PEARL (2022)

PEARL is the opportunistic prequel to X, shot partially due to the fact that Ti West and the crew of X were stuck in New Zealand during the pandemic, they were listless, and he certainly made the most of it by fleshing out the ‘X’ storyline.

PEARL takes place in 1918, during the height of the “Spanish Influenza” — conveniently having a writerly reason for masks while shooting through the COVID pandemic — and concerns itself with the youthful edition of the elderly murderous wife featured in X, the titular Pearl. Unlike X, this is more of a character study, but includes faux-Technicolor bravado mimicking the films of John Ford, George Cukor, and Douglas Sirk.

We get the back-story of young Pearl, a woman — a farmer’s daughter — who thrills in killing creatures and feeding them to the nearby crocodile (also featured in X), one that dovetails with her zeal to be immortalized by Hollywood, not unlike X’s Maxine’s go-for-broke need to be seen by others. Matters escalate, most notably regarding a local theater projectionist who has a thing for skin flicks, in which Pearl finds her agency.

While there isn’t much more on the page than that — and those expecting PEARL to be as blood-soaked as X will be disappointed — it features Ti West’s heartfelt warmth towards sympathy for his protagonists, as murderous as they may be. It’s slower, it revels in long shots and eye-popping color — a welcome change from the miserable desaturated hues of most films nowadays — but oddly ramps the visual tone up when necessary, including a jarring giallo-esque segue near the end that you’ll know when you see it.

I’m not surprised that he made this paean to 50s Technicolor melodramas, but I am surprised he managed to get it made, and I can’t wait to see MAXXXINE — the closer to the trilogy.

Favorites of 2021: Films

Here are my favorite — note, not what I feel are the best — films of 2021, in alphabetical, non-prioritized, order:

BARB & STAR GO TO VISTA DEL RAY

“I miss this sort of comedy, the kind of comedy that doesn’t call attention to its jokes, the kind that’s sharply written and doesn’t meander or rely on extended improvised riffs. It’s tightly wound silliness with a ton of great talent”

“It was a real tit-flapper!”

BENEDETTA

“[U]ltimately this is a human drama, one which showcases how very little has changed over hundreds of years.”

CENSOR

“[A]n extremely mannered film until, well, until it isn’t. Stick with it and it will fuck you up.”

THE FRENCH DISPATCH

A surprisingly sincere triptych from Wes Anderson.

JOY RIDE

“We’re all healing as we (hopefully) come to the end of this awful era, and seeing JOY RIDE under these circumstances was such an immensely enjoyable time, and I’m so happy I could see it with such giving artists.”

THE SOUVENIR PART II

“I can’t recommend these two films enough, but I would suggest watching them relatively close together. I hadn’t seen PART I since it screened in theaters in 2019, and felt like I was missing out on a lot in PART II because, uh, my memory, and the past two years have been particularly harrowing.”

SPENCER

I’ve had the goddamn hardest time getting people to watch this film, solely because of Kristen Stewart, but hell, the way she casts her eyes … I wish folks would just watch the trailer and see her transformation.

“You are your own weapon.”

[…]

“Will they kill me, do you think?”

TITANE

“I can’t remember the last time I so extensively averted my eyes from watching a film. However, those moments are not exploitative — they are meant to be uncomfortable, they are there for a reason. I simply felt that I was able to glean that reason by listening, instead of watching.”

Missed:

  • ANNETTE
  • CANDYMAN
  • CYRANO
  • DRIVE MY CAR
  • MEMORIA
  • NIGHTMARE ALLEY
  • NINE DAYS
  • PASSING
  • PLAN B
  • RED ROCKET
  • SHIVA BABY
  • TEST PATTERN
  • THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
  • ZOLA

PROFESSOR UNRAT/THE BLUE ANGEL (1905)

A few years ago, my wife bought me a English copy of Heinrich Mann’s PROFESSOR UNRAT (retitled as THE BLUE ANGEL by the publisher), a 1979 edition which was also bundled with notes from THE BLUE ANGEL director Joseph von Sternberg, as well as a transcribed copy of THE BLUE ANGEL’s screenplay (which Sternberg immediately undercuts in his notes, as he specifies that they improvised the bulk of the dialogue and he doesn’t see the point of the transcription endeavor). Anyway, I didn’t get around to reading it until recently.

