“The streets looked really good to me. They looked like art”: DOWNTOWN 81 as Graffiti

|Brad Stiffler|

There is undoubtedly a lot of graffiti in Downtown 81. Featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat just before he began his meteoric ascent in the world of galleries and museums, the film captures the height of his public graffiti-writing period with numerous scenes of him spray painting walls and defacing cars (“I was part of the landscape, I’m an artist”). Within the first fifteen minutes, Basquiat runs into Fab Five Freddy (later of Yo!: MTV Raps fame) and Lee Quiñones (who later appeared in Wild Style) painting a “legal” mural (“I’m a tax payer, I can paint anywhere I want”). Beyond these direct depictions of graffiti writing, the background is filled with the stuff. Filmed on location in Manhattan in 1980, there is no shortage of tags, stencils, elaborate murals, and artistically defaced property (“The streets looked really good to me. They looked like art… neon literature”).

There are also some slightly less obvious forms of graffiti in the film. In a perhaps-too-symbolic scene, Basquiat takes a sharpie to a book of Man Ray photographs in a rich patron’s swanky apartment, vandalizing a stand-in for the institutional art world as if it were just another concrete wall holding up a bank or a police station. Or, thinking more abstractly, Basquiat and his loose crew of artists, musicians, and freaks represent a kind of cultural graffiti, marring the streets of a metropolis built for the stuffed suits of Wall St., the mass culture hucksters of Times Square, and the elite denizens of the art world, represented by the imposing background image of the Guggenheim in the opening sequence. By offering a distinctly racialized vision of NYC, where black, Latinx, and other marginalized artists were central actors in a subcultural scene that wasn’t striving for mainstream success or museum prestige, the film leaves its mark on the shining image of America’s cultural capital (“I wanted to paint the town red, paint the town black”).  

But is the film itself a kind of graffiti? Does it capture the essence of this mode of criminal art-making in its form? Does it offer an example of cinema as graffiti? As the examples above demonstrate, it certainly holds out the promise that we might experience something of the sort. And if the sounds made from stolen samples played over looped break beats in some of the early hip hop featured in the film, or the No Wave stylings of DNA that tried to deconstruct rock music, might be said to constitute a kind of musical or sonic graffiti, why shouldn’t we expect the filmmaking to capture the same spirit? Or if TV Party, the riotous early cable access program where Basquiat, writer Glenn O’Brien, co-star Debbie Harry, and numerous others in the film worked together before, could be said to have defaced television with its conflict-filled call-in sessions and on-air pot smoking, might we reasonably expect this film to find a uniquely cinematic form of disruptive expression?

I won’t try to evaluate its success or failure in that project here. Go and see it and decide for yourself. I will, though, leave you with one more thought on the topic. Near the middle of the film, Basquiat happens across a piece of his own graffiti, massive black letters on a brick wall: WHICH ONE OF THE FOLLOWING INSTITUTIONS HAS THE MOST POLITICAL INFLUENCE?    ⃤TELEVISION ⃤THE CHURCH ⃤SAMO ⃤MCDONALDS. He steps back and takes a photograph of it (“I’ve made my mark in the world”). The potentially interactive form of the piece holds out the real promise of graffiti: the world isn’t built for you but you can leave your mark. By taking a picture of it from afar, Basquiat defuses it, turning it into an image to be consumed or enjoyed rather than a provocation to go out and find your own way to deface the world. As a “document” and set of images attempting to capture the unique avant-garde constellation of street art, early hip hop, punk/post-punk, video art, community media, and political discontent of the Downtown scene, I worry the film (especially when viewed forty years later) might be more like that photograph than the graffiti on the wall.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

A brand new 35mm print of Downtown 81 screens at the Trylon from Friday, February to Sunday, February 23. Purchase tickets and learn more at trylon.org.

Hypothetical Conversation Between Myself at 12 and 35 After Watching Face/Off

Artwork by Thom Robertson

|Matt Levine|

12-year-old self, after seeing Face/Off for the first time upon its release in June 1997: Dude.

35-year-old self, after rewatching Face/Off for about the fifteenth time in 2020: What?

12-year-old self: Bro.

35-year-old self: Ugh.

12-year-old self: That was the fucking coolest thing ever.

35-year-old self: Um…

12-year-old self: Seriously. Did you see that?

35-year-old self: You mean, all 138 minutes of it? Yeah, I’ve seen it a lot, actually.

12-year-old self: You mean I’m going to watch that movie repeatedly over the next 22-and-a-half years? That’s awesome.

35-year-old self: Holy shit, 1997 is so long ago.

12-year-old self: What do you mean? This thing just came out called AOL Instant Messenger. You can talk to someone a thousand miles away instantly, just sitting at your computer…

35-year-old self: Just you wait. Someday, the President is gonna start World War III on Twitter.

12-year-old self: I don’t know what that is. But dude, seriously, that movie…

35-year-old self [chuckling]: Yeah, it’s pretty fun, isn’t it?

12-year-old self: Pretty fun?!?! Is the Mona Lisa a nice little drawing? Are pogs just a passable diversion?

35-year-old self: [perturbed silence]

12-year-old self: It’s a masterpiece, seriously. I mean, what an idea: an FBI agent, in order to take down his nemesis, the most badass terrorist of all time–

35-year-old self: Ugh.

12-year-old self: –has a surgical procedure where they swap faces so he can find out where the bad guy, Castor Troy, planted this massive bomb.

35-year-old self: Don’t you think it’s weird that that bomb has a time delay of like three weeks so they have enough time to pull off this stunt?

12-year-old self: Haha. Yeah, I guess I didn’t think about that. But otherwise, it probably holds up, like, scientifically, right?

35-year-old self: You mean the whole “face transplant” thing?

12-year-old self: I mean, they talk about reconnecting the nerve endings and tear ducts, and they have the microchip in the larynx to duplicate each other’s voices…

35-year-old self: Sure. I’m not a doctor, so yeah, why not? Anyway, I’m okay with plot holes. If we demanded airtight logic from all the movies we watch, that would be pretty boring, right?

