What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s film critics and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on movies new and old.
When midnight struck on the New Year, I was in a third-floor loft, watching a 35mm print of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The pops of illicit fireworks and the sound of “Auld Lang Syne” in the bars below and across the street happened in the midst of a quiet stretch in the film’s drawn-out climax, while the Warren Beatty character, McCabe, was evading three hired killers in the snow. As New Year’s entertainment, it was a perverse choice, commemorating not only the deaths of Leonard Cohen, whose early songs provide much of the music, and Vilmos Zsigmond, the film’s celebrated cinematographer, but also a defeatist vision of American oblivion—of the little guy and his small, crude dreams against the forces of capital. It ends in an opiated zoom into an eye, and what are you supposed to say? “Happy New Year?”
Stranger still, I’d somehow spent a chunk of Christmas Day watching two movies by Aleksei German: My Friend Ivan Lapshin, which is one of the greatest Russian films ever made, and Trial On The Road, an earlier film (made in 1971, but unreleased until 1987) that I’d never thought of very highly but felt like revisiting. The two actually have a lot in common with McCabe; they are similarly muddy, snowy, set in the middle of nowhere, overwhelmed by futility and dark comedy. (Lapshin, which is complex and almost bottomless, also makes extensive use of space-distorting zooms, though they are somehow even stranger than the ones in McCabe.) What surprised me about Trial On The Road, which I’d seen maybe once a decade ago, is how much of a wartime thriller it really is—an increasingly tense genre piece about a Russian defector who switches sides a second time, made with a sense of narrative symmetry that seems to be antithetical to the more dreamlike Lapshin, or to German’s later, nightmarish Khrustalyov, My Car! and Hard To Be A God.
A couple of friends had recommended it to me some time before, but it took me until this holiday break to get around to watching Cash Only, an enjoyably low-budget slice of present-day Detroit noir whose generic crime-movie tendencies are nicely offset by its focus on a milieu that has never been depicted on screen, as far as I know: an inner-city enclave of Albanian immigrants. (What the movie gets, among other things, is the way a lot of tightly knit immigrant communities are defined by leeway—what they let slide, in other words.) What else did I find myself watching during this long holiday break? William Friedkin’s First Blood-esque The Hunted, starring a young-ish Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones at his Tommy Lee Jones-iest, crawling on all fours like an animal—a noble but failed attempt at making a macho chase thriller about PTSD that’s too hokey to be effective.
Mostly, though, I just found myself watching films I’d meant to revisit; it was my break time, after all. That included The Fury, probably the strangest film that Brian De Palma ever tried to pass off as Hollywood entertainment, veering from cloak-and-dagger action to supernatural horror to out-and-out comedy from one scene to the next. What struck me here is his very economical use of long takes; De Palma’s oners are typically big showpieces, the later ones involving a densely choreographed Steadicam, but here he’ll run through whole scenes without cutting just by letting the camera pan or dolly around to reframe. A long-delayed revisit of Errol Morris’ Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. didn’t change my opinion that it contains one of the documentarian’s richest subjects and some of his weakest and least imaginative filmmaking. (The score is pretty awful.)
A few hours before the screening of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, I found myself watching Mean Streets, also in 35mm—a movie that proves that as long as you know how to put all of your energies into making something that’s consistently fun to watch, no one will care that the narrative is disorganized or that almost half of the shots are out of focus. The David Proval character’s throwaway reference to William Blake in explaining why he got a pet tiger still kills me for some reason.