This is the famous swansong of the Beatles as a functioning unit, the documentary — released in theaters a month after their breakup made headlines — about the January 1969 rehearsals and recording sessions that produced the unissued Get Back album, reconfigured by Phil Spector as the soundtrack LP for this film. You most likely are aware of the genesis of, and story behind, this project, since even the Beatles’ less proud moments have become iconic, roadmaps of rock & roll mythmaking; if by some chance you aren’t familiar with all this, I’ve written extensively about the project at my other blog in these pieces: a review of the album Let It Be, a review of a bootleg deluxe edition of same, a review of the unissued assembly of the album Get Back, and a lengthy guide to an unauthorized, 16-disc collection of session material from throughout the month. I will try not to repeat any observations I made in this review of what is, ultimately, probably the grandest artifact of this uneasy experiment but has managed to become one of the most elusive major products in Beatles lore.
Part of the legend that’s gathered around Let It Be, the film, is that it captures the Beatles falling apart; the most famous moments of dialogue and interpersonal interaction, often reproduced in documentaries like the band’s own Anthology project, certainly bear this out. Although we do not witness George Harrison’s famous departure from the Beatles after one too many instances of bickering with Paul McCartney, we do see a remarkably uncomfortable confrontation between them over George’s contributions to the song “Two of Us.” This is the legendary argument that culminates in George’s sarcastic “I’ll play whatever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all; whatever it is that will please you, I’ll do it,” a rupture weighted down with over a decade of personal history that one really feels we have no right to see, even though it’s been the model for warts-and-all behind-the-scenes portraits of rock bands (and parodies of them) ever since. Additionally there is the cringe-inducing moment of Paul prattling on about his grand plans for the project and the band while John, on whom the camera is focused, looks increasingly bored and irritated as the monologue continues and continues; and, perhaps most telling of all, George joyously helping Ringo out on “Octopus’s Garden,” eventually joined by John and George Martin, only to abruptly cut it out when Paul walks in the room. We also get the curious, awkward presences of Yoko Ono, who looks (or is made to look, by editor Tony Lenny) terribly resentful of the whole process, and little Heather McCartney (Paul’s stepdaughter), whose pestering of the various band members is cute but rather incongruous.
What’s surprising, however, is how little of the film is actually comprised of this material. While session tapes reveal that the Beatles and others did a great deal of chatting and bickering in Twickenham and at Apple, only a few very perfunctory moments of the film pass without music. The bulk of its 82 minutes consists of the Beatles performing in various configurations, but that’s not how it lives in one’s memory; for years, whenever I thought of this movie, I thought of the drab, palpable coldness of the studio walls, the graininess of the 16mm footage (the film was originally conceived as a project for television; director Lindsay-Hogg had worked with the Beatles on some of their promo clips in the past), and the clear misery of the participants. The film’s reputation as a sort of excruciating document of the breakup (which was still some ways, and an additional full LP, off at the time of shooting) has been sort of tacitly encouraged by the Beatles; there is the story of John, Yoko and Jann Wenner wandering into a public screening of the film in New York in 1970 and walking out in tears. And someone in their camp is evidently embarrassed by the film and aside from a rather poor VHS and laserdisc transfer in the early ’80s plus some TV broadcasts, it has been nonexistent on home video despite being fully restored and prepped for a DVD release in 2002.
While the film pops up on torrent sites and Youtube now and then, it’s fair to say that a lot of relatively dedicated Beatles fans have never seen it in its entirety, and among those of us who have, it’s nearly exclusively through low-quality transfers of ragged-looking prints. Its status as a suppressed artifact has given it a bit of a Song of the South-like glow as some grand, unattainable artifact; and this is, without question, not particularly well-deserved. The film isn’t edited well enough, nor is it substantive enough as narrative, to provide the kind of window one naturally expects; it is largely so benign that the Beatles’ own evident discomfort with it is somewhat mysterious. (One insider has said that the holdup on rereleasing it has always been down to just one of the four decisionmaking parties, though it’s anyone’s guess which.) None of them come off badly in the film except perhaps Paul McCartney, and even his rampant bossiness is somewhat sympathetic when you consider he’s trying to corral a bunch of guys who’d rather be doing almost anything else. Lindsay-Hogg’s construction gives us about twenty minutes of Twickenham footage, with early versions (sometimes fragments) of songs as well as some jams; followed by a good half-hour of Apple studio footage which is somewhat more productive, climaxing with the somber performances of Paul’s ballads “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”; and lastly, there is Lindsay-Hogg’s ace in the hole, thirty minutes of the Beatles playing in public for the last time, on the Apple rooftop on January 30, 1969.
Fans who are very familiar with this phase of the Beatles’ career will find a lot to appreciate in this footage, though they will also find it a bit perfunctory; having always viewed the film as something of a chore, I was surprised by how quick it seemed on this viewing (my fourth or fifth), maybe because I’ve recently heard so much of the January 1969 session tapes and this footage barely even skims the surface of the surface. It would obviously play very differently to a more general audience, and as a film, there’s not much to it, even though a lot of what once seemed stultifying and obvious has attained a certain elegiac quality with age — that is, until the climax on the rooftop, when suddenly the whole thing becomes utterly sublime. Every bit of it is beautiful: the opportunity to see the four of them (five with the great Billy Preston, who appears a fair bit in the film but not nearly enough) playing in a relaxed but professional mode, completely in sync on these new songs, confidently projecting them to the streets of London, and proudly capping off a decade and a half of their lives. It wouldn’t work if they weren’t absolutely brilliant in this performance, but they are, and it’s one of those moments when you wonder how anyone could even question that they were head and shoulders above even the best of their peers in England, even at this late date. Naming highlights would be daft when every second is so thrilling (unbroken by the amusing drive-by conversations with passersby, and the clips of the police making their way up to the roof to stop the noise), but if we must be succinct, there may be no more affecting footage in the vaults of the Beatles playing than their performance of “Don’t Let Me Down” here. And every shot of John, Paul and George in their lineup, exercising all manner of nonverbal communication, feels like a privilege to witness.
Let It Be ended up receiving an Academy Award for its song score, and not all that surprisingly; one of the major problems with the LP release is that it’s not enough material, spread too thin, but that isn’t nearly as troubling in an 80-minute film in which the point is to hear the songs progress — “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Get Back,” the antique “One After 909” (one of the first songs John and Paul wrote, revised in a much faster, harder arrangement than the one attempted at EMI in 1963 and left unreleased) and “Two of Us” (heard in a wonderful rock version as well as the finalized ballad) are all terrific, and there are windows into the process of creation on “I Me Mine,” “Across the Universe,” “Dig a Pony” (no more than an OK John song, but it sounds wonderful on the roof), “Octopus’s Garden,” “Oh! Darling” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” as well — even when the montage is messy and clipped, the music almost never falters, and if you are fond of this era of the Beatles’ work, there’s a lot here to appreciate.