12-year-old self: Right. And it’s such a wild idea. I mean, he takes his face……

35-year-old self: Off.

12-year-old self: ……off.

35-year-old self: Yeah, it’s pretty over the top.

12-year-old self: It’s so nasty when Castor Troy wakes up from his coma without his face, and he runs his fingers along his bloody, fleshless head… barf!

35-year-old self [laughing]: Yeah, Nicolas Cage is so great in that scene, but the special effects don’t hold up very well. And it’s nothing compared to the face transplant scene in Eyes without a Face.

12-year-old self: Oh, is that the sequel?

35-year-old self: [perturbed silence]

12-year-old self: Anyway. That has to be the coolest movie ever.

35-year-old self: I mean, I love Face/Off, don’t get me wrong. But it sort of pains me to hear you say this. I know 1997 is around the time that you start watching all these great classics: The Godfather and The Exorcist with your dad – our dad? – and on Bravo, back before they only played reality TV all the time.

12-year-old self: So?

35-year-old self: So Face/Off is a really ridiculous, insanely entertaining action movie, but the coolest ever? You know, John Woo has some other great movies too.

12-year-old self: I know, like Broken Arrow. 

35-year-old self [smiling nostalgically]: Yeah, that’s a lot of fun. The part where Howie Long gets kicked off a moving train…

12-year-old self: Fucking awesome!

35-year-old self: But I was thinking of his Hong Kong movies. Like The Killer and Hard Boiled. All the stuff with doves, and the slow-motion intercut with other shots in the action scenes, he’s been perfecting that for a long time.

12-year-old: Cool.

35-year-old self: And A Better Tomorrow has this storyline about brothers who are on opposite sides of the law, and are kind of revealed to be flip sides of the male persona, you know, saint and sinner, law and criminality and all that.

12-year-old self: Boring.

35-year-old self: I’m just saying, aside from, like, actual masterpieces, there are so many other action movies you have to see. And which, I guess, you will. Like Point Blank, and The Great Escape, and The Legend of Drunken Master, and The Raid movies…

12-year-old self: Okay, but chill. I’m just talking about this one awesome, mind-blowing movie with a lot of shootouts and explosions.

35-year-old self: Fair enough. The climax is pretty incredible. It takes up, like, the last thirty minutes!

12-year-old self: I know! There’s a church shootout and a motorboat chase and an epic brawl on the beach at the end. And the part where John Travolta sings, “I’m ready for the big ride baby!”…

35-year-old self: Yeah, like Nicolas Cage does earlier in the movie. Cuz they’re both the same character, obviously.

12-year-old self: Whoa.

35-year-old self: Yep.

12-year-old self: That’s deep.

35-year-old self: I mean, not really. It’s just the gimmick that puts the plot in motion, even though there are all those shots of mirrors and those ridiculous names, Castor and Pollux, those twin brothers from Roman mythology.

12-year-old self: Like I said, man. Deep.

35-year-old self: But it is fun to see Nicolas Cage and John Travolta playing off each other. Totally chewing the scenery the whole time and mimicking each other’s celebrity persona.

12-year-old self: Like when John Travolta makes fun of his own chin?

35-year-old self: Yeah, exactly. You know, these were two of the biggest movie stars of the 1990s.

12-year-old self: I know. Con Air and Get Shorty.

35-year-old self: Yeah, and Leaving Las Vegas and Wild at Heart and Pulp Fiction…anyway, it’s kind of like a deconstruction of the ways that celebrity identity is built. We see John Travolta playing Nicolas Cage playing a character, and Cage playing Travolta playing a character…that might be the most entertaining part.

12-year-old self: Even more so than the shootouts?

35-year-old self: The action scenes are amazing, for sure. The one with “Over the Rainbow” playing when the little kid listens to it on headphones is stunning.

12-year-old self: Yeah, and it’s crazy that that’s one of the least ridiculous parts of the whole movie.

35-year-old self: But doesn’t the nonstop fetishization of guns in Face/Off seem a little disturbing?

12-year-old self: What do you mean?

35-year-old self: It’s like in any of those ultra-macho ‘90s action movies, like Eraser or The Rock or True Lies

12-year-old self: All great movies.

35-year-old self: Sure. You know, what makes you strong in those movies is whoever has the biggest gun. Usually held right in someone’s face, and/or spraying bullets everywhere. Doesn’t get much more phallocentric than that.

12-year-old self: Phallo-what?

35-year-old self: It’s probably a little different for me. You haven’t yet heard about the shootings at Columbine or the D.C. sniper or Virginia Tech or Fort Hood or The Dark Knight premiere or Sandy Hook or San Bernardino or the Pulse nightclub or the country music festival in Las Vegas or Stoneman Douglas or Virginia Beach or Dayton.

12-year-old self: It’s just a movie, though. Violent movies don’t suddenly make you into a mass shooter.

35-year-old self: Very true, and probably the smartest thing you’ve said so far, 12-year-old me. But it’s not just money and cowardly politicians and the most fucking antiquated gun control laws in the world that make all this happen. There’s something in the culture that makes weak-minded men believe that shooting people will suddenly make them famous and heroic.

12-year-old self: So, what, we can’t watch action movies anymore?

35-year-old self: No, that’s not what I’m saying. It’s just…I don’t know. The scene where the little kid is playing with a toy pistol and then picks up Castor Troy’s real gun – that kind of thing carries some added weight now, after Tamir Rice. Or the scene where Castor tells the FBI agent, Sean Archer, that the only thing they have in common is that “we both know our guns”…sad but true, you know?

12-year-old self: Whatever. All I know is I can’t wait to see this ridiculous movie again, probably in the theater, and then as soon as it comes out on VHS…

35-year-old self: Yeah, and then almost once a year for the next several decades.

12-year-old self: Really? So you never let up on this whole movie nerd thing, huh?

35-year-old self: Au contraire, my prepubescent friend.

12-year-old self: I don’t know if I should be happy or sad to hear that.

35-year-old self: I’ll let you decide.

12-year-old self: Anyway, I’m gonna go play GoldenEye with my friends for about four hours.

