Saturday, December 14, 2019

OLD JOY - #1008

There’s an audience review of Old Joy on IMDB with the headline, “Surprisingly not boring!”

While that partially puts my teeth on edge, since I tend to disdain a narrow-minded definition of narrative convention, I can see where such an exclamation can make sense here.

Kelly Riechardt’s 2006 film, co-written with regular writing partner Jonathan Raymond and based on his story, couldn’t be more lacking in plot. Old Joy is a film about two friends reconnecting--or at least trying to--potentially for the very last time. Daniel London plays Mark, a man in his late 20s/early 30s who is about to become a father. When his friend Curt (Will Oldham, a.k.a. musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) calls to invite him on a hike to a remote hot spring, Mark immediately feels a tug between his desires to be carefree with his old buddy and his forthcoming responsibilities. There is an immediate understanding that this will be the last time--even if Mark is desperate to never say so out loud to Curt.

Old Joy chronicles the two-day journey to the springs, including the first night when Curt’s memory seems to fail him and the pair--along with Mark’s dog Lucy (as also seen in Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy [review]--camp out in a random location, unsure of how close or how far their destination may be. They drink and smoke under the stars and talk about string theory. Actually, Curt does most of the talking. He shares memories and dreams and genuinely tries to engage his pal in conversation. Mark, on the other hand, is practically endeavoring to stay disconnected. He says the right things and makes the right capitulations, but Curt knows every time Mark answers his cell phone to talk to his wife, he’s making excuses and apologizing for the time he is taking away from her. How far apart are these two, really? Listen to them order breakfast. Mark goes first, and Curt says he’ll have the same, only with a different meat choice and different toast. The same!

That’s about as contentious as Old Joy gets, though. There is no blow-up where the two men lay it all on the line and have a revelatory argument about freedom vs. responsibility. Rather, the whole of Old Joy hinges on one moment, a small gesture, that elevates the pair to what Curt was talking about at the campfire--their friendship moves to a different level with a wider view, allowing them to see clearly what is and what isn’t. A kind of peace is achieved, but it’s hard to say if it’s a lasting one--the final scenes suggest maybe not, but then again, Curt can be two things at once, connected and lost. Not that the next step matters, because something is released in the here and now. They find a spot to be comfortable in this melancholy. Curt explains this, too: “sorrow is worn-out joy.” What they feel passing may be sad, but it still has that initial seed of happiness inside of it.

And that’s it. There’s nothing more to Old Joy than that. Yet, it’s like the one commentator said, it’s never boring. On the contrary, Reichardt offers us lives so fully lived and so keenly observed, they are engrossing and nigh hypnotic. In a way, it’s the sheer unpredictability of a story with no a-b-c outcome that keeps you watching. There are no apparent curves on the road ahead.

It does help that Old Joy is also gorgeous to look at. It’s shot by Peter Sillen, who is mostly credited with documentaries, and his photography has that of-the-moment feel that a good documentary should have. He also has the backdrop of the forests of the Pacific Northwest to play with, which is a pretty good base canvas. The storytelling pace allows the audience to enjoy the nature as much as it allows us to indulge in the rite of passage the characters have embarked on, giving plenty to look at while we listen to the space between words.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, December 8, 2019


A salacious melodrama, The Story of Temple Drake is everything that made censors panic about Pre-Code Hollywood. Drinking, sex, murder, prostitution, rape--not to mention class divisions, challenges to authority, and a very, very minor touch of race relations (the servants are right, there is something wrong with their white bosses)--this William Faulkner adaptation scandalized timid theatre owners and frankly still has enough heat to feel a touch scandalous now.

Miriam Hopkins stars as Temple, the granddaughter of a rich Southern judge (Guy Standing, The Lives of Bengal Lancer), her only living family and a man too old to see just what kind to trouble Temple is getting into. The girl has a reputation, well earned if somewhat exaggerated. While Temple does go around with a lot of men, those in the know really know that she stops short of going all the way. She’s the local tease.

It doesn’t stop her from having her fair share of suitors, however. If one man besmirches her honor, another is there to defend it, and her dance card is always full. Her most serious contender would be Stephen (William Gargan, perhaps best known for playing detective Ellery Queen), a public defender with a penchant for lost causes. He numbers Temple among them. Despite her grandfather giving his blessing, she has refused Stephen’s proposal of marriage. Apparently he’s a bad dancer.