I first saw Let It Be in 1992 when I was still a somewhat new Beatles fan and rapidly becoming obsessed, and perhaps because it was only available to me in a low-quality BETAmax dub taped off HBO, it always bored me quite a bit. Even the music was relatively dour to my ears. Of course I came back to it repeatedly, keeping my third or fourth-generation VHS copy safely stowed away through multiple moves — it’s now almost thirty years old — and was always put into a hushed, awestruck state by its first scene, an almost eerie montage of Mal Evans and the crew setting the Beatles’ equipment up at Twickenham, accompanied by solemnly quiet opening credits appropriating the classic font from the Beatles’ drumhead. It felt like walking on hallowed, legendary ground; but as soon as the Beatles appeared, it was clear that what we were hearing were works in progress: unfinished songs, chords being shouted out, lyrics incomplete, the band rehearsing and tweaking and ironing things out like they probably always did, but now in front of cameras. And at age eight or nine, I didn’t really want to see the frail twilight Beatles (at their ripe old ages of 28, 28, 26 and 25!) slogging through new material, I wanted to see them work magic.
Now, it all seems different to me, for a number of reasons. For one thing I find it fascinating to watch the Beatles learn their own songs and figure out what they want to do with them, and of course I now have the full background of what actually is going on; the great failing of Let It Be is also its greatest strength, that Lindsay-Hogg plunges us into it with no context whatsoever, we just get random songs and conversations and a three-act structure (Twickenham, Apple, rooftop) and even that makes more sense if you know the full story of what went on that January. That’s the chief reason Let It Be is a very different movie for Beatles fanatics than it is for casual viewers or listeners; unlike A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine, it’s not something you can just sort of jump into and enjoy. I also became, in my early twenties, a diehard acolyte of 1950s rock & roll; and since a great deal of time here is spent on the Beatles jamming on some of their favorite tunes of the era, the songs that originally inspired them to set off toward their destiny, I enjoy watching how much and how clearly they love that music.
Something deeper is going on too, though, and I started to realize it about two or three years ago when I saw D.A. Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop for the first time. When I was a teenager, despite my love of the Beatles and some of their brethren, I found myself increasingly filled with disdain over the sort of entrenched, immobile culture of “classic rock” that seemed to completely occupy the radio, the cable channels, the mainstream “establishment” imagination in regard to music more generally. Not only did it seem ideologically contrary to the purported countercultural intentions of rock & roll as a cultural force, with all of the complacenet corporate stagnation the imagery had taken on, it also felt like a surrender to a kind of macho, exclusionary notion of rock music that felt very far from the elements of the form that appealed to me. I think there’s still a lot of truth to this; Chuck Berry, Patti Smith and the Clash will always matter exponentially more to me than Pink Floyd or the Who. And yet: as I’ve aged and lost my reliance on hegemonic radio and TV, and the ’60s have gotten farther away, that world has become less ubiquitous, and I now see some of the individual elements of that moment for what they were. Never a massive fan of either Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, I nevertheless find their performances in Pennebaker’s film profoundly moving, because the baggage has fallen away and it is now possible to marvel at them without a voice emanating from the void, constantly asserting how important all this is. What I also see now is a moment when commercial interests had to bend to youth culture, rather than the other way around, and I hope it does not come off as curmudgeonly to say that I deeply yearn to return to that kind of an atmosphere.
As a teenager with Boomer parents who were (at the time) Republicans, I was raised on the notion of the hippie movement (and, to a lesser extent, the burgeoning teenage culture of earlier years in which it had its roots) as an aesthetically pleasing bit of innocence, as something to be remembered with fondness but also gently mocked as pie-in-the-sky idealism: John and Yoko and other rock stars advocating unapologetically for peace, young people taking to the streets for their beliefs, and the belief that art could be the soundtrack if not the unifying force of what might have constituted a sea change in the way we thought about our lives and about other people. It once seemed very easy to condescend to all of it, and like most things it certainly deserves a certain level of skepticism, but as I get older, I just don’t know anymore why exactly trumpeting the cause of love while fighting war and poverty and prejudice is something we should look upon cynically. The compression of all this down to a simple pop culture apex, in the Hard Rock Cafe conception of the universe, is one of many ways capitalism has reasserted its dominance over what once was an idiosyncratic, potentially earth-shaking movement; and while norms ultimately proved too powerful or seductive to be laid to waste in pursuit of something better, it does not feel fair to castigate the attempt. The late Robert Hughes — talking about dadaism — once said: “It’s hard to think of any work of art of which one could say, ‘This made men more just to one another,’ or ‘This saved the life of one Jew or one Vietnamese.’ […] The difference between us and the artists in the ’20s is that they thought that such a work of art could be made. Perhaps it was their naivete that they could think so, but it’s our loss that we can’t.” I guess that, for all the letdowns the world has dealt us since the ’60s, I can’t stop myself from being in awe of the faith driving so much of that music and the people making and listening to it, whether I personally enjoy it or not.
How do the Beatles fit into all that? I never stopped loving them because I never lost touch with what their music, specifically, meant to me, specifically; as inescapable as they were, they never stopped being “my” thing, because my idea of and relationship to them was inevitably somewhat different than yours, or my dad’s, or VH1’s. Even I, however, reached a certain point of wanting to rebel a bit from their massiveness; there was a phase in which I loudly preferred the Beach Boys, another in which my love of their early work became so intense (as it remains) that I became downright dismissive of almost everything they put on tape after Rubber Soul, which felt like it had all become the overly trodden ground of what we’d now call rockists. That was as close as I could get to an adolescent, punk rock rebuke: I could still love the Beatles while shirking all possible conventional wisdom about them, and basically meaning it. The Beatles in Let It Be modeled to me, in many ways, an example of them catching up to trends rather than setting them — their hard rock is less vital than the Rolling Stones’ records from the same period, and to return to Monterey briefly, the likes of Canned Heat and Country Joe & the Fish, while not all that inspirational to me, display a confidence that the Beatles simply don’t have here in this latest guise of their collective personality, and at any rate it felt like they were aspiring to stuff that was largely beneath their abilities.