35-year-old self: I don’t think that comes out until August of 1997…

12-year-old self: Man, what did you say before about not caring about plot holes or logical inconsistencies?

35-year-old self: Good point. Count me in.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Face/Off screens at the Trylon from Sunday, February 16 to Tuesday, February 18. For tickets and more information, please visit trylon.org.

The Eternal Blessing of NEAR DARK

|Ted Harwood|

You’re sitting in a comfortable chair, watching the opening scenes of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, and it looks damned hot. Everyone on the screen is somehow sweaty looking and dusty, and even the shots at dawn look too hot to breathe. For just a second, you envision brush fires, and you recall scenes from Paris, Texas and Days of Heaven. As things go on, though, you focus on Caleb’s (Adrian Pasdar) face as he reckons with a sickness he doesn’t understand.

You think about Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen). His smirk both terrifies and exhilarates you. You hear his voice, all gravel as he describes eternal life and all the fun illegal things his crew of friends get up to. They’re all attractive and sleek, although you are not sure about Homer (Joshua John Miller), who seems to sweat and grease up quite a bit faster than an average twelve-year old should.

And you feel terror.

However:

Everything Hooker, Mae (Jenny Wright), Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein) and Severen (Bill Paxton, having a great time) say sounds pretty darn great, to be honest. In the back half of your thirties, it is hard to see any future. We’re always at war. The planet is heating up. You sip your Pamplemousse LaCroix in the dark as Hooker explains how long he’s been alive.

It is a long time. It is a very long time.

Every story about immortal life arrives at the same conclusion: it is a curse. Everyone you know will die, and you will witness ruin and damnation, helpless to stop it. But here comes this Bande à part with their bar fights and aluminum foil, and although their wartime allegiances and general attitude––especially Severen, who is six kinds of impossible to hang out with, cool spur be damned––are obviously, clearly bad, and you imagine that you know how to make it work. Three or four days of sickness pales in comparison to what seems to be on offer, if you can find a way to go it alone without these people.

The long list of books you thought you would never read. Every record you would never hear. The entire Criterion Collection. Satantango. Berlin Alexanderplatz in one sitting! Solitary activities (you have always preferred those anyhow––an image flashes through your mind of reading alone on a perfect afternoon); solitary activities (but so is dying––an image of you alone on a bed, wrinkled with regret).

The sun might present a problem, though. Daylight works fast on these people. But, you remember, you hate the sun! You sneeze when you exit a building for the glare. You squint without sunglasses, so you might as well have them all the time. The sun saps your energy. You burn in fifteen minutes and although you will burn quite a bit faster, you are not worried. You have always been a night fog man.

Yes, you think, I could make this work. But you worry, then, that maybe these guys wouldn’t like you very much. You have a bad attitude and you avoid parties. Would they even want to hang out with you and bless you with the gift of unlimited Blu-ray time? Maybe they wouldn’t like your smell, your bitter humors. They have no need of a charity case. You would need to prove valuable, somehow. Maybe they need a sixth guy, but you worry that, in the end, you would just be sustenance.

But: the economy is fake. We’re in an eternal war. All you’ve ever been, really, is sustenance for some other guy. The list of your accomplishments is short. You are a good person, never did anybody any harm, never shirked at work, never shied away from taking responsibility when you goofed up, but you feel like a beige person against an eggshell wall. Next to the global fast company, you are a tiny cog. You are not sure that anyone will remember you ten years after you pass on. The idea that you yourself could be the one who forgets creeps in.

And these people up on the screen offer a reason to live, and here’s this kid, this Caleb, who is such a romantic that he cannot see the forest for the trees. He staggers around with notions of love in his head, the poor sap. Sure, he has a family, as you do. His fear makes sense. But he could have it all if he played his cards right: family, eternity, love. It is the dream of heaven on earth, life everlasting with the people you care about, and this boy without a fully formed prefrontal cortex, he wants a cure. He wants to ride horses and he wants to die.

You, no, you want to live.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Playing at the Trylon from Friday, February 7 to Sunday, February 9, Near Dark screens on 35mm, courtesy of the Twin Cities Psychotronic Film Society. Purchase tickets and learn more about this screening and others at trylon.org.

THEATER OF BLOOD

|Caty Rent|

When I was first approached with the opportunity to choose a film to show at the Trylon, Theater of Blood rose quickly to the top of my list. I immensely enjoy the horror genre, but mostly when a movie can be funny while taking itself seriously.

Vincent Price masterfully plays Shakespearean roles from: Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Othello, Henry VI: Part One, Titus Andronicus, Romeo & Juliet, and King Lear. Typically cast as a B-Horror Movie actor, Price was often asked to play parts that fit his wheelhouse. Theater of Blood gave Price the chance to branch out, but also integrated the macabre and dry comedy he is so well known for.

Other reasons that I enjoy this film: The death scenes are realistic without being overly gory, although I must admit they can be gruesome- quite possibly some of the most innovative and creative ways murder has been depicted on the screen! The cinematography is top notch. Notice the interesting angle choices and use of natural lighting throughout the picture. For example, in the first ten minutes there is a shot through the slats of the floor looking up at the face of the victim laying on the floor with Price standing over.

Another thing I love about this movie is that everything was filmed on location. There was no stage set. The director, Douglas Hickcox, discovered an abandoned theater house from the early 1900s on Felsham road in London. (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/14972). Hickcox had used the theater for parts of his film Sitting Target from the year prior. The theater was known as, “Putney Hippodrome” and was torn down in 1975.

Lastly, I also just love the aesthetics of the 1970s in general. There are some great fashion statements and room knick-knacks that make this a feast for the eyes.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

Theater of Blood screens as part of our Volunteer Programmers series on Thursday, February 6 at 7 pm. To purchase tickets or learn more about this screening, visit our website at trylon.org.

