Last Thursday, the Music Box opened its latest 70-millimeter film series with Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, a 1930 Fox release made in the short-lived Grandeur process, an early iteration of 70-millimeter filmmaking. There are no surviving 70-millimeter prints of The Big Trail, so the Music Box screened it from 35-millimeter instead, but this more than sufficed in conveying the spectacle of Walsh’s production. The film’s high-definition imagery still impresses after 90 years; Walsh fills the widescreen frames brilliantly, often dividing one’s attention between highly populated backgrounds and naturalistic, low-stakes drama in the foreground. The bifurcated imagery finds its complement in the storytelling, which is divided between grand-scale recreations of life on the Oregon Trail and intimate scenes played out by spirited, Walshian performers. The Big Trail is above all a human-scale entertainment (complete with the considerations of frailty and mortality that term would imply) and that’s what makes it all the more satisfying. One genuinely experiences the characters’ sense of triumph when they ford a river or make their way down a cliffside—we understand the sense of life that’s at stake.
As much as I appreciate the technical and dramatic accomplishments of The Big Trail, I don’t enjoy it as much as such other Walsh films as The Bowery (1933), The Strawberry Blonde (1941), or The Man I Love (1946), the last of which recently screened at Doc Films in their ongoing Ida Lupino retrospective. These films may lack the overt spectacle of something like Big Trail, but they still feel designed for the big screen. Walsh elicited such boisterous, vibrant performances from his actors that their characters take on larger-than-life proportions. Consider Lupino in The Man I Love: her characterization of a take-charge lounge singer who saves her troubled family is the most interesting I’ve encountered this season. When Lupino dishes the truth to her sisters and sets them on the right path, she does so with the accumulated fortitude of having embodied proletarian toughness and common sense for years. It’s a towering performance, and it distinguishes The Man I Love from more subdued women’s pictures that were made around the same time. Still, the feelings of anxiety and despair conveyed by the film speak to the richness of this particular subgenre, which did for postwar domestic concerns what film noir did for postwar social concerns.
One could find certain virtues of postwar women’s pictures in the recent Brazilian film Invisible Life, which screened a couple weeks ago at Facets. (The film is an Amazon production, so you should be able to catch up with it online soon if you missed it in theaters.) Set in 1950s Rio de Janeiro, the film tells the story of two sisters, Euridice and Guida, who become separated in adolescence after the younger one, Guida, runs off to marry a sailor and her parents disown her. The parents never tell Euridice that Guida has come back to Rio de Janeiro after her marriage falls apart in Europe; they also lie to Guida (before cutting ties with her for good) that Euridice went to Vienna to study piano at a famous music school when, in fact, she never left Brazil and entered into a loveless marriage with a loutish older man. Director Karim Aïnouz, adapting a novel by Martha Batalha with Inés Bortagaray and Murilo Hauser, splits the subsequent narrative between the sisters, each of whom indulges in fantasies of the other’s happy life abroad to escape their unhappiness in Brazil.
Invisible Life dramatizes the unhappiness women experience when they’re unable to satisfy their dreams, yet the film is exhilarating in spite of its dispiriting subject matter. Aïnouz and his cowriters stuff the film with so many narrative developments that one comes to enjoy them as though sampling the many courses of a feast; the colorful costumes and decor—ditto the three-dimensional characterizations of the leads—add to overall lushness. Indeed I wouldn’t hesitate to program Invisible Life in a series alongside such other “joy of storytelling” films as William A. Wellman’s Heroes for Sale (1933), Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance (1981), or Fatih Akin’s The Edge of Heaven (2007), which also condense the pleasures of epic literature into conventional feature-length running times. Unlike those films, and like The Man I Love, the film’s sense of monumentality grows out of the makers’ thorough understanding of women’s domestic and professional frustrations; the joy of storytelling reflects a desire to give epic shape to something familiar.
A few nights after seeing Invisible Life, I checked out another recent release with “Invisible” in the title, the Blumhouse horror picture The Invisible Man. I thought the films had a surprising amount in common; both are especially interested in the suffering of women, and both feature impressive lead performances that grant dignity and psychological complexity to women who suffer. Where Invisible Life is driven by the acting of Julia Stockler and Carol Duarte as Euridice and Guida, Invisible Man centers on just one actress, Elisabeth Moss, who delivers what may be the richest performance to date in a Blumhouse production. And where Aïnouz’s film offsets its portrait of unhappiness with operatic flights of style, Leigh Whannell’s is so fixated on the heroine’s suffering that it resembles at times a genre cinema variation on such Lars von Trier movies as Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). Yet both Invisibles exhibit sympathy and sensitivity in their characterizations, making them the most humane genre films around right now.
I was slightly disappointed when I realized that the Blumhouse Invisible Man would have little to do with the 1933 Invisible Man, whose director, James Whale, knew how to synthesize horror and comedy better than maybe any other filmmaker. I was especially prepared for a good scare comedy since Whannell’s previous directorial effort, Upgrade (2018), suggested the arrival of a talent in the Whale tradition. Yet the new Invisible Man almost never tries to be funny; Whannell clearly sees the title character’s predation on his traumatized ex-girlfriend (Moss) as a thin metaphor for the victimization of so many women by their male partners, and he knows it’s no laughing matter. The unwavering grimness of Whannell’s vision makes for some effective horror passages, though his weaknesses as a scenarist tend to undermine his strengths as a director. The screenwriter of the Insidious franchise and the first three Saw movies has always been undone by a lack of specificity; one rarely gets a sense (unless in the most basic terms) of who his characters are, where they come from, or what they want. Moss’s performance is nuanced enough to distract from what’s characteristically lacking in Whannell’s conception of her character, but the movie’s narrative skeleton seems as sturdy as a house of cards the second you start to inspect it. The elemental widescreen compositions (the aesthetic inverse of Walsh’s use of the format in The Big Trail) are good distractions too; you often have to guess where The Invisible Man might be on the basis of relatively few visual clues, making you hunt around the frames as though they were pages in a Where’s Waldo? book. v