And I don’t necessarily have a counterpoint to that at this stage — my feelings about the album Let It Be are more muted than those of any of the other ten canonical Beatles LPs — but it seems to me that what this cynical purview misses is the visceral thrill of seeing actual masters of a certain craft at work, even if the specific work they’re in the middle of is comparatively flawed. And not mere masters of a craft, but the fucking Beatles, a band that has had as big an impact on my life (and, more likely than not, yours) as any body of artwork ever could. I’m not a nostalgic person, but as I grow old I do feel a certain desire to hold on just a little tighter to things that are shrinking into the past; please don’t misunderstand, I am not being overprotective of the legacy of a band whose work doesn’t even remotely need my help to ensure its endurance. As a phenomenon of youth, it’s safe to assume the Beatles will always have communicative power and resonance if not actual cultural omnipresence… and for now, for better or worse, even the latter is unthreatened. But when I look at all the people in this movie that have died — Mal Evans, John Lennon, George Harrison, Billy Preston, George Martin — and think of how little time we likely have before the rest are gone, what can I tell you? I can’t express it any better than Lennon could in “In My Life,” and if you’re reading this I assume you know those lyrics. I don’t wish I lived in the time of the movie, but I feel very fortunate that I get to watch it unfold in this medium, and like seeing Joplin and Hendrix and Otis Redding and all the rest in Monterey Pop, or Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith in Martin Scorsese’s absolutely throttling Rolling Thunder Revue, it does make me feel like I can briefly breathe in a moment of pure grace and power and, despite everything, joy.
To make a very 1940s analogy, the differing interpretations and uses of Humphrey Bogart by various great directors are not terribly dissimilar in scope to those of fellow Warner Bros. star Bugs Bunny; Bugs was a distinctive, iconic character but also a malleable one, and Friz Freleng’s Bugs is eventually very easy to distinguish from Chuck Jones’. And Bogie is always Bogie to some extent, even when he’s an anonymous asshole, even when he’s a marbles-lost military lifer, even when he’s an unlikely romantic lead; that’s just how magnetic a figure he naturally drew. But the reason we know that Bogart was not just a great star but a great actor is that his performance in a Hawks picture can feel so different from one in a Curtiz or Huston picture. In To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks projects our fondest wishes onto him: he is the coolheaded captain of fates we all long to be or to know in our more desperate moments; there is an element of wish fulfillment to those performances. Bogart was not a conventional heartthrob in any sense, not least because he was already in his forties when he became a huge box office draw, which is why casting him as the sort of man who always knows “what’s going on” and always knows just how to deal with it is such a stroke of Hollywood ingenuity.
John Huston — perhaps a marginally less brilliant director than Hawks, but one whose personal frailties and indulgences are more readily visible in his work — buys into this in his very first feature and first with Bogart, the classic Hammett adaptation The Maltese Falcon; there’s rarely a moment when his Sam Spade isn’t well ahead of the audience, not to mention the other characters. But Huston — a man’s man if there ever was one — would ultimately come back to poke holes in the hyper-masculine Bogart persona in a trio of remarkable films from 1948 through 1951, all of which generate some of the actor’s strongest, most masterfully fine-tuned performances. Treasure of the Sierra Madre obviously needs no introduction, and permits Bogart to explore the absolute dregs of humanity through a character losing a struggle with greed, good fortune and death in slow motion. The African Queen (for which Bogart won an Academy Award) would puncture the Bogart mythos in other ways, rendering comic and fallible his old-fashioned knowhow. The ways in which Key Largo toys with Bogart’s persona are subtler, almost elegiac; this is a man, Frank McCloud, whose entire existence seems to be built on a myth, one he cannot uphold — he’s too weak, too real, too human to be Sam Spade or Rick Blaine or Steve Morgan, and the fallout is uneasy enough to linger long after the film’s relatively pat conclusion.
The vast majority of Key Largo, absent its enigmatic opening scene on Seven Mile Bridge, was filmed on the Warner lot, but the film’s artificial yet deeply evocative sense of place is as strong as in Casablanca, and Huston unlike Michael Curtiz harnesses this bit of studio magic for claustrophobia and menace. It is much more an archetypal film noir than the other 1940s Bogart films, awash in ambiguity and thoroughly absent of onscreen heroism — indeed, heroism itself is an external artifact looked upon with longing and bleak nostalgia, something that only ends in death. Huston’s chameleon-like style communicates heat and chaos; the hurricane that hits in the course of the narrative feels wet and wild enough to touch, and the elaborate, three-dimensional set manages simultaneously to feature walls that seem to close in on the cast and the viewer and to genuinely capture the lazy, isolated feeling of a coastal tourist town — whether there’s a storm brewing or not. There are not many “rooms” in cinema that become as memorable or come to seem as real as the lobby at the Hotel Largo, suffused with dampness and an indistinct simmering, as though the miseries and resentments between its characters were manifesting as something physical. There’s horror inside the hurricane house but there is also a certain tentativeness, a weird uncertainty of purpose and spirit, that makes the film feel unresolved, unpredictable, and permits it to feel almost invasive. (More than one scene centers around whispering, which we can’t always make out, as though Huston’s goal is to withhold information and keep us off balance.)
Key Largo is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, and while it’s easy to conceive the modest scale of its claustrophobic setting (the stifling hotel contrasting the open beauty of the area) working on stage, it’s an exceptionally good subject for a cinematic expansion of sorts. Bogart’s McCloud arrives as a specter, ambiguously turning his head away from cops on a bus ride to the Keys where he looks up the family of an old war buddy who was killed; the dead commanding officer, George Temple, left behind a wife (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) who run a ramshackle inn called the Hotel Largo. McCloud tells a series of harrowing, attractive stories about George’s war service to the Temples, who listen attentively, before begging an early departure that ends up not happening; there’s a certain convenience to all this that feels slightly unreal, expired war camaraderie harnessed for personal gain — or, perhaps, the hope of gain — that’s never properly explained away, to the film’s considerable benefit. McCloud remains an enigma to the end of the picture, as though the sun-dappled extremity of the Keys were meant to be his grave, but he walks into a breeding ground for eccentrics whose morality is much less unknowable. The Temples seem to be easily manipulated, as their hotel has become the prortacted hideout of a celebrated Cuban gangster — familiar to McCloud — called Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his troupe of cronies who claim to be on Key Largo in order to “fish our brains out.”
