As a proper luddite and card-carrying hipster goofball, I don’t have access to HBO at my house, or any other television station for that matter. But as a proper robot — or, at the very least, someone who wants to be plugged in, even if I pretend that’s not the case — I ravenously gobble up whatever is on in situations where I happen to find a television that does have such access. Having spent the past week in a hotel room, I found myself watching a bunch of things. Here they are.

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Draft Day: Enjoyable enough as schlock, though the ticking timeline and heightened tension never really explains why anyone would be excited to join the Cleveland Browns. Costner is in his element, though I was distracted the entire time by how weird his ears are, something I’d never noticed.

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Enemy of the State: I haven’t seen this in years, and it held up pretty well. The 1998 NSA fears are kind of prescient, even in an over-the-top format, and it’s a reminder of when Will Smith was a superstar (and why). Casting grizzled Gene Hackman as a former spy gone rogue is a nice touch, evokingThe Conversation in reverse even if that was unintentional. Tony Scott’s action sequences are fun for the most part. And fun fact: one scene was filmed in an apartment adjacent to where I once lived; Smith jumps out my old window and lands miles away, which I will always enjoy.

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The Good Lie: Woo boy. Reese Witherspoon is a jaded case worker finding jobs for immigrants, in this case Sudanese refugees. She learns a thing or two about Sudan … and herself. At one point, the three Sudanese men tell a why did the chicken cross the road joke and laugh hysterically, because apparently there were no jokes in Sudan. This is not a good film.

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The Heat: I laughed twice. Apparently, Paul Feig thought it was funny when Melissa McCarthy yells obscenities and that people inscrutably think Sandra Bullock is a trans woman. This is also not a good film.

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Endless Love: The funniest comedy of last year. From my understanding, it completely inverts much of the storyline of the original text, but that’s a small price to pay for the nonstop laffs. On the other hand, the movie looks respectable at every turn visually, which is what you’d expect from Andrew Dunn, the cinematographer who brought you The Butler, Precious, and, um, Hot Rod, for some reason.

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Girl, Interrupted: There are moments when this movie seems authentic, but they are few and far between. Angelina Jolie is so contemptible for so much of it that there’s little to enjoy, and Winona Ryder’s final voiceover narration kills any good will it might’ve built up. I’d never actually seen this before. I did not like it.

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That Awkward Moment: What a confused movie this is. There’s actually a pretty fun cameraderie between Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, and the impressively vacant Zac Ephron, but the things they say are remarkably stupid. I won’t lie, though — it has its moments. Also, Imogen Poots — my nominee for best name in show business — is extremely pretty. This is neither here nor there and not actually relevant to the film, but there you go. Also, boner jokes are funny but they’re not really that funny; on the other hand, Miles Teller getting hit by a car is a lot funnier here than in Whiplash. The latter movie convinced me he’s actually a pretty good actor, but he still has one of the most punchable faces I’ve ever seen, so I enjoyed that thoroughly.

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Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift: I confess that this is the first FaF movie I’ve seen. I enjoyed it a lot actually, at least in part because I was extremely drunk.

 

Jim Jarmusch’s films are all about textures and surfaces. It sometimes feels like he’s hinting at wellsprings of deeper meaning or emotion, but everything is held at a remove – cold, observing, often ironic. This probably contributes to the love-it-or-hate-it reactions his films seem to inspire, especially the early ones: are they studies in the carefully calibrated hipsterism of people who cloak their authentic selves in the trappings of cool, or particularly egregious examples of it? Both? Neither?

In either (or any) case, they certainly look good: shot in stark black and white, and obsessed with contours and physical details, the camera glides over the surroundings, or stays completely still as people come and go. It’s hard to find a better word for it than “cool.”

In his feature debut, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise, the arrival of a foreign, female cousin broke the routines of two caddish, cynical American guys, and the three set out on a bickering, amusing road trip to Florida. It even obliquely addressed issues of constructed identity: the cool guy’s cousin irritates him, with her old-country ways that highlight how much he’s tried to leave them behind and her unironic embrace of American pop culture. (It also is easily a contender for another Song for a Sunday, as she dances around the kitchen to Jarmusch regular Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” “Fuck is that?” he asks. “I really hate that kind of music.”)

