Hello and welcome to another installment of MOVIE DIARY 2018, the longest running movie diary in the world unless I’m proven otherwise! I’m trying to think about fun things to do with this space before we get to the reviews every week, but maybe it’s just enough to be myself, you know?
Woman On The Run (1950)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: CAROLINE GOLUM
Something unusual happened to me the other week: I went to work, for several days. A bit of a mixed blessing, to be sure, for though I appreciated that much-needed (if temporary) cash infusion, my required presence at the jobsite kept me from the Capital-C Cinema, which is my natural habitat. And so, in order to fulfill my weekly movie requirement (and contractual obligation to Geoff’s Movie Diary LLC), I had to resort to home video. Or home viewing, I should say, as I haven’t watched a video since I sold my TV/VCR/DVD combo last year.
Without getting too “into the weeds” (can you tell I’ve been applying for wishy-washy corporate jobs lately?) about streaming, and what it’s doing to film fandom and whether or not anyone should a give a tinker’s damn, I’ll simply say this: when your “glutes” are sore from shlepping Rubbermaid bins of table linens and ceramic bowls up and down four flights of stairs for eighteen hours, nothing sounds better than a pamplemousse LaCroix and a 79 minute movie.
And that is exactly what I treated myself to of a Friday morning between laundry cycles and social calls (I may be out of work, but I’m not out of circulation!). After a bumbling 15 minutes of trying to login to my old man’s Filmstruck account — we bought him a subscription for his birthday, but he’s stingy with the password — I turned to my old standby: library-based platform Kanopy (or as I like to call it, the Working Man’s Filmstruck). Kanopy tends to lean heavily on the “social issue documentary” genre (don’t they all!), but buried among that weepy cinematic clickbait are some real diamonds in the rough.
Enter Woman on the Run, produced by an independent outfit called “Fidelity Pictures” and shot on location in Old San Fran around 1950 or so. The nimble little noir picture, starring Ann Sheridan as that titular running woman we come to know and love, manages somehow to be both a paint-by-numbers genre exercise and a psychological drama about anxiety and diminishing expectations. Cinematographer Hal Mohr — a San Francisco native, it so happens — does a great service to the city’s built-in nooks and crannies, catching those long, deep shadows cast by steep grades, sidewalk stairs, boardwalk planks, and other noir accoutrements. And the script — an often overlooked component of the genre, if you ask me — adroitly balances hard boiled gumshoe/cop speak and armchair Freudian argy-bargy.
Writing at the time of its release, for the New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther noted that “Woman on the Run may be set several notches above the usual cops-and-corpses contributions from the Coast.” Loathe as I am to admit, I rather agree with Crowther here: building on a well-trod foundation, Woman offers a little extra something beyond the tried-and-true. And for an armchair expert like myself, nothing goes down easier than a familiar detective story. Think of it as a kind of cinematic missionary position, or a good diner breakfast: when your ass is sore and your bank balance is treading water, classic tropes are often the most comforting.
Because this essay is meant to entice you, and because this film is so readily available, I’ll make my summary brief and spoiler-free: one night, while out walking his dog, Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott, née Elliott Blum, Mercury Theater alumni) witnesses a gangland murder. We don’t see the killer’s face, but Frank does, and the killer knows this. He fires at Frank’s shadow, misses him (noir as fuck!), and takes off. The cops show up, grill Frank about the murder, and divulge that the victim was a soon-to-be FBI stoolie, making Frank, who was quite literally at the wrong place at the wrong time, the case’s sole witness. This doesn’t sit too well with our hero, who is an anxious and cowardly type, so he ditches his dog and takes off.
Looking for Frank proves to be near impossible: on any given night in San Francisco, there are thousands of men wearing snap-brim felt hats and trench coats, so their quarry can easily hide in plain sight. As a Hail Mary, the cops bring in Frank’s estranged wife, Eleanor (a thoroughly “over it” Sheridan), but she is less than cooperative, and instead resolves to stay one step ahead of the fuzz. If she can reach Frank before John Law, the harried pair might have a fighting chance in this crazy world! And so, for the remaining 70 minutes or so, we follow Eleanor from the salty salvage shops of the Embarcadero to the cluttered backstreets of Chinatown, as she hunts for clues to her husband’s whereabouts and, in so doing, uncovers the secret inner life of the man she thought she knew.
For all their apparent “sameness” — the chiaroscuro lighting, the whodunit storylines, the hard-mouthed dames and abundant fedoras — noir films have quite a lot to say about the castigating nature of conformity and its impact on the All-American Male. Woman leans pretty heavily on the latter: Frank, a literal face in the crowd, is a frustrated painter, whose drive to create is surpassed only by his insecurities as an artist. Forced to give up his dream, he’s taken a job at as a window dresser at a downtown department store, where he wastes his gifts in service of the almighty dollar (sound familiar?). Only when this anonymous character goes missing does he become a man of import, more valuable in absentia than he ever could have been among the Average Joes. The dogged Frank gets his day, but it’s Eleanor who carries it: watching her elude a small army of beat cops, intercept mail (a federal crime!), or rifle through the detritus of her marriage for clues is a blessing to any tough-as-nails-broad who aches for substantial screen time.