McCloud and the Temples find themselves at the center of a drama already well in progress that involves a suitcase full of counterfeit bills and an extraneous dame, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), who’s proving a nuisance to the crooks with her relentless alcoholism and unwillingness to shut up, and comes over time to incorporate a vicious hurricane, nervous fantasies about Prohibition coming back, cops showing up, windows bursting open, and a (weakly rendered) group of Seminoles in need of shelter from storm and police. Like the protagonist, we are given little context or explanation of all this, just thrown right in the middle of it — which makes it stronger as a narrative, in some ways, than the pictures in which Bogart is “in control.” Certainly the mysterious core of his character, whereby there’s no clear reason to view him as much more trustworthy than the villains, adds a certain tension that wouldn’t fit well in the Chandler and Hammett adaptations; and it’s equally important that his relationship with real-life wife Bacall in this film is so much more complicated and multifaceted than in their other pairings. It’s perhaps also worth taking into account that Key Largo is repositioned to take place a few years after the war, and that its bleary-eyed, bleak and hungover feeling captures the dispiriting mood of the times that, while obviously a film noir trope, forecasts the increasing bleakness of star vehicles as the studios moved into the early 1950s.
Broadly, Key Largo — like nearly all of Huston’s films — is skeptical of the kind of heroism and hero worship that sits at the center of something as mythologically elemental as Casablanca. The villain Robinson portrays is made pathetic as often as he’s viewed as menacing, with Lionel Barrymore’s neutered attempts at attacking him delivered with more dignity than the paranoid, cruel behavior of the bigshot Rocco who takes the family hostage; indeed, one of the most memorable lines James Temple lobs at his captor is the devastating own revolving around the gun usually protruding from Rocco’s person — “I bet you spend hours posing in front of a mirror holding it.” Huston and co-screenwriter Richard Brooks give Major McCloud more negative traits and thus more dimension than is stereotypically expected of Bogart’s heroes, but they also are sympathetic of the toll the past decade has taken on such a man, leaving it mostly to our imagination how life after the service turned him into the kind of person who’s somewhat familiar with — and fearful of — Rocco’s tactics, the chief reason he is unable to shoot him when he has the chance, to the disappointment of his audience, irrespective of the later revelation that the gun is unloaded. Gaye’s remark that it’s “better to be a live coward than a dead hero” captures the traditional Bogart sense of self-preservation, which appears even in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, while carrying it to its conclusion: he’s one of us, and he’s already destroyed. So much of the haunting nature of Huston’s film is down to the unstated horrors and disappointments that hang on the people and places like moss. (There is, at one point, a direct mention of the Battle of San Pietro, which Huston witnessed firsthand, filming a short documentary about it for the U.S. Army, significant and for a time infamous for its unusually muted attitude toward the war.)
Something else that sets Key Largo apart from the rest of the best-known Bogart pictures is that he is very much part of an ensemble here; we begin and end the story with him, but for most of the duration, he’s a modest presence in a room full of frightened people on edge, in a sweltering room that’s getting hotter as a cop and a few innocents get caught in Rocco’s crosshairs, direct and otherwise. Bogart and Bacall, so often the unmistakable leads in their films, both deliberately sink into the ample shadows as much as possible, with Bacall’s worried passivity adding up to one of her most effective performances. Everyone else trapped in that lobby while the storm passes is larger than life: Edward G. Robinson as Rocco, introduced in the bathtub, projecting nefarious confidence — there’s an astounding single shot in which he’s getting shaved and spitting out incessant mockery while the camera moves in closer — until the weather starts to get to him. In addition to Bacall’s direct physical attack, his other enemies prove formidable in integrity if nothing else. After Mrs. Temple spits on him, her father-in-law hisses that he’d love to do the same, and as Rocco says at one point, he never places the elderly wheelchair-bound man in a position of any kind of power to hurt anyone, because he sincerely believes that he actually will.
But it’s in Claire Trevor, as the expiring paramour and former chanteuse Gaye, that Rocco really meets his match, though it’s initially only by her aggressive courting of attention. Gaye is rendered a pathetic, clingy figure in the first half of the film, peaking when Rocco mocks her reliance on drink by forcing her to reprise one of her old songs off-key with no accompaniment in front of everyone, all of them made impossibly uncomfortable by the cursed transaction, which at any rate turns out to be a swindle. (It falls on McCloud to provide Gaye with the hoped-for drink.) A moment like this, including the domestic quarrel that precedes it with Rocco making disgusted noises about “what you’re like,” goes beyond the traditional dance of good and evil that’s so often associated with film noir, and approaches the sleaze and genuine scumminess that only the most debased (and, often, best) noirs touch, movies like Gun Crazy and Out of the Past, but even those carry with them a sense of fun even at their most lurid moments. The sequence in which Trevor delivers her song, which probably won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, quite frankly makes you feel gross; it’s rare that a Hollywood film of this era makes you feel as if you’re witnessing something you really shouldn’t, but this scene gets there. Later, however, Gaye expertly turns the tables on not just Rocco but us, as her intense final confrontation with him is revealed to have an ulterior motive.
Gaye secretly provides McCloud with Rocco’s gun, just before McCloud is to be whisked off to an uncertain fate; with Rocco’s boat gone after the storm, McCloud is expected to return him and his remaining cronies to Cuba, and everyone is well aware that he is likely to be murdered after he performs his duty. Huston crafts an incredibly nihilistic climax here, focusing on the hopelessness and futility of what ensues back at the hotel (starting with the morbid disappointment that McCloud didn’t run when he could, again probably because he is too paralyzed by fear, fear being something that Huston is more than willing to allow a hero to feel) before proceeding with an ingeniously one-sided final showdown whose conclusion is foregone, and which never requires Bogart to come face to face with his nemesis. This finale is intentionally anticlimactic, good and evil never directly sparring, only hoodwinking one another; and Bogart’s anxious, elated performance throughout the boat scenes is among his greatest moments on film. Undoubtedly at Warner Bros.’ insistence, implicit or otherwise, the film does not end where it should — with a boat full of dead bodies being turned around by its sole survivor, to not much surer a destiny — but falls into a bit of dull over-explaining in which we’re permitted to see Bacall and Barrymore’s joy that their friend will return, probably for a domesticated long-term future, and a ridiculous grin on Bogart’s face as he aims for home.
