Every month, Establishing Shot brings 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 reflects the varied programming that can be found at the Cinema and demonstrates 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.
Jack Miller, contributor | Grease (1978)
After the passing of Olivia Newton-John (1948-2022) earlier this month, a Facebook friend of mine posted a moving tribute to her in which he recounted the importance that she had held for him growing up as a gay kid in the 1980s. Newton-John was one of those female stars, like Judy Garland and Joan Crawford before her, who has been deeply appreciated and even co-opted as a kind of symbol by certain groups and subsets of gay men, and for me this remains a fascinating aspect of her legacy. As a lover of musicals and someone who worships Garland but who has only had limited exposure to Newton-John’s work, I immediately wanted to rewatch Grease (1978).
Another friend of mine has a little projector, so her and I watched Grease outside and had a really lovely time with it. Aficionados of the musical genre have a hard time seeing the virtues of Grease and it’s sort of easy to see why: the choreography in numbers like “Greased Lightning” and “Beauty School Dropout” are fairly unsophisticated in comparison with the greater glories achieved by MGM directors like Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and even Charles Walters. The script has its problems too, if you care about that sort of thing. And yet, Grease has a kind of raucous, unrefined energy that is impossible to deny. John Travolta’s hip gyrations during the prom sequence are dizzying to watch. “We Go Together,” the final group number, is beautiful because it solidifies the formation of a community, a group of high school kids still fresh and naïve enough to think that they’ll keep in touch forever. This time around, I was struck by Newton-John’s solo song “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and the way it resembles Judy Garland’s performance of “The Boy Next Door” near the beginning of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); this image of a teenage girl singing a song about her beloved while she’s alone seems to be an important one in the American musical.
This film, like The Wizard of Oz, seems to be almost critic-proof: it is so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that the emotional relationships we hold with it are inevitably going to be bound up with associations and memories.
Laura Ivins, contributor | Pioneers of African American Cinema
Sometimes I forget how good early cinema is. While loose genres developed quickly after film’s invention, the rules weren’t codified. Many early filmmakers played with the possibilities of this new medium, and the first decades of cinema’s existence are marked by invention and promise.
The 5-disc collection of Pioneers of African American Cinema showcases this spirit of invention from African American filmmakers and audiences in the early 20th century. The films date from 1915 onward and most come from the silent era. My personal favorites are Eleven P.M. (Richard Maurice, 1928), The Flying Ace (Richard E. Norman, 1926), and the home movies by Solomon Sir Jones (1924-1926).
Eleven P.M. is a morality tale — typical of films in this collection — directed by Black/Cuban filmmaker Richard Maurice, who founded his own cinema company and was later involved with labor activism. The film’s plot winds through the temptations and downfalls of a mother and daughter played by the same actress (Orine Johnson), but also includes a dream structure that gives the film an experimental quality.
The Flying Ace is a silent classic directed by White filmmaker Richard E. Norman, whose Norman Film Manufacturing Company was one of the most prolific producers of films intended for Black audiences (called “race films”) in the early 20th century. It’s a detective procedural mixed with an action adventure, featuring a super fun aeroplane escape by the film’s heroine, Ruth (Kathryn Boyd).
Finally, the Solomon Sir Jones home movies provide a window into the quotidian life of African Americans in the 1920s. The films included in this collection all appear to be shot in Oklahoma, though Jones also shot home movies in Indianapolis and other places he visited. We see the town of Langston, Oklahoma, which was founded as one of Oklahoma’s all-Black towns and is the home of the HBCU Langston University.
In lieu of a trailer, enjoy this clip from Eleven P.M.
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | Breathless (1983)
Recently, I saw the new Broadway revival of Into the Woods. I was familiar with the plot because I had seen several productions of it before that one, including one at IU when I was a freshman. Nevertheless, much of that revival made an old favorite feel new to me. It starred actors who had interpretations of the characters which I had never before considered, fascinating staging, and previously-unused theatrical elements (most notably puppetry) with which I think I’ll always associate Into the Woods. Even though the story was the same, the brilliant cast and crew put their own original stamp on it.