Though as Temple will find, there are worse things Stephen could be. After she ditches him at a party to go off with her besotted college beau (William Collier Jr., Little Caesar), a car crash leaves them stranded and at the mercy of a gangster named Trigger (Jack La Rue, The Sea Hawk). He’s been holing up at a farm waiting to pull a job with the backwoods hoods that own it. Temple’s presence turns up the heat at the farm, and despite the others’ best efforts to protect her, Trigger attacks Temple and leaves the headman (Irving Pichel, one of the director’s of The Most Dangerous Game) framed for murder.

The scenario gets pretty dark here, straying into moody gothic horror. Though Stephen Roberts, The Story of Temple Drake’s director, chooses to leave the sexual violence offscreen, there is no ambiguity to the situation. Trigger breaks Temple’s will and takes her prisoner, shacking up with her in a whorehouse while he waits for who knows what. The script by Oliver H.P. Garrett (A Farewell to Arms [review]) isn’t necessarily delicate or packed with nuance, but it leaves enough space so that Hopkins’ performance can be. She is incredible in the role, largely performing entirely with herself once Temple goes interior. As those around her marginalize her and turn away from her predicament, the rest of us do not, so we can see her process and react before she acts. The conflicted emotions, grappling with her own self-worth, weighing her options and ultimately trying to bury the trauma--Hopkins shows it all, usually through gesture and facial expression rather than verbal explanation.

It’s actually a surprisingly progressive portrayal of a victim’s psychology for 1933. Temple must wrestle with a lot of potential consequences were she to return home. To tell the town the truth after they had already written her off as a slut--would that help or hurt? A ticking clock is also added in that only Temple can corroborate what really happened at the farm, but to get the farmer off the hook, she’ll have to confess to her own shame and her own crimes. Here Stephen is also given a surprising lesson. The crusader would have Temple testify because it’s the right thing to do, but he balks when he realizes there are unintended damages to outing a victim. Gargan has an incredible moment where he must step back and make a decision.

The performances throughout The Story of Temple Drake are quite good. La Rue is menacing and tough, if a little one-note. More complex writing is reserved for the farmer’s wife (Florence Eldridge, Mary of Scotland), who is both frustrated by the sexual tension Temple introduces to her home but also instrumental in helping protect her. She has every reason to resent this woman of privilege invading her home, but she actually resents Trigger more. His bad influence and cruelty can only mean danger.

The segment in the woods is otherworldly. There are shadows around every corner, as fear grips Temple. She is completely isolated here, almost in a supernatural realm, a fairy tale landscape. This is where Faulkner shines through the most. His appreciation for the southern social strata lends a surprisingly non-judgmental air to the swampy scenes. The farmer and his kin are hard-working people, and subject to certain disadvantages. Trigger is the exploitative intruder from the North, and there is some compulsion to protect Temple not just because it’s the decent thing to do, but because she’s one of their own. By contrast, the stuff back in town is decidedly Hollywood, and one could make hay of The Story of Temple Drake being a parable of Tinsel Town’s sometimes uneasy relationship with Middle America.

The Story of Temple Drake is indicative of how censors so often miss the boat. Sure, there are sensational aspects to this story, but Roberts never sensationalizes them. Triggers is not a cool gangster, nor does the camera leer at Temple or even make us privy to the harm done her. Rather, the film relies on Hopkins’ to convey all the horror, her face saying more than seeing the actual violence could. Likewise, by never letting Stephen put a fine moral point on any of it, The Story of Temple Drake allows the audience to invest its own judgment, arguably making the “lesson” of the film all the more effective than the imposed “crime doesn’t pay” finales to come when Hollywood would eventually start policing itself.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, December 6, 2019


This review originally written for in 2007 as part of a film noir boxed set.

Fritz Lang practically invented showing the perils of a guilty conscience on film when he made M [review] in Germany fourteen years earlier; 1945's Scarlet Street continues this obsession with the evil that men do, casting Edward G. Robinson as the meek bank teller Christopher "Chris" Cross. This man's existence is a full-fledged illustration of the phrase "a life of quiet desperation." Married to a shrew of a wife who keeps a painting of her dead husband hanging up in their living room and doling out cash day in and day out while having none of his own, Chris' only solace is in the humble paintings he does in his spare time.

Then one night he happens upon a pimp (Dan Duryea, Black Angel) beating on his girl, Kitty (Joan Bennett, The Reckless Moment). Cross steps in, ingratiating himself to the girl and unwittingly getting pulled into a long con. She convinces him to set her up in an apartment where he can paint, and not wanting to tell her he's a nobody, he steals money to pay for it. She strings him along, eventually passing off his art as her own and sucking him deep into a tangled web of deceit that he can only see one way out of.

