in the grain

max goldberg writing on film

A Bright and Guilty Place

los angeles plays itself 2

Back in California and back to writing for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. First up, a quick take on Los Angeles Plays Itself:


Remastered and newly cleared for fair use, Thom Andersen’s incisive 2003 film essay on narrative cinema’s many representations and misrepresentations of Los Angeles plays a single night at the Castro. Andersen’s impressively choreographed montage zigzags through a vast litany of film history, submitting erotic thrillers, middlebrow Oscar bait, and avant-garde outliers to the same materialist protocol. Observing Hollywood’s tendency to falsify geography and transform landmarks of modernist geography into villainous hideouts, Andersen’s treatment of mainstream ideology is acidly funny but never condescending. To the contrary: Los Angeles Plays Itself is driven by an unshakeable faith that another kind of film — and with it another kind of world — is possible. In methodically deconstructing countless car chases and phony denouements, the native Angeleno lays groundwork for the fresh appreciation of the diverse neorealisms found in the work of directors like Kent Mackenzie (1961’s The Exiles), Nicholas Ray (1955’s Rebel Without a Cause), Fred Halsted (1972’s LA Plays Itself), Charles Burnett (1979’s Killer of Sheep), and Billy Woodberry (1984’s Bless Their Little Hearts). A true work of termite art and an impassioned argument for “a city of walkers, a cinema of walking,” Los Angeles Plays Itself is the closest thing to a cineaste’s Death and Life of Great American Cities(2:49) Castro.


The film’s late-breaking copyright clearance brings this Woody Guthrie gem to mind:

This song is copyrighted in the U.S., under seal of copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a darn. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.

In Praise of Elizabeth Russell


The Serbian woman in Cat People who disrupts a wedding party to call Irena (Simone Simone) out as a kindred spirit; the anguished shut-in of The Curse of the Cat People, pure product of a stifled childhood; the consumptive neighbor surrendering herself to a certain death in The Seventh Victim. If we follow Alexander Nemerov’s contention in Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures that such cameos exert a kind of silent authority over Lewton’s subterranean cinema (the shared emphasis on bit players being one of many suggestive suggestive links with Preston Sturges, whose run at Paramount almost exactly coincided with the RKO period), then Russell is the most privileged figure of this uncanny elect, running like a red thread through Lewton’s films.  In Cat People, she brings the party and the film itself to a standstill. Any lingering uncertainty as to whether the fantastic curse is “true” falls away; with Russell’s entrance, the suggestion is  damning enough. Where the other returning actors in The Curse of the Cat People more or less reprise their earlier roles in Cat People, Russell has metamorphosized into the tragically spurned adult daughter; in some subliminal way, at least, she is the point at which the plots break down. As the consumptive  in The Seventh Victim, she finally stands wholly outside plot—a hallucinatory vision of the death drive in this, Lewton’s most personal and harrowing film.

Walkin’ After Midnight

Reviving an old “conversation” here between Jacques Tourneur’s inexhaustibly beautiful I Walked with a Zombie and Kenneth Anger’s equally enigmatic Rabbit’s Moon in honor of the Harvard Film Archive’s upcoming Val Lewton retrospective. I wrote the notes for the series, “The Glitter of Putrescence – Val Lewton at RKO.”

I Walked, pt. 1RabbitsMoon 1I Walked, pt. 2Rabbits, pt 2

A Warm Wind


His was a strange homecoming.


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