after scene simply repeats itself: A ladder descends to an industrial basement. Our protagonist, now grown, is tied up and beaten. Dissolve. Our protagonist pisses herself. Dissolve. A ladder descends. Our protagonist is beaten for a while. Dissolve. A ladder descends. Our protagonist’s head is sheared, painfully. Dissolve. I think this continues for several hours, though that seems impossible given the movie’s alleged running time.

Its intentionally punishing in its aesthetic, and we’re implicated as viewers. The film desperately wants to be called “extreme cinema,” and get both arthouse and Fangoria points for being “willing to go there.” What is it actually? It is 30 minutes of a woman being punched in the head, then skinned alive, with some half-assed pseudo-science and a cop-out ending.

There’s nothing there; the profound eschatological inquiry is just a cover, like we knew it was from the start. This is a movie about, above all else, a woman getting punched in the face, and us watching her get punched in the face.

I’m not squeamish about these things in movies. There is violence in the world, and movies are part of the world. It’s not even the nature of the violence, or its targets, that bothered me here: it’s the idea that we would learn something, or feel something, when the movie has absolutely no interest in teaching or imparting feeling. Its producers and directors know there is a built-in audience for literally anything violent and over-the-top, but they aren’t content with exploitation. They mean to make art.

They fail at that, and at many other things. In the end, the movie they made is a nasty, mean-spirited fraud.



Atomic reactors! Radiation and mysterious crop failures! A secret joint U.S.-Canadian nuclear operation aimed at the Russians!

Fiend Without A Face is definitely a Cold War artifact, and laughably silly more often than not, but it’s also really well made and engaging. It touches on public fears which haven’t gone away, though the details have changed, and includes an admirable number of viewpoints without belittling them.

It also features sometimes-invisible monsters made of brains and spinal cords, who strangle you and suck out your essence to live. Which is awesome.

The film concludes with an old-fashioned shoot-out – basically, a brain massacre – and the props leak what appears to be grape jam.

I enjoyed this movie.


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