(NOTE: A version of this article was originally published here.)
March supposedly marks the beginning of spring. Since this is Chicago, however, that really means that the weather will just go from extremely cold to very cold. Here are some films you can stream while sheltering in your winter bunker:
Pandora’s Box (1929)
G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box tells the story of Lulu (Louise Brooks), a young, sexually attractive woman who wants to break into show business. Hedonistic and eager to please, Lulu has the uncanny ability to make everyone fall in love with her. But her life takes a dark turn after she’s accused of murdering Dr. Schön (Fritz Kortner), a former lover who in reality killed himself over what he viewed as her infidelity.
In its portrayal of women and sexuality, Pandora’s Box was remarkably ahead of its time. Given the liberal nature of her lifestyle, Pabst could have followed traditional norms and cast Lulu as a slut. Instead, as the film moves towards its tragic conclusion, he places the blame for what befalls her on the men in her life, portraying them as menacing egotists who court and discard her as it suits their interests.
What makes Pandora’s Box particularly striking, moreover, is Brooks’ performance. Even now, Brooks has a screen presence that’s loaded with raw sensuality, an allure that also carried over into her personal life. And while such sensuality is usually associated with sinister femmes fatales, Brooks’ Lulu turns out to be the embodiment of naïveté – a woman, in short, who likes people and simply wants them to like her back. All in all, Brooks’ unalloyed energy gives the film emotional heft, and it gets at what Henri Langlois meant when he famously said, “There is no Garbo. There is no Dietrich. There is only Louise Brooks.”
24 City (2008)
Jia Zhangke’s 24 City takes us to Chengdu, a bustling, smog-infested city that’s the economic powerhouse of China’s Sichuan province. There, a 50-year-old factory is being torn down to make way for an apartment complex called “24 City.” Over the course of the film, Jia interviews people – some real, some played by actors – who are tied to the factory in one way or another.
In one sense, you can think of 24 City as a historical portrait, a film that reflects on the sweeping transformations that China has undergone since the 50s. Jia never shies from exposing the flaws in Mao Zedong’s brand of Communism. But to his credit, he never suggests that 21st-century China is great by comparison. Despite its apparent prosperity, present-day China is depicted as a country that suffers from severe economic inequality, cultural sterility, and a gaping rural-urban divide.
Its historical analyses aside, 24 City is also distinguished by its cultural insights. On the one hand, for instance, there’s a common thread in all of Jia’s interviews. His interviewees span several generations – from middle-schoolers to survivors of the “War of Liberation” – and they have varying levels of income. Yet despite these differences in background, they all attach outsize importance to money and economic well-being, a materialism that speaks to the unsentimental pragmatism of the Chinese worldview.
Even as it highlights this overarching similarity, however, 24 City also illustrates a stark generational gap. The older interviewees, for one, talk about their factory work with resignation, as though they believed that work is inevitably tedious and difficult. At the same time, the younger interviewees subscribe to the notion that work should be fulfilling rather than painful: as such, they seem curiously oblivious to the hardship and sacrifices that their forebears endured. In this way, then, 24 City is an incisive look at how Chinese cultural norms have changed over time – and a stirring plea for people to not forget their own history.
Where to Watch: Amazon, Vudu
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
In Robert Aldrich’s noir film Kiss Me Deadly, Ralph Meeker plays Mike Hammer, an L.A.-based private detective who specializes in “penny-ante divorce cases.” One night, Hammer picks up a female hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman) who’s just run away from an asylum. In what serves as the film’s “inciting incident,” the two of them are then kidnapped and tortured by a mysterious group of dark-suited men. Said men end up killing the woman, but Hammer is spared, and he subsequently becomes determined to uncover his captors’ identity.
If that all sounds like a flimsy premise to base a film off of, that’s because it kinda is. As a traditional dramatic narrative, Kiss Me Deadly definitely leaves a lot to be desired. Many of the characters are one-dimensional figures who only serve to advance the plot’s forward momentum. While unexpected, the twists that Aldrich introduces often stretch credulity. And despite (or perhaps because of) its shock value, the ending feels rushed and inorganic.
Ultimately, however, Kiss Me Deadly’s value lies not so much in its narrative as in the portrait it paints of the ’50s zeitgeist. On the surface, Aldrich’s vision of America is one of peace and prosperity. But as he shows us, this appearance of stability is actually quite fragile, masking a corrupt and misogynistic society that’s been torn asunder by the specter of nuclear annihilation. Look past the film’s melodramatic elements, in short, and you’ll find a biting critique of American denialism – our society’s tendency, in other words, to pretend that “all is well,” even when that’s clearly not the case.
Where to Watch: YouTube (free), Amazon
At the start of Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, a farmer stumbles upon the corpse of a young homeless woman named Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire). The rest of the film portrays the last months of Mona’s life, blending conventional narrative and pseudo-documentary to recount her encounters with rapists, rich old ladies, and fellow vagrants alike.
On the whole, Vagabond offers a look at several different “undersides” of French society. For starters, its narrative foregrounds rural France, an oft-overlooked region that’s characterized in the film by a latent but inescapable feeling of neglect. More obviously, the film also shines a light on homelessness, and it’s never coy about the misogyny that Mona particularly endures as a homeless woman.
Beyond its depiction of France’s undersides, Vagabond further stands out for its attitude towards Mona. In the wrong hands, this could’ve been a condescending piece of poverty porn that turned Mona into an object of pity. Instead, Varda casts Mona as a somewhat mysterious rebel, a free spirit who views modern society’s emphasis on work as a recipe for unhappiness. Far from making us pity Mona, in short, Vagabond hints that we’d be better off pitying the many characters who reject her. It’s ultimately their loss that they can’t understand Mona and what her existence says about their own.
Where to Watch: Amazon
Black Narcissus (1947)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus is set in an Indian village that’s located in the middle of the Himalayas. There, a group of nuns led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) decide to establish a school and hospital for the native population. Unfortunately, their self-abnegating lifestyle is put to the test by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a handsome British man who acts as an intermediary between the nuns and the local monarch.
Despite its stunning color cinematography – a trait it shares with many of Powell and Pressburger’s other works – Black Narcissus might feel a bit dated. The plot, for one, turns on a melodramatic conflict that’d be right at home in a B-horror movie. And if taken at face value, the behavior of some of the nuns could come off as stereotyped, seemingly reinforcing sexist clichés about hysterical or crazy women.
For Powell and Pressburger, however, these clichés and melodrama are actually means of advancing larger, subversive social critiques. By exploiting tropes about hysterical females, they satirize the Madonna-whore dichotomy, depicting the many ways it demeans women. And in its use of melodrama, the film also offers an incisive portrait of emotional repression and the damage it wreaks. In light of recent events in the religious world, then, Black Narcissus remains a relevant and mordant look at the dangers of denying sexuality.
Where to Watch: Amazon, iTunes