I thought that the novel wouldn’t have many surprises — I assumed that the film hewed pretty closely to the source material — but I was dead wrong. It’s as if Sternberg read the first forty pages, then skipped to the end and filled in the rest on his own, resulting in a radically different work than the film. (To Sternberg’s credit, he allegedly discussed his changes with Mann and Mann wholeheartedly endorsed them, adding that he wished he’d thought of the ending himself which, uh, -does not track- as Sternberg’s ending wouldn’t work at all for Mann’s novel.)

PROFESSOR UNRAT is the story of a poorly respected, older professor — Professor Mut, often referred to as ‘Mud’ or ‘Old Mud’ (in the original German, his name is Professor Unrat — it’s literally the title of the book — which I believe more translates to ‘Unclean’ or ‘Garbage’), who falls in love with Rosa, a tawdry song-and-dance actor who is known for shoeless Greek dances. However, unlike the film, the novel is the story of a bully, a man who utilizes his wife to bring ruin to an entire town full of prior students he felt had slighted him.

To be reductive, Mann’s PROFESSOR UNRAT feels closer to BREAKING BAD as opposed to the fallen man melodrama of Sternberg’s THE BLUE ANGEL.

One last thing: the translation I read was from 1932. The 1979 edition didn’t bother to re-transcribe it. As far as I know, there isn’t a newer translation which is a shame because, frankly, this translation seems suspect for the reasons noted above, but it also just seems sloppy in general. There’s a lot of poor syntax and, frankly, it’s often a clumsy, awkward read, and I’m pretty sure that’s not due to Mann’s writing. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still a fascinating text, especially if you’re familiar with the adaptation, but it’s worth reading on its own merit.

https://www.goodreads.com/ro/book/show/442181.The_Blue_Angel

THE LAST LAUGH/DER LETZTE MANN (1924)

(kanopy/VOD/YouTube) Sure, F.W. Murnau directed NOSFERATU, FAUST, as well as one of the greatest melodramas ever with SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS, but my favorite film of his is THE LAST LAUGH.

THE LAST LAUGH is an extraordinarily depressing story of a hotel porter’s fall from grace starring Emil Jannings, an actor exceptional at portraying broken characters. While the tale is simple, it’s not simply told, as Murnau puts forward all of his talents with his ‘untethered camera’ as possible. Briefly put: the aging hotel porter (Emil Jannings) loves his job, loves the limelight of the front door and accommodating the hotel’s guests. However, his boss deems him too old and re-assigns him to be a washroom attendent. Despite the very slight story, it’s an expressionistic marvel, pure cinema, with Murnau’s camera visually and emotionally gesticulating all over the place, eschewing title cards except for one which is displayed upon Jannings falling asleep in his newly anointed washroom attendent’s chair. (Yes, yes, one might construe the following as a spoiler):

“Here our story should really end, for in actual life the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him, however, and provided quite an improbable epilogue.”

The last fifteen minutes of the film consists of an orgy of food, montage, and lower-class well-wishing. Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

A clip:

The full film via YouTube (it’s in public domain, but there are restored editions out there that are worth your hard-earned cash):

SORRY WE MISSED YOU (2019)

(Criterion/kanopy/VOD) Ken Loach’s SORRY WE MISSED YOU is a slow-motion car crash of a financial horror story about a family trying to get by while giving all of their spare time to low-wage gig jobs. The husband Ricky (Kris Hitchen) has just sold his wife Abbie’s (Debbie Honeywood) car to purchase a delivery van in order to delivery Amazon packages and the like around the U.K., and Abbie is now forced to bus around to her nursing jobs. Both of them are out of the house for twelve hours a day, which results in their teenage son’s troublemaking escalating and their young daughter being the one waking her mom and dad up when they fall asleep in front of the television. Bills mount up, fees spiral out of control, and it looks like there’s no way out.

