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.
Laura Ivins, contributor | Black Christmas (1974)
There’s a certain amount of freedom to the horror genre, even at its most formulaic. With supernatural effects, fantastical creatures, and unsettling characters, horror calls for visual creativity. Black Christmas falls into this tradition, playing with visual perspective through the use of camera lenses that call attention to their own distorted image. Most obviously, roving shots from the killer’s point of view are interspersed throughout the film, shot with an extreme wide-angle lens that rounds out the edges of the frame. The view appears unnatural and cues the audience that we shouldn’t be identifying with this disturbed perspective, but the prevalence of these shots reminds us that the killer is ever present within the house.
Then, there’s the split-field diopter, a lens attachment that enables two planes of focus within an image. The foreground and background are in focus, but there’s a blurred mid-point in the image that – depending on whether the cinematographer took care to mask it – gives the shot a feeling of unreality. We see the split diopter fairly frequently in ’70s cinema, particularly horror cinema and the films of Brian DePalma. In Black Christmas, the filmmakers utilize it during a scene where a murdered woman’s father watches uncomfortably as his daughter’s sorority sister gives alcohol to a young child. The use within Black Christmas is relatively subtle (compared to Brian DePalma), but contributes to the film’s unsettling tone.
Warning: trailer contains some disturbing images.
Jack Miller, contributor | The Woman in the Window (1944)
Earlier this December, the IU Cinema provided a real treat for classic film buffs and for fans of those sordid, grimy B-pictures which have come to be known retroactively as “films noirs” – a screening of one of the great films from Fritz Lang’s rich American period, The Woman in the Window, on a beautifully textured 35mm print. Though the event was not initially covered in the pages of this blog, it remains one of my favorite moviegoing experiences of the semester. The film, about which the genre label “noir” was apparently coined, stars the venerable Edward G. Robinson (playing a much softer and more subtle role here than his early work in the gangster movies of the ‘30s might lead us to expect) as a married assistant professor who falls deeply under the spell of a young woman (Joan Bennett) who he becomes obsessed with due to her appearance in a cheap painting on display in a storefront window. The two of them soon become implicated in wickedness and blackmail when the death of one of Bennett’s former sweethearts causes the dead man’s ex-bodyguard to come knocking in the form of a menacingly boyish Dan Duryea.
Has there ever been an actress who worked with more great filmmakers than Joan Bennett? The actress who played in ‘40s films by Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, and Raoul Walsh had this to say about her experiences collaborating with Lang: “He remains one of the great directors in the history of the business, and working with him was a fascinating exercise in the art of making motion pictures.” The German filmmaker’s sojourn in Hollywood remains a source of continued fascination for students of film history in that the period finds this titan of Weimar-era silent expressionism paring down his aesthetics to suit tight budgets and modest scripts, while still imbuing his work with the stylistic trademarks of angular precision, doomed romanticism, and moral damnation. The critic Frieda Grafe sees in Lang’s compositions a kind of “hidden geometry” – a tendency in Lang’s shots to mysteriously organize themselves into intersecting planes. I also highly recommend Lang’s subsequent companion piece of 1945, Scarlet Street, which reunites the central cast of Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea. The two films may be regarded as twin masterpieces, in a certain way.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Paddington 2 (2018)
I’ve been thinking a lot about my “favorite films of the decade” list for the 2010s lately. If I ever made one it would be long, idiosyncratic, and have Paddington 2 in the number one position. It’s a hilarious, technically brilliant, and incredibly warm film that is a classic in this decade and will be regarded as one in future decades.
Paddington 2 finds the titular bear living with his adopted human family the Browns in London. Paddington works a series of odd jobs so he can buy a special pop-up book for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. But the book gets stolen and an innocent Paddington ends up in prison because he is misidentified as the thief. Paddington must rely on Aunt Lucy’s principles to clear his name and get the pop-up book back.
Paddington 2 is a very funny film. It uses both verbal humor (particularly puns) as well as the kind of well-executed visual comedy that would fit right at home in a silent movie (there’s even an homage to Chaplin’s Modern Times) to offer something entertaining for everyone. Writer/director Paul King even notes on the commentary track that in one scene they put jokes in close-ups of the headlines of the newspapers, and recommends pausing the screen so you can enjoy them. That warmhearted spirit of cramming the frame with as many jokes as the filmmakers can think of creates an infectiously funny atmosphere.
There are some movie comedies that are content to use the form of cinematic storytelling to primarily deliver jokes and tell a story in a way that we have seen before (primarily using a mixture of medium shots and close-ups edited in a shot-reverse-shot style). This differs from the approach taken by Paddington 2. King and director of photography Erik Wilson are not afraid to use fluid, Max Ophuls-style tracking shots to explore imaginative worlds created by their visual effects team. This is especially apparent in the sequences where Paddington imagines hugging Aunt Lucy in a storybook version of London and the jungle where she and his Uncle Pastuzo raised him.
But what truly makes Paddington 2 so memorable isn’t its jokes, or its beautiful mixture of elegant shots and intriguing visual effects. Instead, what is truly remarkable about this film is the emotional warmth that it generates. Paddington’s acts of kindness towards nearly everyone he meets are endearing reminders that we all have the ability to brighten other people’s days. The fact that these acts of kindness come from an immigrant who left his home country because of a natural disaster adds a political edge to this movie that is even more relevant in the wake of rising anti-immigrant rhetoric around the world as well as the United States’ refusal to take in climate change refugees from the Bahamas.
Most lists of the best films of the 2010s probably won’t have Paddington 2 on them. But they should. It is a funny, visually dazzling, warmhearted triumph that is a wonderful dose of humanity in troubled times. For me, at least, it is my favorite film of the decade.
Michaela Owens, Editor | Bell, Book, and Candle (1958)
One of my favorite Christmas films is Bell, Book, and Candle, the unabashedly offbeat romantic comedy Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart made the same year as Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Novak is Gil, the owner of an art shop — and a witch. She enjoys her powers, but she is hesitant to use them and often wonders what it would be like to be normal. Gil’s brother Nicky (a fantastic Jack Lemmon) and their aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester), on the other hand, adore their sorcery and use it any chance they get. When Shep Henderson (Stewart) moves into the same building as Gil, she becomes intrigued by him, and as a lark, she uses her magic to make Shep fall for her — and unexpectedly finds herself reciprocating his feelings.
There is a lot I love about this movie, like Gil’s ravishing wardrobe (seriously, every outfit is to die for) and George Duning’s jazzy score, which has fun touches that emphasize the magic of Gil and her family. Legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe once again doesn’t disappoint as he gives us one subtly dazzling image after another, many of them seared on my brain forever. The whole cast is delicious, but this film is truly Novak’s. She has always been derided for being an enigmatic actress, but I find her to be an incredibly vulnerable and alluring artist and she is absolutely luminous as Gil.
You also get to hear an exasperated Jimmy Stewart utter the phrase “baby witch parties,” so there’s that.