What GUMMO Wasn’t

|Olga Tchepikova-Treon|

Gummo has been around for more than twenty years, so there are not many new insights I feel I can offer about its position in and contribution to cinema history, or its significance in Harmony Korine’s filmmaking trajectory. Korine earned his directorial debut—this very Gummo—with the tremendous success of writing Kids for Larry Clark in 1994. Gummo, however, takes the urban teen life realism aesthetic established through Kids into a rural and, perhaps more significantly, disaster and poverty-struck environment. To sum up the consensus: Gummo’s praise (as well as dismissal) often emphasizes the film’s intermingling of cinematic techniques, oscillation between truth and fiction in setting, characters and action, and above all, the emotional confusion it provokes in audiences because of this technical, narrative, and aesthetic chaos. Some say Gummo is hard to watch. Others say it’s beautiful. Most likely, it is both. But really, I am not necessarily invested in making a case for either—you probably already know where you stand, or you will find out very soon. What I am, or became invested in upon engaging with Gummo over and over again is the more speculative question of what it could have been, but wasn’t.

There are a few resources that speak to this speculative question: First, Gummo’s official screenplay, published a few years after the film’s theatrical release.[1] Then, there’s a video installation Korine put together from predominantly unused footage filmed for Gummo, called The Diary of Anne Frank Pt. II.[2]And finally, as a side note, there is Korine’s frequent re-use of audio-visual materials—including those that made it into Gummo proper—for different projects in varying media formats.[3] Unfortunately, The Diary of Anne Frank Pt. II has not been released in any accessible format, so unless you saw it playing in a gallery (I have not), there is no way to speculate in this direction. So I’m bringing up the latter two resources here mainly to aid those who are interested in venturing out on their own research. What I will focus on is a partial illustration of what was planned but not executed in Gummo according to the screenplay. I do this not to point fingers at inaccuracy but to suggest how some of the changes that happened made Gummo a more ambivalent portrait of a small town in the wake of a devastating tornado. I will mainly reference alterations made to characters that did end up in the screen version, as I think a discussion of those changes will elucidate their impact on the tone and mood of the film, without significantly altering the action or story logic (if Gummo’s fragmented narrative setup can even accommodate a claim that there is any of such logic).

In the screenplay, Korine paints some of Gummo’s characters as far more cruel and hostile than they ultimately appear in the film. Still, the film that Gummo became can hardly be called completely cruelty free. Indeed, we watch many characters being unkind toward themselves, each other, animals, individuals with sensory, physical or mental disabilities, and terminally ill persons. However, most of the time, the perpetrators do not seem to overtly indulge or enjoy this behavior. Rather, their actions and sentiments are portrayed as an almost annoyingly boring part of their daily routine—it is simply the way things are in Xenia, Ohio.

In the screenplay, however, their sentiments are often actively vicious and hateful. Bunny Boy—the film’s non-speaking, impassive and most mysterious character—blows up frogs with fire crackers and, smilingly, talks about suicide and hating the world. The skinhead brothers were set to be filmed spitting into the camera, all the while one of them sports a swastika tattoo on his forehead. Cole—the late-teen who pimps out his younger sister with Down Syndrome to willing ‘clients’ like Solomon and Tummler—goes on a jealous rant about his “little devious bitch” of a girlfriend, but also acknowledges that she was sexually abused by her father. Finally, the Midget (indeed credited in the screenplay as “Midget”) explains at length how he hates himself and his life because he is short and gay. Further screenplay ideas that were tossed include a chubby teenage girl who hangs herself as a result of bullying, and an anonymous boy cutting the word XENIA into his arm.[4]

None of these initially-planned sequences seem surprising given the broader setting of Gummo—a town left behind, where casual expressions of racist and homophobic tendencies ring from run-down house porches, where middle-school-aged boys in cowboy costumes shout all the bad words they know from the top of their lungs, and where a majority of living spaces look like seriously health-hazardous environments. But the choice to ultimately abstain from portrayals of indulgent cruelty and hatred pokes deep holes into the cliché of a destitute, or white trash population whose types we think we know so well.

Maybe Gummo would have penetrated the cinematic mainstream a little further if those cruel intentions had remained in the final cut. After all, this would have significantly simplified our judgment of its film world. Everything about a screenplay-faithful Gummo would have played into and confirmed the mostly negative image of poor, white, rural America perpetrated through redneck horror films, tabloid talk shows and reality TV. It would have made it easy to make sense (or fun) of the film and its characters. But without such elements of frolicking hostility, we necessarily catch ourselves making assumptions about Gummo’s characters without any solid grounding.

So maybe in that sense, Gummo is hard to watch indeed—not because of its staggering impression of authenticity and realism, but because we are cheated out of a commonplace film watching experience. Gummo does not leave us with a sense that its character population can be distinctly classified into heroes and villains. Maybe this is because we want some of the characters to be both and praise them for their complexity. More likely, however, all of the characters are actually neither and thus, remain somewhat impenetrable. So what we are left with is a circumstantial skepticism toward the very stereotypes we want to believe in while watching Gummo. And this, significantly, may yield a shift in the schadenfreude-drenched voyeurism that often makes up watching film characters that we think we can feel superior to. A less cruel Gummo may keep us more honest about the ill logic of personal judgments directed at people on film screens as well as in real life. And life, as Solomon says, is great—without it you’d be dead.


[1] Harmony Korine, Collected Screenplays 1 (London: faber and faber, 2002).

[2] See a breakdown of the installation’s exhibition history for further details.

[3] For a comprehensive overview, see the Images section on Korine’s unofficial fan site.

[4] Though the film offers an alternative to this in the brief sequence where we see an arm freshly cut with the letters SLAYER.

Edited by Ben Savard

Gummo screens at the Trylon from Friday, Jan. 31 to Sunday, Feb. 2. Buy tickets and learn more about the screening at trylon.org.

Waking up in CLOSE-UP

|Jesse Lawson|

For those of us caught slumbering in the cinema, Abbas Kiarostami once offered a vindication. Interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, he expressed his distaste for those films that “hold viewers hostage” or attempt to “disturb” them. “I prefer the films that put the audience to sleep in the theater,” he explained. “Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.” Hearing this backhanded confession from a major filmmaker, we sigh with relief, at last free to stop pinching ourselves and get on with our dreams in the movie theater. With Kiarostami’s imprimatur, the moral rights of the cinema sleeper have been asserted.