It all so seems so phony. But then again, you tend to wonder, is it really supposed to be real? There’s something so desperate about it all — a war hero appearing from nowhere like the Man with No Name, coming back and fitting automatically into whatever magic is constructed for him, conforming all too naturally to the bizarre tale that’s generated all around the hotel and the people he stumbles upon. It’s almost as though Huston is suggesting that the real-world evil of a chronic abuser like Rocco, the implications of whom are a recurring topic of discussion in the dialogue, doesn’t actually have a convenient foe forthcoming to stop him. To whatever extent McCloud is a real person, the end of his story has the feel of completely fabricated legend, a story told for someone’s reassurance; the reality is the storm, the fog, the murders. As one character says earlier on: “This ain’t real, what’s happening.” But much of it is — too much, in fact, with no Bogie of any stripe, heroic or anti-heroic, poised to come down from the sky — and of course, noir is never more unsettling than when its smoked-out expressionist universe of dread and doom seems momentarily to intersect with our own.
This post gathers up reviews of films newly viewed (or viewed for the first time in 8+ years) from June 13 to November 23, 2019. I’d been feeling a little inadequate lately on this front, because I felt like I had slowed down; it’s been a busy summer and fall with a new job and a death in the family and other matters, but I’ve been trying to put myself on less of a timetable for things and, moreover, when I look at what films I actually got around to in this period, it feels like a time I’ll remember as really formative and personally revolutionary: finally in awe of Tarkovsky and Fellini and Tati and Resnais, falling ever further in love with Dreyer. I feel like I’ve been taken so many places by film in the last few months that it seems like a much longer period of time, and why did I not see some of these movies sooner? How was I even worthy of running a venue like this without them?
Truth be told, I’ve also been feeling a little demoralized about this platform and about writing online in general. It’s not the first or the last time. I’ve been screaming into the internet void with varying sizes of audience — never more than a dozen people or so, and hardly ever that high — for seventeen years now, twenty-three if you count my very early trolling days. After a while, the apathy numbs you. It’s my own fault, and it’s also not unique to me; I don’t do well with promoting my work. A few years ago I signed up to do a reading of a piece I was especially proud of at a bookstore in front of a local writers’ club; it went over gangbusters. People came to me and said how much they loved it, which sounds made-up to me sitting here now but really did happen. I made a note to make this group a regular part of my life… but schedules, tiredness, laziness, my living an hour away, my day-to-day existence being so separate from that world all conspired against that notion, and when I looked at it deeply, it was kind of all I needed, just knowing I was still good enough to pull that off and confident enough to actually commit to it at least once. It was like the old story about Brian Wilson playing a song he’d just written in private, having it received rapturously, then never pulling it out again. Not to compare myself to Brian, although “the world’s not waiting just for me / the world don’t care what I could be” seems relevant and is still, I think, wise, so long as you realize “the world” is not in the wrong there. But I should’ve devoted myself to it all more, and I still probably should. Another part of me believes that in my new role at work I should withdraw totally from online and just pour my energy into this thing that is so newly fulfilling for me, and take my therapist’s advice and actually relax at night instead of worrying about posting quality stuff here and there and everywhere.
I’ve always leaned on the fact that this is fun for me; at times it’s even soothing… certainly I think that writing about the Beatles at length in the last year and a half has been an enormous source of comfort to me, which I don’t say lightly, and coming here and reviewing Hitchcock films, the stuff I know like the back of my hand at this point, is equally enriching and joyful. But I can’t get away from how, as my anxiety gradually improves, “I need to do this” is giving way to “I don’t have to do this.” I wonder if the day will come when I break the pattern set in 2005 and see a film without feeling a need to write about it, apart from giving it a rating for my own private records. After all, if I were doing this thirty years ago, there’d be no one to potentially see it; now it’s out there, it just doesn’t stand a chance of moving any needle anywhere in the world.
Even in cinephile circles, I don’t feel like my particular digressive style or way of thinking would win many fans or cohorts, which sounds like a very ego-driven statement when written out but isn’t really meant that way. I really don’t come at this stuff with the thought of an agenda, even when an agenda would probably be quite handy. During the recent discourse over Martin Scorsese’s comments and subsequent (very good) op-ed about the ubiquity of Marvel-style blockbusters, I was stymied a bit by the fact that I don’t have much greater an understanding of Scorsese’s work than I do of the Marvel pictures I’ve seen, as you know if you’ve suffered through my obligatory tortured visits to Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Casino. (I’ve softened on Goodfellas a little bit.) It just isn’t the kind of stuff that interests me, and the same goes for a whole of the serious canon of the Film Twitterverse: broadly speaking Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, David Cronenberg and Bong Joon-ho don’t do much for me, nor do “genre films” as a rule, and while I have some affection for David Lynch, I don’t see him as the absolute master so many suggest, not least because so many of his major works are schlocky variants on Shadow of a Doubt. (While we’re at it, it’s really interesting to me how every Scorsese film is secretly feminist or really morally concerned about the things it depicts, but every Hitchcock film is secretly a woman-hating diatribe and endorses every single thing its characters do.) I also harbor no serious affection for trash, except as something to laugh at with no stakes; I understand finding it interesting, but not making it the entire platform from which one experiences an artform. And not having any interest in thinking or talking about Star Wars for the rest of my life doesn’t exactly put me in the camp of fun conversationalists. I like a lot of the movies these people habitually make fun of; Greta Gerwig is a brilliant writer-director and actor, and though it’s been long enough that I’ve started to doubt my convictions (something else I’m great at), I thought Beasts of the Southern Wild was incredible.
I’m not saying any of this to be difficult, and I’m not making any of it up to be a contrarian. It did feel very strange that everyone was flinging themselves full-force into the Marvel debate while I was having a revelation of sorts with Ozu’s Early Summer and I couldn’t help feeling like I was the one who was doing more with my time. But taking things off the web for a moment, it also seems like the more films I see, the more opinions I form, the more this whole realm becomes completely separate from any existence I actually have as a social being. I really pour my heart out about music and movies and stuff online, but it’s like pulling teeth to get me on the subject among most friends or even, really, anywhere, because I don’t like the way I sound when I say these things out loud instead of just typing them. It’s been said that gaining deep knowledge of politics renders it impossible to engage in friendly conversation about politics with anyone, and I think the same is true for any subject. I would just sound like I was trying to be exhausting to people. Moreover, I think it’s just sort of rude to inflict your “takes” on people in the wild, so I don’t… but at the same time, the near-religious experiences I’ve lately had with the likes of Andrei Rublev and Ordet and Last Year at Marienbad make me strongly wish there were some way to bring it happily into the rest of my life rather than censuring it altogether. I think a big problem is that in America, we’re very much trained to see cultivated taste in art (not that I’m making that lofty a claim for myself, it’s just a handy way of putting it) as inherently snobbish. I’m sure a big reason for that is how much we tie monetary value to everything; box office numbers are sport, and people champion their corporate-sanctioned fandoms as personal validation. It’s their right but I don’t know how to operate in that context.
