Magic Lantern Podcast

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.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 109 – Drug War

Johnnie To’s Drug war (2012) is one of those great cinematic cases of having your cake and eating it too. On one hand, you have To bringing his decades of experience making Hong Kong action films to bear on this project. On the other hand, we find ourselves on the ground floor of an exciting new phase of To’s career. This is his first action collaboration with mainland China and what an auspicious beginning it is. There are all the requisite flying bullets and twists and turns, but this time To is creatively weaving those in the margins left to him by Chinese censors. Much the way that some of Hollywood’s best stories were told with a wink during the time of the Hays code, To employs that same cleverness and attaches it to this ice cold rocket of an anti-procedural.

It’s those same qualities that I think make Drug War an excellent entry in To’s catalog for longtime fans and neophytes alike. There’s never a lack of compelling action. It moves like lightning, so it’s easy to get caught up in, no matter your experience level. At any moment, To could take the genre conventions we are used to and turn them inside out. He even keeps old genre hands on their toes with his inversions and doubling down. The sly subtext slipping through the censors’ fingers? That’s just the icing on the bullet-riddled cake. Whether you are coming at this wide-eyed, or you think you’ve seen it all before, Johnnie To has something up his sleeve for all of you!

What you’ll find in this episode: Zero tolerance for drugs, extreme tolerance for violence, doubling up, doubling down, and China as To’s new frontier.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Drug War on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of The Mission.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Election.
Johnnie To’s top ten films.
An evaluation of China’s anti-drug efforts.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 108 – The Battle of Algiers

Would it surprise you to learn that The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo, 1966) is on the top ten lists of countless film critics and filmmakers, and was also the favorite film of Andreas Baader, leader of the left-wing militant organization the Baader-Meinhof Group? That the film was banned in France and not shown until five years after its release? That it has been screened around the world for military organizations, including the Pentagon in 2003, as preparation for urban guerrilla warfare? The film clearly has lost none of its power in fifty years. Shot in a documentary style, the film so convincingly captured the Algerian independence movement that upon its American release, it carried a notice that “not one foot” of newsreel footage had been used.

The director, Gillo Pontecorvo, consciously chose non-professional Algerians to maintain this verisimilitude. The film was inspired by an account of the campaign by Saadi Yacef, a National Liberation Front (FLN) military commander, and he very effectively plays an FLN leader in the film. The use of Algerians in these key roles is all the more incredible when you think about the forces at work on the film. At the time, there was a push to have a white Westerner shape the key narrative of the story and to be the audience avatar. This would have kept Algerians as the exotic other, rather than telling the story from their perspective.

When you watch the film, let us know if you think the filmmaker succeeded in his goal to show the truth and the means to which both sides of any conflict will go to prevail.

What you’ll find in this episode: how Jean Martin was uniquely qualified to play his role, how the filmmakers planned and executed the major crowd scenes, and the actor initially proposed to play a lead character.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Battle of Algiers on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of The New World.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Is Paris Burning?
More on Gillo Pontecorvo’s process.
The Casbah of Algiers’ last breath.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 107 – The Devil and Daniel Webster

The Devil and Daniel Webster (Dieterle, 1941) is truly one of my desert island films. You couldn’t have assembled a more perfect film for me in a laboratory. The cinematic and literary traditions it belongs to are among my favorites and it’s topped off with that unmistakably sulphurous scent of brimstone that is so hard to resist. It’s a brilliant, very specifically American look at the Faustian bargain and how that notion is inextricably intertwined with the development of our young nation. I was taken with it from the very first time I saw it and each subsequent viewing only confirms that I was right to feel that way. I think it is a masterpiece and a career high point for everyone involved.

At the top of that list of contributors sits Walter Huston. He is easily my favorite devil to appear on the big screen. He has just the right mischievous twinkle in his eye and the perfect amount of contempt for humanity and potential for violence just beneath the surface. Other cinematic devils have had excellent diabolical qualities. Robert De Niro had malevolence and eternal patience in Angel Heart. No one was better at capriciously exploiting devilish loopholes than Peter Cook in Bedazzled. Tim Curry certainly had the look in Legend. None of them, though, were the total package the way Huston was in The Devil and Daniel Webster. Of all of them, he is the one I would least like to have on my shoulder. His foul whispers were seductive in the 1840s, the 1940s and they are still powerful today. Mind that your name doesn’t end up in his book!

What you’ll find in this episode: the fate of the real Daniel Webster, our favorite screen devils, Bernard Herrmann and a missing scene that we are dying to see, and the seductive darkness that lives just over the mountain.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Devil and Daniel Webster on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Vampyr.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Faust.
What the myth of Faust can teach us.
Movie devils you might have missed.

The Magic Lantern: Episode 106 – The Second Mother

Caring for children is sacred work, according to writer-director Anna Muylaert and her film The Second Mother (2015). It’s also very undervalued, under-discussed work. Decades ago, Muylaert envisioned a story about this work and the women who do it. At that time, she felt she wasn’t ready to bring the story to life. After becoming a mother and raising her own children, she found the center for the story in the character of Val. Val is a beacon of love and joy, and our hero. Muylaert also worked hard to find the right trajectory for Val’s daughter, Jessica, making her into what you might consider a warrior.

Muylaert wanted to examine the difference in being a parent and raising children, especially when those two tasks are not necessarily done by the same person. Though the characters’ backgrounds are firmly placed within Brazil’s socioeconomic gulf of the urban and the rural, the story has a universal appeal across gender, border, or bank account. Even when the parent is not necessarily the caretaker, Muylaert doesn’t take the easy road or create easy targets. We are encouraged to look at the unique perspectives of our characters: the young woman from a rural area looking to earn money and do the best for her family; the young man who is a product of loving care from a non-parent; the affluent couple who live in a world that relegates childcare to others as an afterthought.

Did you have a second family, or a second caregiver like Val? Were you a person seeking new avenues in a bigger world, like Jessica? Did you have to make difficult choices, like they both did?

What you’ll find in this episode: how Regina Casé is basically the Oprah of Brazil, our trauma of reliving the proposal scene, and more context about Brazil’s rigid class structure.

– Ericca

Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Second Mother on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Baby Boom.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Boudu Saved from Drowning.
In Brazil, a Hostility to Academe

The Magic Lantern: Episode 105 – Invention for Destruction

There is simply nothing like Karel Zeman’s Invention for Destruction (1958). Taken from the pages of some of Jules Verne’s greatest adventures, these images combine to form one of the greatest cinematic pop-up books ever committed to film. The amount of painstaking detail that must have been involved in bringing this line engraving style of illustration to life boggles the mind. The end result is a film that gloriously straddles the line between the archaic and the state of the art. It’s a wildly inventive hybrid of live action and various types of animation that also addresses the fears and anxieties of living in a world in which the catastrophic potential of weapons of mass destruction has outstripped the creator’s ability to control it.

That being said, Invention for Destruction is no dry, didactic bit of finger-wagging. This is a rollicking adventure full of eye-popping visuals from beginning to end. There are shark fights, giant sea monsters, underwater bicycles, pirates, submarines, hot air balloons, explosions, a secret volcano lair, and so much more! And it’s great for all ages, too. It’s just as thrilling today as it was when it was made. I am so grateful for the restoration efforts that save these films for us and the distributors around the globe that are dedicated to making sure these films stay in our collective consciousness. Because of that, more than sixty years down the road, I have found yet another film that I will never forget.

What you’ll find in this episode: the DIY aesthetic of Karel Zeman, the illustrators that brought Jules Verne’s words to life, the Sears catalogue of 1905, and the first thing we’re going to do if we ever go to Prague.

– Cole

Links and Recommendations:
Check out Invention for Destruction on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Cole’s further viewing pick of The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Japser Morello.
An archive of the original illustrations from Jules Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires.
The website for the Karel Zeman museum.