No one would accuse New Yorkers of being starved for options when it comes to going to the movies. From cultural institutions like Film Society of Lincoln Center, BAMcinématek, Museum of the Moving Image, and Film Forum, to indie theatres IFC Center and Nitehawk, to bar/theatre hybrids Videology and Syndicated, to the many, many multiplexes, you’ll never hurt for options when it comes to finding a great film to see on the big screen on any given weekend. Exciting newcomers like Metrograph proved it is still possible to make an impact with even the most jaded NYC cinephiles, while the fate of upscale theatres like iPic is yet to be seen.
But despite this bounty of riches, things are about to get even more exciting because after five years and a few false starts, the Alamo Drafthouse is finally opening in Downtown Brooklyn. (The official opening date is Friday, but they’ve quietly been rolling out preview screenings all week.) If you’re a movie geek, chances are that you’re already familiar with the Alamo, and if not, you’re about to be very happy. It has been called “the best theatre in America” or even “the world,” and even if you don’t have one in your city, you may still be aware of them.
For those unfamiliar, Alamo was founded in Austin back in 1997 as a single-screen repertory theatre by husband-wife team Tim and Karrie League, and has spun out into an empire, which now includes Fantastic Fest, Mondo collectibles, Drafthouse Films and Birth.Movies.Death. Maybe you’ve heard of their Rolling Roadshow series, or how Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson are big fans. Maybe you’re aware of their strict no talking, no texting policy, immortalized in an ongoing series of hilarious PSAs. (Don’t worry, they have some new Brooklyn-centric ones on the way.)
Or maybe you’ve seen Tim League’s name pop up in the news whenever it looks like film projection might go extinct, or a major chain considers allowing texting in their theatre — he’s always there fighting the good fight. In an increasingly crowded marketplace, League’s love of genre and oddball cinema could be just what NYC is missing. The Downtown Brooklyn location features 7 screens, 6 for new releases (half for Hollywood fare, half arthouse and indie), with 1 screen reserved for repertory film, special events and capable of showing 35mm film.
Some highlights from the first couple weeks include a screening of cult-favorite The Monster Squad on Halloween night, horror-comedy Blood Diner with director Jackie Kong, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures with star Melanie Lynskey, as well as ongoing series like a revival of Shouting At The Screen (where Wyatt Cenac and Donwill liven up screenings of old Blaxploitation films), 35mm Asian horror series In The Mood For Gore, and New In Town where you can see our fair city invaded by Muppets, Babe or Jason Vorhees, among others.
But even beyond the programming, League’s love of film that really is evident to anyone who visits a Drafthouse location. From the vintage Turkish film posters lining the hallways to the adjoining bar, House Of Wax, it’s all in the details. Part cocktail-bar, part oddities-museum, House of Wax features classic cocktails and a serious local brewery selection as well as some vintage, stomach turning waxworks. This new venue will host everything from vaudeville acts to local bands, all tied to the programming.
So after a screening of La La Land this December, you might wander downstairs to House of Wax to catch a live jazz band playing some tunes from the film. The space also features a small vinyl section and will also function as an East Coast hub for Mondo Records, as a perfect venue for any upcoming record release parties.
If you’re stuck with a seat in the front row when Doctor Strange opens next week, League has got you covered. He nixed several rows of potential seats and added recliners exclusively to the front row, just to make sure there isn’t bad seat in the house. Oh, and other than movie trailers, Alamo also refuses to show ads before the film. AMC or Regal, this is not.
On the eve of its grand opening, we got a chance to take an early look at the beautiful new theatre, as well as the House Of Wax. We also spoke to League and head of programming Cristina Cacioppo (formerly of Alamo Yonkers and 92YTribeca) about what they have planned for their new Brooklyn outpost. During a tour of the facilities — seen throughout the article with photos from Victoria Stevens — League wanted to show off the theatre’s impressive sound system with a quick demo of an upcoming Hollywood blockbuster, but left the room before it began because he said he “wanted to go in clean.”
Have you really not seen the Rogue One trailer?
Tim League: No I haven’t. And just now I wasn’t watching it but as I was coming in I heard a distinctive breath, so that’s shitty, but that’s alright. We know the director [Monsters director Gareth Edwards] pretty well, he’s half-heartedly committed to coming and doing some support at the Alamo on his schedule.
When did you first start thinking about opening an Alamo Drafthouse in New York?
About 7 years ago. Then we signed the lease on this 5½ years ago. But it was dirt, right? And they had to build this giant building. And about a year ago we started our work.
How has it been getting this location up and running?
It’s been easier than San Francisco and harder than any other. It’s fine, the complexity is just because it’s part of this huge development [City Point] and there are things beyond our control. We’ve been close to ready for a couple months now. And for a building of this size, there are 4,000 individual fire alarms in the building, and everything has to be tested, and everything has to pass, so it’s been a real headache.
It came together magically. And the folks from the building have actually been great, a lot of things are beyond their control as well. Thankfully we’re here. I mean, it’s a lot later than I was expecting, and I kept on what is now in retrospect, lying to Cristina [Cacioppo, Creative Manager]. [Laughs]
Obviously, you guys will be a great addition to the neighborhood for new releases, but I think what will really be exciting for a lot of cinephiles will be your repertory programming. How much research into the New York repertory scene did you do to see if there was a lane for Alamo?
Personally, I tend to watch what everybody is doing from a repertory standpoint, from an alternative programming standpoint, so keeping your eye on what folks do in New York and LA and San Francisco, that’s where a lot of concentration of great stuff is happening. So I’ve been aware, but then a long time ago we hired Cristina who has been a part of that scene and community and knows the people for a long time. It’s not a huge world of film programmers. We thought back then and still think today that there’s plenty of room.
Even with theatres like Metrograph recently opening and plans for the expansion of Nitehawk, it’s great. Cristina and I went to see a movie over at Metrograph and I absolutely loved it. It was a great experience. But it’s a huge city! And there are not enough movie theatres doing good stuff, so I think there’s a lot more room for plenty of theatres. It’s just really hard to open a theatre in New York, so it doesn’t happen very often. It seems to be happening a lot now though.
Shouting At The Screen looks like fun, very-specifically New York series. How much of the programming will be tailored to a New York audience vs. just introducing the Alamo sensibility to New Yorkers?
It’s a mix. Cristina is going to be taking shows we do in Austin like weekly exploitation series in 35mm, but it’s programmed to her sensibilities. So the framework is something we’ve been doing for the past 15 years, but it’s her voice. The only time when it’s driven down from Austin headquarters is a movie like The Handmaiden, which the creative managers and myself all talk about upcoming movies we were excited about and said, ‘Okay, this is Drafthouse Recommends.’ And when it’s that title, it means it plays everywhere. And we do a lot of marketing initiative from Austin. But there’s a lot of local marketing that happens and that Cristina controls.
After the above group interview, we got a chance to speak 1:1 with League, and that conversation begins below.
What are you most excited about in the upcoming slate of programming?
The Handmaiden I’m a huge fan of, we played it at Fantastic Fest, Chan-wook Park came to that, I think it’s just a phenomenal film. And this is just first-run movies, but I really love La La Land. We’re going to be supporting that. I like that because A. the movie is amazing and B. we have this stage at the House Of Wax that we’re going to be doing jazz performances after the movie, which is integral to the film itself, so we’re going to incorporate the food, the music and the film together in one space, which I think is a really powerful combination.
As much as you would think NYC already has everything, I feel like we’ve really been missing that Alamo sensibility. As a big fan of movies like The Monster Squad or Blood Diner, those are films that haven’t been shown in New York, so to see those films programmed in the first couple weeks is really exciting.
I’m excited about Heavenly Creatures, which we played at our first theatre, and I really loved it, and we actually had to get a print from Peter Jackson so we shipped it from New Zealand to here cause there is no print in the U.S. for some stupid reason.
I know you’ve talked about how there is room for everybody in the film landscape but throughout the country when you see other places opening Alamo-type theatres do you have any twinge of thinking that they should get their own ideas?
No, I still don’t. We sampled from other people to come up with our ideas, I continue to sample now. If somebody does something good, we might try to take our own spin on it. We’re pretty active in this organization called Arthouse Convergence, which is all the independent theatres in the United States. We have a conference before Sundance every year and a big event in September called Arthouse Theatre Day, much like Record Store Day, and it just kicked off this year. That’s a community and an organization that’s all about sharing, best practices, ideas and we come in and share our best practices, our ideas, our members, so I’m more than happy for independent operators to take inspiration from us if they want to and do their own thing. It’s what we did so I can’t begrudge anybody for doing that.
Austin has Fantastic Fest. LA has Beyond Fest. Is there any plans to stage a genre film festival in New York, which it seems we are sorely in need of?
Maybe [laughs]. We’ve certainly thought about it, whether it’s an extension of Fantastic Fest or its own thing. That’s the type of programming that’s nearest and dearest to my heart, so I’m gonna continue to support it. So I’ll assume we will have something along those lines [here in NYC].
Cool, that would be very exciting. Speaking of Fantastic Fest, you recently picked up Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal for distribution…
[Coyly] Well, there’s rumors that we may or may not have picked up Colossal.
Got it. Well are there any plans for that new as-yet-untitled distribution company and how will it differ from your Drafthouse Films label?
