This is the second part of my movie logging catch up deal. If you click through, there is Whit Stillman, The Eyes of Laura Mars, and a lot of feelings on Black Narcissus.
Damsels in Distress (Whit Stilllman, 2012): I don’t think this was as great as Last Days of Disco or Metropolitan, but Greta Gerwig was perfect and I laughed a lot. I saw Barcelona after this and developed a lot of conflicted feelings about Whit Stillman, but this was before, and I actually really felt like Violet was a kind of girl I don’t know if I’d seen represented before but really resonated for me. I wasn’t as messed up as Violet in high school, but I was simultaneously both really insecure and thought I was smarter than everyone. What I did share with Violet was this idea that modern life was horrible and gravitated towards a certain aesthetic conservatism - though for me it was trousers and loafters after Katharine Hepburn, not old-fashioned dresses and preppy vibes - exemplified by the belief that we’d all be a lot happier if we watched more Fred Astaire movies. At the time I had theories about conventions and working inside them to make poetry but it was almost like I was scared of a lot of less mannered, darker art because I was too immature to deal with scary feelings, and would rather life was all tap dancing and weird soft filters. VIolet’s idea about guys who aren’t smart or handsome - but who have “potential” is deeply relatable to me. (There are lots of ways I went for the “safer” choice over the years because it was more obtainable/less risky than whatever I really wanted and I would presumably not have to fear rejection; not so much with dudes, though I will say that my current happiest relationship is the one that involved me making a decision to actually pursue the dude in question.) Unlike Violet, I’m not charismatic enough to have developed a small band of followers who would share and reinforce my neuroses (though I did have a friend I spent a lot of time watching said Fred Astaire movies with), so when I moved to Toronto I got exposed to new stuff and got more confident and grew out of my old-fashioned bullshit. I still like Fred Astaire though.
Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, 1947): I’m kind of surprised that I hadn’t seen Black Narcissus before because it ticks so many of my boxes. Deborah Kerr, movies about the sexual longings of nuns, movies about ladies who feel too much, movies in which lipstick plays an overt and pivotal role. I loved it.
Okay so now that I’ve said that I should probably start out by saying that Black Narcissus is about the foundation of a convent/missionary school in (just barely) pre-independence India There are some really racist choices (including casting Jean Simmons in brownface as a local, oversexed girl who is kind of dangerous just for existing) and frequent unchallenged references to the people of the village as being “like children.” But the missions fails and the charitable reading is that the sisters and the villagers never do understand each other, just like colonialism. Or something. I mean, the point is still that India is apparently a godless place that drives nuns to wearing red lipstick, so.
The convent is in what’s implied to be a former brothel set high on the mountain above the village, and something in the location just stirs things up for the sisters. One plants flowers instead of vegetables in the garden and asks to be transferred to another convent. One, Sister Ruth, falls in love with the Englishman who works for the local general, based on like two inconsequential conversations. She leaves the order for him. This is totally Letter From An Unknown Woman-level commitment.When Sister Clodagh (the Sister Superior, and the star of the movie) finds her in a long-sleeved red dress, she’s horrified that Ruth’s clearly “unstable” and asks Ruth to sit with her until morning. Ruth stares right at her and puts on her lipstick with withering intensity. It’s amazing. (Still below via Paper Monument, who say: “No matter how often I watch this scene, its freshness appears to me not just as camp, but as camp’s chapped-lipped, dirty-fingernailed genesis.” Which isn’t strictly true if you’ve studied the history of camp - which I have - but feels true and is still a lovely phrase.)
Ruth waits for Sister Clodagh to fall asleep and then runs down the mountain to Mr Dean’s house, clearly thinking that, since he’s such a godless drunkard and a cad, he will automatically want to sleep with her now. Of course he’s flummoxed when she tells him she’s in love with him - he hardly remembers speaking to her at all and has no idea she’s watched him whenever he comes to the convent to speak with Sister Clodagh. She accuses him of being in love with the Sister Superior (which is at least half true, the two clearly feel something for each other; Clodagh even tells him about her lost love back home, a different kind of confession). She refuses his help back up the hill, and tries to push Clodagh off the mountain as she rings the bells. Ruth (unsurprisingly) winds up falling down the moutain herself, overwhelmed by all the passion she’s tried to avoid feeling for so long.
Probably the important thing to remember about Black Narcissus – the reason it’s so fascinating as a melodrama – is that it’s about the absence of God. So many of the sisters start unraveling on the mountain because they no longer feel their calling, they no longer feel any certainty about what they’re doing. Their narratives are falling apart, they start thinking back to flowers and lost loves.You can argue that all melodramas are about the absence of God (cf Peter Brooks), so in a way this is almost a meta-melodrama?
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975): OK so this movie had a story and whatever but mostly for me it was about the framing and lighting and cinematography, this movie looked like British paintings.
Barcelona (Whit Stillman, 1994): So as noted above, this movie really made me contend with Whit Stillman’s sincere conservatism. All of his other movies have these characters who are kind of out of step with time, and there’s something kind of charming about it, like how everyone on Mad Men isn’t actually hip or on the cutting edge. The other movies have these kind of optimistic but downbeat endings that never really cast judgement on the protagonists; but the happy ending of this movie involves seducing a bunch of pretty Spanish ladies and “saving” them from their life of casual sex and trendy anti-Americanism or whatever. Parts of it are great, but it’s a lot harder to sympathize with an actual member of the actual army who spouts pro-Reagan rhetoric than it is when it’s a college student who doesn’t actually have any power or, you know, guns. I mean, it’s still funny, though.
Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2011): I saw this entirely based on a summary that said it was about an upper-class woman who leaves her husband for a cad, who she just loves way too much, and way more than he loves her, because of my aforementioned love of movies about ladies who have too many feelings. It seems to me that the director and stars did as much with the source material as they could, but it was adapted from a mid-century Terrence Ratigan play where everyone explains everything that’s going on in clear declarative sentences (and where said heroine is actually named HESTER), so there’s only so much that you can do to bring back in the wonder of the unsaid that this kind of story needs. Rachel Weisz is really really great, and Tom Hiddleston is just perfect - he looks exactly like the hero of a 1940s British romance, which is a total compliment.
My favourite scene is the one where, just after she’s left her husband, Hester’s in the pub with her man and everyone’s singing a drinking song along with the radio, and she’s trying to sing along, but she doesn’t really know all the words, but she’s kind of coming in where she can and following along with him, and their eyes are never off each other. The other thing is I liked is, it’s about hunger. It’s set “around 1950”, so things were still very austere and lots of stuff was still rationed; at one point Freddie says, as they’re about to kiss outside the pub “They can’t ration everything”. There’s some really awkward soup-sipping and talking about orderly gardens before the marriage totally dissolves too. Definitely some great lady ravenousness.
The Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978): I’m also not sure how I hadn’t seen this one before. It’s a 70s horror movie about a fashion photographer (Faye Dunaway in some intense side-slit culottes) who takes controversial, violent photos (think Helmut Newton, who contributed some photos to the film) which feminists hate, and then starts having blinding visions of murders that mirror her photos — which turn out to be happening, to all her staff and models. A super-young, confusingly foxy Tommy Lee Jones is the cop who’s investigating the murders, and he and Laura naturally fall in love. There’s so much complicated female gazing but also sexism happening, I kind of would need to see it again to develop a full-on theory about it. I mean, it’s like all the best parts of giallo, but with Faye Dunaway and no badly dubbed dialogue, so A+.
Men In Black III (Barry Sonenfeld, 2012): This was not bad! Not bad at all! I’m not really sure why I saw this again, but: Will Smith is still fun to watch, Josh Brolin does an uncanny Tommy Lee Jones, and you know, there were good aliens and stuff. They really avoided a lot of the worst time travel movie cliches - the fish out of water stuff is mostly relating to 1960s cops being racist - but also managed to get in Andy Warhol being a government agent, which gets funnier and funnier the more you think about it. (I mean, the big revelation about K having met J as a kid doesn’t make logical sense given Will Smith’s actual age at all but whatevs.) I don’t know, that’s my entire opinion, it was a pretty decent “summer blockbuster” kind of movie, which is apparently harder to do than you would think.
Hands Over the City (Francesco Rosi, 1963): Stirring tales of Neapolitan municipal planning corruption! If you liked The Wire (minus some of the melodrama and the show’s own affection for its characters) and want to know why Naples is still kind of a shit-hole, you will maybe like this. (I mean, I liked Naples except the part where I spent half of two days in Naples in our hotel room with food poisoning, but I’m not actually sure I got the food poisoning from Naples, it could have been from Barcelona, and the guy who ran our hotel was really, really nice, so no offense to Naples, it seems like a pretty cool place full of student protest and pastel buildings.)