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Anatomy of a Murderess: Vertigo

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Warning: The following post spoils virtually everything worth spoiling. Before reading, please watch this 60-year-old movie that you should already have seen by now.
I saw Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects the Friday night it opened in Kansas City in September 1995. I was completely sucked in by Christopher McQuarrie’s intricately constructed plot. Up until the last three minutes, I was locked in to my personal theory that the cop, Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), was Keyser Söze.

I went again with friends the very next night and watched the entire film making mental notes about Verbal’s story and what we’re shown onscreen: That’s real. … That’s bullshit. … That’s real. … Bullshit. Real. Bullshit. Bullshit. In only two viewings in a span of about 24 hours, I had mostly taken apart the puzzle of the film, which over the years remains a taut, effective crime drama, even when you know the twist going in.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, on the other hand, is a film that continues to reveal itself to me a couple dozen viewings later. In its totality the film’s machinery can obscure its various moving parts. Or maybe I’m just slow on the uptake.

Some years ago, in fact, it was only while watching a Hitchcock documentary in which the final scene was isolated that the film’s last shot — of Ferguson (James Stewart) walking out onto the ledge of the mission bell tower — finally landed with me; only then did I realize that he is cured in the end. It’s even mentioned early in the film that it would take a shock or trauma similar to the one that incited his vertigo to jolt him back out of it, and maybe not even then. But I had for some reason repeatedly failed to pick up on the most obvious subtext or even things explicitly spelled out.

I suppose I have been so invested in Ferguson’s point of view for so long that I’ve had a blind spot for other characters and certain plot points — not unlike Ferguson himself. Which is why now, a quarter century or more since I saw Vertigo for the first time, I’m finally coming around to a critical element of the story:

Judy Barton is a sociopath who gets exactly what’s coming to her.

Because Judy (Kim Novak) is a pawn in Gavin Elster’s game and because she dies in the end, one’s impulse is to think of her charitably as a victim. She loves Ferguson — both as Madeleine and as Judy — and we’re persuaded that her feelings for him are genuine. So our own feelings for her are clouded in the end. But she spells it all out for us in her voiceover of the letter she writes but never gives Ferguson:

I was the tool, and you were the victim of Gavin Elster’s plan to murder his wife. He chose me to play the part because I looked like her; he dressed me up like her.

During the film’s climax, Judy’s confirmations sputter out under duress and panic, but movies have trained us to believe the entirety of the information we’re being given, however incomplete, so Stewart’s raw, wrenching “apt pupil” monologue as he drags Judy up the steps of the bell tower becomes the official story of the setup and the crime:

Elster (Tom Helmore) begins an affair with Judy — who falls in love with him, perhaps, or at least attaches herself to him for her own reasons — after which he persuades her to masquerade as his wife, promising that they can run away together after he kills Madeleine.

Elster’s means are definite and his motive only a little less so, but what is the timing of his opportunity? Does Elster discover Judy before or after Ferguson’s accident? At their first meeting, Elster tells Ferguson he’s been back in San Francisco “almost a year.” At the time of the murder, Judy has been in San Francisco for two years at most. But how long has Elster been planning to kill his wife? Did he hate Madeleine, or did he only want her money? How long has he been grooming Judy? Has Judy ever met or seen Madeleine, or does she know her only by hearsay? Does Judy personally have any motive to want Madeleine dead besides love or money? Is Judy truly a doppelgänger for Madeleine, or can she merely pass well enough for neighbors who don’t see Madeleine often because, as we’re told, “she lived in the country and rarely came to town”? Have the neighbors ever seen Madeleine, or is Judy the only Madeleine they’ve ever known? Could the neighbors tell the difference if Madeleine’s photo appeared in the newspaper? Could Ferguson?1

Elster escapes to Europe and leaves Judy behind, secure in the knowledge that she could never turn him in without implicating herself, even if he could be extradited. So we safely assume he was never in love with her, was using her only to facilitate Madeleine’s murder and make Ferguson a witness to an apparently inevitable suicide. Did it never occur to Judy to wonder why Elster would continue making love to a woman in whose face he’d constantly see the face of the wife he murdered? In a movie that hinges on sexual obsession, what does it say about these characters’ depravities that they don’t more cautiously observe the depravity in each other.

In any event — whether she’s cold-blooded or merely slow-witted — Judy must commit herself fully to the deception, lest she be revealed, arrested, tried and convicted as Elster’s accomplice.

So it isn’t just that Judy knows from the start that Ferguson is following her — notwithstanding that he runs the worst, most obvious tails of any cop ever.2 It’s that she’s acting every step of the way, every minute of the day — including when she jumps into the bay, when Ferguson dives in to save her, when he drives her back to his apartment, when he undresses her while she is presumably unconscious.

This post-rescue sequence at Ferguson’s apartment is exquisitely discomfiting, because as we put 2 and 2 together, we’re coming to grips with the idea of James Stewart — in our eyes the most basically decent and upright of all Hollywood stars — as a lascivious creep.3 (In case we thought Stewart’s voyeurism in Rear Window seemed relatively harmless, Vertigo is Hitchcock saying, “Hold my beer.”) We don’t think about Judy in his bed feigning unconsciousness; we think about his eyes and hands on Madeleine’s defenseless body as he removes her wet clothes, his motive and opportunity as he changes out of his own, and the way his eyes continue to undress her after she wakes.

