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.
Noni Ford, contributor | Afire (2023)
I haven’t seen many German language films, so I had absolutely no expectations when I went to a screening of Afire, a film set in northern Germany during the summertime. The story features two friends, Leon and Felix, who are traveling to Felix’s family summer house to work on their own projects. Leon has a limited amount of time to finish a draft of his novel before his literary agent arrives for the weekend to give him feedback, while Felix is compiling work for his photography art school portfolio. The trip is already off to a rocky start, though, when their car gives out on them and they have to walk through the forest to reach the house. On arrival, they discover food sitting out, a messy kitchen, and the biggest bedroom occupied with items from someone else. After this discovery and a brief phone call to his mom, Felix confirms that the pair have a guest named Nadja who will be staying with them for the balance of their visit. Nadja remains a mystery as she seems to only come home at night, but once they make her acquaintance, they are also introduced to Devid, a lifeguard on the beach where Felix goes so often to take his photographs.
Although this film exists heavily in the summer vacation genre space, our main protagonist is Leon, who is pessimistic in the extreme and rebukes almost all group activities throughout the film. It seems more like the other characters are having a summer vacation movie that he’s on the outside of, looking in. He frets over his novel and is irritated by nearly everything and everyone he encounters. Although he feigns nonchalance in all their interactions, he has a fixation on Nadja, who tries to be friendly towards him despite his frostiness. The backdrop to the whole film and the reason for the title is that while our cast of characters bask in the summer sun, there is an encroaching forest fire that looms closer and closer. It’s easy throughout the film to be frustrated with Leon, especially since there were a few scenes where I wished we could follow Nadja or Felix instead of him. However, I think the main component captured in this story is Leon’s longing and intense interiority that pushes others away and cause him to be blind to so much going on around him. Leon isn’t our protagonist on accident; his place in the narrative recalls to us our own moments of struggle and embarrassment during stages of writer’s block, work anxiety, and love. As unlikable as he is, he is still someone capable of growth and change, and by the end of the film we do see another side to him and the effects of a summer he will very likely never forget.
Chris Forrester, contributor | Stop Making Sense (1984)
My sincerest apologies go out to Joseph Losey, whose Mister Klein I had already scrawled out a few admiring sentences about and was all but guaranteed to be my MMR pick for September — until last night at 10 pm when a friend dragged me to an AMC in Skokie, IL, for the day’s last IMAX showing of Jonathan Demme’s newly-restored masterpiece Stop Making Sense and I felt my life change before my eyes. The draw of Stop Making Sense is, at this point, not even that it’s a glimpse of one of the ’80s’ more colorful art-rock projects at the height of their power so much as that it’s become rather unanimously known as the greatest concert doc of all time.
And what a concert doc it is — a perfect, euphoric synthesis of content and form, where the energy of the camera and filmmaking and the energy of the performers themselves mutually compound one another into a tidal wave of sweat, adrenaline, and elation. More than just a document of an exceptional rock performance, Demme’s film bends to the band’s every whim, capturing at once the breathless glee of the performance as a whole and the tiniest minutiae that comprise it — every flying bead of sweat, glinting eye, and moment of onstage camaraderie. It’s a beautiful portrait not only of music’s connective power, but also of the pure joys of artistic creation.
Ed. note: you can check out the new 4K restoration of Stop Making Sense yourself this November 16 at IU Cinema!
Jesse Pasternack, contributor | House of Usher (1960)
My new favorite series on the Criterion Channel is called “Grindhouse Gothic,” and it collects all of the films that Roger Corman made which were adapted from literary works by Edgar Allan Poe. I find something of value in all of Corman’s Poe films, whether it’s the funny and lighthearted The Raven (1963) or the baroque yet terrifying The Masque of the Red Death (1964). But one which I had never seen before which truly impressed me was House of Usher.
Adapted from Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher, this movie begins with Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) traveling to the decrepit mansion known as the House of Usher. Winthrop wants to bring his fiancée Madeline (Myrna Fahey) back with him to Boston. But her brother Roderick (Vincent Price) fiercely opposes their union because he doesn’t want to perpetuate the curse of his family’s bloodline upon future descendants. Soon, Roderick is forced to take extreme measures to destroy his family’s curse.
Like all of Corman’s films in the Poe cycle, this one is a technical delight. It has excellent production design by Daniel Haller, which makes the interior of the mansion look lived-in and fantastic. Corman creates deliciously gothic imagery throughout the film with his cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the matte paintings of the titular mansion are beautiful. In addition, Les Baxter’s score is creepy and melodramatic in the best way.
