Anita Thacher, Anteroom, 1982, 35-mm color slide projection, brass doorknob and plate, sound, 108 x 144 x 3".


WORLDS COLLIDE in Anita Thacher’s radiant Anteroom. The 1982 installation has been exactingly re-created at Microscope Gallery, using all but obsolete analog technology, specifically two slide projectors synced by a Tascam that uses audio tape to queue the slides changes. I’m beginning with the technology because the analog “imperfections” enhance the particular physicality of the piece, which not only is ravishing to the eye but also elicits an associative, elusive, and unstable sense of one’s own interiority.

Thacher, who died in September, began her career in the early 1960s as a painter and soon moved to experimental filmmaking, and then to installations where she could fully deploy her brilliance as a colorist and her sophisticated compositional skill in three-dimensional spaces. She was both a traditional modernist—Cubism and Surrealism inspired most of her still and moving pictures—and ahead of her time, in that lens-based and time-based art were poor relatives in the museums and galleries of the ’80s and remain so today. No matter. Anteroom captured my mind’s eye and has stayed in my memory more intensely than any paintings or passages from any of the films I saw this year.

Anteroom comprises 160 35-mm slides that depict, when projected, a life-size architectural space. Central to all the images is a wall that is isomorphic with the wall on which the work is shown. A door, off-center in the wall, is ajar—sometimes just a sliver, sometimes far enough to see a narrow corridor and another room beyond it. At one moment, the door opens wide enough to reveal this interior room all the way to its back window and the view of city buildings outside. The wall on which the slides are projected has a brass doorknob bolted to its flat surface. It is the actual three-dimensional object in an illusory three-dimensional space. As often as not, there is a slight mismatch between the actual doorknob and the image of the doorknob, which reminded me of part of a description that Michael Snow wrote about Wavelength (1967), that it is “about illusion and fact, all about seeing.”

The sequence takes just under twelve minutes. The slides are connected by slow-lap dissolves; as each image fades in, the preceding one fades out. The crossfades impart continuous movement to the still images (they change as they become brighter and darker), as does the music by David Byrne, rearranged from The Catherine Wheel (1981). Most of what could be called the action in the piece takes place in front of the wall. A young woman moves in what becomes a dreamscape of objects, light, and shadow. Free of gravity, two wooden chairs hang in the air, as do two pitchers and a bunch of reeds. The space is broken up by irregularly shaped blocks of colored light that cast multiple shadows. (When the slides were shot, they were lit by beams from hidden, empty slide projectors, their lenses covered with colored gels.) At one point the wall is covered with a starry midnight-blue sky. In some images, the woman passes through the door from this ambiguous anterior space (the “anteroom”) into the corridor—the liminal space behind the door—and gazes into the room across the way.

Ephemeral and cataclysmic, the visual world that Thacher creates is almost inexhaustible in its complexity and beauty. Like a dream, it maps desire—that of the maker and the viewer alike.

Amy Taubin

Anteroom is on view Thursdays through Mondays, or by appointment, through December 10 at Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Othon, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 88 minutes.


IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE a more eclectic group of films sharing a single series than those being screened by the Film Society of Lincoln Center under the umbrella title “The Non-Actor.” From Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), F. W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), and Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) to Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1963), Andy Warhol’s Vinyl (1965), Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl (1966), Straub-Huillet’s Othon (1970), and Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006), the range is nothing if not bold. In addition to outright masterpieces like Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), the series includes such rarely screened or unseen works as Spencer Williams’s Blood of Jesus (1941), Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961), and a trio of homegrown “movie queen” scenarios made by Margaret Cram in the 1930s that has me curious. Hands down, for the next two and a half weeks, this is the best cinema going in town.

The very diversity of the series is reflected in its title, which, depending on your point of view, might seem a bit too sweeping. If it embraces borderline documentaries such as Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948) and Denis Cote’s Bestiaire (2012), why not the occasional Frederick Wiseman movie in which “nonactors” revel in the camera’s attention like movie stars? Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1954, 1967) is one of the ethnographic filmmaker’s most rapturous works, but an odd choice here, since it’s composed of extraordinary footage of native Africans over which we hear a mostly offscreen verbal text describing a journey to the Gold Coast that forms whatever trajectory the film has. Few, if any, words discernibly emanate from the figures before us.

But such quibbling dissolves in light of the jewels on view. “The Non-Actor” is snappier and terser than “The Nonprofessional Actor,” but one assumes the programmers had the latter in mind—that is, untrained actors, people who did not perform before a camera for a living but whose presence in a particular film exerts a certain conviction within partly authentic, partly contrived circumstances as they behave in accordance with those circumstances, however minimally. Then there are those who follow the direction of the filmmaker, speak with feeling, and express themselves openly through facial and other gestures. This roughly describes the Italian neorealist cinema of Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, as opposed to the Soviet cinema of the silent period. Whereas the latter constructed heroic human types through montage—that is, juxtaposing shots of people and images of their social context—the neorealist “nonactors” were free to convey emotions, phrase dialogue, and behave as professional actors do. The late critic Andrew Sarris once remarked that walking down any street in Naples was like being in a neorealist movie.

But times change. If the nonprofessionals in De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952) and Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero once seemed more credible than actors in mainstream cinema, it was largely because they were unfamiliar to viewers and closer to the social context in which they appeared. Today, it is arguable whether they affect us differently than performances by good professional actors of any period. In the final analysis, the impact of any performance, then and now, depends less on the status of the actor than on the overall aesthetic vision of the filmmaker. In a sense, both Umberto D. and Year Zero seem inextricably tied to their time, whereas Pasolini’s Gospel and Ray’s Panchali seem as powerful and timeless as ever.

Shirley Clarke, The Cool World, 1963, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 125 minutes.


Films that feature nonprofessional actors are one thing; those that repudiate acting altogether are another. It is precisely the latter that underlies Bresson’s approach. He not only insisted on untrained actors but discouraged his novices from mimicking actorly behavior. In so doing, he aimed at the very heart of all acting, professional or not—namely, the dramatic element that most mainstream cinema inherited from theater and that Bresson sought to eradicate as fundamentally false in the “art of the cinematograph.” He treated the actor not as the vehicle of a drama, but as an agent, one who executes actions within a context constructed by the framing, editing, dialogue, and rhythm of shots, no more or less important than these filmic elements. It is the reason that in his films, hands and parts of the body are no less signifying or important than faces and voices. Given his stress on precision, economy, and de-dramatization, it becomes clearer that such later and varied filmmakers as Agnes Varda, Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami, Maurice Pialat, Alberto Serra, and Costa—all represented in this series—were all influenced by Bresson.

Not even Warhol’s movies are free of the demeanors, looks, and vocal techniques associated with movie stars, although no airtight label entirely describes what “performers” in a Warhol movie are doing. The flamboyance of personalities in The Chelsea Girls (1966), My Hustler (1965), and Vinyl, for example, seems another phenomenon entirely, a campy send-up of acting clichés conveniently masking a more personal acting-out of inner psychic states. This resulted in something both artificial and unwittingly, sometimes painfully, revelatory.

Acting is often tied to the question of realism, itself a shifting, ambiguous category unfixed at any point in film or art history. For theorist Siegfried Kracauer, the “realist” tendency of the medium, initially embodied in the work of Auguste and Louis Lumière, was about the camera’s sheer capacity to record people, places, and events, in contrast to its ability to distort reality through animation, reverse motion, dissolves, and superimpositions. But neither tendency precluded the presence of actors. The renowned critic André Bazin judged long takes and deep-focus cinematography the hallmarks of greater realism, even though this realism often referred to the spatiotemporal integrity of a shot—not to any psychological, political, or social phenomenon. From this perspective, the uninterrupted shot of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing the Piccolino at the end of Top Hat (1935) is just as realistic as the long takes in Flaherty’s Louisiana Story.

In short, the presence of nonactors is not the determinant feature in assessing a film’s realism, since the latter is itself rife with ambiguity and subject to the whims of time. The real value of a series like the one at Lincoln Center is that it provides us with so many diverse samples of the breed as to place the category itself into question. Indeed, just as the notion of what is real becomes dated (and method school acting now seems, to many of us, more contrived than the instinctive behavior of good Hollywood actors), the work of nonactors across the board is also subject to changing conventions, times, and familiarity, no more or less persuasive and affecting than the work of professionals that has stood the test of time.

Understandably, then, independent and avant-garde filmmakers have a place in this series—as the inclusion of Lizzie Borden, George Kuchar, and Leslie Thornton testify. Even the prolific and demanding work of Stan Brakhage would have qualified. Is the artfully and rapidly edited footage of his wife and children any less responsive to the camera’s presence and thus as much a vehicle for the “nonactor” as Liu Jiayin’s witty, semi-autobiographical Oxhide (2005)? In Oxhide, one of the gems in the series, the filmmaker and her parents share an apartment in Beijing, its cramped quarters stressed by the pinched effect of her widescreen long takes. Often framing the midriff of the body or placed at the level of the low table where they eat, Liu’s camera makes even the existence of an offscreen space impossible to imagine. Here, they sit, argue, and sleep as the camera’s fixed, largely close-up, pedestrian angles record their lives with minimal means, reflecting the financial straits and palpable tensions of their everyday lives. As with many such films, it is virtually impossible to know what is “true,” that is, to discern any difference between the lives depicted and those of the “real” individuals who “enact” them. Oxhide is a revelation, demonstrating that just as it is often difficult in life to know when people are being sincere and when they are lying, the line between professional and nonprofessional acting is often effectively blurred.

Tony Pipolo

“The Non-Actor” runs November 24 through December 10 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Helmut Käutner, Black Gravel, 1961, 35 mm, sound, 117 minutes.


“WE WERE A GENERATION OF ORPHANS” is how Werner Herzog, the most prominent survivor of the celebrated class of filmmakers whose disparate practices were said to constitute the New German Cinema, has described the situation he and his contemporaries faced coming into their own in the 1960s. In their most literal sense, his words refer to the ruinous casualties of World War II, but Herzog was also speaking to the peculiar situation of German cineastes looking for a way to connect to a national tradition whose continuity had been severed during the years of National Socialism, when the mighty filmmaking mechanism that had made possible the accomplishments of Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and G. W. Pabst had fallen into the hands of Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels.

There is also more than a touch of mystical self-creation myth to Herzog’s statement, however, for even if we were to banish the collected output of the German cinema under the Third Reich into the dustbin of history—and it is hard to imagine any institution would risk the blowback that would come with screening the collected works of Dr. Arnold Fanck or Veit Harlan—one must still contend with the output of an active film industry at work in the ensuing years, produced by the capitalist, NATO-aligned Federal Republic of Germany from the moment of its formation in 1949. Restoring the cinema of the Adenauer era, named for the FRG chancellor who served from 1949 to 1963, was the mission of an extensive retrospective organized by Olaf Möller and Roberto Turigliatto, which played the Locarno International Film Festival last year, and which makes landfall this Wednesday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in a much abridged, thirteen-film version, including a bonanza of 35-mm prints.

Among these are titles likely to be unknown to even die-hard cinephiles, such as 1952’s Rosen blühen auf dem Heidegrab—translated here as Roses Bloom on the Moorland, though more often it’s been called Rape on the Moor. A particularly glum and gothic entry in the heimatfilm, a Mitteleuropean genre defined by the unfolding of romantic complications against a bucolic backdrop, the movie counterpoises picturesque scenes of the gale-tossed lowland moors outside of Bremen with a narrative that is anything but country cozy. Farm girl Ruth Niehaus is victimized by both a local landowner and her superstitious self-identification with a local legend concerning a female victim of the Thirty Years’ War, which ties folkloric tradition into a history of martial humiliation and violence against women that was likely to resonate with audiences of the day. The film ends with an eleventh-hour rescue from a bed of peat that might signify the primordial muck of ignorance.

Roses Bloom on the Moorland is the sophomore feature by Hans Heinz König, a figure on whom English-language sources offer little information, though several other films at the Film Society of Lincoln Center are connected to better-known imprimaturs. The Lost One (1951), for example, is the lone directorial effort of Peter Lorre—and a rather remarkable one-off it is. Born László Löwenstein to a Jewish family in a Hungarian-majority town in the Carpathian Mountains, Lorre started his career acting for the stage in Vienna, then headed for bumptious Berlin. There he collaborated with Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Lang, who gave Lorre his signature role as child murderer Hans Beckert in M (1931) (the international notoriety Lorre gained in the role helped him to flee when the Nazis came to power in 1933). He did well for a time in Hollywood, as did many German émigrés––including technicians who were instrumental in creating the look of the hard-bitten American thrillers that would eventually be called film noirs––but his fortunes had reversed by the end of the 1940s, and so he returned to Germany, bringing something of that noir spirit back home with him.

The Lost One, a film whose presiding air is one of overwhelming, unshakable, suffocating melancholy, picks up with “Dr. Neumeister” (Lorre) as he works at a displaced persons camp in the aftermath of the war. A series of flashbacks prompted by the arrival of an ex-assistant strip back our subject’s civilized veneer, revealing his sinister history as Dr. Karl Rothe, who was once sent into a tailspin of bloodlust upon committing a crime of passion. Confronting the recent history that much of Germany was eager to suppress in collective amnesia, Lorre’s film was rejected by audiences but was nevertheless influential, drawing an analogy between individual transgression and wider social disintegration in a manner that recurs throughout these “Lost Years of German Cinema” films.

Lorre’s trans-Atlantic trajectory wasn’t unique. Through the 1950s, the American studio system that had offered steady, lucrative work during the war years was afflicted by an ongoing identity crisis, facing stiff competition from television, and several German-speaking filmmakers were lured back by the promise of the German Economic Miracle—the extended boom that was concomitant to the FRG’s rebuilding from the rubble. Robert Siodmak, responsible for a superb string of Hollywood noirs (Phantom Lady, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry, Criss Cross), returned to Deutschland following a nearly twenty-year absence in the mid-1950s, and is represented here by the finest work of his late German period, The Devil Strikes at Night (1957). Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, the movie is based on an infamous true-crime case of the wartime years: that of accused woman-killer Bruno Lüdke, played here with power and pitiableness by the young Swiss German Italian actor Mario Adorf. The movie begins as a race-against-time thriller, and with Lüdke’s capture its scope expands, placing his clumsy crimes in contrast to the vast, cool-headed criminal conspiracies of the Nazi party. (It is today widely believed that Lüdke, a mental deficient, may have been a total patsy, railroaded by the SS as justification for their euthanasia program.)

As any film about a German serial murderer necessarily must, The Devil Strikes at Night owes a significant debt to M, whose director also returned to work in Germany at the end of his professional life. Lang, who somewhat improbably claimed to have left Berlin after rejecting an offer from Goebbels to run the entirety of the vast UFA GmbH studio, returned to his silent-film roots with his last German-language films, produced by Artur Brauner, a Polish Jew who had become postwar West Germany’s premiere producer, today ninety-nine years young. Brauner, who had previously helped bring Siodmak back to Germany, produced Lang’s final entry in his series of films about the supervillain Dr. Mabuse, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960), as well as several more non-Lang-affiliated sequels (Dr. Mabuse Vs. Scotland Yard [1963], The Death Ray of Dr. Mabuse [1964]).

The Lang-Brauner partnership is represented at FSLC by the gaudy, glittering The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959), the first half of Lang’s “Indian epic,” a project whose genesis went back more than forty years, when then material appeared in a 1917 novel Das Indische Grabmal, written by Lang’s eventual second wife and collaborator, Thea von Harbou. Originally slated to film the book as a blockbuster diptych, the then-still inexperienced Lang was ultimately passed over in favor of Joe May, and so he cherished the opportunity to return to the material, shot on location in Rajasthan with a lavish budget. Centered on a love triangle between a temple dancer (Debra Paget), a European architect (Paul Hubschmid), and a jealous maharaja (Walter Reyer), the film is a cluttered clearing house for a century of opulent Orientalist fantasy images, full of fakirs, dungeons stocked with zombified lepers, and hair’s-breadth escapes across burning desert sands, all shot by DP Richard Angst, a veteran of the Bergfilme (mountain film) genre, which had nurtured the careers of Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl.

Von Harbou stayed behind in Germany after Lang left, somewhat confusingly falling in line with the new white-supremacist regime while conducting an affair with an Indian journalist, Ayi Tendulkar. She was not alone in her decision to remain. Of the filmmakers with no Hollywood pedigree playing at FSLC, the best-represented is Helmut Käutner, who directed his first feature in 1939 and worked steadily through the war years, making films in an escapist, apolitical vein. This was in stark contrast to the postwar output represented by the program’s three Käutner films, produced because the director was considered among the most consistently ambitious German filmmakers, in terms of both the dynamism of his camerawork and his willingness to prod the still-fresh wounds of national history. (Though uncredited, he is known to have lent a hand on the screenplay for The Lost One.)

Käutner’s Sky Without Stars (1955) is an exemplar of the so-called sozialkritische film, set in 1952, as the borders between East and West Germany were still being solidified, the momentary porousness allowing for a romance to briefly blossom between FRG border policeman Erik Schumann and GDR factory worker Eva Kotthaus, though their passion is ultimately extinguished by bullets and barbed wire. The film is suffused with something of the same romantic fatalism that marks Käutner’s Black Gravel (1961), a nasty neorealist piece of business steeped in the atmosphere of corruption, resentment, and moral decay surrounding an American armed forces base, shot on location in Lautzenhausen and using actual American GIs in supporting roles.

Though at the height of his powers in Black Gravel, Käutner was soon to be vanquished to a career mostly spent in television, though he returned to cinema to play the Western writer Karl May in a 1974 film by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. His Redhead would be the lone German competition film at the 1962 Berlin Film Festival, but his very prominence had long made him a tempting target for the rising generation—the film club Studio indicted him for “naive faith in humans,” and he was pilloried by the youth jury at the Eighth West German Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, where a declaration that would go down in history as the Oberhausen Manifesto called for “the production of new German cinema.” The revolutionary agenda demanded a symbolic sacrifice of the old as represented by Käutner and his contemporaries, of whose output no qualities could be admitted. Their films, however, have survived banishment—and seen by fresh eyes, they look quite luminous.

Nick Pinkerton

“The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963” runs November 15 through 23 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

It Follows

11.13.17

Stranger Things 2016–, still from a TV show on Netflix. Season two.


IT’S HALLOWEEN NIGHT, 1984, in the new season of Stranger Things, and police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) is talking to a locked door. The show’s telekinetic heroine Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is on the other side, age thirteen, reenacting Poltergeist (1982) with the TV tuned to a dead channel. “Sorry, kid,” he mumbles, trying to be a dad. “I lost track of time . . .”

That could be a hot new slogan for Netflix, which produces the series. In the fictional small town of Hawkins, Indiana, the 1980s are brought back from the dead in high definition, every frame like a window into a dollhouse from the era of Farrah Fawcett hairspray and Purple Rain. Tangerine Dream synths drift like ominous fog over fields of mutilated pumpkins, and boys go nuts over Dragon’s Lair at the arcade.

In 2017, Stranger Things has become, since its first transmission last summer, the object of teenybopper hysteria and febrile nerd worship alike, with its cast turning into internet royalty. Track the reverberations: the magic of Winona Ryder regaining her status of everybody’s favorite misfit heroine through the role of matriarch Joyce Byers, Finn Wolfhard (aka Mike) appearing in a woozy Dazed shoot by Collier Schorr, and Millie Bobby Brown becoming the face of Raf Simons’s Calvin Klein reboot. In the pages of Dazed in 2016, the show’s producer, Shawn Levy, spoke about how “there’s an innocence to its world that is enviable. Really, really enviable.” No points for guessing why anybody craves such a world at the present, but that doesn’t seem like the only ghost at play in the show’s success. There’s a whole Rubik’s Cube of disorientations, mixing up innocence and eeriness, real space versus its simulation, past and future, daydream and nightmare, into a monstrous phenomenon. All of which darkly relates, of course, to where we are now, though its suburban pastoral backdrop seems as far away as Neverland. Puppyish Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) pinpoints the ambient instability while freaking out about the extraterrestrial virus at work inside him: “It got me everywhere!”

Millie Bobby Brown Raps a Recap of Stranger Things: Season One

In the face of all this dizzying hype and the various trippy questions the show excites, the only plausible option sometimes seems to be going totally Buzzfeed with a multiple-choice interlude:

If Nabokov’s Pale Fire is the crucial book within the labyrinth of Blade Runner 2049, what volume has the same power in Stranger Things?

a) The novelization of Ghostbusters by Richard Mueller
b) Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television by Jeffrey Sconce
c) Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak

Which of Winona’s lines as goth princess Lydia from Beetlejuice (1988) most echoes whatever’s happening in Stranger Things?

a) “I am utterly alone . . .”
b) “You guys really are dead!”
c) “What if this is a dream?”

What do we crave from the 1980s?

a) Proof that the gremlin within (“inner child”) is not dead
b) Freedom to be tasteless
c) Dry ice

Like opioids, nostalgia is a powerful source of consolation for millennials who find themselves in a future where politics is a hellscape and employment is as substantive as a hologram. Certain historical phantoms vex the concept of the ’80s as a dreamtime idyll—Reagan, AIDS, the Cold War, are evil presences still awaiting exorcism—but the show stays faithful to its child’s-eye view of the world, in which these horrors scarcely register. Yet their ghosts, along with other contemporary menaces in circulation (amnesia, PTSD, disembodiment, monsters gone viral), haunt this tale of traumatized children and wrecked adults. Will, now known as “zombie boy,” finds himself in a rerun of The Thing (1982), as tentacular creatures invade his body and delete his mind. Meanwhile, orphan Eleven asks Hopper the alien question, “Do I have a mother?” not knowing what the role involves. Soon, in search of answers like a waif version of Frankenstein’s monster, she breaks out of quarantine to explore the wild world beyond. She returns from her antics in the city looking rad, eyes ringed purple and sneakers filthy, like a feral punkette from the X-Men.

Stranger Things 2016–, still from a TV show on Netflix. Season two. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown).


Eleven’s education in just how dangerous she might be was the discovery of the new season but little else has grown scarier or stranger. This sequel operates like a video-game expansion pack, elaborating on the first season’s Lovecraft-meets–John Hughes universe with a glut of extra lore (check how Eleven illuminates her origin story by replaying her mom’s electroshock-addled memories), acid-trip levels of microcosmic detail in production design (shout-out to Will’s poster for The Dark Crystal!), and the budget upped astronomically so way more hideous creatures writhe. Attention to textural minutiae over action is the source of the show’s powers: It isn’t a drama so much as a wormhole into an imaginary environment, like the treasure map in The Goonies (1985) or Dungeons & Dragons’s Player’s Handbook. In these magic realms, background trivia is what matters, as it creates a luscious verisimilitude and the space to zone out from waking life. Oddball extras, cubistic flora and fauna, aberrations in the climate: that stuff means the parallel world, live. But even if the Upside Down is the best transdimensional wilderness and/or account of depression at its most dissociative extreme since The NeverEnding Story (1984), what’s truly discombobulating and kind of sad about Stranger Things is the “real” world above.

It’s a science fiction about the 1980s: not as a historical time, but how it appears in the movies from that decade. Nobody could avoid melancholy or ferocious recognition of what’s been lost and festering unchecked since, or the reasons for such a crush on the past (for example, note how Trump first toyed with the thought of running for president on Late Night with David Letterman in 1987). In this galaxy far, far away, analog isn’t extinct, fantastical creatures run amok (Prince! Sandra Bernhard! David Bowie!), and a bunch of sci-fi and horror hits feed the imaginations of pubescent introverts. Maybe what makes millennials uniquely prone to nostalgia is that their formative technologies—VHS, CD-ROM, compact cassette—are gone, encoding childhood memories as they vanished. It’s no accident that the major device in the first season was a mixtape, since the show itself plays out like the shape-shifting contents of an ancient VHS cassette, mixing elements from the Duffer Brothers’ repeat rentals at Blockbuster until it somehow assumes its own life as an original work. Replicant squads of Brian, “the brain” from The Breakfast Club (1986), would be required to unspool the ouroboros of allusions made to ’80s movies within its simulation of the ’80s.

The Halloween bash in the season’s second episode, “Trick or Treat, Freak,” is a complex pop-culture treasure hunt choreographed to Mötley Crüe’s hair-metal anthem “Shout at the Devil.” Phantom cameos abound: Michael Jackson pre-werewolf transformation in the video for “Thriller” hangs out in the kitchen and Siouxsie Sioux vamps by the doorway. By the time Nancy (Natalie Dyer) is knocking back punch in her Rebecca de Mornay in Risky Business costume, this wax museum transcends the hallucinogenic and hits sublime, the whole thing funkily acknowledging the Duffer Brothers’ art of playing with undead materials from the past.

Stranger Things 2016–, still from a TV show on Netflix. Season two.


Another kind of doppelganger anxiety is in the air too. This new season comes in the wake of It (2017), Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s killer clown epic. With its cast of cute kids (including Mike) discovering the creepiness of suburbia in an ’80s time warp, It feels like Stranger Things’s evil twin. Together they survey the different kinds of fright lurking within King’s works: The Duffer Brothers chase PG-13 goose bumps while It discloses traumatic gore. Long before Dubya promised No Child Left Behind, King was tracking the anguish of being an ordinary American kid and imagining supernatural malignancies. The Duffer Brothers’ story of Eleven is the next installment of the case files that King opened in his studies on Danny from The Shining, Charlene in Firestarter, or blood-soaked prom queen Carrie. All these kids use their powers to triumphantly wreak revenge on a world that has scarred or rejected them, but their presence hints, too, at how horror and childhood always remain ghoulishly entwined. According to King’s sly guide to the genre, Danse Macabre, 1981, the best horror opens up a vortex that “knocks the adult props out from under us and tumbles us back down into childhood.” Time warp induced, those early experiences of fear reactivate: “And there,” the master writes, “our shadow may once again become that of a mean dog, a gaping mouth or a beckoning dark figure.”

Billy (Dacre Montgomery), the poodle-rock sociopath who struts his way through season two like some backwoods tribute to Kiefer Sutherland in Stand by Me (1986), calls this state by its playground nickname: “the heebie jeebies.” Stranger Things is all about those moments when reality suddenly quivers with malevolent promise—the squelch of slime against flesh, evil screeches in the dark—with nobody more vulnerable to their attack than Eleven, since she experiences the “normal” world as if it were another manifestation of the Upside Down, a vast haunted house in which she can never be at home. Brought up between lab tests and isolation tanks, Eleven is still the show’s heart. Brown plays her near-mute character in enigmatic fashion, half Edward Scissorhands, half bad Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as she moves through hellacious intensities of rage, vulnerability, or bewilderment. She shatters windows with her fury; she screams at her reflection in the water. Roaming around the paranormal blackout zone of her mind, she remains unable to touch anything she loves, making her the perfect embodiment for teen rat-in-a-cage angst. Nothing in season two is as odd as that scene from season one, episode two (“The Weirdo on Maple Street”), where she wanders around Mike’s house like an inquisitive ghost, slowly fathoming what home, family, and girlhood might mean, step by shivery step.

As the first season climaxed by literally retching at the thought of a happy ending—remember Will barfing up that parasitic slug on Christmas Eve?—this season, too, slow fades on a sinister note. The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” was deployed as both a romantic jam for the kids smooching at the Snow Ball and the stalker vow of the hydra-like supervillain known as the Mind Flayer watching over it all from the Upside Down. Now the mutant phase of puberty looms for the cast, the monster swirling outside mimics the one within that makes the body distort and the self get slippery. All that supernatural activity is another way for Stranger Things to deal with the really spooky question at play in the best ’80s teen flicks (Rumble Fish [1983], Pretty in Pink [1986], Heathers [1989]): What happens when that fabled “something strange in the neighborhood” is you?

Charlie Fox

Steve Sekely, Hollow Triumph, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 83 minutes.


POVERTY ROW WASN’T A PLACE ON ANY MAP. The studios were scattered around Los Angeles and its environs: Republic was based in Studio City with a ranch for cowboy pictures in Encino. Monogram did its oaters in Placerite Canyon, with a lot on Sunset Boulevard owned today by the Church of Scientology. Producers Releasing Corporation moved from Gower Street to Santa Monica Boulevard, where they would eventually acquire the pompous sobriquet Eagle-Lion Films after being purchased by British producer J. Arthur Rank. What unified the “B-Hive” wasn’t geography but the sort of work that they did—B pictures for the bottom half of double bills, usually running between fifty and seventy-five minutes, rarely afforded the same attention and respect as their A counterparts.

While Poverty Row films tended to shoot on the quick and on the cheap, they weren’t always identifiable as cinema apart from studio product. When making White Zombie (1932), for example, brothers Edward and Victor Hugo Halperin rented their sets from Universal Studios and hired contract player Bela Lugosi to play Murder Legendre, a white voodoo master in Haiti. White Zombie, which plays as part of a twelve-film program at the Museum of Modern Art of “Poverty Row Classics” restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive at greater time and expense than they were originally afforded, is one of the better remembered Bs because it contains a peak-period Lugosi performance and is the first feature-length zombie movie. More than a decade before Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, the Halperins drew the connection between zombie thralldom and black slavery, most strikingly in a scene at Legendre’s sugar factory, where one of the shuffling drones falls headlong into a cane-chopping hopper.

Poverty Row independence could foster innovation in style and subject matter, though not infrequently it settled for imitation. Watching George B. Seitz’s The Drums of Jeopardy (1931), a potboiler starring Warner Oland, a droopy lidded Swede who repeatedly appeared as Charlie Chan and generally functioned as Hollywood’s all-purpose Oriental, I found myself having vivid flashbacks to a recent viewing of the Oland-starring Daughter of the Dragon of the same year: Oland plays a Bolshevik named Dr. Boris Karlov (!) in the former and Dr. Fu Manchu in the latter, but the concluding races-to-the-rescue are nigh-interchangeable. I can’t make a claim for the film as a lost masterpiece, nor is Frank R. Strayer’s The Vampire Bat (1933) likely to change anyone’s life, though it does contain Dwight Frye, the Renfield of Universal’s Dracula (1931), as a village spastic who goes around stuffing “nice, soft” bats into his pocket, and that is no small thing.

The Drums of Jeopardy and The Vampire Bat do boast plenty in the way of threadbare atmospherics, and both passed through the hands of resourceful producer and sometimes director Phil Goldstone, closely associated with Majestic Pictures, one of the six smaller outfits brought together by processing lab owner Herbert J. Yates to form the mighty Republic, which distributed the independent production The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935). Budapest-born John H. Auer shot the Edgar Allan Poe–inspired thriller at the Bronx Biograph Studios, onetime home to D. W. Griffith, featuring freaky Frye in a rare straight role and starring Griffith’s onetime assistant Erich von Stroheim. By 1935 von Stroheim was already unemployable as a director, but America still loved to hate him, and he is in fine fettle here, stifling smiles while attending the funeral of a colleague who only he knows is actually being buried alive. (He also gnaws up a drippingly vitriolic monologue scene, which, cut as it is from so many angles, seems to confirm that von Stroheim wasn’t much for learning lines.)

Duplicitous doctors make up something of a leitmotif in MoMA’s series, whose Murderer’s Row of malpractice includes Crespi, Oland in The Drums of Jeopardy, Lionel Atwill’s mad scientist in The Vampire Bat, and Lowell Sherman’s False Faces (1932). Sherman, who played the rich heel who seduces and abandons Lillian Gish in Griffith’s Way Down East (1920), here topped all previous displays of caddishness, directing and starring as an owlish, dissipated surgeon who leaves New York in disgrace to set up a fly-by-night plastic surgery operation in Chicago, leaving a trail of broken hearts and bilked patients in his wake. Brisk, nasty, and dramatically unrelenting, the film was Sherman’s last as an actor, though he went on to further success as a director with a flair for showbiz subjects (Mae West’s She Done Him Wrong and Broadway Thru a Keyhole [both 1933]) before his premature death in 1934.

Victor Halperin, White Zombie, 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 69 minutes.


The 1930s were the heyday of Poverty Row and a period of studio consolidation: False Faces distributor Sono Art World-Wide Pictures, whose logo depicts a smiling young woman with two globes in place of bosoms, formed Monogram by merger with Rayart Productions in 1933. But the party didn’t last long. The Poverty Row outfits felt the postwar attendance slump more keenly than the better-insulated studios, and television all but did away with them. Eagle-Lion called it a day in 1950. Monogram rebranded as Allied Artists Productions in 1953, the name originally minted for their high-end unit, and focused on more polished productions. The final days of the B-Hive were among their best, however, and given the natural affinity between their product and cheap pulp fiction, the Poverty Row studios were a custom fit for the often-seedy postwar thrillers that would retrospectively be labeled as film noir.

John Reinhardt’s High Tide (1947), for Monogram, took a cue from a contemporary craze for in extremis openings and flashback structures, opening with leads Lee Tracy and Don Castle, a low-rent Gable, pinned in a car wreck on the seashore, recounting the circumstances that got them there as the threatening waves lap ever nearer. It was the last film role for years for Tracy, playing one of the fast-talking newspaperman parts that made him famous in the ’30s, though here with an additional note of bilious acridity, the former breezy cynicism now hardened into hate. While Tracy’s talent is a known quantity, it’s a genuine surprise to find Paul Henreid—the good, dull Victor Laszlo of Casablanca (1942)—so effectively playing dirty in Hollow Triumph (1948), taking on the double role of a crook on the lam and the look-alike psychoanalyst who he conspires to take the place of. The absurd premise is put across with a feeling for nightmare logic, and while the director, Steve Sekely, is a definite subject for further research, it is tempting to give most of the credit for the film’s shadow-caressed look to fellow Hungarian John Alton, the prodigiously gifted cinematographer who around this same time was making a series of visually dynamic films with director Anthony Mann, also for Bryan Foy Productions and Eagle-Lion.

For some filmmakers, like Mann or Joseph H. Lewis, Poverty Row was a step on the way to better things, bigger budgets, and longer shoots. For others, it was the last stop before the glue factory. And for still others, be it ever so humble, it was simply home. The supreme stylist Edgar G. Ulmer had come from Berlin ready to take over Hollywood, but while shooting The Black Cat (1934) at Universal, he shacked up with the wife of studio head Carl Laemmle’s favorite nephew, and—at least to hear Ulmer, an infamous fabulist, tell it—he would be blackballed forevermore.

No Poverty Row tribute would be complete without an Ulmer film, and MoMA’s program includes three. The first, Damaged Lives (1933), is his premiere North American effort, a venereal-disease scare film made for the Canadian Social Health Council that boasts a charming speakeasy seduction sequence, some gruesome skin conditions, and stern warnings against sharing a friend’s pipe. After The Black Cat crossed his path, Ulmer launched a make-do-and-mend career, working at the industry’s margins and taking what work he could, excelling with Yiddish-language films and “race” pictures. Among the steadiest years of his career were the four he spent at PRC, turning out eleven films under head of production Leon Fromkess, including his most famous, Detour, a bleak 1945 back-road noir. Strange Illusion, released the same year, is no less resourceful, a modern-day spare parts Hamlet bookended by weird dream-sequence processionals, between which adolescent Jimmy Lydon follows a hunch from his unconscious to search out a link between his widowed mother’s suave new suitor to the death of his father. For Ruthless (1948), under the new Eagle-Lion imprimatur, Ulmer got his biggest budget since winding up in Uncle Carl’s crosshairs, and he put it toward a portrait of corrupt wealth—of the kind, it is perhaps not too much of a supposition to say, that he viewed as having stymied his own ambition. Zachary Scott stars as a poor Boston boy–cum–captain of industry, Horace Vendig, whose brutal claw to the top is recollected on the eve of his abdication of power, with a huge and mournful Sydney Greenstreet as one of the many he’s trampled over. (Vendig seems to lose a little of his soul with every figure he adds to his bank account, a thought that may have been some cold comfort to Ulmer.)

Ulmer has long been the subject of a deserved minicult, and noir sells itself, but there is more to recommend in Poverty Row than the unusual exceptional outburst of expressive flourish. At the very least, the average run of Bs offer glimpses of an undressy approach that has almost no modern-day equivalent in commercial filmmaking, acting as a repository for what John Dorr called “the Griffith tradition”: “A recessive approach to direction best suited for keeping track of uncomplicated narratives over which a performer’s personality could easily dominate.” The pleasures such films offer, occasional flubbed lines and shaky sets and all, are those of simplicity itself—and if poverty is never a blessing in life, there can be no question it has often acted as the handmaiden of art.

Nick Pinkerton

“Strange Illusions: Poverty Row Classics Preserved by UCLA” runs October 19 through 28 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Stephen Frears, Mary Reilly, 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Mary Reilly and Dr. Henry Jekyll / Mr. Edward Hyde (Julia Roberts and John Malkovich).


PERHAPS MOTHER!, that self-gormandizing envisaging of Roman Polanski’s Stardust Memories as an all-you-can-swallow buffet of metaphysical leftovers and creamed corn à la mode, left you unsatisfied. Then Stephen Frears’s much-maligned and oft-magnificent Mary Reilly (1996) is the perfect Goth-Hitchcock antidote. A subliminally satirical reworking of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale from Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, Mary Reilly is a batty extension of their previous Dangerous Liaisons into the overlapping terrain of Victorian manners and sexual horror. The film is a world of interlocking chambers and Promethean vanity: Genteel bachelor household, private medical theater/laboratory, brothel, abattoir, tenement flat, morgue, every space is a heated serving tray in a smorgasbord of denial, violation, and corruption.

Exultantly returning from Liaisons, John Malkovich as Jekyll/Hyde does an indecorous, music-hall double-act, a continuum of foppish manners and Byronic flouting. (Dr. J: “What’s the difference between a vivisectionist and a libertine?” Mr. H: “Practice, my good fellow, practice!”) Disintegration for him/them amounts to an epistemological project: Taking off from Stevenson’s “strange case” to wander alleys and byways with the connoisseurship of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Mary Reilly (a name recalling the creator of another Eminent Promethean) isn’t about the Victorian era in actuality but instead as it exists in the pop imagination. A conflation of ragtag-team archetypes—Victorian, Romantic, Edwardian, and beyond—comes together for a literate free-for-all: Jekyll and Hyde sucker-punching Beauty and the Beast, Freud and Jack the Ripper bloodying Dickens and Wilde.

In that register, Glenn Close (another Liaisons liaison) plays a nefarious madam as a Kabuki-Cockney slattern: hardly more than a cameo, but stoked with leering parodic genius. Playing opposite Malkovich, however, is Julia Roberts, a piece of miscasting on par with putting Courtney Love in a My Fair Lady reboot. At least ten years too old for the Irish servant girl, through whose wounded bird’s-eye view we see Jekyll House, she’s a flustered extraterrestrial in search of solid footing and a steady accent. (Malkovich’s accent is equally undetermined, just more insouciant.) But the intensity of their non-chemistry somehow serves the narrative’s overall perversity, inoculating the characters against backsliding into “relatability” or romance-novel postures. Social distance is maintained amid quasi-intimacies, as the upstairs/downstairs dynamic of master and servant veers into the realm of Families Without Boundaries: Paternal Dr. Jekyll nurturing Mary’s nascent personal development, Bad Brother Hyde prepping the once-victimized girl for further rounds of molestation.

The doctor’s interest in Mary is first piqued when he spies tooth scars on her neck. He’ll patiently break down her reticence until, in flashback, she reveals how her abusive drunk of a father punished her as a child by locking her in a closet with a sack of rats. Eating their way through the burlap, they disfigure and nearly kill her. Being fed to rats is a brutal analogue to incest—while reminding that abuse doesn’t have to be sexual to be unthinkable. Much of Mary Reilly happens off-screen, or in dark corners, cramped quarters, quivering under laboratory stairs. The audience, knowing the basic story in advance, gets to think its privy to more than Mary is, but the feeling of being steps ahead of her is tenuous. Frears maneuvers the poor lass through a dismaying maze of terror and arousal—suddenly she’ll find herself thumbing through a huge anatomy book Hyde has defaced with obscene drawings and ludicrous comments. News of her mother’s death sets her reeling back into the bowels of destitution, arranging the funeral with a hideous landlord who has already sold off the dead woman’s possessions to cover the back rent (with a shilling to spare). He’s stashed the rigid corpse in a closest for safekeeping—seemingly identical to the one Mary was once locked in with the rats.

In such moments, the old story breaks apart and new ones surface: Pushed out of her comfort zone, Roberts lends Mary’s desperation an awkward, quizzical blankness. No charm or charisma, just a head-down stratagem for endurance in a world where she doesn’t trust herself or her surroundings. It’s an unsentimental movie set in a culture where love and pity look interchangeable, and virtue’s an elaborate artifice, so sadism assumes the form of morality. Once the walls of propriety are breached, nothing pretty or noble will come of it: Knowledge facilitates destruction and the best our shaky heroine can manage is survival.

What Frears accomplished with Mary Reilly suggests an updating of what Jacques Tourneur did in his suspenseful, dreamy Val Lewton films (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man). Like Tourneur, Frears’s career as a hired gun has casually toggled between the extraordinary and the workaday. Anyone who can slip-slide among The Hit, High Fidelity, Philomena, My Beautiful Laundrette, Gumshoe, Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen, and Prick Up Your Ears has an uncanny adaptability. A director who can do reasonable justice to both Joe Orton and Queen Elizabeth deserves a special medal.

Mary Reilly employs classic Hollywood studio-craft and rings just enough stereotypical bells: George Fenton’s score puts scare quotes around “lush,” all red velvet and swooning angst. For all the outrageousness of Malkovich’s antics, while blood overflows slaughterhouse gutters and gushes down marketplace steps, these flights are held in place by the sturdy Britishness of the supporting players. Paragons straight from Central Casting, George Cole as the head butler and Kathy Staff (perfect name) as the cook italicize their roles to the degree they might have been plucked out of just about any London-set prestige picture from 1935 onward. A young Michael Sheen brings a pinch of musical-comedy cheekiness as a randy junior servant, while as Mary’s vile father, the great Michael Gambon dives into the part with such slimy gusto he could be auditioning for a Dennis Potter version of Oliver.

Technical assurance is essential: Mary Reilly is all about mise-en-scène made flesh and vice-versa. Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography embodies the film’s expansive claustrophobia. Stuart Craig’s production design, especially of Jekyll’s laboratory/operating theater and the network of catwalks designed for peekaboo chases, is integral to its labyrinthine quality. That Craig would go on to do the production for the entire run of the Harry Potter movies is a wonderful sick joke in and of itself. Frears’s film is a riposte to all the credulous, militantly innocent works of this New Victorian era, our Age of the Permanent Young Adult: Harry and Beauty and the Fantastic Beasts and the meta-execrable Twilight films. Against that backdrop, Mother! is mere art-film fan fiction (or fan-fiction art film?), but Mary Reilly leaves deep little hickeys.

Howard Hampton

Mary Reilly is available on Blu-ray October 17, 2017.