Down By Law, from 1986, features another triad: a pimp, an unemployed DJ, and an Italian tourist who wind up, for various reasons, in a jail cell together in New Orleans. It’s typical of the film that their escape from jail is left off camera: one minute they’re locked up, the next they’re on the run through the Louisiana bayou. Jarmusch doesn’t have the time or inclination to sketch out their big plan. The movie traffics in Hollywood tropes, but from odd angles.

According to Roger Ebert, Jarmusch said he’d never seen the bayou before arriving to shoot Down By Law. This also makes a lot of sense. The New Orleans and surrounding areas here are more related to cinema than geography – these are noir landscapes, Southern Gothic cemeteries, sweaty unventilated upstairs rooms in fleabag motels, waterways that seem more out of Night of the Hunter than anywhere specific in the world.

The film’s opening conveys a lot of this. Beginning with a sleek shot of a hearse, it’s a constantly shifting montage set to Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” the first single off Rain Dogs. It’s a travelogue of some sort of imaginary South, gleaned from film. Waits also stars – again, appropriately enough, for a very self-aware kind of movie – as the unemployed DJ who’s set up for a murder he didn’t commit.

The song combines a lot of things at once: spaghetti western flourishes, driving blues, jazz riffing, Waits’ whiskey growl. The lyrics are pastiche nonsense, but the repeated phrase lingers at the start of this movie, giving everything a feeling of rootless dread: “The house is on fire, the children are alone.”

I especially like how Jarmusch fades the song out for brief exchanges, before coming back full blast. John Lurie rises from his bed, asks (presumably) one of the sex workers what she’s doing outside on the porch – she replies, “Just watching the light change.” He lies back down, and the girl in his bed opens her eyes and stares at the ceiling. Waits enters some other room in town, clearly drunk at dawn; graffiti on the wall has a gallows’ humor thing going – the most visible reads, “It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop.” He too lies down next to a girl, who might’ve just been pretending to sleep; her eyes open and she too stares at the ceiling.

Jarmusch manages to convey a lot of information quickly about these characters, where they are, and how they relate to each other, while leaving much of it mysterious. And all the while, the song keeps pulsing, with Waits warning, “The house is on fire, and the children are alone.” The shots are beautiful and alluring, but there’s clearly some bad shit afoot.

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Katheryn Bigelow’s clever, mostly successful postmodern take on the vampire mythology opens with a nice bit of misdirection. Caleb, our pretty-boy protagonist, is goofing around with his crew of country fellas outside a Southern bar when they notice Mae, a lovely young lady awkwardly hanging out by herself. Caleb calls dibs and approaches her, standing in shadows and making small-talk come-ons. This being a vampire movie, there’s every reason to suspect she’s his next victim: he even mentions how he won’t bite. She’s aloof and shy, playing the soon-to-be-victim to the hilt.

This, it probably goes without saying, is not how things shake out.

Mae is in fact part of a crew of modern-day vampires, who travel the countryside feeding at night and sleeping during the day in various holdouts. Unlike many incarnations, these vampires are neither sexy nor anguished – they’re a lot more like a tight-knit outsider group committed to self-preservation, a gang. They have protocols to follow and internal hierarchies and long-standing grudges. And they really, really like having a good time, in their fashion – tormenting bar patrons (in the film’s best and bloodiest scene), drinking heavily, committing strategic arson, and playing good-natured games of Russian roulette in hotel rooms (since this can’t kill them, it’s just for a laugh).

Mae turns Caleb, much to the chagrin of her comrades, who (rightly) don’t think he’s made out for this life. The rest of the film follows his change, the group’s adventures, and Caleb’s bewildered family’s desperate attempts to track him down. One particularly effective sequence, finding humor in the notion of modern-day vampires, finds Caleb in a bus station, unable to function as his humanity is drained away and replaced by something darker; he’s all sweat and callow flesh and bloodshot eyes. A cop interrogates him, naturally, about what drugs he’s on.

