Magic Lantern Podcast

The Magic Lantern: Episode 119 – Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, 1982) is a holiday film that fits every season. It captures so much about the highs and lows, and the beginnings and endings that we will all experience in our lives. Like the flowing water that is pictured at the start of each of the five episodes, life must take its course, Bergman tells us. This course may be fraught with peril, and the water may etch away even at the banks that hug it while it flows ever on.

Even so, that mighty water inevitably brings life and renewal again. Through Alexander’s eyes, and much like the toy theatre he plays with, we watch how the Ekdahl family endures, falters, and triumphs through each act of life. Watching this film in its full length of 312 minutes is a deeply satisfying experience. In what was intended to be his feature film swan song, we can explore with Bergman the everlasting themes of mothers and fathers, family, God and metaphysics, and life and death. He managed, in this semi-autobiographical work, to make something universal and beautiful.

What you’ll find in this episode: whether you should watch the shorter theatrical version, my curated guide to when you should watch each episode, and how theatre exists for more than just pleasure.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Fanny and Alexander on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Smiles of a Summer Night.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Amarcord.
A guide to the Swedish alphabet.
An exhibition of photos, drawings, and costumes which shape the “Bergman female”.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 118 – Hyenas

This year has been a journey of discovery for me with African cinema. Our Patreon listeners may remember that one of my resolutions this year was to become better acquainted with African films. To that end, I set myself a goal of fifty films from the continent in 2019 and I am on pace to surpass that mark. I am only beginning to scratch the surface of what there is to find, but I wanted to share some of that before the year was over. There is a tendency to think of African cinema as monolithic and grim. Nothing could be further from the truth, but finding those exceptions can sometimes take effort. Distribution is a major issue. Even with that, though, I saw some amazing films this year and one stood out above all the rest, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyenas (1992).

Hyenas belongs on any list of must see international films. It is a savage metaphorical critique of the World Bank. It is pitch black comedy. The reason I chose it above all the others, though, is the way it both embraces and subverts some of the more common characteristics of African film. The oral storytelling tradition, the clash between ancient traditions and modernity, the looming spectre of colonialism – they are all present. Mambéty, though, turns them inside out. He forces us to think about what every single one of these things means, but he does it with poetry and magic.

What you’ll find in this episode: a whirlwind tour of African cinema, the filmmaker as iconoclast, corruption, eunuchs, and truth, justice, and the African way.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Hyenas on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of The Claim.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Cairo Station.
A list of great African films, with one choice from each of the 54 countries.
One of our favorite domestic distributors of African films, ArtMattan Productions.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 117 – The Heiress

Sometimes a film leaves an indelible impression on you because its ending is so buoyant that you feel uplifted, lighter than air. The Heiress (Wyler, 1949) leaves a bruise on your heart, and it is because the ending is so irrevocably painful and bitter.

With a father like Dr. Austin Sloper, who takes every day as an opportunity to remind his daughter Catherine that she is lacking in all areas and is at best mediocre, how could the ending be different? For Catherine, her final decision may be to forever end her poisonous lineage by forsaking what might be her last chance at romantic happiness. The Heiress also asks us to consider an interesting question when arriving at that ending: can you marry for monetary gain and still be happy? Or must mutual love be the only pure way forward?

Along with the magical Ralph Richardson and the subtly emotive Olivia de Havilland, the director William Wyler made what I think is a canny choice to provide more room in the script for nuance from Montgomery Clift. Wyler stuck close to the play, but asked the screenwriters to cut some early lines that made it clear that Morris was a fortune hunter. This was in part because the studio did not want the leading man presented as a total villain. In that way, I think a constraint becomes an opportunity. Clift could be a character who conceals himself while convincingly presenting a man who at last seems to understand and appreciate Catherine. He may even be concealing that common trait of James’ characters–an inability to love.

This story has been adapted many times, and Catherine seems to have responded to all the emotional disappointments by toughening up each time. She makes for an exciting and unforgettable hero.

What you’ll find in this episode: a discussion of the meaning of the sampler, trying to figure out what the deal is with Dr. Sloper, and why some material gets adapted so often.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Heiress on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Rambling Rose.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Hobson’s Choice.
A parody from The Carol Burnett Show.
10 secrets of Washington Square Park.
A history of American Samplers.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 116 – The Magic Jack O’Lantern 2019

It’s that most wonderful time of the year again! In this episode, The Magic Jack O’Lantern 2019, we once again bring you our list of viewing tricks and treats to celebrate the season. We watched one Halloween inspired title every day in October and now pass the list and our impressions on to you in hopes that you might find some new scares for your regular viewing rotation or revisit some old spooky favorites. This year, we went through the golden age of (mostly) Hollywood horror, featuring the Universal Monsters pantheon and much, much more. There were a lot of highs and only a few lows. Here’s the full list!

Day 1: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Worsley, 1923)
Day 2: The Phantom of the Opera (Julian, 1925)
Day 3: Freaks (Browning, 1932)
Day 4: Island of Lost Souls (Kenton, 1932)
Day 5: Ginger Snaps (Fawcett, 2000)
Day 6: Murders in the Rue Morgue (Florey, 1932)
Day 7: The Babadook (Kent, 2014)
Day 8: The Mummy (Freund, 1932)
Day 9: Secret of the Blue Room (Neumann, 1933)
Day 10: The Ghoul (Hunter, 1933)
Day 11: The Invisible Man (Whale, 1933)
Day 12: Hausu (Ôbayashi, 1977)
Day 13: Terror Aboard (Sloane, 1933)
Day 14: Murders in the Zoo (Sutherland, 1933)
Day 15: Supernatural (Halperin, 1933)
Day 16: The Black Cat (Ulmer, 1934)
Day 17: Werewolf of London (Walker, 1935)
Day 18: Dracula’s Daughter (Hillyer, 1936)
Day 19: Cold Prey (Uthaug, 2006)
Day 20: Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
Day 21: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (Hancock, 1971)
Day 22: Man Made Monster (Waggner, 1941)
Day 23: The Devil Commands (Dmytryk, 1941)
Day 24: The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941)
Day 25: The Undying Monster (Brahm, 1942)
Day 26: The Mad Ghoul (Hogan, 1943)
Day 27: The Lady and the Monster (Sherman, 1944)
Day 28: Strange Confession (Hoffman, 1945)
Day 29: House of Horrors (Yarbrough, 1946)
Day 30: The Beast with Five Fingers (Florey, 1946)
Day 31: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

What you’ll find in this episode: Lon Chaney Jr. many times over, recurring themes like the thirst for power, and some new favorites with only one true dud.

– Cole and Ericca

Links:
The history of the Jack O’Lantern.
Haunted places in Los Angeles.
Lon Chaney’s many faces.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 115 – Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

When I selected Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (Hancock, 1971) as my Cole-o-ween choice for this year, I didn’t intend it as a response to Ericca’s choice. Nor was I trying to establish any sort of “women on the verge” theme. It’s interesting how these things work out, though. Together with The Babadook (Kent, 2014), our choices this year take incisive looks at women who have faced loss, grief, and breakdowns. Add to that two unique takes on the reliability of our narrators, and you have a pair of films that set themselves apart from their genre counterparts by taking thoughtful, adult looks at the struggles that women face when they don’t fit neatly into the roles that society has outlined for them.

There are a lot of things I love about this movie. In addition to the maturity of the performers and the material, it’s perfectly moody. It feels like autumn. It has all those regional horror hallmarks that I am fond of. It’s obviously a labor of love, turning schlocky source material into something much greater than the sum of its original parts. This company of actors exhibit a level of experience and comfort with one another that makes the film feel lived in. It’s definitely a slow burn. Think eerie more than frightening. We’re watching the gradual unraveling of, and unnerving assault on, a fragile mind. To not be able to rely on your own mind is true horror. Take some time to empathize with Jessica and feel that horror in your bones. She deserves at least that much.

What you’ll find in this episode: tombstone etchings, squatters, hippies, ’70s detective shows, and the vampire queen of lower Connecticut.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Let’s Scare Jessica to Death on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
Cole’s further viewing pick of The Legend of Boggy Creek.
An argument declaring the need for reliable narrators.
Connecticut’s most famous vampires.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 114 – The Babadook

Jennifer Kent, the writer and director of The Babadook (2014), crafted the story of an exhausted widowed mother and her demanding 6 year-old into a psychological horror film about facing up to the darkness within ourselves. Those of you who are parents, and even those of us who are not, can find something terrifying in this story. Whether it is the toll that sleep deprivation takes on you, or coping with loss and grief, you too may fear you are going mad, even without a sinister threat from the outside.

On parenting, Kent stated: “Now, I’m not saying we all want to go and kill our kids, but a lot of women struggle. And it is a very taboo subject, to say that motherhood is anything but a perfect experience for women.” It becomes startling to watch Amelia ask for help and be rebuffed over and over. She tries to express that something is wrong with both her and Samuel, but there is no lifeline to give her relief. As she is forced to give up her personhood in order to be a paragon, her resentment, fatigue, and hopelessness feel so honest.

The treatment of both Amelia and Samuel at their darkest points feels very honest too. Amelia is a real threat to Samuel as the monster takes over her body and soul, and Samuel’s promise of love and protection has its own menace. Ultimately, the power of love truly can save their family, even as their grief lives on as a monster in the basement that must be fed.

What you’ll find in this episode: the Babadook’s LGBTQ legacy, how Cole might behave if he ever got some sleep, and why Ericca is afraid of hats.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Babadook on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Mother.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Next of Kin.
Dead Heart: Australia’s Horror Cinema.
Monster, the short film by Jennifer Kent.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 113 – Los Tallos Amargos

Film noir simply doesn’t get darker than Fernando Ayala’s Los Tallos Amargos (1956). And when I say dark, I mean classical tragedy dark. Dostoevsky levels of wretched darkness. I have never seen a noir quite like this. It has all the normal chiaroscuro and double cross, but it goes much deeper into the psychology of our main character than we are often used to in the genre. His ambitions, his insecurities, his dreams, his mother, his father, his lover – it’s all grist for Ayala’s shadowy mill. And it’s a mill that indiscriminately grinds everyone, the naively loyal and the cunningly homicidal alike.