Yeah, we haven’t fully announced our plans yet but we hope to very soon. It’s going to still continue the aesthetic we have at Drafthouse Films. We’re teaming up with Tom Quinn who was running Radius, and we have a lot of the same sensibilities. He released It Follows, he released Citizenfour, he loves docs. So I think we’ll do some movies that are bigger, but we’ll also do movies that are small and curated, and everything is gonna be movies that we love.
We also spoke with head of programming Cristina Cacioppo, and you can read our conversation below.
How much do you look at what the other repertory theatres in NYC are doing and how do you adjust? Or are you that concerned?
Cristina Cacioppo: I’m someone who is an avid moviegoer, so just because of that, I’m always looking at what other people are doing because I’m someone who goes to the movies, so I want to know what I want to go to. But it has also been important to me in the time that I’ve been doing movie programming to have a distinct voice, and sure, there are some movies that can play multiple places but I want to know that okay, BAM is doing a Joe Dante series, so I’m not gonna show Gremlins for a couple of months, you know? So I’m super tuned in. And a lot of us are friends, a lot of us programmers know each other, we have been talking about having a better line of communication and so, even though we’re not doing the exact kinds of things at the same time.
The Monster Squad is a perfect example. It’s the kind of movie that gets overlooked by a lot of these repertory houses, because I think that while New York has very rich offerings, it skews more intellectual and academic, and that’s what’s been missing. The last place I worked was 92YTribeca and my approach there was always that New York didn’t have that fun place, it didn’t have the Alamo. And I was always inspired by the Alamo. Doing Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday stuff, there’s so many movies that don’t get played.
It’s funny because now a lot is changing and with BAM doing things like the Joe Dante series and John Carpenter series, things are skewing younger and even towards horror. But for some reason there’s a total blind spot when it comes to action movies. And so I also feel like that here, nobody is doing older action movies, and those are some of my favorite movies to watch on a big screen with an audience. Even though there’s a ton of theatres, I think it all works to the same end. There are going to be some of the same people who are going to come to my Hard Target screening who are also going to be going to like, a Queer 90s thing at Metrograph.
For the most part, to see a lot of the genre stuff in NYC, I feel like you really have to go to the midnight screenings. Speaking just for myself here but not everybody wants to stay awake that late, so the cool thing about the Alamo doing these screenings is that they’re at reasonable hours!
And that has always been my philosophy. Yeah, those movies might play but they play at midnight and if you’re not willing to stay up — and I totally am not — I feel like we’re losing a whole audience. And also being in a midnight slot kinda puts it in a position where it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re not worthy of the prime time,’ which is just bullshit, you know?
And you get the same 20 movies that play on a loop on the midnight circuit. So what are some of the things you’re most excited about showing these first couple months?
I’m really excited about showing Heavenly Creatures with Melanie Lynskey. It’s a movie that I love and it kicks off this series, Cherry Bomb, which is going to be a monthly series. In December I’m going to show Christiane F, a German movie starring David Bowie as himself, performing the Station to Station album. It’s kinda this teenage junkie movie from the 80s and it’s really amazing.
Doing the New In Town series is really a way to show a lot of movies that I think are great that fit within the theme of introducing ourselves. Showing Babe: Pig in the City and Road House on the same day has been something that I’ve always thought about.
I’ve actually haven’t seen either of those movies.
They’re both the best. Babe: Pig in the City is one of my most favorite movies ever.
Metrograph just did the Noah Baumbach double-feature with that one.
They did, yeah. And it’s so funny because I did show Babe: Pig in the City at 92YTribeca, so I wouldn’t say they scooped me on it. But I appreciate that because I feel like they validated it in a certain way because I know they sold it out too.
Alamo hired me three years ago when they thought they were going to open that [uptown Metro] theatre, so even though I’ve programmed in Yonkers there’s only so much you can do there. So I’ve been holding onto a lot of different ideas and things that will finally come to fruition.
I can’t wait for Blood Diner.
That worked out really well. Jackie Kong has been touring with it. And that’s the exact kinda thing where there would be no other venue for her to do that.
Austin has Fantastic Fest. LA has Beyond Fest. New York needs a genre film festival. Is that something that Alamo has been thinking about?
Well, doing things with Fantastic Fest is definitely on our minds. As far as pulling off a whole festival, we would really need to staff up for that. If we had opened in time for Fantastic Fest there was plans to do things that would be some livestream stuff and it’s definitely something we’ve talked about. So whether we start by doing a mini-Fantastic Fest, either after the festival or during and doing simultaneous shows, it’s definitely on people’s minds.
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown Brooklyn is located at 445 Albee Square West and officially opens its doors on Friday, October 28. See more information, including tickets, on the official site.
Going by reputation, one would imagine Terrence Malick to be an imposing, almost mythic figure – the J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, or Bill Watterson of cinema – an artist whose personal reclusiveness and daunting legacy have, in tandem, produced a legend and folklore among cineastes and artists around the world. As the 72-year-old filmmaker sidled calmly into the Princeton Garden Theater last Friday evening – balding, grey-haired, dressed in a beige-white suit and keenly observed by an audience of dozens of fans and locals, as well as his wife, Alexandra Wallace – it was hard not to let such lofty expectations instantly disintegrate.
Malick proves incredibly humble and soft-spoken – the embodiment of southern etiquette and decorum. Hearing him speak – only when prompted, slightly stammering, and frequently in the form of intimate personal anecdotes – the reason for his legendary aversion to the public eye is both entirely clear and beautifully simple: he is a shy man, an earnest introvert, and one who does not place great value in saying more than needs to be said. His words are simple, yet deliberately chosen; his handshake warm and gentle, yet subtly firm. He does not carry about any great sense of cosmic import in himself or even in his works. (In a fanboy moment, I expressed my admiration for his willingness to nakedly approach such lofty topics as the fabric of memory, the character of nature, and man’s relationship with God. His response: “Well, I don’t know about all that…”) In his presence, rumors and myths slip casually away to reveal only a man who cares deeply for cinema.
Invited to speak as part of a film series hosted by Princeton University at the Princeton Garden Theater, Malick miraculously agreed to attend a brief discussion and Q&A following a screening of Roberto Rosellini’s 1954 classic drama, Journey to Italy – itself a work of deceptive simplicity. Malick did not attend the screening proper. He was, in the words of the moderator, enjoying “a leisurely stroll around campus” at the nearby university, presumably in spite of the uncharacteristic late-October humidity and looming threat of rain. Photography and recording equipment were strictly forbidden at the venue, although this seemed to be enforced on a strictly honor-system basis – phones were not collected or confiscated, and security was light at best. If no photos, video, or audio of the event surface online in the coming days, it will be a testament to the decency of the entire audience in respecting the privacy of a private man.
The dialogue with Malick primarily covered two subjects: his thoughts on Rossellini’s picture, and his thoughts on the current age of digital cinema. On the former, he expressed a longstanding admiration for its naturalism – it does not so much seem scripted, he says, as it does a matter of the camera, an invisible watcher, following Ingrid Bergman’s and George Sanders’ characters through an episodic series of encounters. He likened the revolutionary simplicity of Rossellini’s style and production to Jean-Luc Godard’s quip that all one really needs to make an interesting film is one man, one woman, and a car – these being quite literally Journey to Italy‘s core ingredients. He also said that the sense of spontaneity captured has been an inspiration for his own work, including the famous tendency to capture moments of natural beauty on the spot and work them into the fold. Malick is also interested in its complex and ambiguous portrayal of a frayed marriage — one wrought by mutual alienation and habitual failure to communicate, leading to an unexpected resolution that has divided audiences for decades. Malick recalled his changing emotional responses over the years after first seeing Rossellini’s work as a student – and rarely since. He feels Journey‘s thematic content is more relevant now than ever, even citing Sherry Turkle’s popular 2011 nonfiction book Alone Together as documentation of a new breed of alienation and emotional challenges unique to our age, as well as the perils of digital technology.
Dovetailing into the other primary topic, Malick expressed deeply mixed feelings about the age of digital cinema and the increasingly accessible technology that comes with it. On the one hand, he indicated great enthusiasm for the capacity of cheap and easily available HD cameras to democratize the form, making entry into image-making almost as easy as writing. Likewise, he’s taken an interest in the opportunity for new images and movements that can be captured by digital equipment, specifically naming the GoPro camera used for certain sequences in Knight of Cups. At the same time, he was adamant about the unique and irreplaceable power of the big screen to realize cinema’s full capacity – something he fears may be threatened by the propagation of handheld, digital video-playing devices and home theaters. This, in fact, is the exact reason why Malick has so infrequently revisited the work of the early greats who inspired him in film school. Journey to Italy was cited as a specific example: watching it at home or even on a portable device, one could “witness the shots, memorize the dialogue,” and yet, without experiencing it on the big screen, he feels a crucial element would be lost.
Regarding scripts, he acknowledged the stylistic difference between his early pictures and more recent work. Malick worked as a screenwriter before becoming a director, and his early directorial efforts were tightly written. He’d cut no more than one or two scenes in his “first film,” though it was not specified whether this is in reference to his 1973 feature debut, Badlands, or a shorter prior production. In contrast, Malick’s more recent works have rather notoriously adopted a more improvisational, stream-of-consciousness style, with dialogue kept to a minimum in favor of voiceover, scenes edited together in montage-like fashion, and huge swaths of footage left on the cutting-room floor. While the director has enjoyed the freedom that comes from this mode of production, he claims to be gravitating back toward working with clear scripts and pre-planned productions. (He recently finished shooting his WWII drama, Radegund, in Europe.) Malick does not see this as an imposition on his creativity, but, in fact, a better enabling factor: it is easier and more productive to go off the rails, he says, when rails are in place to begin with.