Nothing’s probably going to change. I’ll most likely keep posting in the ether until I die or the internet and/or planet dies. I’ll just be feeling slightly pessimistic about whether there’s any point to it, and trying to find peace with the idea that not everything needs a point. In other words, we come back to the old axiom: I should really just relax.
Of course I wrapped up the top 100 from They Shoot Pictures — results linked here — and started my 1950s canon project, while also resuming the Best Picture nominees which continue to take forever. I put together a rough draft of my list of favorite films of the current decade, to which I continue to make additions. One momentous housekeeping decision I made this goround was to give Alfred Hitchcock’s Mary its own capsule rather than just adding it to Murder!; my feeling was that the films have different casts and nothing in common apart from their basic story, the same director and the use of the same sets. I also finally saw the silent version of Blackmail, longtime bucket list item, and elected not to provide it with its own separate review, the logic being that it uses much of the same footage and only features one cast change. I can’t guarantee I made the right decision but I can guarantee I’ll doubt my own judgment about this extremely petty matter for the forseeable future. Anyway, as far as we’re concerned, Hitchcock now has 54 features rather than 53.
Full reviews this cycle: Quite a few this time! Combined both Gaslights into a single piece here (slight downgrade for the remake; Lboxd); waxed rhapsodically about Night of the Hunter (slight upgrade to masterpiece status and a new all-time top 100 entry; Lboxd); was unexpectedly inspired by La Dolce Vita (upgrade; Lboxd); finally dissected the delirious coupledom of The Thin Man (slight downgrade; Lboxd); sank back into the wonderful terrible world of Stanley Kubrick’s sleazy, star-making The Killing (Lboxd); realized anew just how moved I was by The Docks of New York (slight upgrade; Lboxd); met a new all-time favorite in the form of Early Summer (Lboxd); and offered some music blog crossover with Magical Mystery Tour.
Other films seen: I had an opportunity to return to one of my favorite Coen brothers films, The Hudsucker Proxy, and found it still holds up for me, though I didn’t quite have the energy to really write about it yet. I kept pressing along with my usual cycle of revisiting Hitchcock, with Dial M for Murder on the docket followed by the perfect Rear Window, which I watched on my new Blu-ray and noticed things I’d never seen in it before. This was leading up to a couple of ’50s Hitchcocks that will be newly reviewed in this space in the coming months. Meanwhile, as you may know I’m extensively exploring the Beatles’ career in my other blog and I’ve reached the point of running through their cinematic output, leading to a few new thoughts on the previously-reviewed A Hard Day’s Night and Help! as well as the aforementioned Magical Mystery Tour.
New Blu-ray releases, of which more below, brought new viewings and notes for Sherlock Jr.; The Navigator (slight downgrade); Do the Right Thing (slight upgrade to masterpiece/top 100 status); Blackmail (as noted); The Blood of a Poet; Underworld; The Last Command; Haxan (in the alternate Witchcraft Through the Ages print); Cluny Brown (slight downgrade); and, though I was very drunk at the time, The Fearless Vampire Killers.
Keeping it going with the 2010s rewatch project — again, very slowly but surely. This time out:
– I, Tonya
– Take This Waltz
– Lady Bird
– Clouds of Sils Maria
– Finding Dory
– Green Room
– Good Time
– The Turin Horse (slight upgrade)
They all remained about the same in my estimation except Take This Waltz, which really really struggles for me in the first half, and Lady Bird, which I think I deeply underrated, as well as The Turin Horse, which I kind of already knew I had severely underrated.
Non-feature or non-cinema screened: Fleabag is pretty good, although I object to the presence of the Cool Priest archetype. Talking of Lynch, been revisiting Twin Peaks and haven’t quite gotten to the point in the original series where it gets bad yet. PlutoTV has this MTV Rock Block channel and I didn’t know how much I missed the music videos of the early 1990s. (Recommendations: Prince’s “Get Off”; TLC’s “What About Your Friends?”; Mariah Carey’s “Emotions.”) Also, we saw the Mystery Science Theater 3000 live show at Wilson Center and it was very funny even though I couldn’t get into the revival series at all. The movie being riffed was something called No Retreat, No Surrender which was exactly as beautiful as it sounds.
Recent Blu-ray releases:
– The presentation quality on Warner Archive’s recent HD reissues of Gaslight, The Thin Man and The Fearless Vampire Killers is above reproach. Gaslight helpfully includes the original UK version of the film, though only in standard-def.
– The second and third volumes of Cohen’s Buster Keaton series were just as gorgeous as the first, though I may stop here unless they take a stab at the shorts. But it’s unbelievable how good those films look; they lack any extras at all, but you really can’t beat the condition of the restored prints.
– The best release of the year is almost certainly Criterion’s package for Do the Right Thing, which is simply extraordinary in all respects from packaging to presentation to supplements. I’m also enormously grateful for the red carpet treatment they gave to Chaplin’s wonderful The Circus, for me his second-best feature after City Lights. Their reissue of Haxan made Halloween extra spooky this year; though they added very little new material, the film is so clear now you feel you could reach out and touch it. And as if programmed to make me happy, they reprinted one of my most longed-for out of print items, the 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg set, now on Blu with the same extras but upgraded transfers; as usual, they are almost beyond question the standard-bearers.
– Over in Region B, Studio Canal reissued The Blood of a Poet, previously in a Criterion DVD box, but it looks good and the supplemental material is solid.
– Kino Lorber has recently happened upon a host of prestige titles to which Criterion and other companies previously held the rights. Their releases of Ealing’s masterful Kind Hearts and Coronets (with a terrific Kat Ellinger commentary) and The Lavender Hill Mob were more than welcome, though it’s bittersweet that Kind Hearts lost the magnificent extras from Criterion’s old DVD. (It now becomes one of the few films of which I’m keeping multiple copies on the shelf.) I never had the pleasure of checking out Criterion’s old Last Year at Marienbad release so the current Kino Blu more than satisfies me as a new fan of that film. For me the most anticipated home video event of the year was the same company’s unleashing, for the first time, of high-quality domestic versions of Hitchcock’s early British sound pictures Blackmail and Murder!, both presented with their alternate versions. The results were uneven but still mostly excellent; some controversy over Blackmail‘s aspect ratio (in the sound version) has persisted but it does look very good to me all the same, and the silent version in the BFI restored print looks magnificent. (Indeed, it seems this has been the theme of the Blu releases I’ve purchased this year; silent pictures suddenly look cleaner and newer than talkies.) Murder! unfortunately is still in rather poor condition, though it looks as good as it probably ever can without a huge influx of restoration money; Kino compensates by including an upscale of the rare Mary plus a fine Nick Pinkerton commentary track. I’m so very thrilled that these films are readily available in good editions finally, but I do wish Kino would take a little more care so pesky issues like the Blackmail problem could be avoided.
