By 1978, Ingmar Bergman was in trouble. The director had fled his native Sweden two years earlier after an arrest on charges of tax evasion. (He would be completely exonerated in 1979, but his mood was no doubt grim until then.) He visited Paris and Los Angeles, then settled in Munich, where he would shoot his first English-language film, the 1920s Berlin-set The Serpent’s Egg, a Dino de Laurentiis co-production co-starring David Carradine and Bergman stalwart Liv Ullmann. The Serpent’s Egg was a box-office flop in Sweden, a critical and commercial failure internationally, and most of all a big artistic disappointment for Bergman himself–a decided stumble for a director riding high on the success of 1970s titles like the harrowing Cries and Whispers, which enjoyed huge success in the U.S. in the unlikely care of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and the audience-friendly The Magic Flute. At the same time, Bergman was embarking on what would prove to be an unhappy tenure at Munich’s Residenztheater, where he managed to mount eleven productions before being fired in 1981. In this turbulent context, the very Bergmanesque Autumn Sonata can be seen as a kind of comfort film–a deliberate return to roots. Someone once described it as “Bergman does Bergman,” and the gag stuck. Bergman himself eventually quoted the remark, calling it “witty but unfortunate. For me, that is.”
Do you find monster movies that revolve around damsels, décolletage, and men in phony rubber suits pathetic or endearing? If the latter, you may well find room in your heart for Swamp Thing, an old-fashioned creature feature that already seemed anachronous when it hoisted itself up out of the mud of early-1980s genre cinema. As movies like Alien, Altered States, and Scanners put a grim, often grotesque spin on ideas about biological transformation, Wes Craven–surely one of the grimmest of horror directors in the 1970s–embarked on a PG-rated fairy tale about a gentle scientist whose own experimental chemicals turn him into a super-powered hulk made entirely of plant matter. As Craven’s contemporaries busied themselves with tales of human bodies rent asunder by sex, drugs, and the military-industrial complex, the director of Last House on the Left was making a story of tender love in the wilds of South Carolina, where a wound to the breast can be healed by a clump of swamp moss and a beast’s severed limb can regenerate through the judicious application of sunlight.
When Exotica debuted at Cannes in 1994, Atom Egoyan had already earned a reputation for curious, low-key explorations of memory and alienation. His Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, and The Adjuster leaned on video as a kind of metaphor showing how relationships become dependent on individual frames of reference that each move in only one direction — how one person’s blank tape is another’s cherished memory, or how one person’s pornographic display is another’s lifeline. Exotica represented Egoyan’s commercial breakthrough in part because he found an enticing venue for those observations. It’s one of the most fundamentally despairing movies that I know, and yet there is in the precision of its craft, the bravery of its conception, and the depth of its empathy something fundamentally uplifting.
At a certain point about a third of the way into the home invasion thriller You’re Next, in which a wry indie comedy about a dysfunctional family gathering is interrupted by a wry indie slasher picture, a meathead sitting in the row in front of me started applauding. It was a slow clap. On screen, a man wearing a lamb mask had just punched a woman, hard, the force of his blow pushing her through a window. The meathead chuckled appreciatively before putting his hands together for the psycho. The woman crawled on the broken glass until the man in the mask pushed the sole of his boot into the top of her head, his axe following the arc of a golf swing before finding its mark. The meathead tittered delightedly about this and muttered something that I chose to ignore.
Dark Skies has the kernel of a really interesting genre twist — parts of it play like a retelling of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a coming-of-age story from the point of view of an adolescent whose indulgence of hormonal urges manifests in part through a willingness to be abducted by aliens — where instead of a henpecked Richard Dreyfuss abdicating family responsibilities by boarding that mothership, its a horny teenager leaving the nest. Unfortunately, Dark Skies is not quite that movie, opting instead for a variation on haunted-house tropes anchored by a pair of dipshit suburban parents whose ever-so-slowly dawning reaction to supernatural phenomenon dates to the kind of 70s movies this pays homage to — The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, and of course the aforementioned CE3K. Seriously, Dark Skies told from the teenager’s point of view could be the horror-movie response to J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 Spielberg pastiche. The film we got is more of a mess, but I’m glad I saw it — mainly because of my fondness for the movie that I’d like it to be.
The early 1980s must have been a weird time to be Tobe Hooper. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had made him one of the most notorious directors in the world, and Poltergeist vaulted him onto the A-list. He would have been on top of the world if not for an extended controversy over that film: Poltergeist was produced by Steven Spielberg, and there were widespread rumors that he actually directed it, too. Hooper denied it and Spielberg issued oddly-worded statements that permanently muddied the waters. Whatever the truth of their collaboration, the controversy was a blow to Hooper’s reputation. His Texas Chain Saw felt almost like outsider art–raw and twisted, it was the antithesis of the burnished Spielberg style. Poltergeist, on the other hand, was the very quintessence of a Steven Spielberg film, from its familiar suburban family in distress to its richly-detailed mise en scène. If Hooper really did direct it, it doesn’t say much for his authorial voice that he left virtually no discernible fingerprints on the final product.
Not Fade Away doesn’t have an opening scene–it has an overture. You could almost call it a mash-up. After a brief snippet of TV footage showing New Jersey boys Joey Dee and the Starliters performing their 1962 hit “Peppermint Twist,” the image is replaced by an old RCA “Indian Head” test pattern superimposed with the words “Please Stand By” as a voice announces a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. After the familiar emergency-alert tone starts buzzing away for a couple of bars, it’s co-opted as part of the beat behind the guitar riff that opens “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The sense of time and place thus conjured is strong: it’s 1965, and America is on the verge of a rock-and-roll emergency.
For the casual observer, Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders may as well be titled The Eyes of Anna Karina. The famously radical director’s follow-up to the hit film Contempt isn’t a favourite of American movie buffs for its politics or its thematic rigour. Instead, it’s a veritable spoof of film noir–at times a near-farce–involving a couple of small-time schemers who take their cues from Hollywood. Though Band of Outsiders is thought of as one of Godard’s most accessible works, it’s also one of his most dissonant. It’s a gritty crime drama wrapped around a light romance; a breezy comedy shot through with intimations of the geopolitical landscape of the 1960s; an homage to U.S. culture that incidentally imagines the decline of the American empire. In Godard’s body of work, Band of Outsiders–its story based on a novel by American mystery writer Dolores Hitchens–can be read as the connective tissue between the bones of Breathless, which is full of loving references to American cinema and pulp fiction, and the later Weekend and Tout va bien, which are explicitly critical of western culture in general and capitalism in particular.