I feel a similar way about writer-director Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic French New Wave film Breathless (1960). They both tell roughly the same story of a petty thief who rekindles a relationship with a former girlfriend and share many of the same narrative beats. These plot points include but are not limited to the thief killing a cop near the beginning, a meeting between the thief and a fellow criminal at a junkyard, and even a scene where his girlfriend meets an older man who is successful in her field with the hope of him mentoring her.
But while the McBride version of Breathless is faithful to the larger story beats of Godard’s film, it also makes many fascinating little changes to the plot. Some of these are simply cosmetic, such as changing the thief’s name from Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to Jesse Lujack (Richard Gere) and his girlfriend’s name from Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) to Monica Poiccard (Valérie Kaprisky). But others give this film a distinctively pop art sensibility. For example, Godard’s thief was obsessed with Humphrey Bogart and often copied his mannerisms. In contrast, Lujack is a big fan of the comic book hero the Silver Surfer. He has monologues about that character which brilliantly reveal how Lujack thinks about himself. McBride even lovingly films the beautiful art in the comic books that feature the Silver Surfer, which have bright colors that perfectly complement the film’s own vivid visuals.
In addition, the McBride version has great central performances which offer their own unique takes on the characters from Godard’s film. Gere gives an incredible performance as Lujack, who is much funnier and livelier than Belmondo’s more laidback criminal in the original version. Kaprisky is more restrained than Seberg’s character in the original film, but also has a charm and understated passion which make her intriguing. The sparks that fly between them are different than the ones in the 1960 version, but they are just as entertaining to watch.
McBride’s version of Breathless remains less well-known than the one Godard made. It continues to have a cult following that includes Quentin Tarantino, who paid homage to Lujack’s love for the Silver Surfer in Reservoir Dogs (1992). Personally, I like McBride’s version more than the original. I admire its sense of fun and freedom, as well as Gere’s charismatic performance. But more than anything, I love it because of how it embodies what the best revivals of plays/musicals do: tell the same story but use the creativity of different artists to make it feel original and alive in a new way.
Michaela Owens, Editor | Young and Innocent (1937)
I truly saw so many good films this month that it almost feels unfair to pick just one. There was the grim but sublime The Sea Wolf (1941); the crowd-pleasing (in the best way possible!) Top Gun: Maverick; the chilling 1972 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Endless Night; and the wild, unexpectedly emotional Bullet Train, which I really loved. But in the end, I had to go with Young and Innocent, a highly underrated gem from Alfred Hitchcock’s British years that knocked my socks off with its adorable romance and technical bravura.
Although I worship at the altar of Hitch, there are still a handful of his films I haven’t seen yet because, to be honest, I’m a little hesitant to finish his filmography since it would mean no more “new” Hitchcock movies. However, for his August 13th birthday I decided to give Young and Innocent a whirl and, as so often happens with his work, I was in love within seconds. The film opens with a heated argument between a man and his wife during a thunderstorm. He leaves in a huff, but then he glances back at the door. The next morning, the wife’s corpse is washed onto a nearby beach, where she is discovered by a man she once knew named Robert (the delightful Derrick De Marney), who is instantly suspected of being the murderer. Forced to go on the run, Robert befriends the chief constable’s daughter Erica (a luminous Nova Pilbeam) as they work to prove his innocence.
While the story isn’t the tightest — much of the plot revolves around the MacGuffin of Robert’s stolen raincoat, whose belt was used to strangle the wife, and it doesn’t quite make sense to me why finding this raincoat should automatically exonerate him — the performances and Hitch’s trademark brilliance are more than worth the price of admission. Pilbeam and De Marney in particular are one of the great, undersung couples of Hitchcock’s work, oozing charm, humor, and sweetness. (In my notes for this movie, I may have wrote, “Never seen Derrick De Marney before but I think I would die for him,” if that tells you how I feel.)
One warning I should give, though: the final sequence, while a masterclass in suspense and camerawork, does feature the use of blackface, which is… distracting and unfortunate.
Since a trailer couldn’t be found, here is a scene from the film. Enjoy!