It is at this point that we are most likely blind to the deception — either momentarily or altogether — because we’re both mortified and titillated by the thought of James Stewart, of all people, defiling Madeleine, the mentally unbalanced wife of his friend, in her sleep.

And yet it’s Judy who is in control of this sequence all along.

One wonders, then: Is this the moment she falls in love with Ferguson? Or the following day, when they kiss for the first time next to the crashing waves? And if neither, then when exactly?

Because fall in love with him she does, even as she continues to deceive him, as she also describes in her letter:

I made the mistake. I fell in love. That wasn’t part of the plan. I’m still in love with you, and I want you so to love me. If I had the nerve, I’d stay and lie, hoping that I could make you love me again, as I am for myself … and so forget the other and forget the past. But I don’t know whether I have the nerve to try …

We know even Judy doesn’t believe this last line. It’s the point at which she stops writing and tears up the letter. Because if a young woman has the nerve to surrender her body to two different middle-aged men in order to help the first facilitate a murder, how much nerve does it take to continue loving the second man under a different set of false pretenses?

Also: How long has she been waiting for him to find her?

It’s been at least a year since the murder, since the inquest, since Ferguson’s crack-up, his hospitalization and recovery. Yet after Ferguson first sees Judy on the street and follows her to the Empire Hotel, she doesn’t act shocked to see him. She is completely deadpan when she opens the door, and she quickly falls into the routine of treating him as a stranger, as though all along she has been waiting for her cue to continue the ruse.

There are two quick cuts here — beginning on Judy, reverse to Ferguson over her shoulder, then back to Judy — that preclude the viewer from an unbroken look at her expression. We’re briefly denied Ferguson’s POV, so we don’t see whether her expression breaks at all. Certainly both we and Ferguson are meant to believe that Judy is a complete stranger (although her game is given away to us only minutes later). It seems odd, though, that the surprise of a year doesn’t register on her face even briefly when she opens the door to find him there.

If she had been waiting for him passively, never knowing when or if he might appear, there would at least be some flare of recognition in her eyes. If this is a deliberate choice in Novak’s acting or Hitchcock’s direction, it suggests that she had been at least keeping tabs on him, if not surveilling him outright.

And why wouldn’t she? Otherwise, why stay?

Lots of places aren’t Salina, Kansas, and leaving San Francisco to start over yet again would have been incredibly easy for Judy to do with whatever money Elster may have given her. If she goes even 100 miles in any direction, odds are Ferguson never sees her again. If she goes to any other major city, she can lose herself all over again and become whoever she wants to be.

“The necklace, Madeleine. That was the slip. I remembered the necklace. … Carlotta’s necklace. There was where you made your mistake, Judy. You shouldn’t keep souvenirs of a killing. You shouldn’t have been— You shouldn’t have been that sentimental. … I loved you so, Madeleine.”

Ferguson’s talking about two different things here. True, Judy shouldn’t have kept a souvenir.4 But he is the thing she shouldn’t have been sentimental about, just as he also indicts himself for being so sentimental about Madeleine. He is both the reason Judy stayed and the reason she shouldn’t have.

We are conditioned by the film to feel sympathy for Judy as a tragic figure, in all her guises and situations. She fell in love with or at least placed her trust in the wrong man, a cruel, devious man. As Madeleine, we knew her as a woman tormented by a dark connection to the past, with only one apparent means of escape. She then fell in love with a broken, vulnerable man who could never love her for who she actually was. She submitted herself to that love and eventually got too close to him, close enough for this man, a detective, to uncover her identity and complicity. She fell to her death — a perfect mirror of Madeleine’s fall — so consumed by her own guilt in those final instants that she believed she was being haunted by a spectral manifestation of judgment and damnation.

Judy’s a young woman who got mixed up in something too big for her and paid a high price for her bad decisions.

Judy’s a manipulative temptress who was a willing accomplice to murder, who knew what she was doing all along and believed she could carry on the deception indefinitely.

And once again Professor Carothers’ directive holds true: In Hollywood, women can sin any way they want, as long as they die in the end.
1 Though Judy tells us, “He planned it so well; he made no mistakes,” still more questions exist about just how perfectly Elster timed and executed his plan. For example: How long before the bell tower does Elster kill Madeleine? Is there any window of opportunity before the actual murder during which Judy could tell Ferguson in time to prevent it? Is it only when she’s running up the stairs that she becomes conflicted about her role?
Although Ferguson “witnessed” her leap from the tower and the postmortem examination could confirm a broken neck as the cause of death, wouldn’t the lividity in Madeleine’s body raise questions to the coroner about the time of death? Wouldn’t a toxicology screen also be conducted that would show whether she had consumed alcohol, taken medication, or been drugged? Where in the country did Madeleine live — how close to Mission San Juan Bautista? Did Elster act out a scene with the real, living Madeleine to take her there, similar to the scene Judy was acting out with Ferguson, so he could time the snapping of Madeleine’s neck as closely to their arrival as possible?

