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A stylized shot from "Cape Fear" (1962) by J. Lee Thompson

The Envy of One Man’s Family: “Cape Fear” (1962)

What is the going rate for each year of your life missed? Or in the case of Max Cady (played by Robert Mitchum), eight years in prison? Of course, Max Cady is a psychopath, so he believes he was wrongfully convicted and now he must now punish his offending lawyer. Nothing is ever his fault. Gregory Peck plays Sam Bowden, a successful attorney who seems to have the Norman Rockwell life. Large house, attractive wife and daughter—not to mention a prospering career—what more does a man need within this so-called American Dream? Well, perhaps a psychopath to taunt him.

It is always interesting to experience a remake before the original. Scorsese remade Cape Fear in 1991 and while not a bad film, it is most definitely not one of his best. From what I recall, the direction is rather lackluster and has more of a ‘made for television’ feel. Gone is the implication and subtlety. And despite De Niro’s skill as an actor, Mitchum is far more clever and convincing in his role of vindictive evil. Yet, poisoning a dog and harassing a family is only evil from our perspective because according to Cady, Sam Bowden deserves what he gets. 

Cape Fear begins with a wonderful noir feel, and much of it is accomplished via Bernard Hermann’s score (who also created the score for Taxi Driver). We witness Cady walking into a courthouse, but not before ogling several women’s asses. While on a stairwell, an older woman with a stack of books drops one and Cady doesn’t bother to help her. Already we see he is an asshole. And now, after having served his time, he is a free man. Or is he? Legally this is the case, but damn if he is going to allow that arrogant lawyer, Sam Bowden, to get away with it. […]

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A stylized shot of George Fairweather who founded the Fairweather Lodge and small group process

Small Group Process: The George Fairweather Way

Fairweather friends we are not. We are in it for the long haul, like a family, for better or worse. George W. “Bill” Fairweather was a disillusioned 60s California psychologist who got tired of watching the revolving door of mental illness: in the hospital, out of the hospital, back in the hospital…and so forth. Dr. George Fairweather threw his hat in the ring with a possible solution: The Lodge. A Lodge was something like a group home for those with mental illness, but unlike any group home you’ve ever known. The time was the mid-60s.

Later, George Fairweather, in the mid-90s, would lay out his strategies in his three books: “Empowering the Mentally Ill”; “KEEPING THE BALANCE: A Psychologist’s Story”; and, “Guidelines for Problem-Solving Support Groups”. These books were discussions by Dr. Fairweather laying out the dynamics of what happens in a Lodge. Rather than their literary merit, these books are recognized for their revolutionary ideas.

Dr. Fairweather was proclaiming the process which would save persons with mental illness from tragic and meaningless lives. It was a scant decade earlier that we had de-institutionalization of mental illness releasing people to the streets, and that’s where a lot of them stayed. To be healed in a Fairweather Lodge almost sounds like hot springs, but it is not that, just a similar goal. […]

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A stylized screenshot of a skull, from Vampyr by Carl Th. Dreyer

Upside Down Hour: The Haunting of Carl Th. Dreyer’s “Vampyr” (1932)

What to say when one cannot distinguish between one’s inner world and outer? When dream is not only as freighting as reality, but in its own essence, becomes reality? What to say then—especially when the fright involves a film that is mostly delivered via imagery over sound? Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr was filmed utilizing three languages, which thereby made any speaking parts difficult. Thus, when Dreyer has his protagonist, Allan Gray, pull a thick ‘Book of Vampires’ out from his slim coat pocket—it then serves as the simplest means for narrative delivery.

Allan Gray arrives at an inn that is haunted by shadows. Whether this is dream or real is undetermined, as there are many moments when that line is blurred. The film, whilst not containing many spoken words, is shrouded in shadow. In it, the images construct the narrative. Gray dips in between sleep, whilst cocooned amid that nocturnal hour when it is difficult to distinguish real from dream. Perhaps this is what makes this strangle of branches—when one looks to trees—so haunting. A vampire is on the loose—but she is not the cliché one imagines, but rather, an old woman who labors about in a cane and moves slowly in the night. When a young woman named Leone is bit, she falls ill and contemplates suicide.

The plot behind Vampyr is rather simple, yet the narrative is something otherworldly, as the realm of Carl Th. Dreyer’s storytelling resides within his ghosts, his use of shadow, and his skull-like imagery. This is where plot and narrative differ. Hollywood favors plot. Art favors narrative. Skulls line the shelves as decor in this ancient house, and their eyes turn amid the proper nocturnal hour. It seems everything haunting occurs at night. In rewatching this seminal classic, one can see not only the influence upon many films such as Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1954) but also Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962). Both films include an eerie otherworldly quality, where we don’t quite know dream from reality. Shots set in shadow and fog, as well as the elusive ethereal—all contribute to the wonderment of dream from real. […]

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A stylized shot of The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie by John Cassavetes

Art & Masculinity As Subterfuge In “The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie” (1976)