You might object: the film-viewing experience itself is key and one must be awake for it. To those of Kiarostami’s persuasion you might bid “sweet dreams, and lots of thoughts.” But for serious cinephiles, you say, sleep is contraindicated. You do not go to the movies to have a nice nap, even if, you reluctantly admit, sleep sometimes befalls you. You go to engage—whether with art or entertainment, visceral thrills or formalist provocations—but above all, with the whole film. If you find yourself drifting, you must march through the film, like Jack Lemmon marching Shirley MacLaine through the night after her sleeping pill overdose in The Apartment. Not to experience the film as completely as possible is a kind of film discourse death: if you didn’t really see the movie, you must restrain yourself from commenting on it. Otherwise, you are an imposter cinephile.

A film about imposture and cinema, Close-Up concerns Sabzian, a marginally employed printer who is a devoted film enthusiast. While riding a bus, a bourgeois woman asks him about his copy of a screenplay for Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film The Cyclist. Sabzian claims to be Makhmalbaf, offering her the screenplay and his signature. Ingratiating himself into her family, the Anankhahs, he becomes so invested in the role that he persuades their young adult son to start rehearsing for a film. However, the family eventually catches on to the ruse, and Sabzian is arrested and tried for attempted fraud. The film “documents” his trial and ultimate release, while re-staging antecedent events using the actual participants. In this strikingly reflexive film, not only do real events provide the basis for the narrative’s unfolding, but the narrative’s unfolding becomes the basis of real events. Close-Up’s interplay of fiction and documentary modes may indeed inspire reflections on the social meanings of cinema, its aspirational pull, its ability to convey some kind of truth.

During the trial, Sabzian attempts to justify his deceit as the expression of an artistic and spiritual quest. While the Anankhah family suspect him of trying to burgle them, he insists that this was not his intention, that he was driven by playing the role of the filmmaker. Even though this role was difficult, he explains, he would make himself go out and be Makhmalbaf and work on his “film” with the Anankhahs. He did so because it brought him respect, where no one respects him in his daily life as Sabzian, where he might miss meals or fail to provide for his child. Furthermore, he idolizes the cinema, going again and again to see Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist—a film that seems to speak of his own suffering. While they enjoy clear privileges, the adult Anankhah children have comparable aspirations: they would like to be artists, and they share Sabzian’s love of cinema; they studied to be engineers, but neither finds work even in this seemingly more open field. We can surmise that, as long as they believe Sabzian is Makhmalbaf, they too are excited at the prospect of making the film.

Sabzian insists that while he knows his performance as Makhmalbaf appears as fraud from the outside, it was not meant that way inside: he did it for the film he imagined making. But he also did it for respect, which is social. He is committed to an idea of the spiritual value of film as art, but he can only pull off his imitation as long as other people commit as well. The Anankhahs offer conflicting accounts of when the Anankhahs begin to suspect Sabzian. One clue is a photograph of Makhmalbaf in a book the family has, and another is when Sabzian seems unaware of an award Makhmalbaf has just received. Real images and real prestige are instrumental in his undoing. Sabzian performs Makhmalbaf until he no longer can, when circumstances become too much.

In the cinema (and hardly just there) sleep may find us out. For all our intention of attention, we are suddenly unprepared and inadequate, not quite what we hope or wish we could be. While my own cinephilia has never approached the two-films-a-day-minimum of some of my peers, there was a time when I was eagerly seeking out titles on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s list of a thousand essential films and planning a four-day excursion to New York (eight hours away) basically to see films: a ‘50s 3D retrospective at the Film Forum, lesser-known ‘70s exploitation fare like The Town That Dreaded Sundown at Anthology Film Archives, A Man Escaped at Brooklyn Academy of Music. By my standards, I was gobbling movie experiences carnivorously. But a year later, when I enrolled in a graduate program where film study had particular purchase, I couldn’t seem to stay awake through an entire feature. It didn’t matter if it was a Fassbinder miniseries epic (World on Wire, the first film I attended at a packed Trylon Microcinema), a Billy Wilder classic (Sunset Blvd.), or the latest Errol Morris documentary (Tabloid); inevitably, I succumbed, waking at some point before the credits rolled and then getting back on my bike to fight my way home. I raged at my inability to attend, to think, to even enjoy; like many graduate students, like so many people who are alone, I felt myself an imposter.

Among other things, Close-Up can be read as a redemption story, as Sabzian emphasizes his suffering serving as the basis for a work of art. Redemption stories are ethically complicated, because redemption has to come from a source with power; Sabzian’s redemption can’t happen until he admits he’s “only Sabzian,” and confesses what this means at some length. In watching this confession unfold, one feels that however eccentric his notions of art, they merit forgiveness, indeed in part because they express a utopian ideal: the union of art and everyday life. Kiarostami (who reportedly scripted Sabzian’s confession, albeit based on the latter’s remarks) seems to miraculously produce this union, and this forgiveness… within the production of a work of art. Whether this is finally a commentary on the superlative power of art or a damning comment on the inadequacy of lived experience and the role art plays in it is an open question.

I will confess: on my most recent viewing of Close-Up, I did fall asleep. The following morning, I ran it back to watch what I had missed. It turned out I had slept through what is perhaps this gentle film’s most discomfiting scene, which chronologically precedes Sabzian’s arrest. He sits in the Anankhahs’ handsome living room, not eating a meal that Mrs. Anankhah has prepared for him. Mr. Anankhah and Sabzian dialogue about truth and inner nature, leaving us wondering if Sabzian senses Anankhah’s sarcastic subtext. Sabzian expresses his puzzlement and disappointment at the family’s younger son, Mehrdad, who shows so little enthusiasm for rehearsal after earlier seeming so invested. Tightly framed between sofa and coffee table, Sabzian looks profoundly out of place, Mehrdad’s white jacket on his sloped shoulders seemingly giving him away. Meanwhile, the family patriarch (who explains elsewhere in the film that he let Sabzian keep pretending “as a lesson to my children”) smiles on and shrugs—“what can I do?”—with benign condescension. This is the only scene where we witness Sabzian in the family home, and, watching it, it’s hard to believe he pulled off the imposture in the first place. It is strange to watch this chilly “fiction” scene after the truth-telling generosity of the courtroom “documentary”—the latter an aspirational success in public space and in 16mm, the former a humiliating failure in private and in 35mm. Somehow in my slumber, I had missed the scene that seemed most to take Sabzian hostage; but now, it is the scene I am most thinking about.