The film is shot in half-light (or is it near dark?) almost from start to finish, maybe suggesting the creatures’ dual natures or, alternately, Bigelow’s conviction that it would look cool (if the latter, she was right). Both Lance Hendrickson and Bill Paxton give nice, occasionally frightening turns as murderous borderline-psychotics who also happen to drink blood, and the kid from Teen Witch continues to be unsettling, though in a less hornball fashion this time. There are also some really well done set-pieces, like a house in which they’re hiding getting shot up and allowing light to come through, noir and/or Blood Simple-style, in criss-crossing rays, any one of which can painfully light the vampires on fire. They huddle together, deathless villains cornered by the day.

Refreshingly, there is no complicated back-story to explain these creatures; they just are, and apparently have been for many, many years. This allows Bigelow to treat the film as a crime movie with bloodsucking monsters, rather than an entry into increasingly convoluted mythologies. It’s way more fun than brooding versions like Herzog’s Nosferatu or Dreyer’s Vampyr, for instance, even if it falls, let’s say, a bit short on their artistry. The film’s conclusion is a cop-out, I think, and way too sentimental for everything that preceded it. Unfortunate, since there are a number of other directions they could’ve chose for the climax. On the other hand, everything that preceded it was pretty enjoyable.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans will also have fun picking out the substantial number of things Whedon borrowed: the blacked-out car windows, for instance, or the gag of running through the sun with a blanket over your head. I’m not sure if these little touches have earlier instances; if not, Whedon owes Bigelow some major credit.

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Fassbinder’s second feature film is based on his stage play from a year prior, and it shows. Nearly every scene frames two to five characters against a plain backdrop – the front of an apartment building, the bare wall of one of the rooms inside, a table at the local tavern – where they alternately snipe at each other, spread rumors and ugly gossip, and talk haltingly, with blank expressions, about not very much.

There’s a biting, satiric edge, and a visceral anti-racist undertone (shared with Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, the only other Fassbinder I’m familiar with), but it’s kind of a slog. A repeated visual theme – a couple (by the end of the film, nearly every permutation has been included) walking through the courtyard to the sounds of a stately piano, like they’re walking down the aisle or in some sort of ritual procession, helps break up the minimalist tedium – but it’s a suffocating vision of insularity, xenophobia, sexism, casual violence, and economic malaise. I admired the film but I didn’t enjoy it.

The plot, such as it is, can be summarized very quickly. A group of young Germans, with little to do, no jobs, and not much hope, hang out and talk shit about each other. They are frustrated economically and sexually – the film definitely implies these two things are related on a fundamental level.

Their aspirations are minor: a quick buck, the promise of an acting career based on a photo shoot, a marriage or, failing that, some affection. In their restless ennui, they pass the time by passing judgment on each other, and each one is a hypocrite: the girl who trades sex for “gifts” of money is scorned, for instance, while it’s implied one of the tough guys is doing the same for out-of-town men. Each of them looks for any opportunity to distinguish and elevate their own compromises under oppressive conditions from those of the others.

Satire or not, these are unpleasant folks to be around.

Eventually, one of the residents takes in a lodger, a Greek laborer (played by Fassbinder), and the gossip shifts into high gear. The logic of the film’s structure indicates that all the simmering resentment that had previously circulated through the group now has an external outlet in this simple, uncomprehending Other. He sleeps naked! He is “better built,” as his unwitting roommate puts it! (How so, someone asks? “His dick,” he answers, as though what he meant wasn’t clear already.) He’s a cunning communist! He assaults German women, maybe! These allegations also sit right alongside their opposites – that Greeks don’t bathe and are undesirable, that he doesn’t have a thought in his head, and so forth. Since all these characters do is talk, his lack of German fluency renders him a cipher, and they can make of him whatever their free-floating resentment requires.

It culminates, as you’d expect, in an act of violence. But nothing much changes. In fact, Fassbinder’s final fuck-you gesture in Katzelmacher (“Cat fucker,” incidentally, which Wikipedia informs me is pejorative Bavarian slang for foreign workers) is to close on a note rendering even that violence perfunctory and meaningless.

Aside from the one character making money from renting rooms, these people are not economic agents in their own lives – they just sort of inhabit a world where things happen which they can’t control, and even scapegoating and violence do nothing but underline their powerlessness. All that’s left is to stew about it, try to find someone, close at hand, to blame, and talk shit on an apartment stoop, and dream of an escape that no one really thinks is coming.

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:

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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.