While Malick shared plenty on the main topics of the evening, what stood out most to me were the personal accounts, which quietly but vividly illustrated his unique love affair and inspiring passion for cinema. He described regular, present-day experiences of watching movies with his wife – whether classics on (“to our shame”) a portable Blu-Ray player, or ventures to the local multiplex. (Smokin’ Aces was a surprise favorite – “very well directed,” he said, and showcasing an impressive ability to balance multiple plotlines.) Most affecting to me were descriptions of childhood memories of going as often as possible to his local theater in Oklahoma, with each viewing inspiring the young Malick to “make vows” – to be a more loving son, a more just person, or any other moral and personal mission that each new title might provoke in him. Though the vows would inevitably be forgotten “in about five months’ time,” the cumulative personal impact remained — as, I imagine, the rare experience of meeting a living legend will for me and the other fans in attendance.
For an artist who produced four features in the first four decades of his career – and spent two of those decades completely withdrawn from the public eye – Malick’s sudden reappearance and newly prolific output has come as a shock to many. (He has directed more films in the 2010s than he’d made prior to that point since the early 1970s.) The great irony, of course, is the casual realization that Legendary Filmmaker Terrence Malick loves and lives the experience of cinema just like the rest of us. It is easy to apply a Salinger-esque air of mystery, but to the audience in attendance, the reason for his famed elusiveness likely became rapidly clear: Terrence Malick is, quite simply, a shy man. He seemed surprised and humbled when several audience members, including myself, approached him briefly to express the impact his work has had on their careers and their lives. While he did not share any details at the event of when and where he might next emerge in public, with luck, Malick may deem this kind of intimate venue an experience worth repeating.
There’s a million worthwhile questions to ask Malick about his work, his life, his vision, his impact on cinema. In the coming days, I’ll almost certainly stumble into a million more – things I could have, would have, should have asked. When I had the immense luck to steal an all-too-brief moment with one of my artistic heroes as the public session came to a close, though, all I could think to tell him was the truth. Not so long ago, I got my belated bachelor’s degree and entered a major transitional period in my life; now, dozens of different paths lie stretched out before me, all viable and all daunting. One of my only certainties – personal, intellectual, even economic – is that I love cinema, and Terrence Malick, in his roundabout personal route to a very incidental stardom, has been a great inspiration to me through many years of ambivalence and struggle. In so many words, I told him as much. As he shook my hand, his response was characteristically earnest and characteristically memorable: “Keep that love close to your heart, and you will make a difference; cinema needs people like that.”
When The Departed won both Best Picture and Best Director at the 79th Academy Awards, the degree to which the film itself deserved this accolade was largely drowned out by the film community’s collective, exasperated utterance of “Finally!” in reaction to the long-overdue recognition of Martin Scorsese. Indeed, it was incredible — even criminal — that this titan of cinema was just now being awarded for his genius. One of New Hollywood’s reigning figures, Scorsese had been working powerfully and prolifically for nearly 40 years prior to The Departed, building one of the finest filmographies in the history of cinema. When the 2006 film brought the long sought-after gold statuettes, there persisted a received wisdom that the awards were being granted more for a lifetime of exceptional achievement than for this achievement in particular.
On this day, which marks the tenth anniversary of The Departed‘s theatrical release, let us look at why this film deserved every accolade it got — which, in addition to Best Picture and Best Director, included Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. For his role as the dirty-mouthed Sergeant Dignam, Mark Wahlberg received a Supporting Actor nod. In a perfect world, nominations would have also gone to Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Matt Damon, whereas Howard Shore would have at the very least received Best Original Score attention for his haunting guitar-based work, which offers an elegant contrast to the film’s boisterous sampling of the Dropkick Murphy’s “Shipping off to Boston.”
Put another way, The Departed is, cinematically speaking, the whole package. Its plot, which borrows the basic premise of Hong Kong hit Infernal Affairs but cranks the complexity up to 11, pits cop against criminal in a battle where each has an undercover in the other’s midst. This premise engenders scenes of searing tension, as when the two moles, both of whom are trying to sabotage the other’s operations from behind enemy lines, first discover each other’s existence during an illegal arms deal. In chronicling the parallel but eventually converging stories of the two rats, Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker establishes an economical but propulsive editing scheme built largely on cross-cutting and the suspense this technique generates. Topping off the film’s blazing energy is the whirligig cinematography by DP Michael Ballhaus, which features roving shots, irises, at least one shot that is rotated ninety degrees, freeze frames, a blissful two seconds evoking Wong Kar-wai’s iconic step-printing, and an abundance extreme close-ups that function as cinematic exclamation points. To watch The Departed is to see the full arsenal of cinema on display, with all parts working together in euphoric synergy.
Though Scorsese and his team have always been masters of their craft, it is the director’s humanism that has arguably been the greatest source of his filmography’s power. Scorsese is interested in people — how they think, feel, and interact in various cultures, communities, and contexts. “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me” is the first line in The Departed, and it describes not only the film that it opens, but Scorsese’s career-long exploration of the interaction between men and milieu. This interest has manifested in his anthropological fascination with mob life in Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino; his affinity for nocturnal fringe figures as seen in Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead; his empathy for the destructive / self-destructive Jake LaMotta of Raging Bull, and numerous other examples. In all the aforementioned cases, cities are treated as their own characters, demonstrating Scorsese’s proclivity for orienting drama within a larger patchwork of local histories and narratives.
In the Boston-set Departed, it is the dialectic between identity and social performance that takes center stage, and it does so in the most dramatic way possible: Billy Costigan and Colin Sullivan, as the police mole in the mob and the mob mole in the police department, respectively, lead lives of deception, 24/7, for years. Though their allegiances and sense of self-identity seem clear at first — Billy is a cop playing mobster, Colin a mobster playing cop — the buffer of performance separating individual identity from environment begins to feel suspiciously thin as the film progresses. As part of Billy’s initiation into the mob, he needs to commit criminal acts to dispel suspicions that he’s an undercover cop, but some moments of violent acting-out (pun-intended) feel organic and expressive rather than calculated. On Colin’s end, the role of police officer is meant to be a cover, but, more often than not, his enjoyment of his job perks seems genuine. To Scorsese’s credit, the film refuses to fully answer the question of when characters are performing and when they are not. After all, performativity operates on a spectrum, not through an on-off switch.
For Billy, the situation is even more complicated given the constant threat to his life in the form of Frank Costello, Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing, fearsomely volatile cartoon of a gangster. Faced with such a harbinger of destruction at all times, Billy probably experiences, as Roger Ebert surmised in his review of the film, a version of Stockholm Syndrome, in which the character comes to misconstrue withheld violence as an act of mercy or even love of some sort. The resulting vulnerability, as well as the hyper-masculine posturing used to mask it, come through in DiCaprio’s performance, one his greatest.
With its plot-level focus on performance and on the over-performing that results (early in The Departed, Billy’s macho posturing is humorously dismissed by the tough-guy gangsters with whom he is trying to ingratiate himself), the film as a whole turns into a self-conscious showcase of its actors’ abilities. The film’s very premise reads like an open challenge to actors to test their chops, given that it involves the playing of performers who might not actually be entirely performing. The actors rise to the occasion, giving wildly theatrical turns that draw attention to themselves, and so The Departed becomes about its own virtuosity in the way a high-wire circus performer might put himself on the line for both the beauty of the act and the roar of the crowd. In response to a film this fiercely entertaining and impeccably executed, the roar should be nothing less than deafening.
“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.
It’s October and there are two bona fide horror films on the slate. Two. Four if you stretch your criteria. That just goes to show you how many genre films come out each year and how successful they’ve become to get summer release dates without a holiday tie-in. With the way Don’t Breathe has been performing, theaters may keep it rolling all the way through Halloween.
In their place come some actioners, thrillers, and a couple comedies. Oh, and one family film in Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (October 7). One? I guess studios are banking on kids still being in back-to-school mode with homework every night. Maybe I’m just realizing that October has become stay at home and rent a film month.
The age game
Two of those action films come in the form of Inferno (October 28)—or in layman’s terms, Da Vinci Code 2 or perhaps Angels and Demons 3 depending on your Dan Brown love—and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (October 21). That puts 60-years young Tom Hanks and 54-years young Tom Cruise on the marquees like it’s 1994.
We know how old these guys are and yet the studios still want to try and deceive us. Cruise is never going to look “old” but at least BLT Communications, LLC isn’t smoothing his skin to make him look plastic. I only wish I could say the same for The Refinery and Hanks.
Rather than the weird middle part from Angels and Demons, The Refinery goes heavy on the shoe polish for a conservative Ken Doll aesthetic. Maybe the issue is casting someone so young in Felicity Jones because even Irrfan Khan is looking a bit waxy here.
Sadly I can’t say any of the Inferno sheets are better. From the blatantly computer generated teaser mimicking Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain 180-degree pan to whatever LA was thinking on their bleeding red title against white. It’s a sad day when the boring triptych of glossy stills is our best option. At least the top Hanks looks real … ish.
Jack Reacher isn’t doing any better. Besides letting some wrinkles show on Cruise’s face, the formatting is quite boring across-the-board. We have Tom standing against American flag, Tom standing with back against IMAX letters, and Tom peering down forlornly with cheek gash as American flag waves translucently. At least the fourth has an explosion and what looks like it could maybe be Cobie Smulders. If not for her name being super tiny at the bottom, though, I never would have known. I guess Rosamund Pike took the subtitle’s hint.
They may not all be horrors, but these four definitely promise the violence you’d expect from the genre.
While Desierto (limited October 14) is the only one I’ve seen of this quartet, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it proves the “scariest” of them all. This tense thriller never lets go as a redneck “peacekeeper” goes border hunting for Mexican illegals with his bloodthirsty dog. Something about that premise feels more real than ghosts and goblins.
I think this foreign poster does a good job depicting that sense of dread with Jeffrey Dean Morgan at top and Gael García Bernal at bottom. This is a cat and mouse chase through the desert heat with very little cover from the former’s riflescope. The temperature is rising to haze out the title and a bit of the scale of the setting’s vast expanse is portrayed. It’s definitely been touched-up in Photoshop, but it has its merits.
If nothing else it’s more intriguing than the Spanish sheet with actors starring anywhere but at each other or us. This thing does nothing to express the emotion or suspense. The English language example is just as dry, the letters of the title looming as though actual aliens are coming from the sky to abduct the poor soul caught in the “R’s” tractor beam.
I may have no interest at all in Ouija: Origin of Evil (October 21), but I will say LA’s poster has its appeal. It’s not easy to make a ubiquitous board game creepy, so seeing them turn it into the walls of the darkened room a young girl must stare into the corner of is unique. I’d have taken out the shadow of the ghost, though—it’s not needed. A solitary girl staring at nothing is much worse than fake silhouettes that aren’t even in the same perspective as the object being shadowed.
The second poster proves how boring the board itself is. Do we need the letters and numbers behind the floating girl? She’s the focal point and the title in the identical font as the game is enough to make the connection. Everything else is distracting. Thankfully the teaser realized this truth and let the name and viewfinder satisfy Parker Brothers’ contract. It’s scarier to think about what might be in the darkness than show it waiting.
Gravillis Inc. was tasked with Rob Zombie’s latest freak-show entitled 31 (limited October 21) and they do an effective job showcasing the film’s inherent creepiness. Just look at the first tease of a van with clown head on top. You don’t need to do anything to this to make someone turn their head as soon as they catch a glimpse. Blood, vintage clowns, and Zombie’s name is enough to turn most people’s stomachs.
The final advert is almost too much in comparison. It gives everything away in its collage of horrors and lessens each figure’s impact at the same time. The character sheets are much better in highlighting one monster in high contrast black and white with blood red augmentation. There’s still mystery to them in their graffiti-stencil style. I also like the fun flourish on the “31” font. That sense of playfulness juxtaposes nicely against the genre and circus theme. The heavy sans serif never quite fit the others.
As for In the Valley of Violence (limited October 21), Ignition‘s imperfect design is definitely the best concept of this group. The idea of using the corner of a building—one side with light shining and the other shrouded in shadow—to differentiate “white” and “black” hats is inspired. I wish they took the time to stage this in real life so Ethan Hawke and John Travolta didn’t look like they were cut out of another photograph and pasted on this one, but what can you do? The vertical corner strip should probably be darkened too since it’s on the Travolta side.
It creates a much better mood than the teaser’s graphic drawing of a gun blast. This one has a comic feel with the “A Man Can Only Take So Much!!” coming across in a hammy lilt with double exclamations and starburst. But maybe I’m wrong and this tone is more appropriate in the long run. It just goes to show how important a poster can be at preparing its audience. Is Ti West’s latest a comedy or thriller? Depending on which artwork your theater hangs, it could easily be both.
While Venice, Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, and Toronto premiere some of the year’s best films, no annual cinematic event boasts finer curation than the New York Film Festival, which kicks off this weekend. Those attending will witness, over two weeks, some of the best features that this year — and next — have to offer.
When it comes to a preview of what to see, a simple copy-and-pasting of the line-up would suffice, but we’ve done our best to narrow it down to 25 selections that are the most worth your time. This doesn’t even include shorts from Bertrand Bonello, Jia Zhangke, and more, as well as comprehensive Retrospective and Revivals sections that include restored films from Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Edward Yang, Marlon Brando, and more — but it should serve as a basic primer for what to seek out.
Check out our favorites below, and look for our complete coverage over the next few weeks.
13th (Ava DuVernay)
For the first time ever, a non-fiction film will open the New York Film Festival, and the rest of us will thankfully be able to see it fairly soon after. Ava DuVernay‘s timely follow-up to Selma chronicles the history of racial inequality in the United States as it pertains to the prison system. It’ll arrive on Netflix and in limited theaters shortly after its premiere, where we imagine it will be a vital watch, particularly during this election year. – Jordan R.
20th Century Women (Mike Mills)
Mike Mills‘ Beginners marked something of a real surprise for yours truly, its blend of unusual conceits with specific emotional registers doing a good deal to match my own way of seeing the world and understanding those who I share it with. I’m thus left to wonder if his follow-up, 20th Century Women, will live up to that effect – or if it’ll even try. Heightening the anticipation is that little’s known about the project, outside its ’70s setting and who its ensemble cast comprises. (Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann.) The latter is promising and the former, like all else, remains up in the air, but if 20th Century Women ends up carrying even a trace of Beginners‘ impact, we – or perhaps just I – will be handed a stirring experience. – Nick N.
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James)
Steve James’ filmography has long been about finding entry into larger conversations through intimate portraits. The director’s landmark debut, Hoop Dreams, and latter-day efforts like 2014’s monument to critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself, don’t have much in common on the surface, but they both use their central characters to tell larger stories about big picture topics like structural dysfunction and the purpose of film criticism. – Michael S. (full review)
Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)
The staggeringly accomplished debut feature by Brazilian critic-turned-director Kleber Mendonça Filho, Neighboring Sounds, announced the arrival of a remarkable new talent in international cinema. Clearly recognizable as the work of the same director, Mendonça’s equally assertive follow-up, Aquarius, establishes his authorial voice as well as his place as one of the most eloquent filmic commentators on the contemporary state of Brazilian society. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk (Ang Lee)
One of the most promising films of the fall — and not just because it has an eclectic cast including Kristen Stewart, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, and Steve Martin — is Ang Lee‘s latest drama, which might push the boundaries of cinematic technology. The story of a teenage soldier who survives a battle in Iraq and is brought home for a victory lap before returning has been shot at 120 frames per second in 4K and native 3D, giving it unprecedented clarity for a feature film. After setting it for an NYFF premiere, Kent Jones said, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk astonished me, and it moved me deeply—in the grandest way, as a story of America in the years after the invasion of Iraq, and on the most intimate person-to-person wavelength.” – Jordan R.
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt)
The cinema of Kelly Reichardt lives in quiet, tender observations with deeply rooted characters and location. Even when adding a thriller element as with her last feature, the overlooked Night Moves, her style is never compromised. Her latest feature, Certain Women, is a loosely connected three-part drama adapted from the short stories of Maile Meloy. It’s perhaps the purest distillation of her sensibilities yet as she patiently explores the longing for human connection in a world where men too often get prioritized. – Jordan R. full review)
Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
It takes all of zero seconds for the first rape to occur in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. The film opens on a black screen and to the sounds of breaking glass and stifled struggle. When it then cuts to a cute kitty spectating the off-screen assault, we know we’re in Verhoeven territory. The ensuing countershot reveals Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), her blouse ripped open, pinned to the floor by a black-clad man with his face hidden inside a ski mask. Funny Games-like, this is our warning: run for the door now or keep watching and be implicated. Unlike Haneke, however, Verhoeven renders what follows irresistibly enjoyable, and the resulting implication is all the more severe. – Giovanni M.C. (full review)
Hermia and Helena (Matías Piñeiro)
For beginning with a dedication to Setsuko Hara, recently departed muse of Ozu and Naruse, Hermia & Helena — the new film by Viola and The Princess of France director Matías Piñeiro — perhaps aligns us to be especially attuned to the Argentinian auteur’s use of female collaborators. One to already emphasize the charisma and big-screen friendly faces of frequent stars Agustina Munoz and Maria Villar, he still seems to have an ability to make them points of representation, not fetish. – Ethan V. (full review)
Jackie (Pablo Larraín)
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín certainly isn’t beating around the bush with his latest film, Jackie, a strange, refreshingly cynical, and unexpectedly cerebral account of First Lady’s Jacqueline Kennedy’s actions in the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. It’s one of three films to be released by the prolific director in 2016 (alongside El Club and Neruda), as well as his first to be made in the United States and English. Such changes in surroundings might have thrown a lesser director off, or at least compromised their style, but Larraín’s conviction, signature moves, and leftward-leaning politics appear to have remained intact. Produced by Darren Aronofsky and boasting a staggering, disorientating string-based soundtrack from Mica Levi (Under the Skin), Jackie has the sophisticated psychological aesthetic of a Jonathan Glazer movie but focuses on one of the most contentious and traumatic events in U.S. history. How’s that for radical filmmaking? – Rory O. (full review)
One of the biggest conversation starters from this year’s Sundance Festival was Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche, a fake documentary that recounts four men’s attempts to stage the 1969 Moon landing. Playing on one of the biggest conspiracy theories of the past century, the film is as enamored with the possibility of toying with history as it is with the rigorous aestheticism needed to convincingly depict the time period of the 60s.
