Tom Hanks’ directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, is a sleeper hit in the actor’s filmography. The film chronicles the meteoric rise of The Oneders, a suburban Pennsylvania based band who score a surprise #1 hit in the summer of 1964. While the film didn’t make a huge impact on its 1996 release, its winning story, appealing performances, and pitch-perfect soundtrack have raised its profile in the 20 years following its premiere.
The careers of the alternative-rock bands who recreated the garage-rock sound of the LBJ era mirrored that of the Oneders. Like the garage bands of the mid 1960s, Fountains of Wayne, the Gigolo Aunts, and Mike Viola were making music in the years after a revolutionary rock band had cracked the genre open, leaving a young audience hungry for new music.
Joe Dante’s distinctly American genre career has focused on the horror of suburbia: Gremlins, Small Soldiers, The Hole and, even in title, The ‘Burbs all concern what can happen in our very neighborhood—be it supernatural, science fiction, or just plain ol’ crazy neighbors. Not to be confused with the primarily 80s and 90s staple sub-genre of the Domestic Thriller (such as Poison Ivy or The Babysitter), Dante’s Suburbia Horror almost always positions families, rather than a sole individual, as victim or perpetrator, at the center of the terror. At the center of The ‘Burbs is a family…or two.
Wes Alwan: Good evening everyone. Thanks for coming. Thank you to the Brattle for asking me to do this.
I am here to talk to you about damn dirty apes and after that some philosophical themes. So I think that this is a really good film to be watching the day before Halloween. I actually wanted to find a good Planet of the Apes costume for Halloween tomorrow but I couldn’t find one. Even if I did, of course it wouldn’t come close to what they did with the make-up in that film, which is a kind of famous story in its own right. The movie almost wasn’t made because of the technical challenges in doing the make-up and presenting the apes as these humanized apes that really would just get a laugh out of the audience. One of the screenwriters, Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, really early on was asked to do some initial drafts of the screenplay and he went through like thirty or forty drafts. But, before he was convinced to go through all that work, he said he couldn’t be associated with the movie. He just didn’t think it was plausible. He thought everyone would laugh. The studios initially felt the same way. It took years for the producer Arthur Jacobs to convince them to do the film. To do that, he had to do a strength test where he had people in make-up. The make-up artist John Chambers actually ended up winning an Academy Award. The film actually spent the most money adjusted for inflation on make-up of any film in history. Twenty percent of the Planet of the Apes budget was spent on make-up.
Why do I mention all this? I think the greatest challenge and accomplishment of the film is to not to make humans convincingly apelike but to make these apes convincingly human. To do so, you need not just a mask. Chambers adapted techniques used during World War II to help disfigured soldiers. He used latex prosthetics in addition to make-up so that the actors could still make emotional facial expressions. They could use their eyes to act, they could wrinkle their noses, and they could convincingly speak underneath the latex and make-up. It’s still not perfect, however. Planet of the Apes has a very campy reputation because of that. There’s still a mask-like effect to the make-up, but I think that works better than full-blown CGI. There’s actually something important about the fact that the make-up is not perfect and there’s still a mask-like quality to it.—I think of it almost like a semi-mask or almost a Venetian half-mask. I’ll talk more later about why I think it’s so important that the make-up is done like that.
The scene from Max Ophuls’s The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) begins with the General (Charles Boyer): “But I’m warning you: she’s an incorrigible flirt. She’s an expert at asking men’s hopes. You know, torture through hope.” Through cheeky glances, the General warns Baron Donati (Vittorio De Sica) of his wife, Louisa’s (Danielle Darrieux) serial flirtations. Interestingly, this is one of the only direct characterizations we get of our protagonist. We do not know much about her—where she comes from or how she ended up in her deadlocked marriage to a man she seems to have never loved. The film itself plays on the anonymity and opacity of its protagonist by using an anticipatory framing device every time her name is shown. The viewer always just sees ‘Madame de…’ and never the full picture.
And yet, in this scene, an earnestness emerges from Louisa as she dances the night away with Baron Donati. Ophul’s masterful editing and meticulous construction weaves a sequence of image into one continuous moment. They twirl through the frame and their clandestine romance ensues, obscured from the viewer by a busy foreground and background. Indeed, we are barely able to see both of their faces in frame at the same time. One moment we see Louisa’s serene expression and before we know it she has flipped away, substituted with the Baron’s visage, gazing at her with unadulterated affection. They twirl too fast for the audience to indulge in their emotions, for they are too enraptured in their love affair to pause for the camera.
Ophuls uses extravagant wardrobe changes and dissolves cued on downbeats of diegetic music to effortlessly mark the passage of time. And as the two spin around frame, moments spent dancing turn into days, then weeks. The two characters fall in love gradually and all at once. Their extended frolic is forced to an end as servants extinguish candles and orchestra members pack up their instruments. And finally the camera zooms in on a black drape placed over the harpsichord, and with that, the scene dissolves to black, marking the end of the height of their romance. Indeed, in this scene Ophuls masterfully builds their romance while simultaneously suggesting its steady unraveling. The ballroom scene marks turning point in Louisa’s character that she does not recover from. Her dance with the Baron is a moment of absolute bliss that she is never able to inhabit again. Immediately following their prolonged waltz, Louisa begins her retreat from society and spirals out of control, entangled in a web of her own lies.
Chase Sui Wonders is studying Film Production in her final undergraduate year at Harvard College. She writes for the Harvard Lampoon and makes short films.
Wes Craven’s classic A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) is a masterful and horrific exploration of the surreal world of dreams, which also introduced the world to an iconic slasher villain: Freddy Krueger. Krueger and the film’s premise terrified me as a child growing up in the 80s, long before I ever sat through a screening. Now, having seen the film many times, it’s evident that its wealth of bloodcurdling imagery and symbolism could keep a psychoanalyst or film critic busy for days. In this most recent viewing, I found myself preoccupied with subjectivity in the film— which scenes are meant to occur in the dream world and which are real? Whose dreams are whose? Are we to believe the film’s ingénue?, Nancy, in her final confrontation with Freddy, when she realizes that “this was all a dream”—presumably her dream?
It takes nearly ten minutes for the opening credits of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness to complete their slow, sporadic crawl through the center of the screen. They’re chopped up, delivered piecemeal in a seeming attempt to prolong the inevitable. By the time John Carpenter’s “directed by” credit punctuates the ordeal, we are well aware of whose hands we are in; the brash, electronic score has kicked in, the image is wide and oppressive and the apocalypse has been foreshadowed.
Referring to Prince of Darkness as an apocalypse film is far from novel; the film has long been the center of Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” which begins with The Thing in 1982 and ends with In the Mouth of Madness in 1995. But where The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness rely on an apocalypse brought about from within man, either than manifested in an organism transmitted via blood or one man’s (mis)understanding of reality, the apocalypse of Prince of Darkness is far more epic – and theological – in nature.
A corporate computer named Mother, operated from a control room that suggests a mechanical womb; an android from the same company named Ash, whose sweat resembles something between milk and semen; a wage slave astronaut named Gilbert Kane writhing in agony as a phallic head bursts from his chest, like a horrific pregnancy coming to term…throughout Alien (1979), Ridley Scott imposes human reproductive imagery upon the vessels of an amoral corporation as well as a series of space monsters, neither of which possess any humanity of their own. The result is a Freudian nightmare wherein a business’s greed is equated to an alien’s desire to procreate, culminating in either case with the consumption of human life. Whether it’s a company abusing its employees for profit or a cosmic beast using their bodies as a breeding ground, the inhumane imperative that drives both antagonists is one and the same.
There’s this little moment in Stand By Me that doesn’t need to be there, at least not to move the plot forward. In a film defined largely by the rowdy banter and camaraderie of a group of twelve-year-old boys, we find Gordie Lachance, our narrator and protagonist, sitting alone while the other guys sleep, reading a comic as the sun creeps over the horizon. Suddenly, a deer enters the frame and pauses a few feet from Gordie. The two briefly stare at one another before the deer moves on. There’s no music on the soundtrack, just the diegetic sounds of birds and the quiet noises that signal the deer’s movements. The whole encounter takes only a few seconds, but it remains one of my favorite scenes in the film.
I love it because it’s about atmosphere more than plot. Stand By Me is one of only a few great films about childhood friendship, and it captures so well the heady magic of spending a late summer day or night on an outdoor adventure. Gordie’s encounter with the deer reminds me of evanescent moments from my own childhood (and adulthood) when something just a little out of the ordinary appeared and bewitched me: a multicolored dragonfly alighting on a branch, bats dancing against a dusky sky, a hummingbird seeming to materialize out of the ether to dance in my general vicinity for a while. Sometimes we’re eager to share these moments in conversation, and sometimes, like Gordie, we’re reluctant to. “That was the one thing I kept to myself,” a grown Gordie tells us in voiceover. “I’ve never spoken or written of it until just now.” That Gordie chooses to disclose this cherished, delicate moment with us, the viewers, increases the film’s sense of intimacy and draws us closer to his character as the climax approaches.
The deer scene gives us a moment to breathe after Gordie’s friend Chris breaks down in tears over a remembered betrayal, and before the boys at last find the dead body they’ve been looking for, forcing themselves to face mortality head-on. Director Rob Reiner cuts from a close-up of Gordie to the deer and then back, highlighting the similarities between the two. Wil Wheaton’s large brown eyes and gentle demeanor in this role make it easy to link his character to the deer, a connection that underscores Gordie’s innocence and vulnerability just before the encounter with the body will lay bare his grief over the death of his older brother, and a faceoff with the town bully will test his courage and resolve. This is a coming of age story, and the deer’s appearance emphasizes how Gordie is forced to grow and change. In a bittersweet and nostalgic film about how time refuses to stand still, this brief scene reminds us of the rare magic moments when it feels like it does.
Victoria Large is a Massachusetts-based writer who has also contributed to Bright Lights Film Journal and Not Coming to a Theater Near You.
Things move in the shadows. Equipment is being sabotaged. The temperature outside is dropping, and something wants out of there. One by one, the crew of an Antarctic research facility is becoming infected by a mysterious alien lifeform, which causes the crew to take the shape of those around them. Soon, friends begin turning on each other as paranoia sets in, and credence is shattered. How do you trust what can’t be seen? Who is really who, and what do you believe when the things you see aren’t what they seem? These questions linger on the minds of our characters, and we wind up asking ourselves the same questions long after the final credits roll in John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror masterpiece, The Thing.
Based on the novel of the same name by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 science-fiction epic Solaris engages with some of the most elemental aspects of life. With incredible comprehensiveness and clarity, the film addresses issues of faith, love, loss, memory, grief, anguish, and reality itself. Tarkovsky even includes an especially timely meditation on the rather unnerving possibility that science might not be able to deal constructively with the issues to which science has brought us. This paradox is the deep theme of Solaris; a film, its essence, about a man who travels to the farthest reaches of space and encounters himself.
The man in question is Kris Kelvin, played by Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis, a “space psychologist,” whom Tarkovsky introduces in the opening shots of water weeds beneath the surface of clear undulating water. A leaf glides gently across the surface, setting a tone of softness. Solaris moves in such slow tracking shots throughout its duration. Indeed, it is one of the stylistic cornerstones of Tarkovsky’s filmmaking. The camera gradually moves up to show Kris, whose visage is inexplicably grief-stricken. It then cuts back to the weeds waving in the current, an image to which the film will return in its closing sequence, and finally the film zooms in on the weeds that seem to be moving in slow motion. As the weeds move underwater, they take on the appearance of human arms or fingers, almost longing to express something but hindered by the water. Now in a field of wildflowers with a low fog hanging over it, we see Kris again. While the tenderness of the camerawork emphasizes the beauty of the natural world, the landscape takes on an otherworldliness, as though Kris were on a foreign planet. This tension is driven further by an aura of alienation and detachment that Kris emanates into his surroundings. Banionis’ enigmatically stoic expression transmits loneliness beyond the frame.