2 Side note: You’ll never persuade me that the proprietress of the McKittrick Hotel (Ellen Corby) hasn’t been paid to tell Ferguson that Madeleine hasn’t been in that day, though it would likely come as a shock to her later to learn that she had played a small part in a murder.
3 To wit, an Easter egg of sorts for modern-day viewers: In my most recent screening of the movie, I noticed for the very first time that a copy of Swank magazine — at that time a “men’s lifestyle and pin-up magazine,” though it was reinvented as a pornographic title a couple of decades later — is prominently displayed on Ferguson’s coffee table.
4 Two, in fact. Ferguson doesn’t know that she also kept Madeleine’s gray suit.


Written by Shepcat

September 14, 2018 at 3:38 pm

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Briefly: Vertigo in 70mm

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Saturday night I attended a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, part of Cinerama’s annual 70mm Festival here in Seattle.

I still remember the thrill of seeing the 1996 restoration of Vertigo in its initial release — pristine, vivid and electric. The sound mix was so clean and crisp that Bernard Herrmann’s cue when Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay made me literally jump in my seat.

The print screened Saturday wasn’t in great shape, as one so often hopes of such exhibitions — the first two reels in particular were pretty scratchy, there were bad splices throughout, and the projectionist appeared to miss the fifth-reel changeover, which actually was kind of charming. For whatever faults were on display, one feels immediate, if unexpected, nostalgia for film as a physical, mechanical medium in this age when digital production and projection have become the norm.

In any event, the attraction of the evening turned out to be the communal experience of watching Vertigo, which, it occurred to me in the moment, I hadn’t done in years — not as far back as that 1996 release but certainly not since the early to mid-aughts when I lived in L.A. I have watched the film a dozen or more times on video in the intervening years, and much of its midcentury sexual politics and groanworthy dialogue are by now internalized in my viewing experience, so to hear the raucous laughter of a nearly packed house at moments that I’ve come to take for granted was oddly refreshing.

There’s poor, pathetic Midge, pining for a man who just lets himself into her apartment at any time of the day or night without knocking but who will never love her, particularly now that he’s consumed by his obsession.

There’s Ferguson’s savage dressing-down by the coroner at Madeleine’s inquest, his every pointed barb followed by an instruction to the jury not to take it into account when considering their verdict.

There’s Ferguson dragging his reluctant new love interest through an intensive makeover, dictating the specifics of her new wardrobe and makeup, pleading with her to turn herself into a platinum blonde, “Please, Judy. It can’t matter to you.”

But God, the last five minutes of this film.

No star of the golden age is more affable, more approachable, or projects more basic decency than James Stewart. But he is arguably never better than when he portrays a man losing his grip on the end of a rapidly fraying rope. His “apt pupil” monologue as he drags Judy to the top of the mission bell tower is so raw that it guts me every time I watch this movie.

Whatever its faults as a film — whether in the narrative-storytelling sense or the physical-strips-of-celluloid sense — Vertigo always wins me over in the end.

Written by Shepcat

September 9, 2018 at 1:04 pm

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Rewind: Magnolia

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I’m going to say a couple of nice things about Magnolia right up front.

First, I will be forever indebted to this film because it reintroduced me to singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, my profound adoration of whom endures to this very day. Within weeks of seeing Magnolia, I had purchased her entire extant catalog, including the ’Til Tuesday stuff of my college days, and her songs were pretty much the soundtrack of my wayward soul during the eight years I lived in Los Angeles. She understood me in a way no other woman in that godforsaken town could be bothered to.

Second, I will reiterate my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s outsize ambition at this early stage of his film career1, if for no other reason than that during those same Los Angeles years, I too had a propensity for throwing myself at my passions fully expecting to crash and burn spectacularly. Magnolia is trying to do so many things. It’s the work of a young man who wasn’t trying to project a film onto the screen so much as leave a Paul Thomas Anderson–shaped hole right in the middle of it and straight out the back wall of the theater.

Because holy fuck, this is some straight-up Wile E. Coyote shit right here.

Magnolia is louder and faster than a film with a three-hour-plus running time has any reason to be, particularly during its first half.2 After a leisurely cold open in which the invaluable Ricky Jay regales us with lurid tales of cosmic coincidence, the movie takes off like it’s gunning for a land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In addition to its occasionally off-putting sound mix, the opening and much of what follows are drunk on the kind of visual acrobatics that were used more sparingly and effectively in Boogie Nights — tracking shots, whip pans, Scorsesean push zooms — as if it’s trying to generate not just unnecessary momentum but all the momentum there is. Robert Elswit and Dylan Tichenor, whose thrilling and nuanced shooting and cutting were the best things about Boogie Nights, seem to be working with a gun pointed at their heads. [Insert here the shot of Dennis Hopper in Speed cackling, “The whim of a madman.”]

Simply stated, Magnolia comprises the interlocking stories of a dozen Angelenos on the worst day of their respective lives. Once you understand that, it should be easy to empathize and sympathize with these characters — and on this second viewing, 18 years older and wiser, I actually could and did — but the film moves so rapidly from the moment we’re introduced to them that it almost deliberately distances us from them.

