The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Fernando F. Croce

Fernando F. Croce
But what of the miracle (is there another word for it?) of the transcendental finale—another joke, or a sudden, romantic flash from a pugnacious modernist who could fill the screen with barrier after Brechtian barrier and still make us cry for the elderly cleaning lady by her lover's bedside and the battered transvestite baring his soul in the abbatoir?

Contributed to: Slant Magazine, Reverse Shot, Mubi, Film Comment, Fandor, Movie Mezzanine,

Noted Champion of: Kenji Mizoguchi, Kill Bill, Robert Mitchum, José Mojica Marins, Scorpio Rising, Ann Dvorak, Powell & Pressburger, The Naked Kiss, Russ Meyer, Elaine May, Futurama, Georgina Spelvin, Larry Cohen.

Influences: Manny Farber "above all", Andrew Sarris, Histoire(s) du Cinéma, Jorge Luis Borges, J. Hoberman, Robin Wood, and, "for giving me my first taste of prose," João Carlos Marinho.

Born in São Paulo, Brazil, Fernando F. Croce (April 20, 1977-) is part critic, part poet. His critical life, in brief: I came to film writing during my college days, after years working at various video stores and unsuccessful stabs at poetry and painting (Perhaps that’s why Godard’s Historie(s) du Cinéma hit me so profoundly, and why I keep making insufferably pretentious references not just to other films, but to other art forms in reviews. I’m a bit obsessed about connections). My first article appeared at the San Jose State University newspaper, The Spartan Daily—a review of the 2000 werewolf thriller Ginger Snaps, which for some mysterious reason was identified in the headline as a vampire thriller. It was around that time that I became fiercely inspired by Manny Farber’s Negative Space, still my own personal Bible, and by the founding members of Slant Magazine, who were roughly my age and offering review after passionate review. I was honored to start writing for them in 2005, my official entry into film journalism. And since then I’ve been lucky to have appeared in publications like Film Comment, Mubi, Reverse Shot, Fandor, and Movie Mezzanine, as well as my own archaic blog

I always look forward to major festivals because it means the chance to read Croce's correspondences with fellow Mubi notebook contributor Daniel Kasman. He and Kasman have very different styles and reading their letters, their voices more like two-part harmonies than counterpoints, is endlessly rewarding. Their rapport goes down as easy as Canadian Club whiskey, and I've read many 'letter' based critical analyses that borrow heavily from their conversations. Elsewhere on the site, he, Calum Marsh and Joseph Jon Lanthier offer up Three Takes, where each spills a little ink on the same film. They're done all too infrequently (none have appeared since April 2013), but with each new installment, the three critics' voices are highlighted with ideal efficiency and perspicuousness. Croce's writing often reads like pointillism, tiny impressions of technique, theme or action that reveal the heart of the film and his personal relationship to cinema. Reading Croce, you'll get as much of the plot as you need to understand and a lustrous rendering of what makes it tick. This line from a review of Martin Scorsese's Hugo sees him firing on all cylinders: "The look on the bookish Isabelle’s face as she watches her first movie (Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!) crystallizes what Scorsese is after: The feeling of a virginal gaze being ravished by the harmonizing of the antique and the ultramodern." Splendid. However, he never lets his sense of beauty, his love of Borges, ever get in the way of his communion with any potential audience. His excellent shortform criticism allows little room for uncertainty and he never leaves the reader unsatisfied. 

On Dormant Beauty 
There are wayward daughters, suicidal addicts, hurried doctors, and close-ups of gorgeous women with their heads resting on giant pillows, at times blanched with suffering and at others posed like porcelain dolls. A very musical work (notice the aural swoops and drops of Bellocchio’s mise-en-scène), and a deeply humane one.

On Cape Fear
If this is to be a genre piece, fine—let the genre be the horror film. The sense of unease is all-pervasive: Freddie Francis’ camera slithers and snaps, Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing shocks and jabs, vivid color more than once switches to X-ray negative. De Niro’s Max Cady is a convicted rapist who emerges from prison a pumped-up Übermensch, ready to settle scores with Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), the lawyer who originally defended him. Covered with Armageddon tattoos, driving an inferno-red convertible while wielding a foot-long phallic cigar, he’s such an uproarious cartoon of malevolence that when original Max Cady Robert Mitchum pops up, he can’t help commenting on the character’s semiotics: “Jeez, I don’t know whether to look at him or read him.” 

On Alps
Both a companion piece to and in many ways a reversal of Dogtooth, Alps finds Lanthimos building on that film's surreally terse style and notions of communication and identity without diluting its singularity or concentration. Working with cinematographer Christos Voudouris, he composes his images (with characters frequently decapitated by off-center framing or liquefied into out-of-focus background forms) to conjure up an atmosphere of dread that hangs over even the most deceptively tranquil scenes. By swathing every relationship in layers of hierarchical pretense and distortion, Lanthimos envisions social order itself as a continuous performance, an existential variation of Shakespeare's dictum about the human race as players on the world's stage. For him, the roles people assign each other can weigh as much as the stone masks of ancient Greek theater. In that sense, it's telling that the nurse's crack-up scene (where she desperately spouts the lines she had previously memorized while being forcibly dragged into the street) is immediately followed by the gymnast's flawless big number: the former is frantic improvisation while the latter is perfectly rehearsed choreography, and the subtly devastating closing image asks which is more oppressive.

On Under the Skin
Dear Danny, funny you mention Casanova and Dracula, because that could easily be one way to describe the legitimately uncanny Under the Skin. Another would be Species directed by the Antonioni of Red Desert. From the opening shots—a staring retina emerges from a wandering dark orb, the cosmic unto the visceral—there’s a sense of ineffable dread making the images vibrate. It’s an otherworldly film, but the locations are scraggly, overcast, wintry, a Scotland very much like that of Ken Loach. Against this naturalism lies the most extreme stylization, patches of abstract blackness literally swallowing up young men as they march towards the beckoning heroine, a body-harvesting creature that happens to look exactly like Scarlett Johansson. Just as a human body can be evacuated of everything but its skin (one of several remarkable visions), so is an alien skin gradually filled with… what? Horror? Longing? Compassion? The film’s sustained feeling of discovery derives greatly from the way new, maybe unnamed emotions seem to be churning inside Johansson’s curvaceous visitor as she cuts a swath through Glasgow, whether she’s trying to keep a slice of chocolate cake down or finally contemplating her own tear-away visage. Danny, this is as strange as anything in the Wavelengths program. Who the hell is Jonathan Glazer? Commercials, a gangster thriller in Sexy Beast, a surreal drama in Birth, then poof! And now, almost a decade later, this. As a portrait of consumption in inner and outer spaces, Under the Skin is simultaneously direct in its metaphoric implications and as crazily prismatic as Holy Motors. It can be as trying as it is striking, but I don’t plan on forgetting it any time soon.

No comments: