Film Diaries

What we’ve been watching lately

Moonstruck (1987)

Men chase women because they fear death. Rose Castorini knows this is true, but she needs to hear it from someone else, to give it some grit. She’s happy that her daughter is not marrying for love, because Rose understands that love and death are twin disasters. She knows that to love is to be at risk and that a college professor should date a girl his own age. Loretta Castorini wants to get married right this time. She wants a man on his knees whom she does not love. I know the feeling.

I am often pointing to the moon. I once sent a poem to a girl about the moon and later realized it had scared her off, though I think she would have burned out either way. It’s a bit corny to love the moon but it’s better, I think, to be upfront about our sentimentalities, the vague attachments that keep us reaching. Cosmo Castorini was once so young and bright that he spent a night outside Rose’s door, a full moon on his shoulder. Now he takes other women to lunch and explains to them the difference between copper and bronze. 

Characters in Moonstruck try to hold life at arm’s length; to avoid reality by following a myth; to cheat death by looking the other way. They have lost lovers and hands. They keep themselves busy balancing books and holding grudges, eating meals with all the wrong people so as to forget the texture of a sting. Life, though, wins out in the end. A moon as big as Cher’s perm spills over the city and all there is to do is give in to the feeling. Loretta buys a new dress and cries at the opera. Rose tells her cheating husband: no matter what you do, you’re going to die.

A friend died suddenly in June, and I watched Moonstruck. I think about her when I see a good set of clouds, or when I’m doing nothing alone. It turns out that I’m curious about God. God as space or affect, something to talk to in the dark. I don’t believe in miracles or the opera. I do believe in Cosmo’s moon.

Rosie Long Decter is a writer and musician based in Montreal.

Evie, a fiery devil, hangs behind a huge broken heart, devastated. Art by Aidan Jeans

Inherent Vice (2014)

These were perilous times, astrologically-speaking, mused Joanna Newsom, and oh could I relate—this year’s eclipse season had fallen in my 6th house of health and well-being exactly conjunct my natal Pluto, planet of death and rebirth, before moving on to wreak havoc in my 12th house of loss and isolation. Grieving, sick, alone, I needed distraction, to put my woes aside for a while and be held in the comfort of someone else’s heartbreak. I also needed to smoke a lot of weed, so it seemed inevitable that I would turn to Inherent Vice, PTA’s neo-noir stoner dramedy and my personal favourite breakup movie.

After receiving a visit from his beloved ex-old lady Shasta Fay, Doc Sportello sets off across 1970s California on a wild goose chase of synchronicities involving his ex’s new man and the mysterious Golden Fang. But in between wacky episodes of drug-addled dentists, government conspiracies, and missing saxophonists, we always seem to return to Shasta. In the middle of the film, a memory—the lovers running in the rain, laughing and kissing, one beautiful day they’d both remember as Time swept them along and away from each other. Some romantic interests fade into mere infatuations after a few weeks of distance but loves of the Shasta Fay variety haunt us a little longer.

At the forefront of my mind that long, sad Cancer season following my rewatch was my own ex-old lady—the particular scrunch of her nose, those dimples, the feel of her tiny fingers entwined with mine. Just us, together. The world, everything gone someplace else. Like Doc, I could never figure out what my old love might have seen in me. And like Doc, no amount of lighting up and listening to the waves crash along the shore could dispel the sudden, unbidden image of those baby blues peeking out from under her eyelashes or the intrusive, neverending questions of what had driven her away in the first place. 

“Inherent vice” in a maritime insurance policy covers the deterioration of cargo that is too intrinsically vulnerable to survive the voyage at sea. Of course, freight is not alone in this fragility and even the calmest of waters can’t prevent all fractures.  Just as chocolate melts and glass shatters, there is a fundamental instability to the human heart and to the conditions that hold any two people together. Maybe some separations are unavoidable, more the product of Time’s inevitable march than anything else. What can we do but watch the other grow distant, glide away into different fates? Does it ever end? Of course it does. It did.

Emma Tulloch has a Phantom Thread tattoo.

The Virgin Suicides (1999)

It is New Year’s Eve and I am alone in my bedroom watching Lux Lisbon’s blonde hair whip in the wind. I wish I was sitting next to her in the car, smiling at her during the fake ending. Cut to black. Cut to Lux in the car in the garage, cigarette still lit against the noxious gases. Cut to me in my teenage bedroom wondering if a kiss would make her happy.