Lang and the main cast had first teamed up the year before in another classic noir, The Woman in the Window, and they clearly had something going together. Robinson is incredible as the shy and broken banker, showing great restraint and pathos. Duryea is a dirty lout that just oozes scum, and Joan Bennett is perhaps best of all, playing a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants but also showing how unsophisticated she really is. On her first night out with Cross, she orders a Rum Collins and drinks it with a straw, letting it dangle from her mouth as she talks. Cross is attracted to her as an old man looking at a woman whose childishness he mistakes for freedom.

The plot of Scarlet Street is full of twists, but it's also brimming with cynicism. In this bent love triangle, no one is innocent, and thus no one escapes punishment. Yet, even beyond the core characters, the people in Cross' life are no more innocent, taking full advantage of the man's nature, sometimes right out in the open, but also with tactics as underhanded as Kitty's. It's just that they have the approval of society to do it, and it's no wonder that a man would break when the world has made it okay to hold him down.

Sunday, December 1, 2019


Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 Three on a Match is a pre-Code delight, reveling in the sordid reputation of its recent past while channeling an American spirit perfect for the Depression-era, with its tales of reinvention, redemption, and altered fortunes.

The film follows a trio of women--popular stars Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis--who meet at elementary school in 1919 and whose lives become intertwined from that day on. Blondell plays Mary, the juvenile delinquent turned stage star, while Dvorak is Vivian, the popular girl who marries rich. In the middle is Ruth--Davis, sadly playing a nothing role--a workingwoman who sticks around for balance. Vivian grows bored of her life, while Mary envies the stability. Ultimately, the two swap as the former bad girl learns to make good and the once-promising lass sinks into alcohol and drugs. And Ruth? She becomes their nanny.

Three on a Match is both marvelously salacious and strangely conservative. One can’t help seeing the manhunt for Vivian’s kidnapped child and consider modern implications: he’s a rich kid, and thus worth finding. Though LeRoy builds much of the story on the reality of his times, he had a bit of unfortunate luck when the Lindberg kidnapping made Three on a Match seem far too current. The close proximity of the crime means there is no direct reference made, as otherwise we track the women through the years via newspapers and popular song, the montages catching us up on trends and even the criticism thereof. Three on a Match envelopes both Prohibition and the Great Depression.

Blondell and Dvorak get to have the most fun here, following opposite character arcs, and playing both good and bad. While young Mary is brassy and cool, the party girl that Vivian becomes is the absolute opposite. Dvorak plays her bored and wan, convincingly portraying the decay of an addict. It’s fun seeing a young Humphrey Bogart, playing a slick gangster, ridicule her and mimic her dope fiend twitch, saying everything that could be said without saying anything. On the opposite end, Mary drops all cynicism for good graces and positivity, but Blondell makes it work by keeping the character grounded. Mary never forgets where she came from.

The title Three on a Match comes from a superstitious saying, popularized in WWI, that if you keep a match lit long enough to light three cigarettes, the third person will die. This makes sense for etiquette in foxhole, but amusingly, the concept had already been exposed as matchmaker propaganda by the time of the film. No joke! A Swiss company was worried about losing money if smokers shared matches. LeRoy even references it in one of the history lessons. Yet, Three on a Match plays out the urban legend all the same. No spoiler as to who takes the final cigarette, but expect the unexpected...and the gruesome. So gruesome, it sort of outweighs the “happily ever after” sequence that closes out the film, but so we can expect from such tales. The lows always swing much wider than the highs, and the moral lessons never can quite shake the glitz of the bad deeds they decry.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

NOW, VOYAGER - #1004

What separates a drama from a melodrama?

This is something I basically knew from context--what movies get painted with that brush, or when it’s appropriate to tell someone to stop being “melodramatic”--but I never really stopped to look up its full meaning until trying to figure out where to start writing about Now, Voyager, a 1942 Bette Davis vehicle directed by Irving Rapper.

A melodrama is a story that purposely operates with heightened emotions and exaggerated situations and characters in order to provoke an equal response from the audience.

So, big swaths of feeling splashed across the screen at maximum volume. More or less.

If one was looking for a textbook example of melodrama, they’d need to look no further than Now, Voyager, a film where a cross word can literally drive the life out of an old woman. Now, Voyager swings from the depths of depression to the heights of romance, back down to heartbreak and ultimately its quietest concession: acceptance. Its theme is one of independence. Hardly anyone in Now, Voyager is allowed to choose their own fate, no matter how hard they try.

