Every month A Place for Film will bring you a selection of films from our group of regular bloggers. Even though these films aren’t currently being screened at the IU Cinema, this series will reflect the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema, as well as demonstrate the eclectic tastes of the bloggers. Each contributor has picked one film that they saw this month that they couldn’t wait to share with others. Keep reading to find out what discoveries these cinephiles have made, as well as some of the old friends they’ve revisited.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
I recently got the Criterion Channel. There are a lot of movies on there that would be hard to see elsewhere, including Rocco and His Brothers and a series of films entitled “Columbia Noir.” But one of my most rewarding watches has been of a film that’s relatively accessible: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters tells the story of real-life writer and political figure Yukio Mishima. An opening title card informs us that “his body of work consisted of 35 novels, 25 plays, 200 short stories and 8 volumes of essays.” He is also famous for what came to be known as “The Mishima Affair,” in which he and four cadets from his private army took an army headquarters hostage.
The most fascinating thing about this film is its structure. “The Mishima Affair” is shot in color. There are flashbacks to Mishima’s life before November 25, 1970 (the date of the Mishima Affair) that we see in black and white. There are even recreations from three of Mishima’s novels, which are rendered on stylized sets that would make the Lars von Trier of Dogville jealous. It’s one of the most ambitious structures I’ve seen in a film, and writer-director Paul Schrader makes it an essential way to view a multi-faceted artist’s mind.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about a writer. Schrader isn’t afraid to show shots of Mishima writing, which many think is one of the least cinematic acts imaginable. He also includes frequent narration from Mishima, which gets you into his head in a direct way. This film is practically a textbook for how to portray a person’s mind onscreen in a visually distinctive and narratively engaging way.
I’ve seen a lot of movies, which sometimes makes it hard to find a film that is truly innovative and unlike any other. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is such a film, and I look forward to revisiting it.
Laura Ivins, contributor | It’s a Disaster (2012)
What would you do if disaster struck and you knew you only had a few hours to live? It’s a Disaster starts from this premise, deviating from the usual disaster movies by focusing on the relationships of a handful of people inside a house. Instead of gore and explosions, it offers comedy, drama, bickering, making up, and conversations about what could happen and what went wrong. It reminded me of indie films like The Anniversary Party (dir. Alan Cumming & Jennifer Jason Leigh, 2001), where the performances and the exploration of relationships are more important than plot or visual style.
Jeff Grace’s character, Shane, a pop culture nerd who spends the first act trying to win an eBay auction for a rare comic book, helps lighten the tone as he draws from disaster film tropes of alien invasions, conspiracy theories, and marauding biker gangs in his attempt to understand and respond to the situation. Additionally, David Cross’ presence provides comic relief and balances out the sometimes self-indulgent drama of the married couples dealing with their infidelities. His character, Glen, takes a left turn at the end of the film that is well worth watching.
Caleb Allison, contributor | C.H.U.D. (1984)
C.H.U.D. – Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. Need I say more to entice you? Probably not, but I will because Douglas Cheek’s ’80s cult classic deserves it. I was recently perusing Btown’s local video store, formerly known as Plan 9 Film Emporium, now Vulture Video, and stumbled upon C.H.U.D. in one of the store’s wonderfully illicit dark corners. I’d heard murmurings of its cult reputation and the film recently received a brand new restoration, 2k transfer, and Blu-ray release by Arrow Video. Apparently, my cinema education was missing a critical film in the subterranean cannibalistic monster category.
The film opens as a series of missing persons in downtown New York leads a police captain down to the subterranean depths of the city’s underbelly. Rumors of a government cover-up and stranded toxic waste set the stage. What could possible go wrong here? Well, let’s just say what’s found lurking there has a very refined palate for human tartare.
C.H.U.D. offers a bizarrely entertaining blend of up-and-coming familiar faces, including half the cast of the Home Alone franchise with John Heard and Daniel Stern, as well as a young John Goodman and Christopher Curry (Starship Troopers), and truly gross creature designs, all wrapped up in a flimsy urban-decay narrative and overly dramatic dialogue. It’s the perfect recipe for cult fame and fortune.
To top it all off C.H.U.D strikes the perfect Jaws-level of creature exposure – just enough to keep you enticed early on without giving everything away. And the film’s score by David A. Hughes is constantly rising above the always entertaining but sometimes muddling narrative, giving the film’s silliness a taut edge. There’s really only one drawback to the film – you’ll never walk over a manhole carefree ever again!
Jack Miller, contributor | The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
This month, I had the pleasure of making my first trip to the Historic Artcraft Theatre in Franklin, IN to see Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much on a 35mm print. A remake of his own 1934 British film of the same name, The Man Who Knew Too Much comes right in the middle of his greatest period as a filmmaker, between the masterpieces Rear Window and Vertigo. One thing that strikes me as interesting about this film is that it has not one, but two, emotional climaxes, and both of them are structured around extended musical performances.
The first lasts for about eight or nine minutes, and is set inside of a large concert hall. During this first set piece, Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day (and, by extension, the audience of the film) know that there is to be an attempt to take the Prime Minister’s life, but the decision to interfere with this plan is complicated by the fact that their son is being held as ransom for their cooperation. As the tension builds to a crescendo of sorts, Hitchcock cuts between various musicians in the symphony playing, and Day’s character looking increasingly distraught as the situation appears to be out of her control.
The second climax reverses this structure by having Day use her skills as a former singer to take control of the situation. In this case, her solo performance of “Que Sera Sera” is used as a guise to distract various politicians while Stewart sneaks off to find their son. These two sequences seem to comment on one another in illuminating ways, and it’s a testament to Hitch’s mastery as a filmmaker that he can present such sublime musical performances while directing our thoughts to other matters – namely, to the tension happening offscreen.
Michaela Owens, Editor | Marked Woman (1937)
For a few years now, I had been dying to see Marked Woman, a 1937 drama about a vicious gangster and the women who took him down. The premise, inspired by the real-life 1936 trial of Lucky Luciano, sounded irresistible, and the idea of Humphrey Bogart playing the good-guy prosecutor seemed fun. But if I’m being completely honest, the main reason why I wanted to see this film was Bette Davis, who turns in a typically stunning performance as prostitute — I mean, “nightclub hostess” — Mary Dwight.
Like many Davis characters, Mary is fierce. From the second we see her, we know she is someone not to be messed with as she lights her cigarette and looks at her new boss, gangster Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli), clearly unimpressed. She and her fellow hostesses are exhausted by the nightclub life, but they believe that it’s actually better than a normal, 9-to-5 job. For Mary, it affords her the chance to keep her kid sister in college. There’s nothing Mary wouldn’t do for her sister — except tell her the truth about what she does for a living. When Mary is jailed for a murder Vanning committed, things quickly spiral out of control and tragedy strikes.
To my surprise, what struck me the most about Marked Woman, aside from Bette, is its sense of sisterhood. Estelle (Mayo Methot), Emmy Lou (Isabel Jewell), Florrie (Rosalind Marquis), and Gabby (Lola Lane) are not only Mary’s fellow hostesses, but also her roommates and friends. When Mary targets Vanning, the other women are reluctant. The mobster has never hesitated to kill someone who has crossed him, and the women would be risking everything to help Mary. In the end, though, they know what they must do. We don’t know what will happen after the credits have rolled; there are a lot of uncertainties surrounding the characters’ fates. The one thing we do know, though, is that Mary, Emmy Lou, Gabby, Florrie, and Estelle have been bonded by violence and loss, and, miraculously, they’ve emerged as survivors.