Employing the same narrative format as Johnson’s previous film, The Dirties, Johnson and his team, including writer and creative partner, Owen Williams, cast themselves in this reproduction of alternate history. The result is a fascinating comedy-thriller, that also serves as a meticulous love letter to both the technology of the time period and cinema’s ability to obscure our perception of time and space.
In time for its expanded limited release, we had an expansive conversation with the director that spanned everything from the untapped potential of the fake documentary format to the creative importance of low-budget filmmaking and the shifting definition of documentary in 2016 after films like Kate Plays Christine.
The Film Stage: You’ve spoken in previous interviews about how you came up with the premise for Operation Avalanche because you wanted to play on one of the biggest events in history, and just find a way to tell the story of an ambitious, delusional filmmaker. But the film is so enamored with myth making and conspiracy theories in general, did you have a personal passion for these subjects before making the film?
Matt Johnson: Conspiracies, definitely yeah. I was interested in the moon landing conspiracy as a very, very young kid. And I loved things like that. At a certain level, my first film is kind of playing with this stuff a little bit. I think those were just the original stories that I heard that I thought were really, really exciting. The “things are not what they seem” style conspiracy. It wasn’t something that I realized I was so into until we started making this movie. But it’s obvious when I think of influences. There’s that movie, F For Fake, that Orson Welles movie, which is a huge influence on this movie. It was very much about what you think is true is not really the truth and the idea of one individual knowing the truth, and slowly letting you know – but also lying to you. All that stuff is wrapped up in the notion of conspiracy that I find very, very appealing. Those stories are tough to ignore for me. My favorite movie when I was growing up was JFK, which is another conspiracy movie and a huge influence on Operation Avalanche. I think if you asked me four years ago, “Are you really into conspiracy theories?” I probably would have said no, but it’s because I would just be in denial of knowing my own subconscious mind.
Was there kind of a shortlist of historical events when you were developing this project, or did you know that you were going to do a film about the Moon landing from the beginning?
No, I knew almost immediately that that’s what we were going to do. It was on the flight home from Utah with my producer after we just premiered The Dirties. And we were like, we need to make another fake documentary right away because we love this language so much. We just loved it, and we did not realize that we were biting off way more than we could chew with this particular project. We made this movie, and figured like it would be so quick and so cheap to do. We did not realize the rabbit hole we were about to enter.
You’ve talked quite a bit previously about how you had to use guerrilla filmmaking techniques [Johnson and his crew filmed inside the real NASA headquarters under the guise of a documentary crew] just because of resources, but what was your philosophy about how you wanted to approach history? Were there some things you thought about where you said, this is too far?
Do you mean in terms of what we were willing to shoot, or what we were willing to do with other real people legally, or in terms of the story we were trying to tell? Because, from a narrative point of view, we were trying to keep it as “realistic” as we could. I mean, as realistic as a movie about faking the moon landing could possibly be. So we were trying to keep that in the real world. But in terms of what we were willing to shoot, I have no ethical boundaries whatsoever when it comes to that kind of stuff. Mostly because, outside of making people really uncomfortable or really doing something to a stranger that is hurtful, I’ll film more or less anything if I think it could make the movie better because you have to think that way. Or at least, one person on set has to think that way, because otherwise, you’re not really going to push it. Later on, we might not use the footage or something might not work for the film, or we can have decisions concerning taste in the editing room. But on set, we’ll shoot just about anything.
With the question I was talking specifically about historical license. I appreciate that tangent though because I was curious about whether there were things that you felt uncomfortable with given the fact that you were in a real place. But I can understand where you’re coming from.
Well, I always felt uncomfortable. There’s a real difference between a ethical comfortability and a physical comfortability because you’re worried that you’re going to get caught, or you’re going to get into trouble, or you’re not going to know what to say. Or god knows, you’re going to be put into an awkward situation. That’s extremely uncomfortable, but I think our whole team understood that this is how the movie was getting made, and we thought that this movie was important on some level, so we were willing to do a lot of corrupted things to make that happen.
Throughout the film, there’s just as much an interest in the granular specifics of audio and video. There’s a few scenes that feel like intentional nods to The Conversation or Blow Out as Owen [Williams] and you are listening in to phone calls or combing through videos frame by frame. Were those ideas baked into the premise from the beginning, or were those things that evolved?
Oh, definitely. You think about it, this is a movie about the aesthetics of film. The Moon landing is so heavily mired in the aesthetics of what kind of images you could create in the 1960s. To avoid the nitty gritty of how those images and sounds are constructed would be…that’s the whole fun of the movie for us as filmmakers. We’re trying to put ourselves in the same technological space of our characters. We all went to film school and learned on a lot of those Nagras and the devices you see used in the movie. That’s the kind of stuff, at least in my experience, I used all that stuff on my undergrad movies. So it was awesome to get to mess with it again. And also that played so much into the thematic space of the created image. How sophisticated is an image? And who creates an image? And what goes into an authentic image vs. an inauthentic image? And characters, people who understand that, can use that knowledge to fool people and make them think that something authentic is inauthentic. For us, we spend so much work trying to get the images looking right. It’s why we did things like trying to put Stanley Kubrick in the movie. We all wanted to do all these tricks, all these little games that make you think that the inauthentic is authentic and vice versa.
What was the biggest difficulty in replicating that feel then?
No individual piece was so difficult that it destroyed us. It was just huge amounts of time, so we spent tons of time in the lab figuring out exactly what film stocks to print to, figuring out what process we had to take with our footage in the lab. We had to grade the footage before it went to 16 mm. It was just all extremely labor-intensive, and then you realize what you want to do. You make your transfers and all of a sudden, you’re sitting there with your negative, and you decide all of a sudden, you want to edit something or make a change. That was hugely difficult because then you had to make the changes on film. It was awful. It was very, very hard.
I think it looks really great. There really is that feel of authenticity. It’s very strange that we’re talking after Blair Witch just came out because i was definitely thinking about the original Blair Witch Project while watching your film. You have had some strong opinions about terms like “found footage,” and you prefer terms like “fake documentary?”
You know, when it’s appropriate. I think there are legitimate found footage films. I think the Blair Witch Project, the original, is a great example of that. But yeah, I find it frustrating that journalists and film critics haven’t figured out how they want to talk about fake documentaries yet. And I think it’s doing such a disservice to audiences, and even to filmmakers in trying to describe their own work. I know I certainly suffer from this in that there is a whole different set of codes that apply to fake documentaries that do not have anything to do with found footage movies. And the media literacy associated with understanding those differences is important and would just be so much cooler if we had clearer and more universal terminology for that style of filmmaking.
I think that’s definitely fair. I’ve definitely seen some writing that treats documentaries or fake documentaries with the same language and toolset that they’re using when they’re critiquing a narrative film, or something that’s created with a complete level of artifice without even trying to be authentic. But I did want to go back to make a baseline definition. You were saying something like Blair Witch Project, but that is also a fake documentary within the internal context of the film, is it not?
Absolutely, you’re completely right, except the authorial voice of that film is not those characters. Ok, so those protagonists. The people filming that footage may as well be security cameras inasmuch as they…well, that’s not completely true because they’re making active decisions as to how they’re covering things and where they’re pointing the camera. But the author of that movie is not the people filming that footage. The difference is you look at Timmothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man vs. Werner Herzog, who is the author of that movie. There’s a world of difference between those two things.
That definitely makes sense. I just wanted to see specifically where you were coming from when you were saying that. This is the second film where you’ve used this kind of filmmaking style. And you’ve said how you used this for its ease and its budget. But in terms of general philosophy, do you think it’s a style that’s been undervalued as a medium for telling a story?
Yes, but I think that is because it’s sort of birthed from the reality TV movement. The process of making movies like this… although you could have been making movies like this at the dawn of cinema. It’s not like we have any new technology that’s making it easier, but I just think that reality TV has made it so that that language of Handicam narrative storytelling is so much more palatable. And this generation of filmmakers grew up exposed to that in such a major way that it’s starting to become easier. Also, it seems as though this moment in time is very interested in the authentic. And the documentary has so much fake authenticity to it. But I think it’s a critically underused format, but I don’t think it will remain that way. I think a lot of people will start making movies in this style, just because there’s so much untapped territory behind the protagonist-driven narrative movie where the protagonist is also the author. I just think that’s so cool.
Is it something that you would like to continue in your career even after doing two films in this style?
Well, I’m making a television series [Nirvana The Band The Show] right now that is in a somewhat similar style. I say, “somewhat,” because the protagonists are not actually making the movie, but they seem to be somewhat involved in it. And, after that, I’m not sure. I will definitely make a third film with Matt & Owen that is a fake documentary at some point. I’m not sure if I’m going to do it next though.
You and Owen have both been in The Dirties as well as Operation Avalanche? Do you like being in your own films, or is that just something that’s a necessity given your resources? Or, do you like the control that comes with being an actor in your own film?
