Formalist Cinema

This film series is brought to you by FLOOM, which should be spelled with hearts instead of Os, judging by the T-shirt of the very large person of indeterminate sex serving as master of ceremonies: the T-shirt reads “My Name is FL[heart][heart]M and I [heart] Formalist Cinema!” FLOOM has a theory, which is that D. W. Griffith was a great formalist. Also Carl Dreyer and R. W. Fassbinder, and Howard Hawks, and Nagisa Oshima, and Kenneth Anger, and Steven Spielberg. Signs around the room declare “Rossellini: Formalist!” “Kidman: Formalist!” “Michael Bay: Formalist!” This is the history of cinema as proposed by FLOOM. I’m not sure I agree, not sure I disagree, although to the best of my knowledge, Nicole Kidman is not a director; what do I know anyway? FLOOM’s heart seems to be in the right place, but I wish instead of putting up signs, someone around here would show us some movies.


Berkeley in the Sixties (1990)

Oh, the hippies, frolicking naked and hairy across the screen. They have utopian visions that they will fulfill through irrigation, flooding their back-to-nature fields with torrents of muddy water. I can’t look, I’m revolted, but R says look, these are your people! They love plants and growing things! And even though their roots are rotten the plants are growing. I can’t face it.


And now a message from our sponsors: The troop transport ramp descends and uncountable masses of soldiers spill out and into the lens like clowns from a clown car, their footsteps creating surround-sound thunder. They keep coming while the logo fades in . . .

Game On

They keep coming. I’m not sure the show is ever going to come back on.

The Simpsons Second Annual Christmas [in July] Special

Mr. Burns is getting some bootleg videotapes for Christmas! Homer has a secret stash in prison, and Mr. Smithers sneaks in, disguised in a trench coat and dark glasses. He hands Homer six hundred dollars in tidy little bundles and leaves with a spilling-over armful of tapes, at a run, dodging the guards’ bullets. After a while Mr. Burns tires of the tapes, and Homer needs entertainment to pass the long nights in prison, so Mr. Smithers breaks back in and supplies Homer with an armful of bootleg videotapes in exchange for six hundred dollars. But Homer also needs money, and Mr. Burns needs something to help him pass the long nights in his mansion, so Smithers dons his trench coat, puts six hundred dollars in his pocket, and pays Homer another visit, leaving at a run with an armful of videotapes, dodging bullets. The nights in prison are still long too, though, so Homer arranges another transaction, armful of tapes, six hundred dollars, but then he needs six hundred dollars, Mr. Burns in his mansion is bored, Mr. Smithers, six hundred dollars, armful of tapes, dodging bullets, repeat, until one day Homer suddenly realizes while sitting on his lawn chair on the roof of the prison, dreaming of profits and videotapes, that he can just jump down off the roof and be free. So Homer is joyfully reunited with his family for Christmas, and the giant egg that had been incubating under his lawn chair hatches into a giant yellow teapot and flies away, psychedelic music playing, into the sunset, credits roll.

United 93 (2006)

Why does it take so damn long to get anywhere these days? First we were headed for San Francisco, now we’ve been rerouted and are scheduled to crash in Washington; O.K., fine, but the layover in Denver really seems excessive. The new pilot says we have to make the stop to offload corpses and pick up more terrorists, but the plane isn’t that crowded and the current terror crew seems to be doing well enough without reinforcements. Anyway, we’re stopping, and we have to stay on the plane, which leaves a lot of time for the passengers to mill around and get chatty, show off pictures of their grandchildren, complain about how the airlines don’t even bother to give you a real meal anymore. Finally we’re in the air again, thank God, and we seem to be heading in the right direction, but then we veer off toward New York. Do these guys know where they’re taking us, or are they just winging it? Soon we’re plunging down between the skyscrapers and into a tunnel, flying alongside a subway train. Some other people on the plane have started to get a little anxious, and they’re waving their arms out the windows, yelling and holding up signs that say “HELP US,” but the subway riders just roll their eyes and look away. Whatever. Wake me when we get there.

The Sublime

The museum where I work is mounting an exhibition on the subject of Nature, an opportunity for the gift shop to sell greeting cards of etched animals with googly eyes glued on. In the upstairs gallery the preparators are hanging paintings of ants. I have seen them all before, and had enough. I will submit my resignation soon, as soon as I get down the stairs, but my scarf is tangled in the Baroque banister and as I fall it enfolds me in a silk cocoon. At the bottom a gilt-edged mirror reflects the picture window looking out on the park. Something very large is emerging from the hedges, coming darkly into focus. People are running.

Horror Movie

It starts with a long, long take of a turntable, the needle flicking at the end of the record. The soundtrack is the roar of blood in my ears. The rest of the audience is yelling at the projectionist and throwing popcorn at the screen, but this is the most terrifying film I have ever seen.

I’d Like to Thank the Academy

The demilitarized zone outside the Academy was teeming with gowns and guard dogs. We made our way past the goosestepping sentries, past the white-columned totalitarian facade, and into the fairgrounds where the picnic tables were arrayed for the festive banquet. I scanned the crowded benches for someone to sit next to, but everyone was talking to everyone else and I decided I’d better go home. As I got outside there was a commotion in the DMZ, and I saw–barely saw, it happened so fast–my unglamorous brown dog herded into a truck along with the guards’ German shepherds, flying off to some crisis with flashing lights and sirens blaring. I flashed forward to my desolate future life, searching the city for my only friend like Umberto D, but before I got there a few days had passed and my dog had come home with a new companion, a chipper shepherd from the Academy force, proving that there are still happy endings in Hollywood.

The Rapture (1991)

I happened to notice the white van parked outside, with “Exodus Transport” lettered on the back doors in a nondescript hand. The driver was leaning against it smoking a cigarette. “Exodus?” I asked tentatively. “Yeah, we’re here for the Apocalypse,” he replied. “Uh, I don’t remember really well, but aren’t those different parts of the Bible?” He took a long drag and eyed me thickly, then looked away and said, “I just work here.”


I wrote a review of a recently rediscovered Preston Sturges film in which Joan Fontaine and Ray Milland were being held in a dungeon by a group of small-town right-wing Christians. It turned out that they had been mistaken for their identical twins, who arrived at the last moment to spring them from the dungeon, and everyone rode off together happily bouncing on a flying bed. The review got picked up by the Ann Arbor Gazette; they were kind enough to send me a clip, but instead of using an envelope they folded the newsprint itself into a tight little package and covered it with tape so all I could see was the dateline “ANN FRANCISCO–.” I wonder what I said about the movie.