Davis stars as Charlotte, the result of a late-in-life pregnancy. Her widowed mother (Gladys Cooper, Rebecca [review]) has held on to Charlotte as her final companion, somehow trying to correct the mistake of her birth by keeping her close, stifling her social growth, and demanding her constant loyalty and companionship as payment for her inconvenient existence. Charlotte is bookish and shy, and she spends her time in her room carving elaborate ivory boxes. The isolation has started to take its toll, however, cursing her with all kinds of nervous ailments, and at the start of the picture, she is being looked over by Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains, Notorious [review]), a soft-pedaling psychologist who believes he can bring Charlotte out of her shell. He separates her from her mother and takes her to his wellness resort, helping Charlotte to find herself and ultimately sending her on a world cruise so she can experience how life is lived.

It’s there that she meets Jerry (Paul Henreid, Night Train to Munich [review]), an architect and father of two stuck in a loveless marriage. He and Charlotte hit it off, primarily because neither is aware of the history of the other. Charlotte in particular blossoms, at first playing an invented character before fully stepping into the role she was always meant to play--sophisticated, charming, warm, and dare I say...sexual? Naturally, their romance can only last as long as the cruise, and when they land in the states, they must go their separate ways. Jerry is far too proper to betray his wife fully, and Charlotte would never ask him to. (Note: Both Henreid and Rains starred in Casablanca the same year Now, Voyager was released.)

Naturally, their paths will cross again, most importantly when Jerry puts his own daughter (Janis Wilson) into Jaquith’s care. Charlotte sees herself in the young girl and decides to try to help her the way she herself was helped. She can be the mother neither of them ever had.

Location is crucial to Now, Voyager. Both as visuals and metaphor. Charlotte is stifled by polite society. Though she lives in a massive three-story house, its interiors appear cramped. There is never anywhere to go. The production designer packs every inch of the place so that no figure ever stands alone, there is always something next to them. This makes the fresh air and open spaces of Jaqueth’s health farm all the more freeing. Charlotte isn’t just away from the damning eyes of her mother, but she can stretch and breathe and find herself at the source of all life. This is a common trope of melodrama, from Douglas Sirk to Todd Haynes, and also of noir, which plays in a melodramatic shadow all to itself. Civilization makes us forget our humanity. Is noir a kind of sibling to melodrama, then, with the latter’s crimes being of the heart?

If the countryside is freeing, then the vast ocean is even moreso. No land in sight, no connections to their regular lives--Jerry and Charlotte have found a reprieve from all that hounds them. The joke is always that you can do anything in international waters; Now, Voyager amends that. You can also be anyone.

Henreid’s Jerry is a romantic dream. He’s attentive and genuinely interested; he’ll lead the way, but step back when necessary; he will sacrifice his happiness for familial duty. He is less compelling on his own; Rapper lets Charlotte define him by how she surrenders to him. It’s a careful balance. His love for her gives her confidence, but as Now, Voyager progresses, Charlotte makes her own choices--something she would not be able to do if they could truly be together. That would have meant trading her subservience to her mother to serving a man. The denial means that Charlotte has to work to make her own happiness.

Bettie Davis is, of course, incredible. Her beauty is unconventional in a lot of ways, and so it never really feels as thought she is “dressing down” when she plays a spinster or introvert, like they are having to hide who she truly is. It’s not about the hair and wardrobe anyway, it’s about how she carries herself. In the early scenes, Charlotte is closed and bitter; in later scenes, it’s almost like she’s shed her skin and become something new. She could be wearing the same outfit on both sides, it wouldn’t matter, because the acting.

In all honesty, Now, Voyager is successful as a whole in much the same way as its lead actress, in that it has its own level of confidence and it never apologizes. There is much that could be considered overwrought or even silly were Rapper’s presentation not so assured. He hits the big notes with vigor, and yet understands the lows with the same measure. Thus, we get a surprising ending to the picture that holds its ground, giving audiences what makes sense over what is obvious, the camera panning toward the sky as Davis delivers two of the most memorable final lines of romantic cinema, redefining just exactly where these lovers are voyaging to, but finding comfort and love there all the same.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019


This review originally written in 2014 for The Oregonian

At a remote French getaway, gay men cruise each other for anonymous sex, leading to brief liaisons and unfulfilled passions.

There, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets both Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), a straight man seeking conversation, and Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome swimmer with whom Franck becomes infatuated. They make a kind of awkward love triangle in Alain Guiraudie's erotic thriller, Stranger by the Lake.

When Franck sees Michel kill a lover, his determination to have him only intensifies.

The action stays centralized, with the men prowling through the woods, sneaking away to share secrets and then coming into the light to pretend nothing happened. Guiraudie’s telling is fairly cold-blooded, but the choreographed dance of desire and disappointment still manages to intrigue.

Saturday, November 2, 2019


In Zaire, ca. 1974, two fighters arrived from America to participate in Rumble in the Jungle. Former champion Muhammad Ali was looking to take back the title belt by besting then-champion George Foreman. It was a huge event, bringing a worldwide spotlight on Africa that had never really been seen before.

Filmmaker Leon Gast went along for the ride, filming the lead-up to the fight, the celebrations and the preparations, capturing the whole of the experience, not just the main event. More than twenty years later he cut the material together as a documentary feature. When We Were Kings is a historical record. Time and distance has given perspective--as evinced by the contemporary commentators on hand, including Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee--and in some ways, the story plays out better minus the suspense of who will win. This was a significant moment in time, with both fighters representing something in the cultural landscape.

Here, Ali is seen as the underdog, but also the people’s champion. For Africans, he is a symbol of self-determination and victory. He is friendly and embracing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Foreman is seen as unapproachable and single-minded. He is the gruff commercialist, even though Ali is all that much better at selling himself. Ali is a folk hero, and the Rumble almost takes on the mythic quality of the individualist toppling the system. It certainly is a David and Goliath moment.

Though, not all is perfect in Africa, and When We Were Kings does not shy away from it. At the time, President Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the country with a false air of democracy. His dictatorial nature and the gulf between leader and followers, rich and poor, hangs over everything. In some way, this all has to please him, too. This makes Ali’s activism all the more inspiring to the people of Zaire. Here is a man who has punched at authority and won.

And to be fair, Foreman probably deserves a little more credit for getting to where he was. When We Were Kings has a definite bias in favor of Ali. Foreman might have fared better under a more sympathetic lens, but it’s not just Gast who is looking at these two men, it’s everyone around them. As the fight is delayed by six weeks due to Foreman suffering an injury during a practice bout, the whole thing turns into a pressure cooker. The winner, we will see, is the man who can handle that stress better. It’s interesting to consider the light-hearted figure George Foreman would later become.

Gast keeps the commentary to a minimum, favoring the necessary over the flowery. Mailer’s explanations of fight technique and his memory of the play-by-play is most essential if you’re not a pugilism aficionado. He and Plimpton were on the scene covering the match for their respective press venues. As a blowhard raconteur, Mailer is perfectly suited to making the large seem relatable.

This is the second Muhammad Ali documentary I watched this year. The other was HBO’s two-part What’s My Name, a career-spanning examination of the man’s journey from Cassius Clay to champion to activist and the cycle of victory and defeat that came to define his later career. The Zaire period was touched on in that film, but When We Were Kings goes much deeper. It makes me wish there were more docs of its kind to fill out the history that What’s My Name establishes--like supplemental footnotes, “for more go here.” Between the two movies, I’ve found an even greater respect for a great man. When We Were Kings is not just about the spectacle of a sports event, but about the business and societal needs that inform it. It’s about an artist trying to maintain his integrity when all around him would exploit him. It’s about the struggle of people of color to find their own way when the greater machine would rather grind them down.

It’s also about a celebration. Ali’s triumph wasn’t entirely his own, but also a triumph for his supporters, admirers, and peers. Hence folks like James Brown, Bill Withers, and BB King heading to Africa to perform at a three-day music festival presented in conjunction with the Rumble. This was documented, as well, and while touched upon in When We Were Kings, Criterion fans are a treated to a second full-length documentary on their discs: the 2008 concert film Soul Power.

Directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, Soul Power chronicles the efforts to put the show on, while also highlighting the best performances. The bill is a combo of the visiting American acts and the best that Zaire has to offer. For the artists involved, it’s a kind of musical exchange. As Withers notes, the Americans can present how they’ve evolved the African sound their mutual ancestors brought across the ocean, while also witnessing how those sounds continued to evolve on their own in the homeland.

Interestingly, the concert faced some of the same challenges as the boxing match--Mubutu was against it, Foreman’s injury threw off the timing--but is more celebratory by nature. This is the party before the war. You might even consider watching it first, as your own lead into the main event.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019


I reviewed this movie twice for DVD Talk. Both pieces appear below.