I think that goes hand-in-hand with it just being a necessity. We talked about trying to do things another way, but it’s impossible – the notion of getting someone to commit that heavily to a role like this, to do insane things like break into NASA with us. I would just never ask someone to do that. I’m not going to ask somebody to drive a car that way, that unsafely, and then at the same time, be so into this character that they’re willing to shoot over the course of a year a completely improvised story that they’re going to keep in their head. It’s not tenable. It would need to be somebody like my brother, or like, who else can I ask for that kind of commitment from? And because the character is sort of an ambitious, foolish filmmaker, it’s just a very good fit for me. We planned the character around my personality. And while it made things easier from a production point of view, it was also a strong character decision. But I’m not sure if i’m going to keep doing that. I think I may just be in this one last movie with Owen, and then that’s it.
It’s interesting too to look at an earlier project this year like Kate Plays Christine, which is already something that’s such a hybrid in terms of being a documentary as well as a narrative film, as well as an exploration of performance itself. I wouldn’t say Operation Avalanche would be…obviously it has the trappings of a documentary, but it’s especially this year, it feels a lot closer to a documentary than a narrative film, which it might be more easily identified?
I know it. And it’s so funny because even from a commercial standpoint..I think a lot of people would think, “Oh yeah, the story is so interesting,” and it’s trying to act like a thriller, and all of these other things. Why not just make it in a traditional way? I don’t resent that because I think it’s a valid question. But if we were to do that, it’s like, all of a sudden we’re giving up so much of what’s so thematically interesting about this form which is, in authorship, the author of something like this complicates it. It really complicates it in the same way that Orson Welles complicates F For Fake just by him being in control of it. I just hope that isn’t lost on the people who like the film.
Can you see yourself going in a direction that would be even more in the vein of documentary. I guess specifically something like what Robert Greene has done? I know that’s a very specific vision. I’m not trying to lump you two together. I’m just speaking generally in terms of your interests, whether you like that fake construct?
Yeah. More than anything, I like it when we can put real human behavior on screen. I like that the most. I think that’s always the most interesting stuff in any of these films or in this television series. The show that we make is much closer to documentary, much, much closer to documentary. When you get a chance to see it, it uses many more of the tropes from reality television and sort of Maysles brothers vérité documentaries. I wouldn’t really say they’re vérité, but they get quite involved. Yes, I think we’re getting further and further from doc, and closer and closer to our own style, but i’m not sure when that will stop. I’m not sure when we’re going to be like, okay, let’s pull this back.
To go back to found footage and the Blair Witch Project, I wonder if there’s going to be a problem with the increasing budgets of found footage films. As these films become more high-tech, there’s a bigger emphasis on monster closets or CGI than the visual immersion…
They were so restricted by money with the Blair Witch Project. It’s almost like you have all the same tricks of these low-budget movies, but the studio pressure of conforming to the same narrative timeline that a big budget Hollywood movie, which is, as you say, naturally at odds with the aesthetic, which is ok. We can’t show anything because we have no money, but I don’t think it will reach a breaking point. I mean, the fact is, it will go as far as audiences will accept it. Whether that means these movies from the script stage, start to completely resemble normal narrative movies, and yet they are presented in a found footage style. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing on its own. What’s bad is if the form stops experimenting and people stop doing new things. Because at the beginning, people were doing found footage because it was a new way to tell stories, and more so than it just being a cheap way to tell stories, it was just exciting and dynamic because people hadn’t seen that formal approach before. Once you do it 10, 20, 30, 500, you just abuse the language for no reason. That is happening already, but hopefully the good ones will maintain a healthy experimentation. I know that we try like hell to do that.
If a big studio came to you, and said, we want this on a much larger scale, would that worry you? If they wanted your sensibility, but they were going to give you a bigger budget. Would that feel like a restriction to you?
I think it’s a problem and I’ll tell you why. The restrictions that you get from not having resources force you to do more. I’ll give you an example. This is something I talked about with this movie. Let’s say, we’re making Operation Avalanche, but we have $20 million dollars rather than one. Why would we break into NASA to film in mission control when for a million dollars or less, we could just build mission control, hire all those actors, and do it in a studio. We wouldn’t need to go through any of the headache and extremely, extremely perilous work we had to do. Like, why would we do that? We just wouldn’t, and then all of a sudden, the things that this form and having these constraints are forcing you to do, which are new and really exciting like shooting that car chase all in one take with no stunt driver for real, we would not be able to do that with $20 million. So while I think that making a really expensive movie is a really exciting idea and something that my friends and I would definitely do. We would not do it in this same way. You’re given a set of tools when you have a low budget, and you decide to do a fake documentary, and one of those tools is the very restrictions that you place on yourself.
Operation Avalanche is now in limited release and expanding.
There’s an alternate version of Brian De Palma’s career where 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit stands as one of the most seminal entries. The last of De Palma’s early-70s comedies, the film is most readily recognized as a prelude to his directorial turning point. Just a year later, he began a string of legacy defining films: Sisters, Obsession, and Carrie.
But this early-period black sheep is more than a mere historical footnote. It’s the transitional fiasco that De Palma needed. Coming after the modest hits of Greetings and Hi, Mom!, this was the big leagues, a chance for the nascent but rising director to work with Hollywood and establish himself as a conjunction of artistic and financial impulses.
It’s only inevitable that even De Palma’s crowd-pleasing comedy scans as commentary about the prison of working with studios. In an impish reversal of the artist’s own circumstances, it follows Donald Beeman (Tom Smothers, one half of the provocative musical comedy duo The Smothers Brothers), a buttoned-up business man who’s deeply unhappy working at a nameless corporation. Much to the chagrin of both his boss (John Astin) and girlfriend, Donald tries to gives up the job security of big business for something far less financially glamorous — the entertainment industry, specifically stand-up magic — only to be looped right back into the rat race.
It’s De Palma’s first studio film, and his distrust of the system couldn’t be any more apparent. And, coming from a director whose films already teemed with anxiety about the present and future, it’s only inevitable that he self-sabotaged his studio film dreams (for the moment). Smothers apparently hated all of the script ideas, while the suits who hired De Palma just as soon fired him, keeping Get to Know Your Rabbit in release limbo for over a year.
The rest is history: De Palma began the next period of his career in New York and the comforts of independent filmmaking. All of these contextual details may sound like Get to Know Your Rabbit is some unsung masterpiece, a hidden gem that was unfairly buried. Maybe there was a good film in here before studio intervention, but this isn’t it. What we get is an awkward, often jarringly unfunny piece of deadpan absurdism that only barely justifies its 90-minute runtime.
The picture’s principal enjoyment may be an oddball Orson Welles, playing a tap-dancing magician who teaches the main character his trade. Welles’ character and performance are filled with such a deep sense of exasperation that it could easily serve as a blanket reaction towards the whole film. Influenced by Monty Python’s brand of satirical extremism and a comedic logic that harkens back to Preston Sturges, this is nonetheless a work that rarely ever feels comfortable in its own skin as a comedy. In hindsight, it’s better viewed as a prototype for De Palma’s future pet themes.
Together with DP John Alonzo, who didn’t re-team with De Palma until Scarface, Get to Know Your Rabbit is unexpectedly filled with compositions whose primarily feeling is dread. Multiple early sequences involving a high-walled apartment feel less calibrated for slapstick than the possibility that an intruder will creep through the door. Take, for example, a long scene that’s shot from an isometric perspective for no apparent reason, or a Touch of Evil-style suspension involving a ticking bomb.
It’s not just the insinuating camera angles, but the film’s repeated excursions into sleaziness played as both comedy and titillation. De Palma had already developed a reputation for raunchiness with his two previous films both received X-ratings before creative finagling. But it’s only a matter of time before that lurid sensuality becomes embedded in his own creative DNA.
To see how De Palma directs scenes like a crowded party that segues into a brassiere fashion show is to peek into the future. This is initially played as a gag about an extremely crowded party in a painfully small room, then soon enough blossoms into a scene juxtaposing attraction and sex appeal. The main character and a mystery woman glide along the floor, blissfully unaware of Vic (Allen Garfield), a garrulous and pushy salesman who treats his craft like art.
The camera’s view is starry-eyed, seemingly headed into De Palma’s expected jagged violence — which never comes. Instead, we just get Vic delivering a monologue and the best line in the whole film: “I hope sometime, some place, I can find a girl who can appreciate a good, medium-priced brassiere.” But the moment is gone, and pleasure has been replaced with reality — one more instance in a filmography of subverted gratification.
Get to Know Your Rabbit will never again feel so in control. It wanders on and on as Donald plays deserted saloons and falls into the arms of Katharine Ross, who’s literally credited as “terrific-looking girl.” It would take another year, with Sisters, before the camera fell into a similar trance and De Palma brought his sensuous worldview to the masses.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.
Every week we dive into the cream of the crop when it comes to home releases, including Blu-ray and DVDs, as well as recommended deals of the week. Check out our rundown below and return every Tuesday for the best (or most interesting) films one can take home. Note that if you’re looking to support the site, every purchase you make through the links below helps us and is greatly appreciated.
Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen)
For as accomplished as Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut Blood Simple comes across as to a viewer, like any director, they can’t help but recognize their flaws. That’s not to say their newly restored debut, now available on The Criterion Collection, doesn’t look and sound gorgeous — every bead of sweat dripping down M. Emmet Walsh’s face and every gun blow feels like you’re right there in the sweltering Texas landscape — but there’s an undeniable charm in their recounting of the making of the film. Read our full feature here. – Jordan R.
Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise)
A tale as old as time gets the anniversary Blu-ray treatment this week as Beauty and the Beast celebrates 25 years of enchantment. This Walt Disney Signature Collection edition actually four different versions: alongside the theatrical film, there’s an extended version with the “Human Again” song sequence and a sing-along version, as well as a work-in-progress version available digitally. Along with many more extras, including a sneak peek at next year’s live-action version, it sounds like an essential pick-up. – Jordan R.
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)
The first of the horror films producer Val Lewton made for RKO Pictures redefined the genre by leaving its most frightening terrors to its audience’s imagination. Simone Simon stars as a Serbian émigré in Manhattan who believes that, because of an ancient curse, any physical intimacy with the man she loves (Kent Smith) will turn her into a feline predator. Lewton, a consummate producer-auteur who oversaw every aspect of his projects, found an ideal director in Jacques Tourneur, a chiaroscuro stylist adept at keeping viewers off-kilter with startling compositions and psychological innuendo. Together, they eschewed the canned effects of earlier monster movies in favor of shocking with subtle shadows and creative audio cues. One of the studio’s most successful movies of the 1940s, Cat People raised the creature feature to new heights of sophistication and mystery. – Criterion.com
High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
They’ve been home to some of the finest home video releases and now Olive Films is launching their Signature Edition series, kicked off by the classic, nail-biting western High Noon. Featuring a pristine new 4K restoration, also included is a batch of bonus features, most notably a video on the history of the film in narrated by the Anton Yelchin , another on career of producer-turned-director Stanley Kramer, and one about the Black List as it effected screenwriter Carl Foreman. While one wishes the featurette on the editing was a bit more informative and in-depth, it doesn’t take away that this is the definitive edition of a deeply influential classic. – Jordan R.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Nicholas Stoller)
Even in its best moments, Neighbors carried an unwanted whiff of testosterone — a hyperactive frat culture that was softened and still felt out of touch with the unabashed exuberance of the movie. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising corrects that problem so thoroughly that it not only improves on the original; it also becomes one of the most progressive mainstream movies of the last decade. Analogous to last year’s breathtakingly joyful Magic Mike XXL, Neighbors 2 is a celebration of feminist individuality — a parade of women who challenge every convention of the genre (and society) by lifting up instead of punching down. – Michael S. (full review)
Also Arriving This Week
Recommended Deals of the Week
Top Deal: A huge selection of Blu-rays are currently 3 for $19.99 at Amazon.
The American (Blu-ray) – $7.34
Amelie (Blu-ray) – $7.33
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Blu-ray) – $8.19
Beginners (Blu-ray) – $6.25
Bone Tomahawk (Blu-ray) – $9.99
The Brothers Bloom (Blu-ray) – $10.06
The Cabin in the Woods (Blu-ray) – $8.37
Casino (Blu-ray) – $9.49
Cloud Atlas (Blu-ray) – $7.90
Django Unchained (Blu-ray) – $7.99
Far From the Madding Crowd (Blu-ray) – $9.99
Godzilla (Blu-ray) – $10.00
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Blu-ray) – $7.99
Greenberg (Blu-ray) – $5.10
Heat (Blu-ray) – $9.96
Holy Motors (Blu-ray) – $10.19
The Informant! (Blu-ray) – $7.90
Inglorious Basterds (Blu-ray) – $7.99
Inherent Vice (Blu-ray) – $10.75
Interstellar (Blu-ray) – $9.99
It Follows (Blu-ray) – $7.99
Jaws (Blu-ray) – $7.88
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Blu-ray) – $9.72
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (Blu-ray) – $9.89
The Lady From Shanghai (Blu-ray) – $8.99
Lincoln (Blu-ray) – $9.94
Looper (Blu-ray) – $7.88
Lost In Translation (Blu-ray) – $9.49
Magnolia (Blu-ray) – $8.49
The Magnificent Seven (Blu-ray) – $7.99
The Man Who Wasn’t There (Blu-ray) – $9.53
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Blu-ray) – $5.26
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Blu-ray) – $8.99
Michael Clayton (Blu-ray) – $9.69
Moneyball (Blu-ray) – $9.99
Nebraska (Blu-ray) – $8.90
Never Let Me Go (Blu-ray) – $7.50
No Country For Old Men (Blu-ray) – $4.96
ParaNorman (Blu-ray) – $8.99
Persepolis (Blu-ray) – $9.90
The Piano (Blu-ray) – $7.34
Pulp Fiction (Blu-ray) – $8.74
Road to Perdition (Blu-ray) – $8.81
The Searchers / Wild Bunch / How the West Was Won (Blu-ray) – $111.38
Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Blu-ray) – $6.32
Short Term 12 (Blu-ray) – $9.42
Shutter Island (Blu-ray) – $6.79
A Serious Man (Blu-ray) – $5.61
A Single Man (Blu-ray) – $5.80
Somewhere (Blu-ray) – $5.20
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (Blu-ray) – $7.70
There Will Be Blood (Blu-ray) – $5.99
Tinker Sailor Soldier Spy (Blu-ray) – $6.49
To the Wonder (Blu-ray) – $8.48
Volver (Blu-ray) – $5.95
Waltz With Bashir (Blu-ray) – $6.50
Where the Wild Things Are (Blu-ray) – $7.07
The Wolf of Wall Street (Blu-ray) – $9.99
The Wrestler (Blu-ray) – $8.39
What are you picking up this week?
For as accomplished as Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut film Blood Simple comes across to any viewer, like any director, they can’t help but recognize their flaws. That’s not to say their newly restored first film, now available on The Criterion Collection, doesn’t look and sound gorgeous — every bead of sweat dripping down M. Emmet Walsh’s face and every gun blow feels like you’re right there in the sweltering Texas landscape — but there’s an undeniable charm in their recounting of the making of the film.
With it being the first time most of the major talent involved was doing their specific job, it was a learning experience through and through, which makes the special features on new release all the more informative and entertaining. The most substantial feature on the disc is a 70-minute discussion with the directors and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld as they take a chronological tour through the film, featuring Telestrator video illustrations, discussing their technical mistakes, but also admitting that much of it lead to a boldness virtually non-existent in the genre at that time.
We’ve rounded up the highlights from the special features below, with much more available on the release.
The Coens pitched Blood Simple as more of a horror/exploitation to investors.
Inspired by their close friend Sam Raimi and how he pulled together the financing for The Evil Dead by going around to business owners in Detroit, they initially pitched the film more as a horror/exploitation movie — traces of which can certainly be seen in the final film — due to being able to make it more cheaply. They also created a sales pitch trailer (which can be seen below) featuring Bruce Campbell, since it was far more difficult to sell an investor just on a script. While collecting $550,000 — including from a urologist, who delivered script notes splattered with blood — as they continued to develop the movie it leaned more towards “hard-boiled fiction,” rather than a typical horror film, partly inspired by high-profile, non-fiction Texas murder stories at the time.
Frances McDormand got the part through her roommate Holly Hunter, who auditioned.
“We were going to a lot of theater in New York, trying to find people who were interesting and might be able to play the parts in the movie,” Joel says. “One of the things that we went and saw was “Crimes of the Heart,” a Beth Henley play that Holly was doing, and we thought Holly was really interesting.” Even though she came into test for the role, the actress was committed to doing another play at the time, but she told her then-roommate, Frances McDormand, to audition, and the rest is history. In fact, one of the reasons she got the part is because she pushed back her audition so she could see her then-boyfriend act in a soap opera. Because “she didn’t seem like she needed it,” it made for the right fit, and that lack of neediness she’s carried through her entire career. The Coens also partly attribute McDormand’s character acting surprised throughout the film because she’s so shocked she got the part, one of her first film credit out of drama school.
Blood Simple is the most colorful film they’ve done, according to the cinematographer.
“I think this is the most colorful film we ever did, either together or separately,” Sonnenfeld says, as he looks at the neon lighting in the bar, which initially came out like “a bad porn” before he printed down the footage. “Most of the production design budget went to neon,” Joel adds. While much of the rest of the Coens’ oeuvre has a distinct overall feel specific to the film, Blood Simple is a bit more scrappy. ”Every movie that we’ve done subsequently there has been a sort of a general palette that sort of begun with the production designer. This one was not done that way,” the director says.
The beauty of unmotivated cinematography.
A considerable amount of the extended discussion on the disc has to do with the “unmotivated” decisions on a technical side, as it pertains both with the lighting and the camera moves. “We were doing everything we did on purpose and we had a plan and we wanted it look very much like the way it looked, and in fact we all got a lot of credit from critics and stuff because it looked not like a handheld, first-time, by-the-seat-of-their-pants movie. It was very anally thought out,” Sonnenfeld says. “What we weren’t doing was going into it thinking, ‘It will look like what it looks like. Who cares? It’s more about the staging, etc.’ We were all interested in the photographic look of the movie and each scene in particular. That was very important to us,” Joel adds.
The trio get a kick out of pointing out various places in which light sources seemingly show up out of random, from a non-existent lamp lighting McDormand’s face to the finale featuring light pouring through the bullet holes from different angles. “The short side of a face is always the side you want to light on,” the cinematographer says. “You always want to light for beauty and not for accuracy.”