Close-Up screens at the Trylon on 35mm from Sunday, January 19 to Tuesday, January 21. Learn more and buy tickets here.

Edited by Ben Savard.

(Not Coming) Out Out

|Jesse Lawson|

I ended up with the wrong Gremlins poster on a trip to Spencer Gifts one Saturday in the mid-1980s, when I was eight or nine years old. It may have been mislabeled; I may have misread the label. I had wanted a reproduction of the film’s meta promotional poster, where the film’s lead villain, Stripe, tears through an original poster image of warm hands holding a box from which cute, cuddly Gizmo’s paws emerge. In this poster, Stripe emerges through the center of what would be Gizmo’s head (and, Alien-style, Zach Galligan’s stomach), crossing out the original tagline (“Cute. Cuddly. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous.”) and scrawling “WE’RE BACK!” over the top of the image with a big red crayon.

What I got instead was a blowup of a still from the film’s bar scene, where Stripe sits hunched in darkness at a poker table with two other Gremlins. One is done up with lipstick and a hat full of flowers; the other is a default, male-gendered Gremlin, who will be shot at that same poker table by Stripe at the urging of his female-presenting companion. (This is the only time, as far as I can tell, that Stripe does anything at someone else’s urging. She must have been a special lady.) The image presents Stripe in a rather unflattering light, his scowling head draped in shadow as if he were totally wasted in these decadent surroundings. It’s not that Stripe would be, you know, a hunk like Robert Picardo in Gremlins 2 or the cheery, unwrinklable curly-haired grown-up boy Zach Galligan in both films. Rather, it’s that Stripe is usually full of life, dark and light: vicious and malicious with guns and chainsaws, chasing what’s delightful and delicious, watching Snow White or filling his arms full of concession stand candy bars. His mohawk brings the urban threat of unhinged ‘80s youth to the midcentury studio-lot trappings of Kingston Falls, the shock of white electric hair ageless atop his reptilian green visage. Neither of these features is particularly shown off by the poker-playing poster, which, to my prepubescent mind, seemed a peculiar way to sell Gremlins, or at least Stripe.

I had taken the poster back to the store and exchanged it, but when I slid the replacement from its plastic tube it bore the barroom image. It seemed I was stuck with it, like poor Sigmund Freud in “The Uncanny,” who somehow ends up wandering repeatedly into the red-light district. So I put the poker-playing Gremlins on my bedroom wall, and they remained there for several years, getting increasingly tattered as I crushed many a buzzing fly stuck behind them, my fingers besmirched by Cheeto dust. (I like to think those depicted would have approved of this usage, though they might also have just shot me in the face.)

I remained somewhat stuck in the ‘80s as adolescence befell me in the early ‘90s. An early cassette purchase was the “specially-priced 7-cut mini-album” soundtrack to Gremlins, which contained the revelation that my favorite singer, Peter Gabriel, had contributed a song to this favorite childhood film. Gabriel being part of Gremlins was almost as astonishing a discovery as his having been part of Genesis, whose (way post-Gabriel) Invisible Touch was my favorite of my mother’s exercise albums. What was more, his Gremlins song accompanied the scene that had been on my wall years before I even knew who Gabriel was. Such constellations feel like fate to an eleven-year-old brain.

Gabriel’s Gremlins song, “Out Out,” introduces the sequence of carnage in Dorrie’s Tavern, where an elf-hatted Gremlin spins from the ceiling fan as pounding drums accompany Gabriel’s declaration, I’ve had enough of this! Before one of the creatures switches the boombox to some bluesy jazz that will accompany an impromptu puppet show, we get two minutes of “Out Out.” During this time, we witness Gremlins with mouths full of cigs, pounding beer glasses at the bar, chortling for no reason at bowls full of popcorn, trenchcoat flashing, and executing the aforementioned poker-game in an all out Gremlinslaughter. All the while, Kate (Phoebe Cates) does her best to serve/hold her own against the horde.

“Out Out” was Gabriel’s first composition for a motion picture, and its pulsing rhythms, echoing saxophone, and monstrous guitar sounds seem right for Gremlins. But what of the lyrics? If they reflect the point of view of anyone here, it would seem to be lovely Kate, the volunteer bartender, who wants out, away from these people who don’t know me at all, who wants, presumably, to hoooold you (cheery, unwrinklable curly-haired grown-up-boy Zach Galligan) in my arms. But Gabriel’s imagery seems brought in from other worlds, from tall, dark trees to subways. Beyond this, the music’s Afrobeat elements and funk-jazz rhythm guitar point toward a desire to reach horizons way beyond Kingston Falls, or even the Manhattan of Clamp Tower in Gremlins 2. An epic whose journey is only sketched out impressionistically, the song’s full seven minutes would be too much for this film. By the time Gabriel has started growling OUT… OUT… OUT… OUT… from the back of his throat, he might as well have become Gremlin-as-lycanthrope, pronouncing human words as sheer aggressive sound. The song longs for concupiscent union while undergoing its own effects-laden metamorphosis; it wants girl and Gremlin.

Gabriel has said that when writing the anti-apartheid anthem “Biko,” he was concerned that he might be doing it for the wrong reason—that is, it might be a self-aggrandizing gesture. He expressed these doubts to Tom Robinson, who had had success with his own political anthem, “Glad to Be Gay.” Robinson told Gabriel not to worry about his motivations, that raising awareness about the murdered South African poet was worthwhile in itself. “Biko” appeared as the final track on Gabriel’s self-titled 1980 album, whose songs depict psychopathy, urban alienation, and geopolitical horrors (“Intruder,” “No Self Control,” “Games without Frontiers”); much of the album, with its iconic Hipgnosis-designed melting face cover, projects self-disgust. After the claustrophobic gated drums and Fairlight synthesizer sounds that populate most of these songs, the elegy of “Biko” offers catharsis, in many ways setting the course for Gabriel’s subsequent music and globalist activism.