The one character I have always championed is nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in part because even amid the chaos and cacophony of these opening sequences, his love of and care for his patient Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) are immediately apparent. Phil is pure and without agenda and more in control of his own sad circumstances than anyone else in the film. He is, after all, merely a salaried employee called upon to bear the intense grief of an entire fucked-up family.

On the flipside, I am least sympathetic toward male-empowerment motivational guru Frank T.J. Mackey (née Jack Partridge), whom Anderson writes and Tom Cruise portrays as a mutated spiritual descendant of the developmentally arrested caricatures of Boogie Nights. The difference being that Frank’s ambitions peaked later, after he audited a few business courses in college, which emboldened him to revel in his own juvenile douchebaggery to the point of manifesto and monetization.

But while the strutting, oversexed bravado of his public persona is a clear counterpoint to the emotional scars and disavowed past it’s meant to obscure — and to the inevitable crash to come — what’s less clear is the why of it all. If it’s his father, Earl, whom he hates so much — for abandoning his wife and son, leaving young Jack at 14 to care for his mother as she herself was eaten by cancer — why has he made degrading women not just a career but a raison d’être? It’s practically an acknowledgement of the film’s excesses that not only would Anderson make Frank the totemic god of aspiring assholes everywhere but that Frank would evolve to that station for all the wrong reasons.

In between, you have a cast of wayward souls who range from dying to deeply broken to merely dull-witted, and Anderson does connect these lives rather seamlessly, somewhat achieving his stated goal of telling one large story instead of six small ones. It’s just that the choices he makes in the telling often make the story blur in one’s vision.

More so than any other connection, the awkward meet-cute of lovelorn Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and self-loathing Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters) has about it the air of improvisation, of which I am not a fan, even when practiced by my favorite filmmakers. (I’m looking at you, Marty.) And yet, maybe an air is all it is. Given the participants — shout-out to the earnest, good-natured goofiness that is Reilly’s most prominent trait as an actor (and, one presumes, as a person) — it could be either improvisation or merely writing that gives these scenes, all of which seem to last a beat too long, the impression of improv.

All of this (and more that I haven’t mentioned), however, is merely prelude to Act 3’s rain of frogs, both a literal deus ex machina and yet one that, outside the mere what-the-fuckness of it all, doesn’t affect these lives any more than, say, a major hailstorm would. (After all, it was raining a lot that day to begin with.) Now that Ricky Jay–narrated cold open — composed of anecdotes that, while curious, are each easily explained — seems to be less a comment on the intersection of lives we’re about to witness and more an excuse for the frogs, which cannot be explained at all. They are at once hysterically funny and genuinely terrifying, but what do they have to do with anything other than Anderson’s outsize ambition?

And yet, it’s fair to ask: Would I still admire Anderson as much as I do if he had stripped away all that excess and chaos and cacophony and just told the story straight? On its own, it’s still a marvelous work of narrative structure and human drama, but would I then feel that he wasn’t risking enough? Would anyone care about Magnolia if it weren’t flawed and erratic and polarizing and overreaching but merely the competent work of an emerging talent?

Now that I’ve met it, would I object to never seeing it again?
Random observations:

  • In Magnolia, Anderson’s repertory company shares some nice crossover with the Mighty Mamet Players: William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman, Clark Gregg, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  • One year after the film’s release, Jason Robards would die of metastasizing lung cancer, pretty much the same thing killing Earl Partridge in the film. Robards had in fact recently emerged from an extended hospital stay following a nine-week coma before being offered the film, and the idea that we’re watching him die onscreen — almost literally dying for his art — is enormously affecting.
  • I have to believe that the amount of cocaine Claudia snorts in this one 24-hour period would have killed anyone else on Earth.
  • Luis Guzmán is listed in the end credits as portraying “Luis Guzmán,” which cracks me up more than it probably should.

1 Anderson becomes particularly lovable in this regard when one views the video diary of the making of the film, which contains a scene of him playfully but convincingly berating then-girlfriend Fiona Apple, who appears in the role of “Magnolia Trying Too Hard to Do Too Much.” Ultimately you can’t hate a guy who was that self-aware the entire time.

2 This first half–second half dichotomy in both visual and narrative pacing is a quality Magnolia shares with Boogie Nights, though it is much more pronounced here. Whereas Boogie Nights seems to chase its characters as they spiral out of control in the second half, Magnolia seems to finally apply the brakes to a heedless pace that it was imposing upon characters who were never really moving that fast to begin with.

Written by Shepcat

March 14, 2018 at 1:29 pm

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Rewind: Boogie Nights

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In the wake of my incredibly positive encounter with Phantom Thread (and with Inherent Vice before it), I’ve been circling back to the earlier works of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson toward either reassessing or confirming my long-held opinions about them.

My second encounter with Punch-Drunk Love, for example, reaffirmed my opinion that Emily Watson was the film’s only redeemable quality and cemented my resolve never to waste another minute of my life on Adam Sandler.

