“You can change the scenery, but sooner or later you’ll get a whiff of perfume or somebody will say a certain phrase or maybe they’ll hum something, then you’re licked again,” muses piano player Al Roberts in Detour (1945), Edgar G. Ulmer’s singular film noir. He is sitting, isolated, in a New York City bar when Bing Crosby’s “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” begins to play, launching him into a reverie about his estranged girlfriend Sue, who has up and left him for her California dream of becoming an actress.
In the last week of Black History Month, the Criterion Channel grants us a look into the newest film to be released in their collection – Charles Burnett’s 1990 film, To Sleep With Anger.
To Sleep With Anger starts off with an ominous long shot of a fruit bowl on fire, sitting idly next to a half-cut apple. As the credits role, we see Gideon (Paul Butler), the patriarchal figure of the film, dressed in all white church clothes. His chair is licked with flames, followed by his shoes, as we slowly fade to another shot of bare feet in dirt and realize that Gideon has fallen asleep holding his Bible and has been dreaming.
This opening scene is hauntingly beautiful and fascinating to watch, and serves as an omen for the rest of the film. Gideon and his wife, Suzie (Mary Alice) are an older couple with two sons and subsequent grandchildren living in Southern Los Angeles when one day they receive a visitor from their old home in the South – Harry, played by Donald Glover in one of his most powerful and unsettling roles to date. With Harry comes a sense of uneasiness, suspicion, and high tensions as his charming demeanor begins to unravel and bring forth a chaos within the family – particularly with Gideon’s youngest son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), who is frustrated by the way his father treats him and by the fact that he is not yet successful.
The inaugural Criterion Channel pick for the first week of February was writer/director Elaine May’s 1976 Mikey and Nicky, a character-driven “Guys Bein’ Dudes” gangster drama. Taking place over the span of a single night, the film opens in classic 70s style with a shifty-eyed Nicky (auteur dreamboat John Cassavetes) alone in a hotel room, clinging to a gun and lighting a cigarette. He’s a small-time bookie who’s just stolen money from the mob, and he’s waiting for his childhood friend, Mikey (Peter Falk), to save him from a panic-induced ulcer attack.
When Mikey arrives, he holds Nicky while he sobs, then lies him down flat on his back to force-feed him an antacid. “Nick, I know you for 30 years. You call me up on that phone, you say ‘Come right away,’ in that voice, I bring Gelusil,” he says calmly before chewing one himself in solidarity. It’s a brilliant hook that establishes the best friends’ characterizations perfectly: Mikey is steady and paternal while Nicky is neurotic and vulnerable. And you just know their story is gonna end with a gut-shot.
This week’s Criterion Review wanders into the realm of science fiction with Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, Stalker. It is a gorgeous, sprawling film that meditates on nuclear war, finding one’s purpose in life, and even religion. Despite covering such a wide variety of themes, Stalker is a film that will take your breath away with each drop of water.
This week’s Criterion Channel selection is Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones, a 1963 adventure-comedy set in 1700s England and executed in the style of early 1900s swashbuckler films. Whew! Born out of wedlock, the titular character (Albert Finney) grows into a charming young man and falls in love with the upper-class Sophie Western (Susannah York), whom he cannot marry because he is not of royal descent. Yup, it’s the standard formula for a period piece romance!
I have to admit that my first encounter with Chungking Express years ago was a confusing one. I was just getting into films, my experience with cinema was limited to mainstream Hollywood films and I had never seen anything like Chungking Express. I restarted my computer twice because I was sure the frame rate was my computer’s fault and not part of the film. Coming back to it years later with an appreciation for Wong Kar-wai’s other films and fresh eyes feels wonderful.
If you’re looking to broaden your taste and try out something unconventional during this fine Criterion month, I’ve got you covered. This entry of the Criterion canon may be a newer addition, but it’s an older, influential work and a unique piece to the library of legacy. The Color of Pomegranates (directed by Sergei Parajanov) is a 1969 film dedicated to the life of the famous poet Sayat Nova, but it’s not your traditional biographical picture. Instead of an informative narrative following a cohesive journey recounting the events of Nova’s life, Parajanov prefers to capture the essence of his experiences through powerful, loosely connected audiovisuals. Influenced by the works of Tarkovsky, Parajanov seeks to use a surrealistic style to preserve the legacy of Nova and serve as a snapshot of Armenian culture.