While their debt and stress casts a pall over the film, Paul Laverty’s (who penned Loach’s prior film I, DANIEL BLAKE) script inserts enough kind and sweet moments, such as one afternoon when Ricky takes his daughter along delivering packages, and there’s a poignant scene between Abbie and one of her ‘clients’ where they share family photos. The client pointedly shows off pictures of her in her old union job.

That one scene, where Abbie’s client talks about her old union job as ‘the good times’, is the only explicit commentary that Laverty and Loach insert, but ultimately the entire film is a plea for a return to the age of unionization and workers’ rights. They make sure to hammer home the simple fact that the gig economy is a return to pre-union times: a return to the company store, a return to being nickeled-and-dimed, a return to job inequality, a return to inexistent worker protection.

Near the end of the film, the daughter yells “I just want to go back to the way things were before!” and, while she’s too young to realize that the ‘before’ wasn’t necessary significantly better, she realizes it’s far better than the stressed-out hell everyone is dealing with now. She deserves better. We as a society deserve better than this.

THE CATERED AFFAIR (1956)

(VOD) Gore Vidal adapts Paddy Chayefsky’s (best known for NETWORK and MARTY) play about a young couple (Debbie Reynolds and Rod Taylor) that wants a no-muss, no-fuss wedding get pressured into a huge wedding by Reynold’s mother (a delightfully antagonistic Bettie Davis) that Reynold’s father (Ernest Borgnine) can’t afford. (It also features Barry Fitzgerald as the idiosyncratic uncle, one of my favorite character actors.)

Like all Chayefsky works, it’s the words, culture, and class issues that matter, but when I think about this film, I think about the set design and decoration: it’s grimy, it’s old, it’s cramped, it’s -lived in-, but it’s home. It’s a fantastic little film that gets lost in Chayefsky’s catalog, simply because it a rather small melodrama, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.

PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1978)

(DVD/YOD) You may be familiar with the Hollywood film PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981), starring and ushered into existence by Steve Martin, but it’s based on a six-ep British series penned by Dennis Potter. To be fair to Martin, the film sticks very closely to the original series, but the Hollywood gloss gets in the way, to the point where the film can’t see the premise for the trees. For example:

Potter’s ‘Yes, Yes’:

Martin’s ‘Yes, Yes’:

But I’m getting ahead of myself. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is an incredibly unsavory lip-synced jukebox musical that takes place in the 1930s about a man’s midlife crisis — Bob Hoskins as Arthur Parker, portrayed Willy Loman style — and the women he leaves in his wake. On paper, it’s not terribly appealing, partially because Potter frames Arther as a noir hero, eschewed by his wife (and therefore, society) because of his sex drive (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=duIlaVlLwX4&list=PL10169BEFFBF3C1B6&index=14 ). However, Potter’s women are far more fascinating than Arthur, and the musical numbers still resonate, well over 40 years later. Take for example, Arthur’s paramour, teacher Eileen:

Potter’s ‘Love is Good for Anything that Ails You’:

Martin’s ‘Love is Good for Anything that Ails You’:

What’s dictated via Hollywood’s PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — no offense to Bernadette Peters’ performance — is the longing, the frustration, the thrill in letting loose. It’s all spelled-out. Contrast it with Potter’s number, where it’s all simply acted out through Cheryl Campbell’s amazing performance.

And here’s a number featuring Arthur’s long-suffering wife. (The number doesn’t appear in Martin’s film.)

Potter’s ‘You Rascal, You’:

If you aren’t into 20s/30s era American Jazz or post WWI British miserabilia, this probably isn’t a series for you, but if you’re into either one, hunt down a copy.

SOAP (ABC, 1977-1980)

(fubu/tubi/Vudu) Following in the footsteps of MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN was this gonzo satire of soap operas created by Susan Harris (an already established writer from LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE, and who would go one to create THE GOLDEN GIRLS). Difference was, this was explicitly comedic, and weekly. The cast was stacked: Katherine Helmond, Richard Mulligan, Robert Guillaume, a young Billy Crystal (a rare recurring gay character*), and more.

Far more screwball than practically anything else on the air at the time, the show aimed for laughs but still pushed the envelope far more than they needed to, and they pulled in loads of eyeballs! That’s why it was so shocking that, at the end of the third season, which features a jaw-dropping cliffhanger, the show was cancelled.