Now, it’s six and a half years later and I still spend my time thinking about Lux Lisbon. I wish I could ask her why, ask her what she thought she was doing, ask her if there was really no escape, but my efforts are futile because I can’t talk to her through my screen Lux Lisbon doesn’t exist in the way that I want her to, tangible with a body and breath and blushing face. She is 97 minutes of runtime. She is 1999. She is dead. She is immortalized on DVDs and Blu-Rays and whatever streaming service has the rights to her life. I am alive in 2021 and want to reach out and caress her face, but the screen has built a fortress around her. 

My adoration for her makes me one of the neighbourhood boys who gaze and theorize about the minute details of her life, hoping for even the smallest interaction. Lux was my first love, the ideal of her seductive and raw and harrowing. I watched her on screen and she became real. My memory constructed space for her, created interactions with her, longed for her. She is as real as the barista in the Missoula coffee shop who I wished to know years ago—a wisp of a person, someone created by negative space. Someone I wanted to kiss but never knew.

I am naive to ignore her trauma and tragedy. I am foolish to think I could save her if written into the story. Sanctuary evades Lux; my love for her has no bearing. If I were a boy, she would send me a note and invite me in to find her sisters dead, dead, dead. She would smoke her final cigarette and I would find her eyes shut and body slack, dreaming her final dream of life unconstrained.

Sydney Bollinger is a film writer based in Charleston, SC, and creator of Thursday Matinee.

Naked (1993)

Some people listen to depressing music when they’re down and this makes sense to everyone. Yet when I ask for a comfort film, no one ever recommends a movie where everyone’s miserable and treating each other like shit. 

It has never occurred to me to watch an uplifting movie for comfort. “Heartwarming” films usually leave me feeling like I’ve subjected myself to a two-hour-long commercial promoting the inevitability of a fantasy status quo: two cishet people propelled by the irrepressible buoyancy of coupledom to overcome all personal neuroses and contrived plot twists to reach their happily ever after, or the individual underdog riding the bend toward justice around dramatic forms of systemic discrimination.

My tastes follow a more downward trajectory. I watched Mike Leigh’s Naked twice in a row during Toronto’s first COVID lockdown. The narrative is largely comprised of Johnny’s blistering rants and savage repartee as he wanders through an existential wasteland of modern alienation, represented by the dank, desaturated streets of London’s post-Thatcherite East End—but that’s not what I love about the film. Don’t get me wrong, David Thewlis is dazzling as Johnny. But it’s the other characters he collides into along the way that  soothes one’s mood. Take this exchange by a young, homeless couple he passes the time with:

ARCHIE: Where the fuck ‘a you been?
MAGGIE: Where the fuck ‘a you been?
ARCHIE: Uh?
MAGGIE: I’ve been waitin’ on yer!
ARCHIE: Fuckin’ come here – (He goes to hit her.)
MAGGIE: Fuck off!
ARCHIE: Cunt! What the fuck you been doin’, eh?

I watch this and I’m touched. Won’t we all eventually have it out with someone we profess to love? Despite its brevity, Maggie and Archie’s violent reunion reminds me of how we all share in the baseness of the human condition, how prosaic our cruelty can be when we drop all pretenses with those we are intimate with. Look, some people like to play Nine Inch Nails when they’re sad, songs with Trent Reznor whinging lyrics like, Everyone I know goes away / In the end… I will let you down / I will make you hurt, and they feel better. I watch movies like Naked. Don’t @ me.

Kawai Shen is a writer based in Toronto.

I’ve Always Loved You (1946)

While I’ve Always Loved You is not widely acknowledged as one of Frank Borzage’s masterpieces like Seventh Heaven or History is Made at Night, it’s intense and beautiful and fueled by a delirious subterranean power (perhaps the gaseous allure of Republic’s Technicolor). In its portrayal of emotional submission and control, it approaches the emotional sadomasochism of Fassbinder, but here the planes of power and desire are transcendent instead of entrapping. Here, the emotional submission is proof of love’s ineffable power. 

The lovers in question are the imperious maestro Goronoff (Philip Dorn) and the Trilby to his Svengali, Maya (Catherine McLeod). She falls for him as he mercilessly trains her into a gifted pianist, and her romantic infatuation seems to grow as he becomes more domineering. A core tenet of Goronoff’s teaching is the gendering of certain music as masculine and feminine, so Maya’s playing is restricted to the feminine and her access to the masculine (and Goronoff’s heart) is forbidden. These tensions come to a head in the central Carnegie Hall concert sequence, just as florid as The Red Shoes‘ dream ballet, despite being grounded in a diegetic reality. The camera repeatedly swoops over the crowd like a winged beast onto the stage, where a supernatural war of love and domination is staged with Rachmaninoff as the main weapon. Whereas in Brief Encounter, the composer’s gushing melodies give voice to the stiffly repressed emotions of its tragic romance, here they speak as a truer and more intoxicating form of expression beyond language and beyond logic. The odd, disconnected performances from Dorn and McLeod somehow make sense in this contextthe fickle emotions and logical decisions made by the characters are just vessels for higher calling and power, whether it be the gift of magic fingers, the power of Love, or God’s plan. 

The final moment, in one of Borzage’s great reality-busting-miracle-conclusions, finally appears to reconcile these opposed forces with one of the more outrageous lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard, delivered in telepathic voiceover: “There is a woman in music!”  Here, Maya’s previous transgressive performance of the masculine music that severed romantic ties between teacher and pupil becomes at once a kinky power play, an expression of her real romantic devotion to her new husband standing offstage, and her declaration of artistic subjecthood. Fuck A Serbian Film—this is cinema as dare. Borzage’s films challenge you to take seriously the silly, be moved by the ludicrous, and accept the unexplainable. Most of the time, he dominates me into submission.

—Trevor McCulloch

Evie, a fiery devil with a heart halo, shouts passionately, eyes closed.

Head (1968)

The Monkees get no respect. They are still, all these decades later, defined by the quaintest controversy in music history: they didn’t play their instruments. They are the ur-boyband, a manufactured pop group for kids sold pre-packaged as a TV series, designed to capitalize on the rabid teen girl fandom of British Invasion bands (especially The Beatles, who set out the template for The Monkees by playing themselves in the 1964 film A Hard Day’s Night). Out of this pop culture moment came Head—a surrealist masterpiece that deconstructs the very idea of The Monkees. 

I spent July watching Jack Nicholson movies: a self-directed film festival to structure the endless day in, day out sameness of These Times. Jack Nicholson is an actor who makes “range” look overrated when you can have depth. But before he was Jack Nicholson, Oscar-winning movie star—even before he was Jack Nicholson, the guy from Easy Rider—he was a screenwriter. Although Nicholson always wanted to be an actor—he even turned down an entry-level job as an animator for Hanna-Barbera when he first came to California —his acting career stalled out in Roger Corman B-movies. He was a 1970s actor trapped in the 1960s, a time before someone as strange and intense as Nicholson could become a star. So he was resigned to working behind the camera: he wrote the Monte Hellman western Ride in the Whirlwind and the psychedelic movie The Trip, starring Peter Fonda. And he wrote Head, reportedly under the influence of LSD. 

Dubbed in its trailers as the “most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made,” Head is, improbably, all of those things. It shifts genre at the drop of a hat: The Monkees are in a war zone, a boxing ring, a western where Micky tears the backdrop as he storms off set. It’s a biting satire of Hollywood and capitalism and The Monkees themselves—“God’s gift to eight-year-olds,” as a waitress calls them. The Monkees lead a stadium in a cheer for war and they play the dandruff in a dandruff shampoo ad: rendered instruments of selling in the most demeaning way possible. 

A Viet Cong leader is executed and a girl screams. But, in one of the great cuts in cinema, it’s the scream of a girl at a Monkees concert. 

Head goes in circles, as The Monkees inevitably, inescapably, end up getting trapped in the same box. It’s a literal box—black walls and no exit—but a metaphorical box, too. Peter interrupts a scene at a boxing match in which Micky is playing a dummy to tell him that he’s supposed to be dummy, not Micky. Micky apologises: “You’re right, Pete. You’re always the dummy. I forgot. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re always the dummy, Pete.” The nature of being a Monkee is having a set role from which you cannot escape, planned out in a boardroom a dozen steps above your head. No matter what you do, you end up back in the box. It’s a dynamic that speaks both to life as a Monkee and life under capitalism. “You say we’re manufactured,” they sing in the trailer, “To that we all agree / So make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free.”