Though I’d been watching John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie quite regularly the past decade – had reared my second childhood upon it, as a fact – I only recently understood the import of a key anti-noir scene. As Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) breaks into a triad compound, he is not confronted by a benumbed gangster taunting him to shoot, but by an old man splashing water in a pool. It is as if he has regressed to adolescence, down to his childlike interest in the much younger woman bathing him. This much I’d already known, but this time, I realized Benny Wu’s (Soto Joe Hugh) mumbling wasn’t mere sound. “I’m real bad. Real bad,” Wu suddenly confesses to his killer. “I’m so sorry.” The triad is then shot dead, yet it is not so much the death that is tragic as is Cosmo’s inability to digest it: he was sent with a task, and is thus precluded from engaging with its largest moment. And how could it be otherwise? Time is money, the film suggests, whether it’s the time it takes Cosmo to get out of debt, the unconscious zeal with which he is once again indebted, or the fact that, as a private enterprise, criminality is as wasteful as any other – down to its paring away of “useless” self-indulgence, like pondering death and death’s dimensions. The triad knows he has wasted his life, but has been so pampered by hierarchy and habit that waste is the only logical outcome. Having lived transactionally, even his young lover shows no emotion and quietly slips out after he is killed, for she seems to understand this was but a business decision among a thousand other business decisions which may or may not erupt in mayhem.

Now, it would be wrong to blanch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie of its totalizing “point”, yet there is so much else moving in and out of the film’s outskirts that reducing it to aphorism is even worse. John Cassavetes plays with subterfuge, tension, winding trails that lead to dead ends and dead ends that fraction into avenues, down to the film’s enigmatic title. I mean, who is the ‘Chinese bookie’, if not – as Mort (Seymour Cassel) suggests then denies – triad boss Benny Wu? Yet the triad is too powerful to be a mere bookmaker and has almost certainly engaged in murder, himself. If anything, the film’s ‘bookie’ is both concept and adumbration, and it is telling that critics, who panned the film upon its release, never bothered to analyze its inner mythos. “They’re very resentful,” an Italian gangster says of the triads, “because they don’t know whether they’re Chinese-American, or American-Chinese…” Of course, the gangsters are shown to be correct – Wu has failed to cultivate a meaningful life-purpose – but the irony is that their words are just as applicable to themselves. They are Italians forced to cede ground to an Other, and, not having much except some ground to cede, their identities thus turn. Yes, the triads are one such fulcrum, but Cosmo Vittelli quickly becomes another. A killer far more capable and efficient than the gangsters (another of the film’s enigmas, though still in-character and believable), he is also the owner of a burlesque club, LA’s Crazy Horse West, that Mort genuinely likes and respects for ‘deeper’ reasons he cannot verbalize. But, business is as ever, and Mort is all too willing to prey upon Cosmo’s weakness for gambling. After Cosmo racks up yet another debt, Mort has no issue with sending him to what he expects to be his death, thus taking over his club, despite the fact that Cosmo is as close to being ‘a great artist’ as a guy like Mort can ever hope to come across. “He was the heaviest cat on the West Coast, Cosmo,” Mort says of the triad. “You did what we couldn’t do.” In this way, Mort conflates one kind of respect – the grudging respect between talented, artful killers – with a respect for Art itself, thus putting the two at parity merely because they are both masculine drives, yet failing to understand where and why the two diverge. […]

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A stylized shot from Ghost World by Terry Zwigoff

To Be The Oddity: On Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” (2001)

Have you ever felt the odd one out? Or perhaps you feel normal and it’s the world that’s gone bonkers? What if your closest friend no longer wishes to engage in your strangeness? After all, the world isn’t sympathetic and eventually the time comes to grow up. Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World is a wonderful film that undertakes just this. After having directed Crumb, another film about an oddity, Zwigoff tackles Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel and renders it within film. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) have just graduated high school. They have been best friends for years and always embraced being ‘weirdos.’ ‘Those are our people,’ Enid says. They don’t plan to go to college, but rather, they will move in together once they both land jobs. Enid, however, is stuck taking a remedial art class over the summer. ‘It’s an art class for fuckups and retards,’ she speaks deliberately.

Enid is one of those characters that one will either really connect with or not. She has no life plans—not because she is some loser, but rather, nothing requiring such pursuit interests her. Who wants to be like everyone else? One day the girls respond to an ad they see in the paper. It is written by Seymour (Steve Buscemi) who is a lonely record collector. It is one of those ‘I saw you there’ ads, where Seymour seeks some blonde. ‘You were the blonde and I wore a green sweater. Did we have a moment?’ the ad inquires. Enid calls pretending to be the blonde, suggesting a place to meet. ‘Wear that green sweater,’ she suggests. The girls wait and watch him from afar. After he is stood up, they witness him shouting within his car to another driver. They follow him and come to learn that he holds a record sale every Saturday. Enid speaks with him and comes to like him. ‘He’s such a clueless dork that he is almost kind of cool,’ she says. Enid and Seymour are very much alike, as neither feels they relate to the human population. They both struggle with human connection, which is key to understanding Ghost World. […]

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A stylized shot from Jean-Pierre Melville's "Leon Morin, Priest"

Thwarting Desires: On Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

So what’s the deal with the priest?