On the other hand, while I didn’t love The Master (my first viewing) — it suffers from Anderson’s tendency to create unlikable, rather than merely flawed, protagonists; in this case, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell — my wistful affection for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman buoyed my interest in and overall impression of the film.

I can’t believe I’ve been shit-talking Boogie Nights for over 20 years now — when Netflix told me it was released in 1997, I literally went to IMDb for corroboration — but there you have it. Where does the time go?

Friday night marked the first time I’ve screened it since its theatrical release, and while it’s pretty much the film I’ve been remembering in snapshots over those two decades, I’d like to delineate some of those thoughts here.

  • If nothing else stands out in this folly of his youth, I greatly admire Anderson’s visual ambition here — particularly in the first half of the film. For me, the real stars of Boogie Nights are cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor, who execute that vision with a lot of style and invention that I wish the film’s other elements could live up to. There are marvelous, swirling tracking shots, both at the Hot Traxx nightclub and at Jack’s pool party, as well as a shot in the latter sequence in which a character dives into the pool and the camera dives in after him and follows as he swims to the other side.
    As the characters become more manic and unhinged in the second half, though, the visual style seems to follow suit, and — personal preference here — I wish it had maintained its consistency while allowing the narrative to speak for itself.
  • With rare exception, everyone in the movie is a caricature of sorts, lacking emotional intelligence, real intelligence, or both. This might be fine if the film were a straight-up satire of the porn industry (I’m imagining just now what Armando Iannucci might do in that milieu), but it’s foremost a period piece with some dark, dramatic storylines at play, and I’d like to see some actual adults in the room. Even the veterans, the titans of the industry — Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner, Robert Ridgely’s Colonel James, and Philip Baker Hall’s Floyd Gondolli — speak in the stunted, juvenile language of titillated schoolboys instead of the more clinical language of people who’ve been at the party awhile.
    The film’s protagonist, Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk, meanwhile, is a developmentally arrested naïf, and his best friend and co-star, John C. Reilly’s Reed, is just a straight-up imbecile. Their ambitions seem to have peaked at age 13 and carried over into adulthood. I don’t expect these guys to discuss Hegelian dialectics and weigh in on the economic policies of the Carter administration, but I nearly cheered out loud when Heather Graham’s Rollergirl announces that she’s thinking about going back to earn her G.E.D.
  • My memory of Don Cheadle’s cowboy-outfitted Buck Swope1 being the only character for whom I feel a rooting interest holds firm. When he and Melora Walters’ Jessie St. Vincent fall for each other, it’s the first time the film gives its audience a hopeful outlook for anyone’s future. There is such sweetness between the two of them that I care for them instantly in ways I feel for no one else on the screen.
    The scene of them together applying for a bank loan to back Buck’s dream of owning a stereo store is particularly marvelous in that he is being discriminated against not because he is black or because they are presenting themselves as a biracial couple — it’s about 1982 at this point in the film — but because the loan officer sees Buck as a pornographer while he sees himself merely as a working actor.
  • That said, I found myself this time feeling a great deal more sympathy and affection for Julianne Moore’s Amber. She’s the film’s true emotional center, and I feel I wrote her off a little unjustly and callously on my first viewing. More so than the authority figures onscreen, she’s the one who holds the filmmaking family together, mothering them even as she is denied the right to be a mother to her own child.
    And a special shout-out to Moore for doing a voice here that seems to be a tribute to Nancy Allen in De Palma’s Blow Out.
  • I can’t completely hate a film that finds a place on its soundtrack for Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel.” Ditto the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Oddly enough, though, there were no licensing dollars left over for the actual song “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave.

Onward to 1999’s Magnolia.
1 I have long had a particular affinity for Cheadle as a fellow Kansas Citian, and only as I was typing this just now did I make the connection that there is a Swope Park in our hometown. It’s merely a remarkable coincidence, though, as the character’s name is a reference to the film Putney Swope by Robert Downey Sr., who also appears in a cameo.

Written by Shepcat

March 10, 2018 at 3:05 pm

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Behind Every Great Man: Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread is a tale told by a craftsman with technical precision and keen artistry about a craftsman who approaches his own work — indeed his whole life — with the same technical precision and keen artistry. It is in many ways the film that Paul Thomas Anderson has been working toward his entire career — perfectly contained, carefully observed, not an ounce of fat on it — anchored by a Daniel Day-Lewis performance that makes Thread a worthy swan song, if indeed this is the last we are to see of Day-Lewis. (If he retreats to the artisanal life of a cobbler, we needn’t worry that Thread will be regarded as his Welcome to Mooseport.)

Despite their having garnered wider acclaim, I have found past PTA efforts such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia to be ungainly affairs in need of tighter editorial control, populated by characters for whom I feel little affinity or sympathy. It’s not that I couldn’t see a great artist in the making; it’s that, with all that talent evident on the screen, I couldn’t fathom how he hadn’t already arrived at that place. It’s not that I have to like every character in a story; it’s that I shouldn’t have to work so hard to find even one to cheer for. (Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Magnolia, if you’re scoring at home.)

And it’s not that I held a grudge against Anderson — on the contrary, once I heard him talk about his influences and his own work in interviews, I was smitten — but that I wanted to like his films as much as I like him. I have been cheering for him all this time, even as I have hated his films, until Inherent Vice.1 I can’t think of any other filmmaker on whom I’ve waited so patiently.

And by rights, I shouldn’t like fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock as much as I do. But Anderson allows such subtle glimpses of his humanity to emerge that one is won over to him by both empathy and sympathy. We are allowed to see him as much the captive prisoner of his own genius as he is the warden who supervises its execution, as it were.

Not all men demand as much or hold themselves and others to such exacting standards in all aspects as Reynolds does — and his specificity and hypersensitivity are at times played to great comic effect — but we are all set in our ways, particularly after a certain age or a certain length of time spent alone or apart. In which case the great central conflict of a burgeoning relationship may not be that a significant other wants to change us so much as that they want to change anything at all.

But Reynolds is nothing if not defined by the women in his life — his late mother, who inspired him; his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who has never married and has made facilitating Reynolds’ genius and furthering his reputation her life’s work; and his new muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who is sweetly submissive and a fast learner — but to crack his veneer they must control him in small ways and be useful to him in big ways in order to fuel his ego and keep his delicate genius from pushing him over the edge. It is a balancing act that Reynolds believes he is performing when in fact it is Cyril and Alma manning the levers all along.

Reynolds cares more about his dresses than he does about the women for whom he designs them — hilariously so — and because Alma understands this and genuinely, unbelievably loves him, she finds her opening to be seen by him as more than just his ideal mannequin. Alma aims to be useful in the ways Reynolds needs her to be but also in the ways she wants to be useful to him, in order to be loved by him. The latter she must impose upon him (first by small degrees, then more insistently), just as he imposes the former on her.

More critical perhaps than the campaign she wages for Reynolds’ heart is Alma’s impressing upon Cyril that she is not the shrinking violet or disposable paper doll that serial monogamist Reynolds is accustomed to having in his life. Cyril is at first every bit as dismissive of Alma as she was of Alma’s predecessor (whom she literally dismissed) … until she isn’t. And that moment of recognition — when Cyril realizes that the admirably duplicitous Alma is an ally in her mission to protect Reynolds and preserve the House of Woodcock instead of a distraction and an enemy within — is rather marvelous.

At work behind all of this, though, is Anderson’s remarkable attention to detail. He depicts this world in all its simple elegance, distilling these characters to their essence, and trims away all the excess to create a perfectly tailored, exquisitely bespoke film that presents him at the peak of his prowess. Others may argue that There Will Be Blood is his and Day-Lewis’ showy, sprawling masterpiece, but Phantom Thread, with its quiet grace, its unnerving tension, its spareness and its splendor, is as close to a perfect creation as he has yet produced. And at last Anderson takes his place among the ranks of filmmakers whose upcoming projects I eagerly anticipate instead of await with trepidation.
1 This may be in part because of PTA’s de facto christening as “the Altman of his generation” and his own stated admiration for Altman’s oeuvre. I, on the other hand, fucking loathe Robert Altman.
It’s noteworthy, though, that
Phantom Thread shares a certain period aesthetic and thematic spirit with Gosford Park, one of the few Altman films I like. The scenes of the seamstresses climbing the stairs of the Woodcock manse to begin their work day in service of Reynolds’ vision are evocative of the upstairs/downstairs world of Gosford Park.

Written by Shepcat

January 25, 2018 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Movies

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The Insignificant Detail #10

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One of the joys of my trip home this past Christmas was watching North by Northwest with my dad, who kept up a running commentary of the make and model year of virtually every car that appeared on-screen (with the exception of “Laura’s Mercedes”). He was positively Rain Man–like.

Then a couple of days later we were out shopping, and I happened to mention that, though I make a lot of daily purchases with my credit card, I still feel a sense of security having some cash on hand at all times. “Like Cary Grant in the movie the other night?” Dad said. “How he never ran out of cash?”

I’ve seen all or part of North by Northwest at least 70 times (conservative estimate), but until just then I’d never really considered how Roger O. Thornhill’s inexhaustible cash on hand qualifies as an Insignificant Detail, not unlike bullets in a John Woo gunfight.

Remember: Thornhill is abducted in the first four minutes of the film1 and spends the next four days either in the custody of or on the run from or toward his captors. So in 1959, decades before the advent of the automated teller machine, when would he have the time to stand in line at a bank (during regular daytime business hours, no less, while also being widely publicized as a fugitive from justice) to make a withdrawal?

With that in mind, here is a running account of every time Thornhill greases a palm — on camera and off — over the course of the film’s 136-minute running time:


  • 0:02:32 Thornhill buys a newspaper in the lobby of his office building with change he removes from the side pocket of his suit jacket.
  • 0:04:16 He pays the cab driver to return his secretary, Maggie (Doreen Lang), to the office.


  • 0:26:11 Thornhill presumably pays the Glen Cove police the $2 drunk-and-disorderly fine.
  • 0:26:49 He and Mother (Jessie Royce Landis) arrive at the Plaza Hotel in a cab.
  • 0:28:06 He bribes Mother, first with $10, then with $50, to get George Kaplan’s room key at the Plaza. After berating him, she takes the $50.
  • 0:30:59 He tips the hotel valet for the return of George Kaplan’s dry-cleaned suit.
  • 0:34:17 Abandoning Mother, he escapes the Plaza in a cab, which he takes to the United Nations.
  • 0:38:24 He escapes the U.N. in another cab, which we see him sprinting toward in the overhead matte-painting shot. He presumably takes this cab to Grand Central Station.
    However, quite a bit of time must elapse in the interlude because the next scene shows the Professor (Leo G. Carroll) and his staff discussing the matter in Washington, D.C., where the fugitive Thornhill’s picture appears in the afternoon paper. This scene takes place the same day, because the newspaper article references his appearance in Glen Cove police court “earlier today.”
  • 0:41:43 At Grand Central Station, we first see Thornhill on a pay phone, talking to Mother. He references having called the Plaza Hotel and learned that Kaplan checked out en route to the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago. So that’s two phone calls, apparently made with pocket change.
  • 0:51:59 Aboard the Twentieth Century Limited, he hastily tosses some bills on the table as he and Eve (Eva Marie Saint) exit the dining car when the train makes an unscheduled stop.


  • 1:02:31 The red cap Thornhill “assaulted” at Chicago’s Union Station appears to count out at least four bills that he was paid in exchange for his uniform.
  • 1:06:11 Thornhill presumably pays cash for his Greyhound bus ticket to Prairie Stop, Highway 41.
  • 1:24:21 He would pay and tip the valet at the Hotel Ambassador East in Chicago after he sends his pesticide-dusted suit down to be sponged and pressed.
  • 1:25:23 He takes a cab from the Ambassador to the auction house at 1212 North Michigan Avenue.


  • 1:40:40 Thornhill views Mount Rushmore through a coin-operated viewfinder. Pocket change.
  • 1:42:37 Just before the sitdown with Vandamm (James Mason), he buys a cup of coffee in the Mount Rushmore cafeteria. Pocket change.
  • 1:55:13 Finally, Thornhill takes a cab from the hospital in Rapid City to Vandamm’s house behind Mount Rushmore, a trip of at least 20 miles.

By my count, that’s 17 times in four days that Thornhill dips into the pocket at the end of the rainbow and pulls out cash. Not for nothing is his gray suit widely regarded as the greatest suit in film history.
1 Excluding credit sequence. All subsequent timestamps refer to the full DVD runtime.

Written by Shepcat

January 9, 2018 at 9:52 pm

My Favorite Things — #3 in a Series

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Writer-director Gary Ross’ Pleasantville is a practically perfect movie. God, I love every frame of it. I had almost forgotten how much.

Before these latest viewings, it had been several years since I last watched it. Which is astonishing even to me, given the title of this continuing series. (I had begun and abandoned another version of this piece some years ago.) But now, some 19 years and change since the film’s release, it is arguably more relevant than ever. We find ourselves at a juncture in history during which a nostalgia not unlike that which the film both celebrates and satirizes is being wielded against us for more insidious aims.

In the abstract, in its most charitably innocuous interpretation, the phrase “Make America Great Again” might conjure up in our collective imagination that same midcentury, postwar America that gave us such gentle domestic comedies as Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — the amalgamation of which forms the basis of Pleasantville’s TV series–within–the movie conceit — as the cultural yardsticks against which American families measured their happiness and prosperity.

But there was a dark side to that happiness and prosperity, because midcentury, postwar America was also Cold War America. And Jim Crow America. And it was “postwar” for only about five years before we became embroiled in the Korean conflict, with Vietnam faintly visible on the horizon. Our innocence, illusory though it was, was soon to be trampled amid the turmoil and unrest of the 1960s.

To geeky, good-natured ’90s teenager David (Tobey Maguire), though, the Parkers of TV’s Pleasantville — father George, mother Betty, siblings Bud and Mary Sue — represent a more personal form of escapism, the perfect nuclear family as counterpoint to the broken home he shares with his divorced mother (Jane Kaczmarek), vulnerable and looking for love, and his cooler-than-thou sister, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), rapacious and primed for sex.

The film is sometimes criticized for being too on-the-nose, but the milieu lends itself so readily to metaphor that Ross would just as likely be criticized for any low-hanging fruit he left unpicked. (In this regard, Ross’ script is every bit as watertight as, if not somewhat inspired by, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s original Back to the Future screenplay.) Yes, the opening is a little slow and the contrivance that sets the plot in motion is a little clunky, but these criticisms are abated by the perfect casting of Don Knotts as the mysterious TV repairman whose timely intervention results in David and Jennifer’s being transported through time, space and cathode-ray tubes into the bodies of Bud and Mary Sue Parker.

The time-travel trope of doing one small thing that totally alters the course of history is turned on its ear here when sex-positive Jennifer introduces original sin to this monochromatic Eden and that life-changing, mind-altering knowledge literally inflames the town and pinballs through its once-innocent population like dopamine run amok, opening their eyes to rapturous art, racy literature, jazz and rock and roll, their own unrealized potential, and the thrilling, dangerous, unknown world just beyond the horizon. Had circumstance dropped David alone into this perfect world, one imagines that he would employ his encyclopedic knowledge of the TV show as would an omniscient god, enforcing predestination to ensure that all the actors hit their marks and the daily life of Pleasantville proceeded according to its intelligent design, as originally televised and repeated ad infinitum in syndication. But Jennifer fell with him, and in the guise of Mary Sue brought free will to the citizens of Pleasantville.

As Big Bob, the mayor of Pleasantville, the late J.T. Walsh exudes glad-handing menace from the moment he first appears in the doorway of the barber shop, in the first of many low-angle shots in which Ross frames him. While his introduction comes after Pleasantville has experienced its first post-Jennifer aftershocks, there is an uneasy reverence toward Bob among the ordinarily cheerful townsfolk that implies he has always been a looming presence, a disingenuous strongman, a benevolent despot who gives but also takes away, who might turn on them at any moment.

Of course, through the lens of 2017 it’s all too easy to view Big Bob as a Trumpian reactionary who throws his weight around, stirring up outrage among “all true citizens,” then claiming to restore order by enacting restrictive ordinances aimed at those whose otherness has suddenly upset the normal life of the town, “to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.” Never mind that they’re the same people he’s lived and worked alongside all his life, friends and neighbors who likely elected him in the first place; he is enraged by their departure from the norm and their perceived rebellion against his magnanimity and authority.

Of all the film’s various relationships, my favorite is the one between Maguire’s Bud and Joan Allen’s Betty, at once maternal and conspiratorial. Because while Jennifer’s intercession unmoors all of Pleasantville from its axis, it is Betty, of all the characters in the film, whom David was sent to set free. It takes the complete undoing of his ideal world to show David that he also has the power to change it for the better, and his empathy for Betty’s circumstance ultimately leads him to facilitate the unraveling of the nuclear family he idolizes, which in turn gives him a deeper, more compassionate understanding of his own mother back home in the untelevised present.

In all the family sitcoms of the 1950s, the father goes to work, the kids go to school, and the mother stays at home to keep the whole operation running smoothly and looking picture perfect. So the father has co-workers, and the kids have classmates — mirrors they can hold themselves up to — but Ross cannily observes that the mother, left alone for hours at a time, is the one most likely to have an interior life, to while away the days contemplating her needs and desires and what her life might have been but for the one defining choice she made. So while George Parker (William H. Macy) is steadfast and true, if a bit daft and guileless, cut from the same gray flannel as Jim Anderson, Ward Cleaver and Ozzie Nelson, one can easily imagine Betty Parker (or Margaret Anderson or June Cleaver or Harriet Nelson) as a melancholy Douglas Sirk heroine, presenting a cheerful façade, resigned to her rote, routine roles as wife and mother even as she imagines a different, vibrant, more complex and intoxicating life.

We feel this undercurrent the first time Betty locks eyes with Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), Bud’s artistically inclined boss at the soda shop. There is a history in their shared gaze. We understand instantly that Bill is Betty’s road not taken. And her inevitability.

Nostalgia, whether wistful or moralistic, might have us believe that these couplings and uncouplings, these little disobediences and larger acts of rebellion, this submission to and eventual embrace of chaos represent a tipping point at which our shared values began to erode and the fallout became irreversible.

But Ross reminds us that the world was never really that black-and-white, or even gray, to begin with. It has always been vivid and chaotic. The volume and variety of our values didn’t end at the few we shared in common and presented to the world. And a challenge to the status quo by one was an invitation to any of us to challenge the status quo, to turn the world upside down and remake it in our own image, painting with all the colors in our palette.

Pleasantville does fill me with nostalgia, but for Pleasantville itself. It is so many things at once — a time-travel story, a fish-out-of-water story, a coming-of-age story, a “woman’s picture,” a social satire, a race allegory, a broad comedy — that it should by rights be a tonal train wreck. But Ross somehow balances all these elements and blends them seamlessly into a thoughtful, funny, warm-hearted picture that, like Pleasantville itself, is almost too good to be true.
Honorable Mentions:

  • The unintended supernatural effect of Joan Allen pleasuring herself in the bathtub for the first time.
  • Macy’s various readings of the line “Where’s my dinner?” each one funnier than the one before it.
  • The remarkable Walsh, who left us entirely too soon, uttering the line “Well, we’re safe for now. Thank goodness we’re in a bowling alley,” then having his Patton moment in front of the overhead projection of the scorecards.
  • The destruction of Bill Johnson’s soda shop, in its own way as startling and upsetting to watch as the destruction of Sal’s Pizzeria in Do the Right Thing.
  • The courtroom scene and its echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, with the “coloreds” sitting in the balcony.
  • The look on Witherspoon’s face when she hears that, under the town’s new Code of Conduct, “no bed frame or mattress may be sold measuring more than 38 inches wide.”
  • The incredible Don Knotts: While he once, in the pages of Esquire, referred to Deputy Barney Fife as his greatest achievement, his performance here as the ubiquitous TV repairman is the perfect culmination of his career, never more so than when he’s losing his shit over the havoc David and Jennifer have wrought on a world that he, Knotts, helped build.

Written by Shepcat

December 13, 2017 at 4:19 pm