Hit Me With Your Best Shot: The Letter (1940)

titleThere’s a reason Kim Carnes wrote a song about Bette Davis’s eyes. The song might be lousy, but it pays homage to a simple truth: Bette Davis had the best eyes of any post-silent film era actress. The intensity of her stare is startling, and she could move through the emotional waves of a scene without uttering a word. Not that she ever stayed still long enough in her early career for you to notice. Part of the genius of her partnership with William Wyler was his ability to tame her tics and focus her intensity through her already famous eyes. Wyler was a director for whom the filmmaking rule “Show Don’t Tell” was paramount, and he accomplished it through his camera and his actress in his second film with Davis, The Letter.

If I had any sense at all, I’d choose the first shot of this exotic noir as the Best Shot, but I have no sense (and I don’t like choosing opening scenes). Still, I want to take the time to glide through the opening:

1 2 3 4The camera begins by meandering through the grounds of a moonlit sugarcane plantation. The camera glides lazily by shadowed, sleepy workers, and happens upon the mansion in the background, lit brighter than the dark shapes crowding it.

6 7Suddenly, a shot goes off, startling a bird and the audience. A distant figure stumbles out of the mansion door, followed by a woman who fires again.

8 9We cut closer. The woman is Davis, stonefaced and firing repeatedly from the shadows. The camera pans in to see the murderess, but her eyes betray nothing.

BEST SHOT

EndChaos. Workers, dogs, everyone is awake. Still the woman says nothing. Suddenly, the moon comes out from behind a cloud. The crime and criminal are starkly illuminated, and the audience gets the first flash of who this woman is, without her ever uttering a word. Everything is in her eyes.

The Letter, despite its melodramatic plot, may be one of the subtler performances of Davis’s career. Leslie Crosbe is a woman with secrets to hide – letters and lovers and death. Unfortunately, when William Wyler controls the moonlight, it shines with the all power of a Hollywood spotlight. From this point forward, Leslie will hide from the moon. Her rawest scenes will be exposed by harsh moonlight. Every time she tries to hide, it will slip through cracks in the window and cracks in her facade. Moonlight isn’t for lovers anymore.

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HMWYBS: Can’t Stop The Music

This week for Hit Me With Your Best Shot we’re trying something a little bit different: two bloggers for the price of one! Please welcome back Margaret as we discuss this week’s movie.

title_cantstopmusicAnne Marie: On the April Fool’s Prank scale from “short-sheeting the bed” to “saran wrap over the toilet,” Nathaniel’s assignment of Can’t Stop The Music for Hit Me With Your Best Shot ranks somewhere around “food dye in the shower head:” Messy, colorful, and guaranteed to stick with you for the rest of the day.

Margaret: I may never forgive Nathaniel. This week’s selection features The Village People, Steve Guttenberg on rollerskates, more penis than would ever be allowed in a modern-day PG movie (read: any), and two hours of my life I will never get back. What passes for the movie’s plot cheerfully beats the viewer over the head with so many make-it-big-in-the-city cliches that it’s almost not worth mentioning. (Golly-Gee-Guttenberg just lives for music, and he wants a record deal! His plucky roommate has connections, so all they need is a group of singers! These men off the street sure have decent voices and some serious moves! Phase three: profit! ) Let’s leave plot aside and focus on the gaudy, ludicrous, at times almost motion-sickness-inducing aesthetic of the thing.

Anne Marie: I actually asked my parents if anybody had noticed how very, very gay the Village People were. My mother’s response: “It was the 70’s. And nobody thought the movie was good.”

cantstopMargaret: But Anne! Don’t forget! It’s not the 70s anymore, man. To paraphrase the screenplay, It’s the 80s! It’s the 80s! Welcome to the 80s! We’ve left the 70s behind!

Anne Marie: False. There is way too much shag rug and hedonism for this to be an 80s movie.

Margaret: A fair point. It’s positively smothered in glitter, polyester, and improbable rollerskates. You’d think that would set it apart among films of its time, but apparently this came out the same year as Xanadu so maybe everyone was just doing non-stop disco aerobics in 1980.

