Category Archives: Blind Spots

Blind Spots: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

This year I attempted to watch twelve films off my extensive Blind Spots list. I didn’t manage to watch them all, but you know what, that’s okay. I still watched several that I might otherwise not have gotten around to, so I’m ahead.

There’s been some debate in the past couple of months over whether the whole Blind Spot project is worthwhile or not, stemming from Matt Brown’s post “Film is Not a Mission” and tumbling into a really great Mamo episode featuring Ryan McNeil, who has been a big proponent of the Blind Spots series. I think Matt’s point that becoming too beholden to “canon” is fair, but I obviously still think it’s worthwhile to identify holes in your viewing you’d like to fill and make a concerted effort to do so, and that’s really what this is for me.

That said, I did actually turn over part of my Blind Spot listmaking for 2014 to others, selecting a set of about 50 films that I consider Blind Spots and asking people to vote on which of those films they thought I should watch. But that’s really just crowdsourcing priority; I intend to watch all of the 50 films at some point.

Anyway, since I blogged about even fewer of my 2013 selections than I watched, I’m going to run down the results of my 2013 viewing, then list what I’m planning to watch in 2014.

What I Watched in 2013

My original watchlist is as follows:

  • Our Hospitality / The Navigator
  • Pandora’s Box
  • Vampyr
  • Island of Lost Souls
  • Zero de Conduite / L’Atalante
  • The Stranger
  • Wild Strawberries
  • Sanjuro
  • El Dorado
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • Serpico
  • Days of Heaven

And here’s what I thought of the six I managed to watch.

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Blind Spots Listmaking 2014

The past two years I’ve followed the lead of Ryan McNeil of The Matinee (along with many others) and created a list of films I consider blind spots in my viewing history to try to catch up with during the year. Both years I have failed to actually complete the list, with the extenuating circumstances of pregnancy and a new baby. Still, I managed to see a few things from each list that I might not have made time for otherwise, so I think it’s still a worthwhile enterprise, and I’m going to do it again in 2014, even though I doubt a soon-to-be toddler running around will lend me much more time than I had last year or the year before.

This year I’m soliciting help to narrow down my options. I’ve created a list on Letterboxd with 50 films I consider blind spots – some of them canonical classics, others pop culture favorites I’ve missed. Comment either on Letterboxd or here with the 12 you think are the most egregious and I’ll make my final list based on everyone’s feedback.

Thanks for your input!

Blindspotting 2013: Wild Strawberries (1957)

There are so many Ingmar Bergman films I haven’t seen (and most all of them are considered essentials by cinephiles) that there will likely be a Bergman film on every one of my Blindspot lists for years to come. Last year it was The Virgin Spring; this year I opted for Wild Strawberries, which generally comes near the top of lists of greatest Bergman films but I’ve been avoiding because, really, “after living a life marked by coldness, an aging professor is forced to confront the emptiness of his existence” doesn’t sound like that interesting or compelling a story (that’s the IMDb description). But, of course, Bergman’s genius is in how he tells his stories and the depth of humanity he instills in them more than the plot details themselves.

The film is much more subtle than the description above suggests, with the professor’s coldness mostly demonstrated by his terse treatment of his long-time housekeeper and somewhat estranged daughter-in-law (and son, by extension). He’s bitter and unsympathetic without being necessarily outright cruel. The night before he’s to head off to accept an honorary degree, he has a surreal dream culminating in a vision of his own death, which sets him on a journey of memory the following day as he detours by places of childhood and youthful significance and interacts with the young people he finds there now.

Seeing one’s own death as an impetus for self-reflection might be a common trope, but Bergman keeps it feeling fresh both by the evocative strangeness of the dream (a precursor, perhaps, to the nightmarish weirdness of Persona) and the rather opaque interactions that follow. It’s clear that the resurrected memories of lost loves and family reunions, as well as his conversations with his daughter-in-law and the trio of young people affect the professor greatly, but it’s far from the pat lesson-learning that you’d likely find in an American film.

The professor is played by Swedish director Victor Sjostrom, best known for silent films like The Wind and The Phantom Carriage, and he’s pretty great, surrounded by Bergman stock figures like Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson, and Ingrid Thulin. Some of them are in pretty small parts (like von Sydow), but they leave their mark on the film nonetheless. That plus the surprisingly surreal bits elevated the film far beyond what I expected. It didn’t quite reach the top of my Bergman list, which is still occupied by Persona and The Virgin Spring, but I’m definitely pleased to cross it off my Blind Spot list.

Blindspotting 2013: The List

I‘m joining the Blind Spots folks (seems like most bloggers I know are doing it!) this year, but that’s because I’d nearly decided not to even make a list this year. I mean, it’s pretty foolish of me to try, for two major reasons. One, I did terribly on last year’s Blind Spots list. I only managed to watch four of my twelve, and I only managed to write full posts about two of them. Two, I’m having a baby in five weeks, and if I thought I had little time to watch movies LAST year, this year finding time promises to be even more challenging. But I ultimately decided it never hurts to at least have a list of films I’d like to watch ever-present in my head, so when I do have time to sit down for a movie (whether it be a nice two-hour block when my baby actually does decide to sleep or in 20-minute chunks while feeding her at 2:00am), I don’t have to cast about for what to watch. So that’s what we’ll call this list. It would make sense to just carry over the eight films I didn’t watch last year, but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to make this easier on myself by only choosing films that are available on HuluPlus or Netflix Instant (or that I own) so availability is never an excuse, and by choosing films that I expect to be entertaining and not too heavy. In other words, this is not the year for 4-hour epics about the human condition.

The List

Our Hospitality / The Navigator

1923/1924 USA. Director: Buster Keaton/John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton/Donald Crisp. Starring: Buster Keaton.
Truth be told, I’ll probably try to get through a bunch of the Buster Keaton Blu-ray set Jonathan got me for Christmas, but these are the two main features I haven’t seen and definitely want to.

Pandora’s Box

1929 Germany. Director: G.W. Pabst. Starring: Louise Brooks.
I’ve only managed to see one Louise Brooks film ever, and not one of her more acclaimed ones. Time to fix that.

Vampyr

1932 Germany. Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer. Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schultz.
This one’s been on my horror list for several Octobers now. I started watching it on my lunch break a while back and was captivated by the imagery within a few minutes, so I decided to put it off until I could watch it at home on a larger screen.

Island of Lost Souls

1932 USA. Director: Erle C. Kenton. Starring: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen.
I own this one one Criterion Blu-ray, even, and didn’t manage to watch it last October. I’ll get to it sometime this year.

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Blind Spots 2012: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This has been an extremely difficult review to sit down and write, largely because this film elicited such strong and conflicting reactions from me both while viewing it, and thinking back on it afterwards. I have never felt so in turmoil about a film, even while in the midst of watching it, my thoughts and emotions swirling back and forth even within the same scene. Loving it, hating it, sympathizing, being repulsed, being moved, understanding, feeling detached, exasperated, annoyed, intrigued, heartbroken, unresolved. Of course, maybe that’s utterly appropriate, given that the film is about a couple constantly at each other’s throats, except when they’re in each other’s arms, who drag a younger couple along with them on a night of “fun and games.” But what is the game, and what are the rules, and who’s having fun? The answers to those questions shift as often as my emotions did, and with as little warning or explanation.

George and Martha are a middle-aged academic couple, respectively a professor in history and the daughter of the university’s long-time president. As the film opens, they’re wending their way home after a university party, chatting quietly while lovely and calm background music plays. But even at this most peaceful point in the movie, they quickly fall into a rhythm of argument, clearly their default mode of interacting with each other. As they return home, Martha quotes one of Bette Davis’s campiest characters, proclaiming “What a dump,” then hounding George to tell what movie it’s from. At this point, the movie was already grating on me pretty badly, and it’s only getting started!

Soon a young couple comes over to continue the party, but they don’t know what they’re getting into any more than I did. The night wears on, Martha goading George continuously and flirting with the young man, while his wife gets more and more inebriated. But George, though far wearier and less vulgar, can give as good as he gets from Martha, his barbs carrying an air of intellectualism that makes them cut even deeper. Meanwhile, the younger couple aren’t innocents, either, but have their own skeletons in the closet. The film is almost a one-room drama (as the original Edward Albee play was), focusing on the four characters’ ongoing conversation and interactions. Most of it is very antagonistic, quite mean-spirited, and rather stagey and histrionic.

And yet. And yet. I can’t simply write the film off, and not only because I know how highly regarded it is. Somewhere about halfway through it started getting under my skin, and I’ve found it often popping up in the back of my mind since I finished it. As more details start to come out about George and Martha’s past and the “games” they play with each other (as George says, “we’re not ‘at’ each other, we’re just exercising what little of our wits is left”), I found myself more and more intrigued both by these people and by the structure of the film itself. It lets us in only slowly, at first only showing us George and Martha as they are now, a bitter couple who have grown almost complacent in their antagonism. But there’s more to them than this, a depth that soon becomes apparent in Burton’s weary eyes, his sighs as he accepts or counters yet another of Martha’s hurls.

Really, if it hadn’t been for Burton, I doubt I would’ve made it through the entire film. Taylor’s performance is often praised (and she won an Oscar for it), but except for one or two times when she quieted down and revealed some of the pain behind her own animosity, her performance largely tends toward shrill and histrionic, and I rarely if ever believed her. Burton, though, I believed all the time. All his emotional beats worked completely for me, and I felt every catch in his voice, every callback to old pain revisited. I will say that Taylor came very close to redeeming herself for me in the final scene, by which time the film had put me through such a confusing emotional wringer that I was as drained as she and Burton (the kids are there mostly as audience surrogates and something for George and Martha to play off of; they have their own stuff going on, but it’s relatively insignificant in comparison).

So by the end, the film’s power had definitely gotten to me, but I still don’t know if I could rewatch it any time soon. And yet…I do want to rewatch it. I want to study why it had the effect on me that it did. Very rarely am I this confused about my reaction to a film, and on the one hand, I know the film is powerful for affecting me the way it did, and the last act is pretty devastating however you slice it. Meanwhile, the first act is viciously funny (it worked better for me after I opted to think of it as a comedy – until somewhere in the second act, that becomes impossible). Also, I credit Mike Nichols and cinematography Haskell Wexler for some greatly affecting lighting and camerawork, which did a whole lot to balance out the theatricality of the dialogue. Even when I was recoiling from the characters and the mean-spiritedness on screen, I was still usually fascinated by the way it was shot. Even so, I can’t in good conscience say I think everything in it worked. Sandy Dennis also won an Oscar for her role, which I don’t understand, because she’s largely just acting a silly drunk girl the whole time, and she’s almost more annoying (if more innocuous) than Martha. Taylor I can’t get behind totally, and the young man is pretty dull.

And one thing about the ending. Vague spoilers follow.

The ending depends on the revelation that something George and Martha have been talking about the entire night is actually an elaborate fantasy, the breaking of which fantasy because reduces Martha to nothing. Now, I have in my life indulged in an awful lot of elaborate fantasy, which has, at certain times in my life, been very real to me. But despite the undeniable sincerity with which Burton and Taylor treat this aspect of the film, it stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to believe that two well-educated adults had kept up a fantasy just between the two of them that has this kind of power over them. It’s one of those things that worked while I was watching the film because Burton and Taylor put it over, but five minutes after the film was over, I was going “wait, really?!”

The “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” is an academic variation on “who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” and in this case, apparently, the big bad wolf is a life free from illusions, free from facades – a life that Martha in particular fears to face. But I got that from a Wikipedia article, not from the film, at least not on a first viewing. And even with that, I’m not sure WHY she fears it so much, and why George, who seems better adjusted, would help her keep up such a strange and elaborate fantasy for so long, and then finally break it that night. Those are questions that will have to wait until I get to another viewing. But returning to the world of George and Martha will be exhausting, and I’m not sure when I’ll be ready for it. At this point, I’m inclined to rate it highly simply because I think the extremely unsettled feeling I had both while watching it and thinking back over it is intentional. On the other hand, I’m still not sure I like that, and while certain scenes worked like gangbusters, as a whole I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. But not every film is made to be enjoyed. So I end up where I started – conflicted.