Not only is Los Tallos Amargos one of the greatest entries in the international noir canon, but it’s also a triumph of film sleuthing and restoration. It traveled a long way and endured a lot of hardships to make it back to us. It was on the verge of oblivion before the efforts of Eddie Muller, the Film Noir Foundation, the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Charitable Trust brought it back from the brink. It’s certainly a worthy candidate for that attention and treatment. This film changed the way I look at film noir. I hope you get the chance to see it and it does the same for you.

What you’ll find in this episode: the impressive pedigree of Los Tallos Amargos, oppression and censorship in Argentina, films falling prey to neglect and ruin, Silver Condors, vultures, and bitter stems.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Los Tallos Amargos on IMDB
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Spellbound.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Carancho.
A list to get you started with Argentine film.
A promotional video of beautiful Buenos Aires in the 1950s.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 112 – Jaws

Are you still afraid to go into the water? Does the specter of a killer shark still haunt you, 44 years after that monster first broke the water’s surface in Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)? It absolutely haunts me, though I love the water and still take every opportunity to get in it. Just like I still take every opportunity to watch this movie again and again!

When we are deciding on our film selections, especially with well-known titles, we question whether there is anything new to discuss and whether we will notice anything new after the umpteenth viewing. The great news with great films like Jaws is that we do find new avenues to explore. We closely explored its legacy, its themes, and its composition. We continue to marvel at how individual artists formed a team with Steven Spielberg on just his second feature film to deconstruct and reconstruct a story that shows no signs of losing its power to delight and scare us.

Take a moment to appreciate what Spielberg and company were able to accomplish in what would become the seventh highest-grossing film in the U.S. and Canada of all time: the most oft-quoted lines from the film were largely improvised, the shark only appears for a handful of minutes in the film, and first appears roughly two-thirds of the way through, the script was still unfinished as shooting began, and I’ll say it again–it was only Spielberg’s second feature film!

What you’ll find in this episode: the composition of threes used throughout the film, why the film stays interesting after all these years, and Ericca displays her full Virginia accent at one point.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Jaws on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of All the President’s Men.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Duel.
Finding Bruce the Shark.
How Peter Benchley came to regret his creation.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 111 – Evolution

Upon my first viewing of it, Lucile Hadžihalilović’s Evolution (2015) leapt to the top of the list of my favorite movies of this decade, perhaps of any decade. It’s a deft intermingling of modern body horror and much more ancient fears. Sometimes you’re not sure if you just saw an elder god out of the corner of your eye. Sometimes you’re not sure what you saw, even though you were looking right at it. I was in a bit of daze after seeing it that first time. Was it the buzz of Fantastic Fest or was it a voice I had been eagerly awaiting? It was beautifully perplexing.

And it’s alright to be confused. Hadžihalilović didn’t mean to make it easy for you. That’s precisely what I love most about Evolution. It doesn’t provide easy answers. It’s maternity and mortality. It’s coming of age and coming undone. And all of that in the body least likely to house these powerful, contrary forces. The push and pull can be confounding. It’s a murky world we find ourselves in. We can ultimately take comfort in the fact that we are in the hands of a skilled filmmaker. Hadžihalilović exercises control and precision when necessary, but she also values the unknown in a way that I admire. That enigma is what motivates her as an artist and it’s her gift to us as viewers. We dive into the crashing surf and emerge unsteady and transformed.

What you’ll find in this episode: the Lynchian and the Lovecraftian, asexual reproduction, nosebleeds, starfish, and how there’s always that one nurse on the ward.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Evolution on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Innocence.
Get to know the starfish!
Is male pregnancy closer than we think?

The Magic Lantern: Episode 110 – The Fits

Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits (2015) doesn’t reveal all its secrets. We as viewers don’t know the origin of the mysterious fits that one-by-one overtake the girls of the dance team any more than they do. That these fits seem to come with some greater understanding after they are over, occur differently for each girl, and don’t affect the boys, allows for a rich vein of discussion and supposition. Whether the source is environmental, the inevitable transition to womanhood, or ultimately something unknowable, repeated viewings of this film are very rewarding. What is your pet theory about what is going on? Is it informed by your own childhood?

Our hero Toni and her delightful pal Beezy ably join the pantheon of brave and intriguing young girls who must navigate the world and the potential scary monsters in the dark. Happily, this setting is a safe one, with a supportive and protective sibling relationship played out exclusively in the local community center that becomes home. Even though this community of dance sets a high bar for teamwork and demands excellence, it is striking that this environment also does not involve bullying or denigration. I think this film speaks to young people as well as adults, especially with such exceptional girls to root for.

I hope if nothing else you’ll find new favorite characters in Toni and Beezy, and if so inclined, get out and try that thing you have always wanted to try!

What you’ll find in this episode: our theories on what the fits are, how the camera kept the film in a kid’s world, and why dance on film is so important to Ericca.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Fits on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Eighth Grade.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The Q-Kidz bring the fierce in a dance battle.