Eleanor is every bit the female counterpart to Frank’s hard luck hero, his equal in weldschmerz and dissipation, and it is that rare distinction that separates this film, per Crowther, from countless other “usual cops-and-corpses contribution[s].” For the unacquainted, a bit about Sheridan will only improve your appreciation: after a solid career in puffy, post-Code 1930s comedies, Sheridan went freelance following World War II, breaking her studio contract with Warner Brothers and snapping up parts in a rapidly-expanding spate of independent productions. She produced this film — a rare feat in those days, for the usual reasons I assume we are all familiar with — and her hand is felt where it counts. Noir can be a meaty genre for actresses — think Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, or Gene Tierney in literally anything — but more often than not the women therein are either long-suffering housewives or slinky femmes fatales. Sheridan’s character, Eleanor, is a bit of both and, yet, neither of those things: she is ambivalent about her husband’s disappearance, nihilistically resigned to his yen for disappearing acts and ready to move on with her own desultory journey through this mortal coil. What little opportunity she has to seduce is purposely thrown aside: the tabloid string reporter on her tail makes the usual, customary overtures, but Eleanor is worldly enough to know where these liasons typically end.
Watching this film, between sips of my LaCroix, I kept thinking about how much easier it was to disappear “back then.” Slip into a seaman’s uniform, hide out under a boardwalk, or simply drift along from dive to dive, and if you’re lucky no one will notice the gap. I’ve thought long and hard about where this film sits on the noir spectrum of nihilism, what it says about man’s post-War obsolescence and the slow smoothing of rough individualism (but that’s a larger conversation for a longer blog post). And after all that, I thought about my own self: a frustrated artist of a different shade, aching for an opportunity to exploit my raw and abundant talent for a quick buck. If I vanished into thin air, how long would it take for my loved ones to pick up the scent? Would they trawl my old haunts — movie theaters, mostly — in search of clues? And if so, what would they discover? Hell, maybe a Medium post would prove to be the lynchpin of this whole caper. Either way, I’ve got a few theories: buy me a beer sometime and I’ll give you an earful.
Caroline Golum is a filmmaker and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. When she is not working for the Man, she is usually at, writing about, or trying to make a movie. Her first feature, A Feast of Man, might be coming to a local festival or microcinema near you (if you’re lucky). You can follow her on Twitter @carolineavenue.
There’s nothing like watching a dated tech parable to make you ask “Were we ever so young?” This cast is really solid — Ryan Phillipe, Claire Forlani, Rachael Leigh Cooke — some real heavy hitters of late 90s teen movies (plus Tim Robbins) bravely ushering us into the dangerous world of the new millenium. I love the idea of growing up with teen heartthrobs! I feel like it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like it to!
Typically this genre of tech thrillers circa mid/late 90s to early 00s serves us these ridiculous looking depictions of how tech stuff like the internet works using awful, clunky 3D effects. They’re usually paired with some paranoid message about some aqueous danger of the new growing wave of technology — maybe we’ll be too reliant on it, maybe it will turn on us, etc. etc. Antitrust mostly manages to avoid these traps while choosing to refocus the genre’s paranoia away from the technology and onto the men and women in charge of it. It’s kind of refreshing in that sense, but I think looking at it with what we know now in 2018 about startup culture and tech billionaires makes Antitrust feel pretty ineffectual, maybe even a bit misguided. Tim Robbins plays a Bill Gates parallel who is spying on young programmer up and comers, stealing their code, and literally murdering the competition. Ryan Phillipe is a recent hire and he’s on the verge of uncovering all of this, but he can’t trust anyone because Tim Robbins pretty much owns the town and he’s got all sorts of ways to spy on him. It feels pretty rote, but it hits all the fun beats of a trashy thriller so it still comes off as entertaining, if a bit predictable.
I had fun watching it, but it is wild to think that this movie’s idea for a bad guy tech billionaire is Tim Robbins sending out goons to murder his competitors. I think it’s cool that they eased off the speculative paranoia and focused on the human end of things, but I can’t help but feel like I’d actually be relieved if like the only suspect thing about Jeff Bezos is that he was a murderer.
Fifty Shades Freed (2018)
Despite being the only one of these Fifty Shades movies that even hints at the potential for something beyond the previous two’s premise of “S&M thriller for wine moms,” Fifty Shades Freed is about as disappointing as expected. Ana and Christian are at it again, this time navigating the problems that come with being impossibly wealthy newlyweds. Christian is the same domineering control freak man-child CEO, but we’re supposed to believe he’s lightened up now after two movies where he reveals his dark past and getting married to someone who talks back to him. It’s quite a leap to accept Christian as a sympathetic character, but I suppose that’s the price of admission for these movies, so, fine. Ana is newly promoted fiction editor at the publishing company that Christian now owns (bought in the previous movie as an act of devotion by way of spite), and she makes a point of asserting her independence in the workplace by standing up to Christian’s offer to get out of the office and have some fun, telling him that he needs to back off and understand that she knows she doesn’t have to work, she works because it’s her passion. A couple scenes later he shows up outside of her work with an offer to take her away to his cabin in the woods, and she’s totally fine with it.
The movie is filled with these sorts of inconsistencies in character, which makes it difficult to really understand what anybody really wants and what the stakes are. Maybe the most interesting thing about this movie is that it decides to have a clear villain in Jack Hyde, Ana’s former boss and current stalker. Hyde (lol) reveals that he was in the same foster home that Christian was in and that he believes it was simply a matter of chance that Christian’s rich parents chose him over Hyde, laying the foundation for Hyde’s belief that he’s the dark reflection of Christian. It’s very similar to a lot of hero-villain dynamics, but it’s kind of a hard sell considering there’s not a whole lot to consider heroic in Christian. If anything, Christian has been in touch with his own dark reflection and he’s found an outlet for it in consensual dom/sub relationships. It’s like this with every other aspect of this movie. Fifty Shade Freed resembles an erotic thriller, but instead of being erotic or thrilling, it comes off as dickless and boring. You would think that three movies deep into this series which builds on a reputation of exploring sexual taboo we’d at least see one dick, even in passing, but I guess sexual equality was never what this series was about, and I know that one dick isn’t going to magically create an atmosphere of sexual equality in this movie but maybe three dicks, one for every movie, maybe that would be a step in the right direction. I got sidetracked, sorry. The whole movie seems like a not very well thought out half measure, as if the filmmakers tried to assemble their own erotic thriller based on a very cursory google search.
Being Julia (2004)
When I think “revenge movie” Annette Bening isn’t the first person that comes to mind but here’s Being Julia, a movie that works the same as any revenge movie you can think of, but without the fixation on physical violence. It’s got all the markers of a showy, romantic period piece, and it is partly that, but don’t let that fool you: this movie is about revenge, pure and simple. Bening dominates as the titular Julia, a famous stage actress in 1930s London, who has an affair with Tom, an American fan and aspiring actor. We soon find that Tom is only using her to further his career, and Tom starts a secret relationship with another actress, Avice. Julia finds out about this, and she comes up with a plot for revenge that involves bringing Avice’s hilariously less than stellar acting skills to a big audience and humiliating her and Tom in front of everyone. Annette Bening is ice cold and single minded through the last third of the movie, and it’s amazing to watch. I’d love to see more of these movies where the idea of revenge is expanded beyond someone killing a bunch of people to get to the main guy they want to kill. Not that those kinds of revenge movies aren’t great (they rule), but I just think that we should all start exploring all these different flavors of revenge, like Being Julia’s upstaging a lesser actor and therefore a lesser person as revenge. I don’t know that I have a whole lot more to say about this movie, I just think that revenge, particularly the kind where someone obsessively and cleverly dismantles someone else’s life, is fun to watch.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Dirty Dancing’s got it all. Great dancing, incredible looks, teen angst about how to be a good person, burgeoning sexuality, a fun summer romance set against the backdrop of class stratification in a summer family getaway in the Catskills, it’s got everything. Also that one watermelon scene! It’s got everything. I’ve seen this movie a few times now and this most recent time watching, I was fixated on the villains of the movie, those piece of shit Ivy leaguers Robbie and Neil. They’re so sooooo hateable, it’s really impressive.
Robbie is in med school at Yale and he carries around a copy of The Fountainhead to read and share when he’s not busy waiting tables at the summer camp dining hall or having unprotected sex with fellow staffers or lonely resort guests. How long has carrying around The Fountainhead been shorthand for “is a dick” in movies? It’s perfect. He eventually gets his comeuppance at the hands of Jerry Orbach(!), though I have to wonder, as satisfying as it is to watch Jerry Orbach rip up a check in front of Robbie’s face, what are the long term results here? Robbie’s not going to change. He’s still going to med school, he’ll probably make a lot of that sweet doctor money, and he’ll go on to sexually harass nurses and patients, I’m sure. Plus it’s the 60s and his family has money, unfortunately he’ll probably end up fine. Or I don’t know, maybe he’ll get drafted and die.
Then there’s Neil. Neil is going to Cornell for hotel management and he carries himself like all those other rich kids who are going to take over their father’s business — he’s entitled and condescending and he interrupts women and he does that thing that insufferable young men do where they talk to other people’s parents as if they’re already good friends and business associates. He’s such a worm! Neil is angling to get with Baby, and in his twisted little worm brain he thinks Baby’s going to go with him instead of Patrick Swayze. PATRICK SWAYZE! Are you fucking kidding, Neil?
Anyway, Dirty Dancing, right? Great movie. “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” still bangs.