But what really surprised and delighted me about this movie was Price’s performance as Roderick. While people often say that he is a hammy actor, the camp value of his performance is less great than you might expect. Sure, he says lines like “she died in the madhouse” and his hair is platinum blonde throughout the whole film. But Price brings a grounded element to Roderick which is fascinating. He makes his dilemma feel real, his worries strangely grounded. Price is so compelling in the part that he even makes you feel empathy for the weight of the curse that he feels. It’s a fascinating performance which gives you a good idea of why Corman would want to work with him on six more Poe films (the only one he did without him was The Premature Burial  which had Ray Milland in the lead role). Watching House of Usher is an excellent way to begin seeing Corman’s series of Poe films. It’s visually dazzling, fantastically entertaining, and surprising in how well certain elements of it feel rooted in emotional truths. House of Usher leaves the Criterion Channel on October 1st, but it is worth renting digitally or buying on physical media.
Michaela Owens, Editor | The Haunted Palace (1963)
While this month featured some rewatches that have become top-tier moviegoing experiences for me (Jewel Robbery at the Cinema was incredible and Barbie on an IMAX screen was SUBLIME), I’ve gotta agree with Jesse here and offer a second recommendation for Criterion’s “Grindhouse Gothic” series, more specifically The Haunted Palace. I’ll admit that Roger Corman’s Poe films can sometimes blend together in my mind — for example, I recently watched The Pit and the Pendulum and it felt like I both had and had not seen it before — but I will always be down for a Vincent Price movie and The Haunted Palace emerged as a fantastic vehicle for his unique blend of campy villainy and heartfelt sincerity.
Although labeled as a Poe film, the story actually comes from H.P. Lovecraft’s novella The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which follows an evil necromancer named Curwen (Price) who is burned by his village for his crimes. Over 100 years later, his descendant, Charles Dexter Ward (also Price), comes to the village with his wife after inheriting Curwen’s estate. The townspeople, forever scarred literally and figuratively by Curwen’s misdeeds, are terrified of Ward, who is genuinely just a nice guy without any ulterior motives — until a portrait of his ancestor slowly enables Curwen to possess Ward’s body and thus come back from the dead with revenge on his mind.
With such a delectable dual role, Price is a true joy to watch, his eyes flitting back and forth between the creepy menace of Curwen and the perplexed gentleness of Ward with complete mastery. Coupled with this superb performance, I found The Haunted Palace to be one of the great unsung delights of Corman’s career thanks to its foreboding production design, uneasy score, a supporting cast that included Elisha Cook, Jr. and Lon Chaney, Jr., Floyd Crosby’s sumptuous cinematography, and an ending that felt completely (and deviously) right.
Start your Spooktober off right, people, and watch some Corman-Price films!
Jack Miller, contributor | Pilgrimage (1933)
Those who still buy into the misconception of John Ford as a conservative or reactionary filmmaker would do well to seek out his caustic and neglected 1933 film Pilgrimage, the first of several masterpieces he made in the ‘30s. This tragic and scathing work stars Henrietta Crosman (in a magnificent performance) as an embittered rural widow who’s so possessive of her only son (Norman Foster) that, to prevent him from marrying the girl next door, she drafts him into World War I, where he’s promptly killed. Ford’s balance of a range of radically different tones here is astonishing: the film moves from a beautiful and expressionistic work of rural Americana (highly evocative of Murnau’s Sunrise) to a frighteningly honest antiwar film, and later, to a satirical comedy about Americans abroad in Europe, as Crosman’s character goes to France on a government-funded trip to visit her own son’s gravesite.
Few films of the period showed the tragedy that springs from being trapped by our own prejudices as forthrightly as this one does, and most of the others were directed by Ford as well. In the end, Pilgrimage becomes an incredibly moving work about forgiveness and the importance of making amends, and in this regard it’s worthy of comparison with Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953). This film has long been championed by Ford’s two best biographers, Tag Gallagher and Joseph McBride, as one of his best films, but I only caught up with it for the first time this month. It’s high time that this striking and important achievement was appreciated by more than just the happy few.
Note: The trailer for Pilgrimage is not available online, but the film can be purchased on DVD, where it’s been packaged as a double feature with Ford’s 1930 film Born Reckless. The DVD also includes an audio commentary from Ford scholar Joseph McBride.