Joel also recounts a story after meeting the cinematographer behind Days of Heaven and a number of French New Wave masterpieces: “After the movie was done, I had met in some context Néstor Almendros, who was talking about the scene at the end where the light comes through the bullet holes. He said, ‘Of course you know that light doesn’t behave that way,’ but he loved the scene. He said, ‘I would never do that. I would never get away with that.’ As Ethan was saying, there was some kind of idiotic charm to it that he really liked. So, yeah, we probably would have done it differently, but it probably would have been something else, and not as interesting.”
The Coens were inspired by Stanley Kubrick, The Conformist, and Wim Wenders.
As an extension of their discussion of unmotivated cinematography, they discuss those that most influenced them at the time. From Stanley Kubrick “having no rules” about lighting when it came to Dr. Strangelove to the way the venetian blinds moved in Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro’s The Conformist, they also drew on inspiration from Wim Wenders and Robby Müller in The American Friend. “We were just blown away by the look of that movie,” Sonnenfeld says. “There’s some beautiful and evocative, but unmotivated camera moves in American Friend, which also I remember [influenced us],” Joel adds. “They’re beautiful and they always felt appropriate to what was going on in the scene, even if you didn’t quite know why.”
He goes on to say, “We were definitely not in the camp where every camera move has to be motivated. We weren’t in that strict kind of Puritan mode of the camera only moves if the character is moving or to emphasis something. Sometimes it can move just because it moves because it’s a beautiful time to move the camera or the shot will be beautiful.” “That’s a Storraro and Bertolluci thing also. Also a big Scorsese thing, obviously,” Ethan attributes.
Martin Scorsese was on their fantasy cast list.
Speaking of Scorsese, they discussed a dream wish for their cast, which featured the director. “We talked about fantasy-wise, hiring Scorsese to play the Dan Hedaya role,” Sonnenfeld says, ”but we were nervous that whenever we decided to put the camera somewhere, Scorsese would be like shaking his head no. Scorsese was another big influence in terms of you look at Mean Streets and what the camera does in that movie that has nothing to do with what the characters are doing.”
Leave it to Brian De Palma to turn one of the most traumatic events of his adolescence into a film school homework assignment.
Arguably the most personal entry in De Palma’s filmography, Home Movies began as a class project while he was teaching film production at his alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. Fresh off the supernatural successes of Carrie and The Fury, he tasked his students with the challenge of creating a low-budget film using highly personal stories from his own teenage years. As De Palma bluntly states in the documentary De Palma, “99% of film students are going nowhere” after graduation. At least these students would get hands-on training and earn a feature film credit. More importantly, De Palma would get the opportunity to revisit his early days of guerilla filmmaking and indulge some of his usual obsessions (erotic surveillance, films within films) while poking fun at some of the successes and missteps on his early cinematic CV.
Home Movies begins with a hand-drawn animated credit sequence introducing us to the major characters, all thinly veiled cartoon facsimiles of De Palma’s own family. There’s the father, Dr. Byrd (Vincent Gardenia), a surgeon and serial philanderer. There’s Mrs. Byrd (Mary Davenport), the depressive wife obsessed with her husband’s infidelities. There’s the brother, Denis Byrd (De Palma stalwart Gerrit Graham), a self-absorbed cult leader. There’s his fiancé, Kristina (De Palma’s then-wife Nancy Allen), a loopy free spirit. Finally, there’s the younger brother, Denis Byrd (Keith Gordon as the surrogate De Palma), a shy voyeur who records everything with his 16mm camera. To quote De Palma on this coterie of extreme personalities: “I was living in a family of egotists.”
Post-credits, Home Movies quickly veers into metatextual waters, the instructional film-within-a-film that will provide a frame for the rest of this narrative. A professor simply referred to as The Maestro (Kirk Douglas, on loan from The Fury) is teaching a class on “Star Therapy.” Part Stanislavski, part Sigmund Freud, part Joseph Campbell, The Maestro acts as director, motivational speaker, and occasional psychologist, imploring his students to seize the starring role in their own lives. As his object lesson, he uses 16mm footage of the ineffectual Denis Byrd, a former student who has, by Denis’s voiceover admission, become “an extra in his own life.”
A smash cut later, and the film is now Denis’s story — the film-within-the-film-within-the-film. What follows is his film school self-portrait offered up to the audience as an extended family therapy session. It’s catharsis through farce, personal trauma mined for laughs, all of it deriving from De Palma’s outsourced family history. Scenes from James’s upcoming engagement are juxtaposed with sequences of his parents’ imploding marriage. Dr. Byrd gives adult James aggressive, slapstick physical exams that border on child abuse. Later, at their engagement announcement dinner, he luridly offers James’s new fiancé a free “private exam” as a wedding present.
Brother James is too self-involved to notice. He’s a health food nut who espouses a way of living called Spartanetics, a hypermasculine twist on Dianetics. He trains a group of impressionable young males (“Those Who Know”) in clean living and routinely interrogates Kristina about her numerous past boyfriends. He requires her to pass a rigorous pre-marriage “Temptation Marathon” during which she must resist sex, alcohol, smoking, and fast food. There’s an extended physical comedy scene where Graham crawls on the floor like a bloodhound and sniffs out the rogue scent of a greasy hamburger she ate earlier that day.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Byrd is making humorous suicide attempts with sleeping pills, despairing over her husband’s unabashed lechery. Hoping to catch him in the act, she enlists Denis in a peeping-tom mission. Though he’s busy swooning over his brother’s bride-to-be in windswept, slow-motion shots hinting at those De Palma would later bring to melodramatic perfection in Body Double, Denis begins to spy on his father with a 16mm film camera. He hides in a tree across from his office and dons shoe polish blackface so as not to be identified, a scene echoing De Palma’s similar usage of provocative racial iconography in Hi, Mom! Through his viewfinder, he catches his father cavorting with a nurse and breaks in on their lovemaking with the aid of cartoonishly bigoted cop.
Needless to say, this scene unfolds in a manner more Laurel and Hardy than the real life inciting incident. According to interviews, a young De Palma actually took photographs of his father and a nurse entering and leaving his office with a still camera. Later, he broke in through a window, confronted his father with a knife, and demanded to see where the nurse was hidden. That real-life anecdote reads more as a horror movie than Home Movies‘ slapstick treatment, and De Palma would revisit it again the same year in more typical Hitchcockian fashion with Dressed to Kill.
Eventually, Denis gets a chance to “become the star of his own life” when he follows Kristina to a biker’s bordello during her Temptation Marathon. When she refuses to have sex with one of the bikers, Denis bursts in and pulls her away from a potential date rape. Passive voyeur becomes active rescuer, a recurring motif De Palma mines later with similar peeper protagonists in Blow Out, Body Double and Femme Fatale. Because of Denis’ “heroic” act, Kristina finally sleeps with him — or so we presume. In an uncharacteristic display of restraint, De Palma allows their tryst to occur entirely off-screen. One can only assume this curious ellipsis has something to do with Home Movies being a school project.
But the film is by no means asexual, an aspect most evident in Home Movies’ potentially problematic rendering of Kristina’s character. Nancy Allen plays her as an agreeable eccentric and bears the brunt of this film’s absurdity. She’s had many lovers in her past, went “professional” at one point, and has a tortured history with a rabbit hand puppet named “Bunny” with whom she engaged in a live sex act. (A cheeky nod to De Palma’s own Get To Know Your Rabbit fiasco, perhaps.) She now uses the rabbit as a therapy doll / ventriloquist’s dummy and imbues it with an aggressive male personality. After Denis saves her from the biker bordello, Kristina gets blitzed on Mrs. Byrd’s sleeping pills and busts up her own engagement party, Bunny tossing out photographs from her showgirl past.
Once again, Denis plays would-be savior and rushes her to his father’s office to have her stomach pumped. Instead, Dr. Byrd uses her inebriated state as an opportunity for more lechery. Denis watches from afar, replaying the film’s earlier sexual surveillance scene, but with his own love interest now the subject. Kristina flees, only to have a gun-toting James appear and force her into the line of an oncoming car. She appears to die in a slow-motion car accident echoing a similar sequence played for suspense in The Fury. Only later do we learn that Kristina was hit (safely) by an ambulance.
Apart from recycling several of De Palma’s favorite thematic obsessions, Home Movies also finds him deploying a few of his preferred technical tricks. Despite the 16mm frame being a tight 1.33:1 squeeze, the film features at least two noticeable split-diopter shots. The sweeping Steadicam long-takes that would become the hallmark of De Palma’s later career are absent, but Home Movies does utilize undercranking for fast-motion comic effect, as in his earlier experimental movies. For fans of his big-budget blockbuster efforts, there’s also a self-destructing audiotape message that, in hindsight, plays like a pre-Mission: Impossible Easter egg.
When finally edited together at the end, the “home movies” Denis records throughout the film become something like the Byrd Family Zapruder reel, scenes of family celebrations intercut with surveillance footage exposing Dr. Byrd’s heinous sexual acts. The film ends with a horror movie sting à la Carrie, now played for laughs. A young girl comes across the tossed hand puppet Bunny beneath a tree. She picks it up, puts it on, and, in a throaty rasp, the rabbit offers to take her to Hollywood. Considering De Palma’s contentious, prodigious studio output that would come in the remainder of the ’80s, it may be a more ominous ending than a bloody hand reaching from a grave.
Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.