“Out Out” seems to be a kind of detour on that course, crossing paths with another, queerer road. In this respect, it’s inviting to draw a parallel between Gabriel’s melting face—the product of a Polaroid manipulation—with Kate’s tactic to disperse the Gremlins at the bar, using a Polaroid flash bar. We know from the climax of the film that bright light and water will “melt” Gremlins. Their perverse polymorphisms—they reproduce asexually, wear clothes only for fun, and are all out—are finally rendered in rotting goo; grim, comic ejaculations. Gabriel’s narrators, who don’t remember, have no self control, and slip into women’s homes to wear their clothes in the dark, appear more self-aware but similarly dangerous and unpredictable. (Gizmo, for his part, dreams in his Barbie car that “that guy needs a certain kind of dame,” recalling a Clark Gable film he’d been watching, but, expressing no interest in eating after midnight, remains unchanged and innocent—and, as is the American way, suitably vengeful to his tormenters, especially in the sequel.)

“Out Out” was co-produced by Nile Rodgers, who earlier had cowritten Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out,” another LGBTQ anthem. His collaboration with Gabriel seems to have been something of a one-off, apart from their shared work on Laurie Anderson’s “Excellent Birds” at the same time. Meanwhile, it’s a peculiarity of Gabriel’s discography that it does not reproduce “Out Out”: a recent compilation of songs for films, Rated PG, overlooks it (as does the six-hour B-sides-and-ephemera dump Flotsam and Jetsam). Gremlins was, of course, one of the films whose violence helped usher in the PG-13 rating, partly at producer Stephen Spielberg’s suggestion. Why, now, is “Out Out” locked away? Perhaps there are rights issues. Perhaps it does not wish to leave the Gremlins franchise closet, fearing the light. But perhaps, one day, it will be ready.

Gremlins screens at the Trylon from Friday, December 27 to Sunday, December 29.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

PARIS, TEXAS: Wim Wenders’s American Myth

|Greg Hunter|

Paris, Texas begins with Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) in a kind of walking catatonia. He has spent years away from his family––most of them on foot, for all viewers know––and only reconnects with his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) after collapsing in a small West Texas town. Despite these odd circumstances, director Wim Wenders avoids outright surrealism in the film’s early scenes, favoring a grounded, naturalistic approach. And yet Paris, Texas suggests that a literal-minded understanding of Travis’s affliction­­––a specific medical diagnosis––is beside the point. For Wenders, Stanton, and screenwriters Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson, what Travis’s condition is matters less than what it means. Their film’s title, evoking two places at once, is a signpost––we’re in the realm of metaphor, however dusty and sun-bleached it appears to be.

Once Walt takes charge of his brother, Travis slowly becomes more animated, more articulate––the closer he gets, viewers realize, to reckoning with his past. The film’s design is simple in this respect. Paris, Texas unfolds like a folktale, a transformation story with a distinctly American myth underneath it: that anyone can start anew. Travis begins his journey apart from his own personhood, and we watch him remake himself. His story resembles an archetypal American fable, one that begins with a person in a state of destitution, persecution, or simple dissatisfaction and ends with the person reaching self-reliance, wholeness, even reinvention.

Wenders’s suitability for Paris, Texas begins in his youth in postwar Germany, where he encountered America almost exclusively through its pop-culture exports and thus almost exclusively in terms of American myth making. The story marks a major shift for the director. The Wrong Move (1975), a study of the psychic conditions of Wenders’s home country, features sweeping overhead shots of trains in motion and long takes of characters conversing in front of massive hills, but the film’s atmosphere is one of unease, even paranoia, not unlocked potential. Kings of the Road (1976) is, well, a road picture, but its characters’ movements across Germany play, from the start, like indications of existential malaise, not the pursuit of a dream. The American Friend (1977) depicts a collision between European and American sensibilities, with its “cowboy in Hamburg,” Dennis Hopper’s Tom Ripley, disrupting the life of a German artisan (Bruno Ganz), but the movie is a story of transformation only en route to despair. Not until Paris, Texas, and the opportunity to film the wide-open landscapes and sprawling cities of the American West, does Wenders allow optimism equal to the American dream into his films.

But if Paris, Texas is about an American regeneration, it’s also about the magnitude of regret. By the film’s end, we have an explanation for Travis’s extreme stoicism in earlier scenes: a consciousness of guilt so severe that it nearly destroyed his larger consciousness. When Travis’s quest for atonement leads him to his estranged wife (Nastassja Kinski), he elaborates:

He knew she had to be stopped or she’d leave him forever. So he tied a cowbell to her ankle so he could hear her at night if she tried to get out of bed. But she learned how to muffle the bell by stuffing a sock into it, and inching her way out of the bed and into the night. He caught her one night when the sock fell out and he heard her trying to run to the highway. He caught her and dragged her back to the trailer, and tied her to the stove with his belt. He just left her there and went back to bed and lay there listening to her scream.

With these lines, Paris, Texas complicates its mythic underpinnings. Travis may have started the story primed to begin anew, but only as a result of his own abusive behavior. His distressed circumstances are wholly his own fault. (This is perhaps the most American thing about the movie—the jarring reality from which a myth emerges.) And yet Wenders, Shepard, and Carson don’t interrogate this myth to the point of deconstructing or abandoning it. Instead, the film suggests that Travis’s reflection on his past actions—after a break from awareness of them—completes his transformation.