Ciara Moloney is a film and TV critic. She is the co-founder of pop culture blog The Sundae, and her work has also appeared in Fangoria, Current Affairs, and Bright Wall/Dark Room.

Evie, a fiery devil with a halo, shrugs her shoulders, arms up. Art by Aidan Jeans

My So-Called Life (1994-1995)

After bingeing the college-set Felicity, I searched for other shows in the YA milieu and came across My So-Called Life, which had been hailed as one of the great one-season wonders. It seemed ideal for watching in between my university assignments. I burned through it in less than a week.

I related to its adolescent struggles, despite growing up in a different era. I’ve privately danced my emotions away, like Angela does in her room to Violent Femmes. I recognized Angela and Rickie’s confusion over how to confront their friend Rayanne’s alcoholism. Most embarrassingly, I identified with Brian, the lovelorn boy who lets fantasy blind him to what’s good in his life. 

There’s also something cathartic about watching characters lash out. I’m not always brave enough to express my emotions that intensely. I have a tough time socializing. I regret things I said or didn’t say, things I did or didn’t do. I question my emotional sincerity. When I told my mom that I wished I was a different type of person, she started crying, saying she loves me as I am. 

My So-Called Life beautifully captures life’s messy, unresolved nature. Conflicts aren’t always fixed by the end credits, and their effects can carry across multiple episodes. In episode 5, Angela’s main concern is her fear that she’s unattractive. After talking with her mother, Angela narrates, “When you really look closely, people are so strange and so complicated that they’re actually beautiful. Possibly even me.” During this voiceover, the camera zooms in on Angela’s smile waning, suggesting she’s not ready yet to accept herself. I know the feeling.

Bryden Doyle is a Cinema and Media Studies major at York University who’s written film reviews for Inside Halton.com and York’s newspaper The Excalibur.

Evie, a fiery devil, grimaces and holds her hands to her face, stressed. Squiggles surround her. Art by Aidan Jeans

Viewing Diary: The Films of Jean Rollin

I Shoulda Never Smoke That Shit, Now I’m At The Castle in Rural France With Two Lesbian Vampire Sisters

I’ve seen ten films by director Jean Rollin and it’s hard not to argue that many of them simply blend together; typically a man or woman muttering very few words while wandering around an overcast beach or cobwebbed gothic abode only to eventually meet up with some kind of supernatural creature. Certainly, the feeling of sameness isn’t helped by a large chunk of his filmography having “vampire” in the title (The Rape of the Vampire, The Nude Vampire, The Shiver of the Vampire, Requiem For a Vampire). Yet don’t let that set a strict expectation for his work, as the films resemble less a nightmare and more deeply sad psychoanalytic interrogations, albeit with a foot still in the psychotronic.

Despite the number of them, Rollin’s film took a while to catch on with cult audiences. Not helping matters was that French culture respected all kinds of popular American genres, but not particularly horror, making him somewhat of an outsider in his own country. Though it seems he was maybe always bound to alienate genre fans at large, being that his work could be categorized as far gentler and more innocent than the borderline evil works of his freaky Euro-horror contemporaries Jess Franco and Lucio Fulci. Which is not to say his films skimp on some of the horror requirements altogether, as the gore-soaked Blu-Ray cover for his touching female love story Living Dead Girl, is far from deceiving. Yet even if you’re squeamish, you should stick around for what’s his film with the most distinctly feminine sensibility.

Though perhaps Rollin has been immortalized in another form, as the YouTube video for Clams Casino’s “I’m God,” which sits at 26 million views, is comprised of footage from one of Rollin’s most enchanting works, the hour-long Lost in New York, a fantasy picture drawing on Lewis Carroll which contains nothing in the way of blood and guts, but a yes, a ton of wandering around.

It’s possible you’ve caught this YouTube video from the corner of your eye at a party, and the odd, spooky atmosphere of Rollin’s work probably lends itself to being thrown on as ambience at a Halloween get-together. But I can’t help but implore you to watch them with your full attention, or at the very least, late at night, allowing them to lull you into the kind of dreamscape that Rollin was an expert at understanding.

—Ethan Vestby

Illustrations by Aidan Jeans