Much has been said of the eponymous clergyman’s moral intrigue. His façade of almost cocksure piety, the intellectual judo he engages in his apologetics, and his verging-on-predatory manipulation of the young women in his parish. Jean-Pierre Melville doesn’t give much reason to doubt the “purity” of his intentions: he never sleeps with the women, but nonetheless seems aware of their admiration and does not discourage their private meetings with him. He is a handsome young man, and in a town seemingly bereft of such, is it any wonder many of the women flock to him? For some of them, sex isn’t even what’s desired: solely his presence, for a good deal of the husbands have run off to the forest to join the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation, and Léon Morin seems all-too-willing to simply utilize the possibility of sexual transgression (to sleep with a priest!) in order to create a captive audience. But an audience for what? And is there something deeper going on, something Morin himself would be loath to uncover?

For Barny (played by the incandescent Emmanuelle Riva), sex is what’s desired. It represents a culmination of sorts, for her. Bereft of God (she is a communist), widowed (her Jewish husband has died in the war), and sexually open (she crushes on one of her coworkers at the relocated wartime correspondence school, a beautiful secretary named Sabine), Barny does not seem so much repressed as she does availed of good options. This is an important point to make, as “repressed” is a loaded word, and it might be tempting to locate the source of Barny’s frustration in her, manifesting out of some unhealthy psychological baggage, as opposed to the machinations of the clergyman. There is nothing in Léon Morin, Priest to indicate that Barny, a bright, attractive and thoroughly secularized young woman, possesses any thorny complexes concerning her sexual desires – she even seems to dismissively analyze her feelings for Sabine as pure idealization, purging any kind of homoerotic transgression from their loaded exchange of gazes. Originally from Paris, and with her daughter in someone else’s care (in fear of the girl’s Jewish lineage making her a target for Nazi deportation), she lives alone, with mostly female company, and the men who work alongside her too old for serious consideration. The occupying soldiers (first Italians, then the Germans) are the enemy: in Jean-Pierre Melville’s world, to sleep with them would be a sin far greater than religious conversion, and is thus never an option. Sure, there’s stoppage, of a kind, but Barny seems – above all else – to be bored out of her mind, resulting in her intellectual prank on the clergy at St. Bernard’s. […]

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A stylized shot of Gene Hackman from The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola

Fastidious Vice: On Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” (1974)

Francis Ford Coppola gained his reputation through fastidiousness and dedication. Hearts of Darkness, the explosive behind-the-scenes documentary made partly in parallel and then in retrospect with Apocalypse Now, portrays a director with vision, but one wrestling with his own ego, pretentiousness and darker nature. His obsessive tendencies towards filmmaking are evident in a lot of his earlier works, culminating in Apocalypse Now, after which his filmog descends into nothing but laissez-faire mediocrity and stunning failure. This dramatic rise and fall could, and has been, attributed to the nightmarish production of the aforementioned Conrad reinterpretation.

The Conversation is an achievement foremost as a work of character insight, with Gene Hackman delivering a formidable performance as Harry Caul. Caul is an engineer who considers himself an artisan. His field is surveillance – specifically, the recording of dialogue between guilty parties. We open with him organising an impressive feat of monitoring on a young couple in a bustling city square, who seem to be concerned that the woman’s jealous and influential husband will off them if he ever finds out about their infidelity. The contract is for said jealous husband. Through using a sniper-scope and directional microphone, and several actors and hidden bugs, Harry manages to capture the damning evidence. […]

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A stylized photo of Quinn, one of the more famous transgender athletes

Transgender Athletes: Society Swimming in Deep Water

Lia Thomas is a record-breaker. The University of Pennsylvania swimmer dominated the 500m prelims, and then finals, at the Zippy Invitational at the University of Akron in December. She broke the Ivy League record and set two school records in a pair of freestyle events. In one of the events she won, she was thirty-eight seconds faster than the woman who came in second. As swim times are measured, that is equivalent to a geologic age. Some, however, are not pleased by this chain of events, since just two years ago, Lia Thomas was Will Thomas, who was swimming for the men’s team.

If there is one thing everyone should have learned by now, it is that the issue of transgender athletes competing on women’s teams, in women’s divisions, is confusing, exasperating, unsettled, and produces multiple Everests of commentary, pro and con. And the rules of all this are not very clear—or if they are, they seem to address the core issue of fairness, but not resolve any of the issues tangential to it. Lia Thomas is following the rules set out by the NCAA, but are those rules fair? And what IS fairness for this issue? So far, the majority of the discussions center around the material aspects of this issue: testosterone and its effects on the body, and who has enough or not enough. So the various controlling agencies have been forced to find some way to decide an issue—and they’re trying to do it with rules. […]