Anne Marie: Speaking of athletic musical numbers…

 

Anne Marie: I can’t be the first person to notice that “YMCA” bears a striking resemblance to Jane Russell’s number “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I want to take a closer look at these scenes, not only for their ridiculous camp value, but also for the not-so-subtle censorship flaunting happening front and center. That leads us to…

BEST SHOT

 FirefoxScreenSnapz002Compared to…
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Anne Marie: In “Y.M.C.A.” and “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love,” both Russell and Valerie Perrine are framed center as the supposed focal point of the scene. However, the majority of the athletic, under-dressed action happens around them, not to or with them. The men are the musclebound eyecandy. This makes Russell and Perrine into de-gaying diffusers of displaced voyeurism: It’s okay to stare because surely you’re just staring at the pretty lady, not the hunks behind her. Actually, “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love” may be the only scene in the entirety of Jane Russell’s career where she’s wearing more than her male costars.

6a00d8341bfd9e53ef01348642c6b6970c-450wiFirefoxScreenSnapz003Margaret: That’s certainly true of this movie’s leading lady. Valerie Perrine does the very minimum to beard the musical number (Guys! Wait! This can’t be The Gayest because LOOK AT THIS PRETTY STRAIGHT LADY!) and she does most of it in a tank top and shorts– relatively modest when you consider all the greased-up manflesh on display. In “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love,” Russell is practically begging for the attention of the men around her, while the “Y.M.C.A.” number sees Perrine cheerfully accepting her position as purely decorative. Progress of a kind?

Anne Marie: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Can’t Stop The Music share more in common than just over-dressed straight ladies. Both play at brinksmanship with the standards of censorship and good taste of the times.

Margaret: Basically, they were testing just how much synchronized disco-soundtracked homoerotic humping can they could shoehorn into this while still keeping a PG rating. (You know it’s a liberal time when your movie, which features exposed lady-boobs and MORE THAN ONE FREE-DANGLING PENIS, still gets a PG. Was Harvey Weinstein backing them??)

Anne Marie: Both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Can’t Stop The Music directly or indirectly reference sexual taboos. In the case of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes it’s female promiscuity and (in one number) homosexuality. In Can’t Stop The Music it’s the New York gay subculture. These were ideas that would have most likely shocked morality and good taste at the time. However, both films managed to skirt censors by hiding those references under glittery layers of camp. The more outrageous and ridiculous the tone, the easier it is to dismiss something as a flight of fancy rather than a serious threat to the status quo. This also leaves the back door wide open for double entendre.

Margaret: BACKDOOR WIDE OPEN, EH? FOR DOUBLE ENTENDRE? I see you, Miss Anne. I see you.

Anne Marie: I’m sure I don’t know what you mean…Cant_Stop_the_Music08 copy

Margaret: You have to wonder if producer Alan Carr thought he had a hit on his hands. Following the mega-success of Grease, he probably had his pick of projects. For whatever reason, he picked this glitterbomb, which arrived just after the demise of disco and barely recouped a tenth of its 20 million dollar budget. Apparently he personally directed and casted for the YMCA sequence, so I guess he’ll always have that.

Anne Marie: That and the 61st Academy Awards.

Margaret: Disco is dead. Long live disco.

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HMWYBS: LA Confidential

Note from Anne Marie: Please welcome again the fabulously talented Margaret, who’s covering The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot challenge here while I binge-watch Katharine Hepburn movies for TFE. I leave you in her capable hands.

Boys and girls, don’t make the same mistakes I have. Never watch L.A. Confidential when it plays on your local network affiliate. It’s amazing how much the removal of a few f-bombs can ruin the emotional stakes of a scene, especially when you factor in the world’s laziest dubbing. Imagine Russell Crowe’s furious, rain-soaked face bellowing “You [DID] him..you [DID] him!” to a weeping Kim Basinger. Totally ruins the tone.

The uncensored L.A. Confidential is much easier to take seriously. A riff on the dirty Hollywood noir, it focuses on the venal Los Angeles police force of the early 50s, and the paths of Officers Bud White and Ed Exley as they navigate the questionably moral system of their department and uncover a network of corruption.

Crowe’s Bud White is a simple brute. Sure, they try to humanize and sensitize him with his woman-protecting crusade, but he’s a blunt object. Pearce’s Ed Exley, on the other hand, is as sharp as they come. A little too transparently thirsty for status and acclaim in his police force, he’s savvy, cocky, and almost smug about his categorical unwillingness to engage in the seedy culture of his department in the name of “justice.”

(Pearce is so entirely excellent in this movie, I can’t help but wish that he had been the one to become our big bankable movie star, and that Russell Crowe would be relegated mostly to ensemble pieces and the occasional direct-to-DVD. Because I’m mad at Russell Crowe for having the career Guy Pearce should have had, this write-up will have nothing to do with him.)

We’re introduced to Exley in uniform, looking freshly scrubbed and sporting somber rimless spectacles. Twice in the first 20 minutes we hear higher-ups, noting his ambition, advise him to the lose the glasses if he wants to get anywhere.

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4losetheglasses

Perhaps the administration doesn’t want him looking too closely or seeing too clearly, hmmm?

It may be a kind of Film-school-101 motif, but Exley’s glasses do a great deal to telegraph his arc over the course of the film. We see him wearing his glasses when he’s looking critically at his department the cases in front of him. Every time he narcs on a fellow cop and every time he puts two and two together on a case, the glasses are on. The glasses also help separate him from his peers, and it could be argued that they symbolize his power to see things as an outsider and look critically at the network of corruption around him.

To wit:

Glasses on, Exley encourages his higher-ups to throw his peers under the bus. Narc.

Glasses on, Exley encourages his higher-ups to throw his peers under the bus. Narc.

He's trying to act cool around the bros in his department with his glasses all off, but they still cold-shoulder him.  Cause he's a narc.

He’s trying to act cool around the bros in his department with his glasses all off, but they still cold-shoulder him.
Cause he’s a narc.

Can't examine a crime scene without his trusty investigatin' glasses.

Can’t examine a crime scene without his trusty investigatin’ glasses.

When Exley tries to blend in with the force, and participates in the (morally questionable) antics of his peers, the glasses are off.

This includes scenes where he carries and uses a gun. For crying out loud, people! What was contact lens technology like in 1953? Shouldn't he at least have to take an eye exam before he goes firing bullets willy-nilly in the name of the law???

What was contact lens technology like in 1953? Shouldn’t he at least have to take an eye exam before he goes firing bullets willy-nilly in the name of the law???

7noglasses2As the main case unravels and Exley starts to piece together that his accolades and status in the force have been built on a foundation of cover-ups and lies, he slaps the glasses back on and waxes self-reflective about how he had ‘lost sight’ of what made him want to be a cop.

At the beginning of the movie, Captain Dudley Smith asks him if he’d be willing to shoot a known perpetrator in the back to ensure that he wouldn’t get away with his crimes in the court of law. Firmly, proudly, he said no. Of course, it turns out that Smith is the high priest of the murderous corruption in his ranks, and the moral climax of the movie sees Exley (glasses on) decide that, after all, he can shoot a perpetrator in the back rather than run the risk of seeing him go free.

BEST SHOT

9noglasses_bestshotAfter all his moralizing, Exley has rolled in the dirt with the people he used to hold in contempt. His prized moral superiority is a thing of the past. The higher-ups want to cover up Smith’s crimes and say he died a hero in the shootout. They size Exley up through the one-way mirror of the interrogation room, suspicious that former ‘Golden Boy’ Ed Exley won’t play ball. Exley, finally warming to the LAPD way of doing things, agrees on the condition that he be named a hero as well. He smirks. He’s shot someone in the back, and he’s taking a hero’s reward for it. His glasses, the main visual cue for his distance from the corruption of his colleagues, are gone for good. He’s given in. He’s one of them: a real L.A. cop.

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Hit Me With Your Best Shot 2014: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Note from Anne Marie: Please give major snaps my frequent collaborator Margaret, who wrote this inaugural post for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot event, covering my rear while I cover Katharine Hepburn. First time viewers, welcome. Long-time viewers: welcome back!

Though it’s a story about erasing from your mind all memory of love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is both romantic and unforgettable. That’s thanks to the off-kilter genius of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry, whose sensibilities are singularly well-matched here. They take an inventive premise and fully embrace the idiosyncrasy and often pure weirdness that follow.

After a painful breakup, Clementine (Kate Winslet) and then Joel (Jim Carrey) both undergo an experimental procedure to have all traces of their past relationship wiped from their memory. The story is both mind-bendingly original and achingly familiar.

We’re guided through timeline leaps and emotional tangles by a smart visual language, and deceptively simple visual effects and beautiful cinematography elevate the story at every turn. Add also an unimprovable ensemble cast, and you find yourself with a wealth of options for the best shot of the film, scarcely a poor choice to be found.

But when I close my eyes and think ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘, there’s really only one thing I see, one thing that’s burrowed deep into my memory, clinging to the folds rather than be forgotten.

What else? It’s Clementine Kruczynski.

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Moody, perceptive, impulsive, compassionate, vividly alive and whole, Kate Winslet’s Clementine Kruczynski (No jokes about her name) is a live-wire presence and the beating heart of the film. As Joel gets his memories of Clementine erased, we’re witness to a flurry of his experiences with her: dinners out, fights, household mundanities, and tender small moments. It’s when these precious happy memories disappear that he begins to regret his decision, and eventually panics as he realizes just how much he loses when the Clementine goes. The emotional crux of the movie requires the audience to find her just as lovable and as maddening as Joel does, and oh how we do.

 BEST SHOT

Clementine being literally pulled from Joel’s memory, just after a rare moment of pure happiness in our melancholy lead, is the visual summary of the heartbreak of the film. (They used real wires to pull her back out of the frame, instead of CGI– one of many elements that make it so visceral and uncanny.) The frame is filled with Clementine’s lovely face before the light turns harsh and she slips suddenly away, leaving only darkness. Winslet’s performance is so beautifully present that her disappearance deflates both Joel and the scene. It’s a brief shot in a visually inventive sequence, but it leaves its mark.

eternal-sunshine-poster-would-you-erase-me

I wouldn’t.

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Number-Crunching The 86th Academy Awards

86th-Oscars-Logo-586x390

Hi. Remember me? I used to write this blog before I started an epic journey through Katharine Hepburn’s filmography. Turns out epic journeys are way more time-consuming than I thought. Anyway, the Academy Awards are on Sunday and I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to re-visit my yearly tradition of number crunching the sequels, adaptations, and remakes that are nominated this Oscars season. And since I’m trying to buy back your love, I made the graphs really, really pretty.

First of all, let’s look at the new-and-improved breakdown of all 511 Oscar nominees through history (click to make larger):

511bestpicturenoms(Those are pretty graphs, right?) Side note: while adaptations still dominate, I had to create a new heading, “Other,” to deal with all of the anomalies. Many movie adaptations (like the American Gaslight) are also remakes (of the British Gaslight). “Other” also includes the two later Lord Of The Rings movies which are both sequels AND adaptations, which is just not kosher. Even with this change, adaptations make up over half of the total: 289 straight adaptations have been nominated up to the present.

The sequels you can probably guess most of: Godfather Part II, Godfather Part III, and Toy Story 3 are the obvious, but there are two other early sequels: The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) and The Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935, oddly).

The remakes, on the other hand, have a fun oddity.  Two movies with the same title have been nominated for an Oscar: Heaven Can Wait (1943), and Heaven Can Wait (1978).  However, the first is the story of a playboy who recounts his exploits in Hades, while the second is a Warren Beatty film about a football player who comes back to life in the body of a multimillionaire.  Here’s the weirder part: the second film actually is a remake of a 1941 film called Here Comes Mr. Jordan, starring Robert Montgomery and Claude Rains.

85bestpicturewinnersUnsurprisingly, the numbers stay pretty consistent from types of movies win to what types of movies dominate. As I was re-creating this graph, I started to wonder. Do we nominate so many adaptations because they seem more Oscar-worthy somehow? Is this finally proof of my freshman English professor’s scoff that film is derivative? Let’s try taking a historical perspective on this data.

511NomineesByDecade

“Unoriginal” stands for the sum of Remakes, Sequels, Adaptations, and Other

First thing I notice: the 1950s were not big for original content. When you think about it, the 1950s and 1960s were the times of the Great Epics, most of which were based in literature (Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia). The the 1970s and the American New Wave hits and BAM new content! Since then it seems mostly steady, although there’s so far been an uptick in original material in the New Millennium. Don’t get me wrong; I love period pieces, but I definitely welcome stories written specifically for the screen (whatever the theme of this blog may suggest). Let’s see how this holds with Best Picture winners.

85WinnersByDecadeWow. Well, the Academy is at least consistent in its inconsistency. There’s that mid-century dip again, although this time its nadir is the 1960s. We seem to have more or less evened out since then. I do hope this current uptick in original screenplays continues though.

Speaking of current Oscar winners, here’s the breakdown of this year’s Academy Awards. It is by far the simplest graph I’ve made since I started these, and it’s also contrary to everything we’ve been seeing (except that last graph):

9bestpicturenoms

No sequels or remakes

With all that critics (including me) keep kvetching about how these are the End Times for the film industry because Hollywood can’t stop making sequels, it’s nice to see visual proof that it isn’t always so. In 2013, we found 9 movies that represent the best of what Hollywood sees in itself, and over half of them were original stories.

What do you see in these graphs? Data is always up for interpretation!

I’d like to thank my 8th grade math teacher, Mr. Dicker, for teaching me how to use Excel. I’d like to thank God, Meryl Streep, and my parents, without whom this blog post would not be possible. And now the band is playing me off, so I really have to go!

For more fun updates, or to suggest a movie, like WRM on Facebook or follow on Twitter @WeRecycleMovies. Also check out our podcast on iTunes!

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What Price Hollywood? – The Movie That Inspired A Star Is Born

225px-WhatpricehollywoodposterI’d like to start 2014 with a throwback. All the way back in 2012, when I started (or rather restarted) We Recycle Movies, the blog was reborn with a trio of reviews of the various versions of A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, and 1976, respectively). At the time, I remarked that they were all based on an earlier movie called What Price Hollywood? that was unavailable through conventional means and only seemed to be a minor inspiration anyway. I have to be honest. This rankled me. I’m somewhat of a completist (as my current column on The Film Experience will attest), and I didn’t like the idea of starting the blog with an unfinished set. Fortunately for us, Turner Classic Movies screens everything, so I at last was able to uncover a lost gem. And what a gem it turned out to be!

It’s impossible not to compare What Price Hollywood? to the films it later inspired. Unlike A Star Is Born, What Price Hollywood? (1932 dir. George Cukor) is not a Depression era morality fable about the joys and sorrows of Hollywood. In fact, unlike its pontificating progeny, What Price Hollywood? is not very moral at all. It’s one of the last Pre-Code films about Hollywood, and although its content isn’t particularly lascivious, its tone is nonetheless one of unapologetic excess.

"I'm a movie star, not an actor!"

“I’m a movie star, not an actor!”

Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) is a cynical waitress at the Brown Derby who wants to be a star. When drunken director Max Carey stumbles into the restaurant the night of his premiere, she rides his tipsy tailcoats all the way from the Chinese Theater to a studio contract and stardom. Max’s career spirals out of control while Mary rises higher; she marries a mercurial millionaire and settles in France, while Max commits suicide in a sober spell of self-loathing. This is no story of star-crossed lovers – Max and Mary are not in love. Most of the time the story seems pulled from a ‘30s fan magazine.

Before 1933, anything really did go for movie stars. This was the era of Gloria Swanson’s Lancia limo upholstered in leopard fur, and Greta Garbo’s less-than-subtle love affair with Mercedes de Acosta. This is Mary’s world, and compared to most of Silent Hollywood she’s practically a nun. Mary’s worst faux pas is going to her millionaire boyfriend’s dinner in her nightie (not by choice). And then there’s Max’s sad suicide in her living room. That one does almost cost Mary her career. Mary is a low-class actress who wants to be famous and have fun. There’s no moral judgement against Mary for her ambition. The film applauds her for it.

"I'm a movie star, not an actor!"

“I’m a movie star, not an actor!”

This is because What Price Hollywood? is an artifact of Pre-Code Hollywood. While I’ve talked extensively about the effect the Hays Code had on films, I’ve left out its effect on studios. Once the Hays Code crackdown happened in 1933, stars had morality clauses written into their contracts. Gone were the days of wild parties and rape allegations (well, almost gone). Depression-era audiences said goodbye to the worldly girls like Mary Evans. It was time for the virtuous Vicky Lester’s star to shine.

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What A Year It Was! 2013 In Review

Wow, was this an incredible year! It started with a massive movie musical missive against Les Mis (that lasted maybe longer than it should have), then for a while we juggled (mostly) regular posts and contributions to Hit Me With Your Best Shot at The Film Experience. That last one led to an ongoing gig writing for The Film Experience, for which I am extremely grateful (more on that in a minute). I lectured at the Queen Mary Art Deco Festival in Long Beach (and again at San Diego Comic Fest) and did the occasional podcast. The rest of the year seems dull in comparison, though I managed to gather a few great guest posts from friends, liveblog The Sound of Music Live, and break 200 followers and 100 posts before the end of the year. As always, thank you to everyone who read. Thank you also to Margaret, Adam, Gabe, and Nathaniel for contributions and support.

Now, on to some big news: The blog is going back to twice a month! I know. I’m sorry. I promise it’s for a good reason. That reason is…

I’m writing a weekly column for The Film Experience starting January 1st! (That’s tomorrow!) Katharine Hepburn, my lifelong idol, made exactly 52 movies, and for the next 52 weeks I am going to watch them in chronological order. It’s called My Year With Kate and it’s going to be yar. Really it is. I’m so excited Nathaniel is giving me this opportunity, and I can’t wait to spend a year with my favorite leading lady.

In the meantime, I’ll need breaks from Kate the Great, so I will be updating We Recycle Movies every other week. I’ve got lots of great ideas for 2014, so stay tuned here! And as always, if you have any suggestions for posts please voice them in the comments below.

Thank you all for making 2013 an incredible year. Here’s to what has passed in 2013, and what will come in 2014! I found the perfect clip to ring in the new year: Katharine Hepburn’s New Year’s Eve scene from Holiday:

Happy New Year!

 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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A Christmas Carol Revisited

Merry Christmas! Last year I weighed in on four weird versions of Dickens’s classic Christmas story, but I barely scratched the surface of A Christmas Carol adaptations. My good friend Shiraz invited me to discuss the wider world of Christmas Carols on The Flickering Podcast. I still managed to sneak in a Muppet reference though.
Listen here and enjoy! Happy Holidays!

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Sound of Music Live Follow Up (and more!)

CarrieVsJulieAfter last week’s “live” blog of The Sound Of Music Live! on NBC, I just couldn’t let the subject of musical theater on television lie. No, this isn’t like my obsession with Les Mis in February. (I know it’s been a year but that movie is still so bad.) The Film Experience gave me the opportunity to compare Carrie Underwood and The Sound Of Music Live to Julie Andrews and Cinderella. Did you know Cinderella was the most-watched TV event for 25 years? Check out the article here.

I’ve actually been doing a lot of writing for The Film Experience lately. If Cinderella doesn’t appeal to you, enjoy any of the articles below:
Three Christmas Movies for Friday the 13th
Rita Moreno turns 82
Goodbye, Eleanor Parker
Potent Quotables – Margo Channing in All About Eve
Team FYC: ‘Nebraska’ For Best Score

A new We Recycle Lines is coming this week. In the meantime, Happy Holidays!

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Beer And A Movie Black Christmas(es) Crossover!

Gory Christmas to all, and to all a good fright! ‘Tis the season for the holiday Beer And A Movie Crossover! Gabe brought over two great beers, and we decided to watch Black Christmas, both the 1974 original and the 2006 remake. I’m beginning suspect we may need to do more research before choosing these movies. It was definitely a… festive experience.

"Tell me my eyes are pretty"

“Tell me my eyes are pretty”

The original Black Christmas is considered a slasher “classic” in the same way that The Petrified Forest is considered a crime classic – it’s old as dirt and there are some recognizable names in it. The recognizable names in Black Christmas are Olivia Hussey (best known for pining after Romeo), Margot Kidder (best known for pining after Superman), and Andrea Martin (best known for fondling her niece’s fiance’s hair before offering to cook him some lamb). The story revolves around a group of pretty sorority girls – the slut, the nerd, the good girl, and the hero – who are picked off one by one by an unknown killer. After each crime, the killer calls the girls to say more and more disturbing things. Here’s the twist: the calls are coming from inside the house!

This cliche is conveyed with such earnestness that I think it may have been the now-tired punchline’s origin. What nobody seems to even consider – everyone in this film has a genre-consistent case of the Horror Hero Stupids – is that the killer is hiding in the attic. The killer’s constant unnoticed presence does lead to some great moments of tension in the film – his shadow flits through the background of many scenes as the girls obliviously hide in the “safety” of their home. In fact, in many ways the killer is the best part of the film: he’s mostly unseen, shown only as a POV camera shot or a quick shadow or as an eye in the door. Despite the fact that the audience knows where he is, we don’t know who he is, and we never find out. The movie ends with the reveal that the man accused of the murders is actually innocent, because the calls are still coming from inside the house!

Black Christmas is not quite as good as its contemporary calendar-related carnage-fest, Halloween. The problem is really a lack of consistent tension: too often the suspense is derailed by confusing character exposition or unnecessary melodrama. The last third of the movie is really a phone technician running through a warehouse trying to trace each call that comes into the sorority. Still, it was interesting as a piece of history, both horror-and-telephone-related.

I hate every character in this movie so here's the sorority house in lights instead

I hate every character in this movie so here’s the sorority house in lights instead

As for the 2006 Black Christmas, all I can really say is I have lost my faith in horror remakes. Like My Bloody Valentine before it, the remake of Black Christmas seems to think the only way to improve a classic horror movie is to make it as gory as possible. And it’s not just gory, it’s gross. The core idea remains the same – killer attacks sorority girls – but around it swirls an endless arc of appalling exposition. Far from being unknown, the killers are actually revealed early on to be a yellow-skinned psychopath named Billy and his one-eyed sister/daughter Agnes. Their backstory is told in gleefully lurid flashback and includes pedophilia, cannibal cookies, and perversion. In fact, the heroes of the story aren’t the sorority sisters at all; more time and care is given to explaining Billy and Agnes than to any of the girls they murder. The girls are really just fodder for their misplaced twisted justice.

 

The differences between the killers in the two versions of Black Christmas actually shows  audiences’ long and growing fascination with murder. In the original Black Christmas, the POV shots from the killer’s perspective spoke somewhat to the audience affiliation with the man with the knife, but ultimately he remained anonymous. However, as the mountain of exposition in the remake shows, we’re increasingly drawn to a Cult of Bloodstained Personality. Hannibal, Dexter, the Saw films, and the enduring legacies of Michael, Jason, and Freddy show that Killers carry a franchise, not Survivors.  Exceptions do exist – Evil Dead springs to mind (Groovy!). But overall, audiences prefer their body counts higher and their killers more extreme. I have neither a qualitative judgement nor a philosophical point to make about this. But I will say that missteps on the path towards this gory goal lead to bad films like Black Christmas.

Gabe has more to say about Black Christmas and our two beers and our two movies, so check his blog out. If you have any suggestions for another holiday crossover, let us know in the comments or on Twitter! Happy Holidays!

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