What is cinema?
This question has been on my mind ever since Martin Scorsese said that the Marvel movies aren’t cinema and the internet had a meltdown (which is still going on and seems like it’ll never end). It’s also why I jumped at the chance to attend a screening of IN FABRIC, writer/director Peter Strickland’s British horror-comedy about consumerism and a killer dress. I had already seen it at my local indie theater a couple of months prior, but the film had been haunting me ever since, and I wasn’t even sure why. I just knew there was some unfinished business between me and the movie.
A good movie will do that. The sights, sounds, colors, cuts, performances, and sensory pleasures stick with you like some great intuitive mystery. You’re stuck with something inexplicable and you have to keep returning to the well.
On a recent episode of the Pure Cinema Podcast, film critic/screenwriter Kim Morgan compared this phenomenon to listening to an album that moves you over and over again. You keep coming back to it because there’s a hook with more layers and more movement every time you listen. This is what pure cinema does, or at least, what it should do.
IN FABRIC isn’t my absolute favorite film of the year (though it’ll certainly crack my top 10), but it’s a prime example of pure, gorgeous, balls-to-the-wall c-i-n-e-m-a. And it’s the type of film that’s keeping the heart of the medium beating, and beating loudly, against all odds.
Times have been tough for the movies. And the future isn’t looking any brighter. A perfect storm of corporate entertainment mega-mergers, their emerging conglomerate streaming services, the overwhelming takeover of IP tentpole franchising, and the slow, painful death of movie theaters has everyone on edge.
But for now, great movies are still being made, even if the industry is more hostile toward them than ever. Several of our greatest living filmmakers have found a home on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, and studios like Blumhouse and A24 are taking great advantage of the horror genre, one of the few commercial enterprises left in the industry that isn’t superhero-related, to produce our most exciting theatrical releases (honestly, I kind of love that I can still see a movie like The Lighthouse in theaters, then go home and catch the latest Soderberg film on Netflix in the company of my cats and bong).
On the surface, IN FABRIC is an obvious fit for the A24 brand of horror. The film’s trailer certainly evokes the production company’s reputation for “artsy,” “prestige,” and “high-brow” genre pictures. But it hasn’t gotten quite as much play as other recent A24 horror releases like Midsommar or The Lighthouse, which is a damn shame. A truly absurd British farce in the tradition of Monty Python (or so my limited knowledge of British comedy would have me believe), dripping with a tone and style that’s equal parts David Lynch, Mario Bava, and Michaell Powell, IN FABRIC is a completely unexpected piece of filmmaking in the current cinema landscape, and the sum of its parts amount to a creative identity all its own.
But does any of this make IN FABRIC more deserving of the label “cinema” than, say, the Marvel movies? I can’t help but believe it does. When Scorsese said that the Marvel movies “aren’t cinema,” I don’t think he meant that they’re not “movies,” nor do I think he meant they’re inherently “bad” or that people shouldn’t enjoy them. I also think he’s right that, as a commercial enterprise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is much more akin to a theme park attraction than it is to a series of films. And there’s really no good reason, beyond the bottom line, why the MCU’s industry dominance should have such a seismic impact that filmmakers like Martin fucking Scorsese can’t even get a theatrical release for their latest movie.
Before you Marvel heads start sharpening your pitchforks, let me just say that there are some Marvel movies I absolutely adore. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies are gorgeous, moving, and delightful, Avengers: Infinity War was a fascinating subversion of the series formula, and Thor: Ragnarok is one of my favorite films of the decade (it’s basically a live-action feature-length He-Man cartoon, so how could it not be?!). But there’s just no getting around the fact that when movies are made the way Marvel movies are made – by corporate committee, on the most inflated budgets imaginable – the end product will seldom contain the memorable properties of a truly cinematic experience.
IN FABRIC, on the other hand, has the innate subliminal wonder of cinema in spades. Writing for Nightmarish Conjurings, Julieann Stipidis called it “the British horror-comedy that we didn’t know we needed,” noting that most of the plot details are “best experienced during viewing.” It’s certainly difficult to know what to say about IN FABRIC without ruining the effect. It’s plot structure alone – ditching the traditional three acts for two connected but distinct halves – is both jarring and spellbinding as the film zigs and zags through quiet moments of sensory revelry, disorienting animated transitions, absurd and often confounding sketches laced with the most biting British humor, and shockingly real and relatable performances from a cast of eerily real-looking people. Its satirical jabs at consumer culture are omnipresent, but they don’t play out in a way that invites easy conversation.
And if all that weren’t enough, IN FABRIC is simply gorgeous to look at. As Stipidis also pointed out, “if you’re a ’70s cinema lover, you’ll be drooling. From its synth score to its mini antenna kitchen TVs, to its vintage title card and opening credits, Strickland’s film not only takes inspiration from this era of cheeky cinema (think hints of A Clockwork Orange) but pokes fun at it as well, as any good satire would.” It viciously evokes all the senses from its opening moments. It’s a sensual delight that tickles your funny bone, furrows your brow, and leaves you dumbfounded all at once. Everything about this movie just rips.
Scorsese put it best in his now-infamous New York Times op-ed: “Cinema is an art form that brings you the unexpected.” Having adored Strickland’s previous film, The Duke of Burgundy, I went into IN FABRIC with high expectations, but I never could have expected the journey it took me on. And I went back to it as soon as I could because I knew there was more to discover.
At the end of the day, I guess I would define cinema similarly to that age-old adage about porn: I know it when I see it. Cinema should be a mysterious, personal, and confounding experience. It should operate on an intuitive level, and it should ultimately defy description. And there are a few movies of recent memory that feel more like cinema than IN FABRIC.
IN FABRIC arrives in theaters on December 6th and On Demand December 10th.