The new animated film Persepolis has a truly international pedigree. The French-made feature is an adaptation of a two-part comic book memoir by an Iranian ex-pat, Marjane Satrapi, and though her story is framed by a sequence set in a French airport, the main feature takes us from Iran to Vienna and back to Iran again, before the young artist leaves the country of her birth once and for all.

Persepolis takes place mainly in the late 1970s and 1980s. Young Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is an imaginative child who loves Bruce Lee and American pop music. She is inquisitive and rambunctious, as children often are, and she is also a witness to history. In 1977, Iran went through a cultural and political revolution, and being born to politically minded parents, Marjane is in a unique position to hear all about what is behind the various factions that have a stranglehold on her country. Her uncle, in particular, tells her much about the history of Iran's conflict. He is a political dissident who has only recently been released from a long prison sentence he served for being a communist. He gently tells her vivid stories of his struggles, inspiring the young girl's rebellious spirit, the very thing that may ultimately contribute to her own loss of innocence.

Once the revolution turns sour and the hardline Islamists take control of the country, things get gradually worse for the citizens of Iran. The country's women, in particular, lose more and more of their rights. Eventually, Marjane's parents send the now-teenage girl (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) to Vienna, but Europe doesn't turn out to be a friendly paradise either. This disastrous tenure abroad wasn't the girl's idea anyway. Like the rest of her family, she is a patriot, and she loves her homeland--but even upon returning, she is forced to accept that her vision of Iran may never be possible.

Marjane Satrapi's story is one that provides rare insight into a country we don't get accurate portrayals of very often. It could also be an overly charged, issue-driven story if she had chosen to make it so, but instead Satrapi has tied her own personal journey from child to woman to the story about the changes that went on all around her. First in the comic book and now in this animated movie, which she co-wrote and co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, Satrapi has shown how the struggles of a country and of the individual within that country go hand in hand. In addition to her exploring identity issues, we also see the various romantic travails that define her as a woman. There is no great difference between the hope of love dashed on the rocks and the hope of a better tomorrow smashing face first into fascism. That Satrapi manages to maintain her wit and see the humor in personal foibles keeps Persepolis from getting too heavy, while the storyteller's ability to sometimes step back and let events speak for themselves ensures that the overall meaning of the piece doesn't lose its importance.

Persepolis is the best kind of literary adaptation. The movie maintains the look and feel of the original comic book while still making the material work in an entirely new medium. The appeal of the Persepolis books (recently collected as one definitive volume) came from their conversational tone, and the comic book medium was well suited to show the imaginative nuances of a child's questions about the world. Thus, a cartoon was the ideal choice for bringing such a work into theatres.

The animators manage to create a style that both mimics Satrapi's original drawings while also improving on them. Personally, I didn't care all that much for her cartooning in the book. Though Satrapi's linework has an individual flare, it struck me as somewhat amateurish. The drawing style in the movie takes her primitive, blobby illustrations and slicks them up, giving them movement and vitality. It still looks just like her work, but now better drawn.

Plus, they aren't afraid to take advantage of the fact that Persepolis is a cartoon. Sure, the subject of the story can be rather serious and this is a movie made with older audiences in mind, but that doesn't mean the filmmakers need to wear a stuffed shirt to the party. Concocting an appealing black-and-white style and employing old cinema techniques like iris fades and flickering edges, they evoke a feeling of nostalgia for early Silly Symphonies [review] and silent film. They also use traditional Iranian art styles to keep the history Young Marjane learns about her country from dragging down the forward motion of the story. It is a great example of craft and material walking hand in hand. The artists exaggerate the line drawings when necessary and use dark and shadow to convey the doom and foreboding that gripped Iran in Satrapi's youth. She and Paronnaud also know when to keep it simple, such as the many conversations between the girl and her much wiser grandmother (Danielle Darrieux). If it weren't for the rather corny "Eye of the Tiger" sequence in the final third, I'd be inclined to call Persepolis a note-perfect film.

So, forget preconceived notions that might leave Persepolis off your viewing list. Forget any prejudice about cartoons, black-and-white film, or subtitles. Persepolis is one of the best movies of the year, and missing it would be to deprive yourself of something you really shouldn't do without.


Persepolis was one of the major indie success stories of 2008. Produced in France, it was adapted from two comic book memoirs by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian immigrant who moved to Europe in her early 20s. Co-directed by the author and Vincent Paronnaud, the black-and-white animated movie successfully took the crude drawings and personal storytelling of the comics and transferred them to the movie screen, making a story that was surprisingly evocative of the books while also being dazzling cinema.

The story of Persepolis is really a story about being stuck between two worlds--between Iran and Europe, personal belief and mandated zealotry, the freedom of childhood and the burden of being an adult, escapist fantasy and harsh reality, the realistic falseness of cartoons and the synthetic realness of memoir. In the only color sequences in the film, the "present day" of the story sees Satrapi (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) in an airport, trying to decide whether to leave France and return home to Iran after many years in exile. She is stuck by her indecision in a massive construct that is literally everywhere and nowhere. An airport can be a portal to any place you want to go, but really, you feel like you're not standing on any particular country's soil.

The narrative the shifts to the late 1970s when Marjane is just a child, unaware of the turmoil her country is heading for. Her heroic uncle (Francois Jerosme) teaches her about the history of Iran and her family, but the little girl would rather see Bruce Lee and Godzilla movies and listen to Iron Maiden than fight a revolution. The Satrapi parents (Simon Abkarian and Catherine Deneuve) are intelligent liberals who want to work toward effecting change, and Marjane's grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) is the voice of wisdom, having seen it all before. Worried that Marjane can't have a life if she stays in Iran, they send her to Austria as a teenager. In one of the most poignant twists in the story, however, the Europeans are just as intolerant and closed-minded as the fundamentalists who are vying for power back home. Wherever you are in the world, people can be small. Judge not lest you be judged.

This excursion rattles the girl, and she returns home for one last try. Here, though, she becomes a woman, having to find her way out of her funk and figure out where she belongs and what she desires. A disastrous marriage and some close calls with religious leaders finally send her away again, never to return. That is, unless she decides to get on that plane.

Persepolis is alive with virtuoso storytelling. While the script is so good it could have been told in any medium, the choice to animate this feature not only preserves the artistic feel of the comic book, but it provides Satrapi and Paronnaud a visual fluidity they might not have had otherwise. They make the most of the possibilities of animation, showing the world through young Marjane's eyes, bringing her daydreams and nightmares to life, and employing techniques out of Iranian folk art and early classic cartoons. Judgmental old women turn into snake-like creatures, their necks stretching to swirl around Marjane to interrogate her, their black robes filling the entire scene. Grisly visions of war are drawn using bold lines and invasive perspective, like a Russian propaganda poster, while scenes of death are often shown in a distance, framed in an iris, like a dark pageant. These are all methods that could be construed as pretentious or showy in live action, but that feel natural in animation.

That said, the greatest strength of the movie is the same as all of Marjane Satrapi's comics: the humanity of her writing. Drawn or not drawn, Persepolis is a story about people. Sure, a curtain is peeled back and we are allowed a glimpse into a culture and a country that is not our own, but in doing so, Satrapi is showing us how borders don't really make us all that different. We all have the same concerns, fears, and dreams. We may come from two different worlds, but we're still on the same planet.

 I also reviewed Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's second film, the live-action Chicken With Plums. Read that review here.

Saturday, October 5, 2019


Periodically I will gather together my takes on shorter films I’ve watched, looking at the variety of subjects and styles available; a shorter film also means a smaller budget but generally more creative freedom. Low financial stakes, high creative reward.

You can read the previous columns here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

24 Frames Per Century (2013; Italy; 3 minutes): Director Athina Rachel Tsangari builds an intriguing, sorta cute, but slight tribute to the power of cinema, showing the mechanical worries of two film projectors working side by side on a seaside cliff to send images out into the great expanse. Commissioned by the Venice Film Festival, it plays more like an introduction than a stand-alone piece. One wonders what Jean-Luc Godard, whose Contempt [review] Tsangari draws on, would make of this. Would he enjoy the irreverence but dismiss the sentimentality?

Fit (1994; United States; 8 minutes): Another from Athina Rachel Tsangari, this one playful and clever, a surreal examination of one woman’s obsession with making things fit--onto objects, into her body, wherever they need to go. Leading from a dream where her boyfriend’s mouth doles out marbles by the...well, mouthful, into a day that begins with one of her socks shrinking and no longer covering her foot. It’s neurotic and a bit off-kilter, but enjoyable to see what she’ll pick next and where she’ll stick it. The droll narration only adds to the fun.

Baby (1954; United States; 5 minutes): An early work from the recently departed D.A. Pennebaker. This one is simple: the documentarian took his young daughter to the zoo and followed her as she explored. The camera takes in the sights, looking at each animal and also riding the carousel with the same childlike wonder as its star. Very charming.

[Also available on the Don’t Look Back Blu-ray [review].]

Sacrilege (2017; France/Switzerland; 14 minutes): Saoud (Mehdi Djaadi) is top dog in his French neighborhood. He’s got the freshest kicks, the dopest rhymes, and can walk the talk--that is, until he is unexpectedly accused of robbing the mosque where he and his friends worship. Saoud denies the accusation, but slowly the mob grows and stands against him, the words they once hung on now appearing empty.

Director Christophe M. Saber packs a lot of character and drama into Sacrilege. He establishes who his lead is quickly, and then delineates the roles of the social circle that surrounds him. But what is particularly impressive about Sacrilege is how it defies our perception and our narrative prejudices. We have certain expectations when watching a story like this, and each viewer may also come with their own added preconceived notions based on the people involved (hip-hop, Muslim, French...take your pick). That Sacrilege keeps leading us one way, only to flip our position with the next protestation, not only keeps this short film riveting, but forces us to ponder what we just saw.

Pioneer (2011; United States; 16 minutes): A simple concept executed well: a widower (singer/songwriter Will Oldham, also seen in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy) tells his four-year-old son (Myles Brooks) a long bedtime story about how their bond has spanned history, with separations and returns and the intrusion of the outside world adding twists along the way. That’s it. It’s a story so contained, you almost can’t believe they didn’t try to break out of it.

But writer/director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints [review]) trusts the magic in his script, and possibly even more the charisma of his lead. Oldham is all-in here, spinning a yarn with conviction and panache. He turns life and death, age and experience, on their heads, to create a world of possibility for his young son, and it’s impossible not to buy in yourself.

N.U. (1948; Italy; 12 minutes)/Sunday in Peking (1956; France; 22 minutes): An early documentary from Michelangelo Antonioni (L’avventura [review], N.U. spends a day following street cleaners around Rome. (The title is the abbreviation of the Italian name for the sanitation service.) There is no real narrative, we hop from worker to worker, with the black-and-white photography giving us a wonderful glimpse of the city as it was then--including how dirty. You’ll marvel at the inconsiderate actions of many citizens, and what a thankless task trying to clean up after them can be. Yet, there is something noble in the workers diligently carrying on.

Far from Rome, we have Peking, here shown in full color by Chris Marker (La jetee [review]. Sunday in Peking is almost like a educational travelogue, showing us street scenes from around the city. What is key to Sunday in Peking beyond the photographic document, though, is Marker’s narration. The project began with the filmmaker as a fanciful child looking at a picture in a book, a site the film crew immediately visits. This is very much filtered though Eastern eyes, albeit one of a foreigner with political sympathies in Mao’s regime (the leader even makes an appearance). It comes off now as both respectful and naïve, as it shows many lovely aspects of culture but questions nothing about what lies beyond the tourism.

[N.U. is also available on the Red Desert Blu-ray [review], which makes sense thematically.]

Fry Day (2017; United States; 16 minutes): A portrait of a modern-day Little Red Riding Hood surrounded by any number of Big Bad Wolves. Lauren (Jordyn DiNatale, Lez Bomb) is an enterprising teenager with a grand idea: on the eve of Ted Bundy’s execution, she takes her Polaroid camera to the place outside the prison where onlookers have gathered and sells photos for $2 a pop. There she runs into Keith (Jimi Stanton, The Punisher), a cute boy from her school. He convinces her to go with him and his friends to get some food, and things start to take a bad turn from there.

The genius of Laura Moss’ short film is how easily it slides the audience into this predicament. It takes a while for us to suspect Keith means harm, we go along just as casually as Lauren--who wears a paper Bundy mask around her neck, lest any of us forget just what some men are capable of. When we start to realize that more is going on here than it seems, it’s too late, we’re trapped in it, and we can only hope it won’t go as bad as it could. Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien understand these boys and their pack mentality, including having one of the young men seem more smart and thoughtful. He’s the one who would say he was just along for the ride. And Keith’s final act is perhaps the worst manipulation of all. One kind gesture is all he needs to keep a wedge in the door should he ever get back in.

By that point, Fry Day has made us sick to our stomach, exposing how easy victimization of this kind can be, and even how complicit we are in our own dreamy narrative expectations. This makes the last shot all the more devastating. There’s part of us that still wants to trust, when it’s no stretch to think Lauren has no trust left.

Would make a good double feature with Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk.