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.
First things first: After several months of piloting this feature solo, I’m opening it up to the rest of the A.V. Club team. Every week, you’ll hear from at least two other members of our staff in addition to the usual rambling, incomplete thoughts about silent and black-and-white movies that are my stock in trade. This is the way this feature was always supposed to work; it just took a little time to get it into shape. And so, without further ado…
One of the most perplexing things I’ve been lucky enough to see for the first time this year has been Tomatos Another Day, a short film made by James Sibley Watson in 1930 that pokes fun of the bad Hollywood movies of the time. Watson was a very interesting character. The heir to both sides of the Western Union fortune, he was a gastroenterologist, a champion of modernist literature and poetry, a lifelong friend of his former Harvard classmate E.E. Cummings, and a gifted amateur filmmaker, best known for The Fall Of The House Of Usher and Lot In Sodom, both co-directed with his frequent creative collaborator Melville Webber. But Tomatos [sic] is its own strange thing, an early piece of bewildering anti-comedy with pointlessly redundant dialogue and alternately hammy and lobotomized performances. I happen to think that it’s pretty damn funny and worth your time.
The lack of credits (at least in this version) really ties the piece together and places it within a tradition of surrealism that I associate more with TV than film. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot lately with the new Twin Peaks, which I’ve been enjoying the hell out of. TV’s relationship both to its audience and to banality makes it possible to confound viewers in a way that’s impossible to do in a movie theater, and the particular brand of alternate-universe absurdist humor on display in Tomatos is closer in spirit to, say, wee-early-hours Adult Swim than to the Marx Brothers.
Another film I saw for the first time last week that impressed me was Nice Time, a remarkable 17-minute cinéma vérité collage made in 1957 by Claude Goretta and Alain Tanner, two twentysomething Swiss filmmakers who would go on to some renown; Goretta used to be an awards and festival circuit regular (his film The Invitation was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar back when that still sort of meant something), but Tanner’s work I know a little better, through The Salamander, In The White City, and Jonah Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000. In the mid-1950s, however, they were a couple of nobodies dabbling in documentary film who lucked into a small grant from the British Film Institute.
Inspired by O Dreamland, an ironic 1953 documentary about an amusement park directed by the then-unknown Lindsay Anderson (If…, O Lucky Man!), they spent 25 consecutive weekends poking around London’s big, carnival-like Piccadilly Circus intersection, with O Dreamland’s cinematographer, John Fletcher, manning a 16mm camera. The underlying idea of Nice Time isn’t complicated—the familiar metaphor of neon-seared urban night life as a dream life, where the billboards and glances captured by the camera reveal the wants and desires of the crowd. But it’s still a potently evocative and quite beautiful piece of work, not to mention a heck of a seamy time capsule. I wonder whether Christopher Nolan or Nicolas Provost—whose use of hidden cameras to record real city crowds I wrote about not long ago in this space—had seen it before making their films.
This past Sunday, in order to prep myself for some upcoming new releases, I decided to watch some related films, which made for a fairly odd Sunday night double feature of Don Siegel’s original take on The Beguiled and Luc Besson’s wacky sci-fi classic The Fifth Element. Having already seen Sofia Coppola’s new iteration of the Civil War-era story based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel, I largely knew what I was in for plotwise: An injured Union soldier is taken in by the women at a school for girls in the heart of the Confederacy. But I was shocked to find how schlocky and sordid Siegel’s movie starring Clint Eastwood is. Whereas Coppola’s is—true to form—an intimate chamber piece where emotions swell but much is left unsaid, Siegel’s hammers points home with awkward voice-over and makes implicit sexual tensions explicit. Yes, I discovered that it indeed features a dream sequence three-way and an incest plot.
After a quick break to catch up with Richard Hendricks and the Pied Piper gang on Silicon Valley, I tucked into The Fifth Element. I had seen bits and pieces of it growing up, but despite figuring that I would probably enjoy it, I had embarrassingly never sat down to view it from beginning to end. Unsurprisingly, my suspicions were confirmed, and I had a great time, and probably don’t need to convince readers here of the wonder of the zany, brightly colored future Besson envisioned. However, I couldn’t help but think that a 2017 version of the movie would feature a different third act for Leeloo. Instead of a kickass, all-powerful being getting sidelined by injury and requiring a man to convince her to do what’s right, perhaps she’d end with a bit more agency. I’m hoping that’s the case for Valerian’s Laureline.
In anticipation of Baby Driver, I’ve been rewatching the films of Edgar Wright, an effort that was helped along by a recent Wright retrospective at the very best movie house in Chicago, the Music Box Theatre. While I managed to catch Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World on the last night of the series, the only film of the Cornetto trilogy I got to revisit on the big screen was The World’s End, which, before that screening, I would’ve unequivocally ranked as my least favorite of the three. I recall seeing the film at a press screening in 2013, and finding it too close in theme and story to Hot Fuzz, what with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and company discovering that the quaint façade of a small English town is actually maintained by a vast conspiracy—with alien robots in place of Hot Fuzz’s druidic Village Green Preservation And Murder Society.
But having just watched Shaun Of The Dead on Hulu the night before, it struck me: There’s a lot of that movie in The World’s End, too. There is no “best” or “worst” Cornetto entry, because the Cornetto trilogy is more or less the same movie made by the same guys three times at various points in their lives in three separate genres, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Each film advances the previous one’s take on maturity and growing up, and you can trace the artistic growth of the principals through them as well: Wright’s increasingly complicated action sequences, Pegg’s widening range of leading man types, or Frost flipping his doofus sidekick persona to play the responsible one in The World’s End. (Of course, if I’d been doing my homework, I’d known that this is what the trio had been up to the whole time.)
Revisiting The World’s End gave me a whole new appreciation of the film (beyond “OMG bathroom fight”) and the two that precede it. Though it’ll probably take a third viewing to finally get me on board with that ending.