That didn’t stop ABC from producing spin-offs, though. If you’re a child of the 80s, you probably never realized that BENSON was born from SOAP.

If you’re a fan of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, you owe yourself to trace your television heritage back and watch this. (Mitch Hurwitz cut his teeth on GOLDEN GIRLS, and no doubt, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT would not exist if it weren’t for SOAP.) It was well-ahead of its time, and it’s a crime that it’s mostly forgotten.

  • It’s worth noting that MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN had one of the first gay storylines on TV, but it didn’t last that long, whereas Crystal’s character did. Whether Crystal’s performance was a good thing is another question all together.

MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN (1976-1977)

(DVD/YouTube) A breakout daily satirical soap conceptualized by Norman Lear, but shaped by Gail Parent, Ann Marcus and Joan Darling, focused around a severely dysfunctional family and their titular wife, Mary Hartman (played by Louise Lasser), whose life of constant stress and anxiety and insecurity builds to a crescendo of a nervous breakdown. It’s a severely intelligent, often hilarious, self-critical melodrama about domesticity, consumer culture, American media & existentialism that’s just as relevant now as it was when this was first broadcast.

The show nailed its tone out of the gate, as you can see with the infamous ‘Waxy Yellow Buildup’ series opener:

(I really wish SHOUT! featured a longer clip, as the first half of the premiere is amazing. The show quickly picked up its pace, but kept its oft-putting, absurd sensibility, well before it was fashionable.)

It’s worth noting that MARY HARTMAN was a full-blown phenomenon, at least for its first year. If you’ve read the first TALES OF THE CITY (1978), you know that characters planned their days around the broadcast. Lasser was brought onto SNL to do a Mary Hartman bit, which allegedly resulted in her being banned from the show for erratic behavior.

The show was too smart, burned through too much plot, was too emotionally grueling and controversial to have any proper longevity, and it wrapped when Lasser bowed out at the end of the second season which, doesn’t sound like much, but those two seasons consisted of 325 half-hour episodes over the period of under two years.

If you’d like to read more about it (instead of watching all 325 episodes like I have), here are two great places to start:

https://tv.avclub.com/mary-hartman-mary-hartman-combined-soap-opera-satire-1798242393

https://eastofborneo.org/articles/from-a-waxy-yellow-buildup-to-a-nervous-breakdown-the-fleeting-existence-of-mary-hartman-mary-hartman/

In typical Lear fashion, a spin-off was born based on one of the odder characters, Barth Gimble, as FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT, and then reborn as FERNWOOD FOREVER, both tongue-in-cheek takes on local late night programming which are probably better remembered today than MARY HARTMAN is.

BLUE (1993)

(kanopy) This is the last of my dramatic film recommendations for a while — October will be 100% horror (mostly film, some TV) and November will be all about TV, and I expect I’ll be too exhausted to write anything for December, so I’m closing September out with my favorite movie ever: BLUE, the final film in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s THREE COLORS trilogy. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to have seen RED or WHITE to get it, but you might want to circle back.)

Please excuse my indulgence, but it’s the film that crystalized to my teen mind what, emotionally, a film could imbue. A story of love and loss, of legacy and exploitation and regret, exquisitely and silently and loudly told. A woman coping with the sudden death of her husband and daughter and the lies she dealt with when they were alive, and those she tries to convince herself of while she’s trying to live. Its economy is devastating; a perfect film for the walking wounded.

That said, Zbigniew Preisner’s score does -a lot- of heavy lifting. (I still hold dear a very nicotine-stained CD of the soundtrack.) So many films cheap out on trying to showcase ‘iconic works created by their protagonists’, but SONG FOR THE UNIFICATION OF EUROPE — Julie’s version, of course because, well, spoilers — is a goddamn masterpiece:

and brings everything full-circle in a moving end-scene (NSFW):

So, yes, there you go. I’m not one for best of lists, but BLUE is undeniably my favorite film ever, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I hope these words move you to watch it, if you haven’t already. Onto October, and some scary fun!