Viewers could credibly dismiss the film on those grounds. One take on Paris, Texas––and a justifiable one––is that the film suggests a person can get away with anything if they apologize with the gravity of Harry Dean Stanton. (Near the movie’s end, Travis once again exits the lives of his family members, but in the manner of a ghost that has settled its unfinished business.) But another is that the film’s empathy extends that far, even to someone whose actions it condemns. Wenders, Stanton, Shepard and Carson are certainly aware of the wrongness in Travis’s past––it’s the context for everything we see. Paris, Texas implies that, to the extent Travis can exist apart from his past, he can do so only after he fully accounts for that wrongness. Notably, the film focuses on tracking this shift rather than contriving a display of forgiveness from Kinski. People can change, Paris, Texas says, but that change isn’t easy, automatic, or—in Travis’s case—the responsibility of anyone other than himself.

This is maybe why Stanton’s climactic words are so well remembered. Stanton played Travis after decades of supporting parts, and the lines he delivers to Kinski are a gift from Wenders and the film’s screenwriters to a journeyperson actor in his first lead role. And while the material serves Stanton, he serves the material just as well. The scene is fraught, but a viewer, sufficiently moved, believes both in the weight of Travis’s wrongs and in the transformation Paris, Texas thinks possible. We see Stanton take on a myth that’s compelling but also troubling, and commit to the part worth keeping.

Part of the Trylon’s “Volunteer Programmers” series, Paris, Texas was chosen by Greg Hunter, box office volunteer since 2011. Hunter is an arts writer and a graphic novel editor based in Minneapolis. He is kind to animals, serious about breakfast, and a fan of any movie starring Toshiro Mifune or (naturally) Harry Dean Stanton.

Paris, Texas screens at the Trylon on Thursday, December 19 at 7 pm. Purchase tickets and learn more about our Volunteer Programmers series here.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Black Christmas: The Godfather of Slasher Genre

|Finn Odum|

Artwork by Thom Robertson

John Carpenter’s Halloween is a cornerstone of the slasher genre. It’s one of the most influential and well known horror franchises, inspiring countless sequels and knock-offs. It’s everywhere in horror culture: The hockey-mask wearing Jason of Friday the 13th is based on Michael Meyers. Halloween appears in Wes Craven’s meta-slasher Scream, when Randy Meeks (Jaime Kennedy) uses it to illustrate the “rules” of slasher movies. Then there’s Trick ‘r Treat, a Halloween-themed anthology featuring a masked killer and plenty of gory imagery. Halloween is an important film in the history of slashers. But it wasn’t the first. We only have Halloween because of a little Canadian movie called Black Christmas, starring a faceless killer stalking sorority sisters just days before they leave for winter break.

Black Christmas helped construct the slasher formula in a manner that hadn’t been seen in the early 1970s. Back then, the only other film close to its format was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was released earlier that year. Though Tobe Hooper’s seminal cannibal flick contributed to what we now know as the slasher genre, Black Christmas was the inception of the serial killer’s home invasion on film. Drawing from “the babysitter” urban legend, Black Christmas’s killer is hidden within the house from the start of the film. He terrorizes the sisters in their place of comfort. There’s something different and terrifying about being stalked in your own home as opposed to outside in the elements. If you can’t feel safe in your house, how can you ever hope to stand your ground against a murderous psychopath out in the world?

Yet, there’s more to the slasher formula than just the home invasion. Similar to the many movies that came after it, Black Christmas’s killer remained unseen for most of the film. Point of view shots establish his gaze and force the audience to watch as he kills his victims in increasingly gruesome ways. This pattern repeats in subsequent slasher films, where the audience becomes a witness to the violence through the eyes of the perpetrator. Black Christmas also includes the prototype for the “final girl” in the character of Jess (Olivia Hussey), whose fate is left up to the audience at the end of the film. The last of her sorority sisters to survive, Jess spends the film running around and beating her ex-boyfriend with a fire poker. Her presence is enough, though, to establish a pattern: the shapeless, faceless killer almost always leaves one victim alive.

Black Christmas was met with mixed reviews upon release, with some criticizing the pointless violence and others lauding the “killer inside the house” twist. Despite its relative cult status, director Bob Clark never went through with making a sequel, despite having an idea or two on how to develop it. In a conversation with John Carpenter, Clark said the sequel would follow the killer as he escaped from an insane asylum and stalked the residents of his former town. Like the original, this movie would take place on another beloved holiday: Halloween.

Even though we’ve circled back to Halloween, that’s not where the Black Christmas influence ends. Point-of-view shots are now a slasher staple; the opening shots of Friday the 13th and Halloween are filmed from the killer’s perspective. The murderers are given little backstory, if any at all, a slasher trope that is often ruined by unneeded sequels or remakes. And who could forget the long string of final girls left behind by faceless killers in countless films. We can thank Bob Clark for Halloween’s Laurie Strode, who inspired the likes of Nancy Thompson (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Sidney Prescott (Scream), and Valerie Bates (Slumber Party Massacre).

Taking a step away from the vaguely Halloween related influences, Black Christmas started another slasher trend: holiday killers. The genre began with movies like Christmas Evil, To All a Goodnight, and Silent Night, Deadly NightTo All a Goodnight is the closest to the Black Christmas format, while the other two follow killers obsessed with becoming Santa Claus avengers. Branching even further away from Christmas was the Canadian film My Bloody Valentine, a personal favorite that tells the story of a psychotic miner who terrorizes a small town on Valentine’s Day, as the title suggests.

You can trace the influence of Black Christmas beyond early ’80s slasher movies and holiday horrors. Friday the 13th took influence from Halloween while also inspiring the killer campground trend, leading to Sleepaway Camp and, to a larger extent, Evil Dead. Without Evil Dead we wouldn’t have the 2012 meta-horror Cabin in the Woods, one of the best horror movies of the last ten years. For a visual representation, check out the map below.

Created by Finn Odum

Compared to Halloween, Black Christmas doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The genre’s formal techniques and conventions owe a lot to this movie’s silent slasher narrative and its point-of -view shots. And let’s not forget that Black Christmas is the movie that reminded audiences that even their homes aren’t safe. There’s always some place you haven’t looked: an attic, a basement, or a closet. When’s the last time you checked your crawl space?

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Black Christmas screens at the Trylon from Friday, December 13 to Sunday, December 15. Purchase advance tickets and learn more about this film and our “Yuletide Horror” series here.