– Mildly disappointed with Masters of Cinema’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Criterion’s Cluny Brown, both apparently due to the use of rather waxy Fox transfers. The Brooklyn disc uses a bunch of extras from an aborted DVD release of the title from many years back; Criterion’s Cluny supplements are a tad better despite dreadful artwork. I’m still glad to have both films, which have been oddly esoteric on disc.
– Unexpected travels and other problems have waylaid my plans of keeping up with this stuff as devotedly as I’d like, but I look forward to checking out Warner Archive’s Days of Wine and Roses; Kino Lorber’s Seven Days to Noon (at last!), Christmas in July and Hitchcock BIP box set; Masters of Cinema’s The Golem and The African Queen; and Criterion’s All About Eve.
Thirty new capsules follow.
Big Eyes (2014, Tim Burton)
Tim Burton’s biopic of kitsch painter Margaret Keane, whose husband Walter got rich taking credit for her work for decades, shares its screenwriting team with Ed Wood but is an utterly pedestrian treatment of potentially interesting material, made worse by its inability to settle on a consistent tone; marital and interpersonal tragedy collide with broad comedy and misjudged cultural satire. The depth and nuance in Amy Adams’ performance clash badly with Christoph Waltz’s dreadful, sitcom-like hamming, which renders the film almost impenetrably loud and unpleasant.
Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski) [c]
Dull, endlessly talky adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage is a textbook example of stage not translating at all to film — every excuse conjured up for its four characters (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly) to remain in the same place and continue their excruciating argument about one couple’s kid beating up another couple’s kid renders the whole enterprise increasingly ridiculous and unnatural. Polanski’s treatment of the material is shockingly uninspired, and all of the performances are badly pitched and mediocre save Winslet, who has a pretty good vomiting scene.
Last Year at Marienbad (1961, Alain Resnais) [hr]
Hypnotic, menacing filmed dream slash nightmare vaguely tells through words and images the story of a couple who may or not have met before; one persuades and one doubts, and we’re never sure what to believe. But even the lack of a concrete narrative isn’t the point; rather it’s the invigorating way all of the mystery washes over you. A beguiling film that demands repeated viewing but enchants regardless of how familiar one is with it.
Gertrud (1964, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [r]
Dreyer’s last film is comprised almost entirely of sets of two people — usually the increasingly resigned Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) and one of her current or former lovers — sadly bickering while staring into space facing anything except one another, set against barren whiteness or the occasional idyllic scene of ironic beauty. While the director’s insistence on the urgency of all this yearning is admirable, it verges on pure soapiness and forces the actors into some rather stilted exchanges. It’s the sort of arthouse touchstone you can very easily mock, but also a totally convincing expression of a terminally morbid, romantically stunted mood.
Chi-Raq (2015, Spike Lee)
If anything, Lee’s Lysistrata update as hip hop anti-violence musical is more focused than BlackKklansman; its tangents do all center around the same ideas even if some of them seem strictly intended to stretch out the runtime. The problem is unevenness of quality: when the film focuses on its musical and socially conscious elements, it’s often imaginative and moving and it just works. As a sex comedy, however, it absolutely doesn’t. Lee is never anything but an exciting, lively filmmaker but watching him work with subpar material is extremely uncomfortable, as his flailing only grows more desperate the further he sinks.
Citizenfour (2014, Laura Poitras) [hr]
The real-time document of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations of incriminating NSA-related documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald, witnessed by filmmaker and writer Laura Poitras, is unexpectedly tense and claustrophobic, with a real sense of danger exacerbated by the obvious nervousness of all involved. It’s a rare opportunity to see history actually happening, and even after the bottle is uncorked and we leave the Hong Kong hotel room where most of the conversations have taken place, there is still a sense of unresolved fear that isn’t dimmed by the closing reunion.
Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann) [hr]
An equally emotional but less visceral approach to the Holocaust than the other key filmed document of it, Resnais’ Night and Fog. Lanzmann inundates us with details from every conceivable angle for over nine hours, presenting evidence of the collective hole still left in humanity; as oral history it’s one of the most important records of a lived experience that we have, and as cinema it’s unimpeachable. The most fascinating motif is the examination of place. You can feel the lingering despair everywhere we’re taken, when the buildings are intact, when there’s mere rubble, when there’s nothing — which somehow is most distressing of all.
Pickpocket (1959, Robert Bresson)
A brilliant formal investigation of the physical act of the title is made to clash with a Dostoevsky-like spiritual redemption that depends greatly upon the audience’s own investment of personal detail since its characters, particularly its gray-rock protagonist played by Martin LaSalle, are blank slates fulfilling an elementary narrative; it’s not so much that we’re given little information as we’re given little reason to believe there’s much to know beyond what is explicitly, philosophically, morally laid in front of us.
Playtime (1967, Jacques Tati) [hr]
Not the balletic comedy you tend to expect, much more of a surreal, colorful, purely emotive exploration of urban civilization taken in at its full breadth, and even that is selling short its massive immersiveness and spirit. It boggles the mind that Tati was able to make this; it’s a sensory, abstract experience whose appeal is almost impossible to explain. As much a pure sensory experience as the following year’s 2001.
Contempt (1963, Jean-Luc Godard) [hr]
Welcome to Godard-world: the men are arrogant violent shits, the women are beautiful and endlessly put-upon, and the only true force of good is Fritz Lang. This film’s three clearly divded acts each have their pleasures, agonies and metatextual curiosities; primarily concerned with the rapid disillusionment of a marriage and a simultaneous act of creation, the whole thing is structurally fascinating but has enough emotional weight and narrative elegance to be more immediately engaging than the typical Godard “filmic essay.” You’ll hate it, you’ll love it, etc.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson)
A man — er, donkey — must break his back to earn his day of leisure, etc.
Mirror (1975, Andrei Tarkovsky) [hr]
A visual poem that makes sense only in the most visceral terms — as a treatise on memory and dreams and a highly personal examination of how images and events from childhood inform the way that adult life is experienced and remembered, and as a Bergman-like example of a film that unapologetically lives inside the extremity of its emotions. I’m completely disinterested in cracking the “code” or whatever of what Tarkovsky’s “plot” and message here are, because that’s all semantics that have nothing to do with why the actual experience of watching it is so moving.
Mary (1931, Alfred Hitchcock)
German-language version of Hitchcock’s Murder!, shot simultaneously with different actors, is essentially just a poorly done highlight reel of the British film, dispensing with the flavor, quirk and genuine experimentation that make it so fascinating. Plus, Alfred Abel makes no sense in the Herbert Marshall role. A one-time curio for Hitchcockian types.
Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [hr]
By turns riveting in its claustrophobic intensity and simmering menace, emotionally overwhelming in the purity of its love for its characters and the grief it shares with them, and in the end, staggering in its grace as a cinematic expression of the miraculous. A magnificent film about faith because it posits that faith will come to and rescue those who need it, and it comes about this process not through the factions and discord of organized religion but through the barer, more honorable paths of love and belief and through the yearnings of the outwardly simple. Dreyer’s hand is gentle on our shoulders.
Battling Butler (1926, Buster Keaton) [hr]
One of the best-sustained plots of any of the Keaton features thanks to a genuinely engaging scenario involving his roughing-it rich boy being mixed up with a lightweight boxing champion as part of a semi-accidental deception of his girlfriend. The side characters are atypically well developed, especially Sally O’Neill as the love interest who enters by seeing straight through Keaton’s Thoreau charade. The various threads don’t wrap very neatly but the ride is great fun, and as usual, a strong case is made for Keaton as underrated visual stylist.
Journey to Italy (1954, Roberto Rossellini) [hr]
Rossellini’s loose, on-the-run approach is well-suited to the story of an unfurling chasm between an distant couple (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders), fused with a mournful travelogue. The dialogue has no poetic distance, the camera seeks no beautification of misery, yet the characters’ hearts are always unmistakable and the picture does not shy away from their torment.
Andrei Rublev (1966, Andrei Tarkovsky) [hr]
One of those movies that instantly humbles you. To call it a biopic of a medieval Russian painter of icons, famous for his Trinity, and an “epic” is technically truthful while missing the essence completely. Its eight individual episodes each work as singularly impressive short features all on their own, whether transfixed with spare dialogue and moments between Rublev and other characters, with Tarkovsky’s endlessly hypnotic movement of the camera that seems instrinsically tied to our emotional experience of everything we see, or with the genuinely arresting portrait of both the mundane and the extraordinary. It seems somehow to contain everything.
Picnic (1955, Joshua Logan)
Oscar-nominated theater adaptations like this grew on trees in the 1950s; this one, in which shirtless William Holden comes to a small town and trips everyone up with his hobo ways and (supposedly) crude sexuality, starts out intriguing enough and certainly benefits from its relatively accomplished cast, but when the central event of the Labor Day picnic hits, everything slides downhill fast. Logan’s direction suffers from its very stilted flailing at depicting a down-home Good Time, and then lacks the schlockiness to go full-on Sirk despite its share of fistfights and horny night drives.
Nights of Cabiria (1957, Federico Fellini) [hr]
(Revisit; major upgrade.) If it lacks the technical aptitude, breadth and immersive nature of La Dolce Vita, this earlier Fellini classic achieves a more deliberate and heartfelt kind of sweep through its hyper focus on the life of the title character, so beautifully played by Giulietta Masina in what easily qualifies as one of cinema’s signature performances. The camera seems constantly aware of the larger world and the limitations of Mastroianni’s basically empty life, but here, the headstrong and world-weary but still naively hopeful Cabiria lives through a series of disappointments that become completely our own, feeling as insular for us as for her.
Black Panther (2018, Ryan Coogler) [r]
There’s a certain gleeful energy in seeing so much Afrofuturist-derived imagery in mainstream entertainment (Ruth Carter more than earned that Oscar); and it’s nice to see an ensemble cast comprised almost totally of black actors, but I do wish they were given better things to do than the usual exposition-spouting with occasional extremely strained “quip.” As is typical of large-scale films like this, the whole thing loses its way near the climax, when Coogler is forced to stage entire scenes through bad CGI and all possible drama stops dead. Chadwick Boseman is compelling despite poor writing, but Michael B. Jordan wipes the floor with him.
Friendly Persuasion (1956, William Wyler) [r]
Gorgeously shot chronicle of a Quaker family’s plight in Civil War-era Indiana demonstrates that for all his ample talents, Wyler wasn’t much of a comedy director. Apart from a run of slapstick gags involving an angry goose, every moment that intends to land humorously is strained and artificial, while the solemn elements for the most part achieve more gravity and emotional connection. The cast is terrific, especially Gary Cooper as the stoic but open-hearted patriarch and Anthony Perkins, phenomenal as the elder son with an urge to fight for the Union whose internal conflict makes itself deeply felt without overstatement or sentimentality.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson)
Almost every outdoor shot in this is effortlessly lyrical and stunning, but the aesthetic pleasures and emotional resonance unfortunately end there. It feels ike you’re watching the scenario — a youthful but sickly and alcoholic priest spends two hours in utter consternation about absolutely everything — played out by a robot, in this case the rather attractive but puppet-like Claude Laydu. As in all of his most famous films, Bresson seems defiantly disinterested in the very concept of an active, complex inner life.
America America (1963, Elia Kazan) [r]
Haskell Wexler’s stunning black & white photography is the most obvious virtue of this Kazan passion project — a three-hour narrative of his uncle’s journey to America from his impoverished village in Turkey — but by no means the only one. While episodic by necessity, the film is frequently absorbing enough in sections to get across a genuine sense of harrowing journey, all driven by Stathis Giallelis’ incredibly well-controlled performance as young, determined, struggling Stavros. Despite an unevenness of tone and some odd casting, it still has depressing relevance to the killing-yourself-to-live nature of poverty.
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais) [hr]
Opens with sensuality and tragedy fused into something as emotionally raw as art gets, then digresses into a masterfully pure cinematic (but also verbally rich) exploration of not just the brief, stabbing pangs of a short-lived romance but the generalized human relationship with loss, memory and trauma. As in Last Year at Marienbad, with which it shares a hypnotic consciousness of the way the past lingers like a fog within physical spaces, Resnais’ avant garde textures are made easily communicative by the universal truths they express. It is dreamlike and probing but never confounding.
Three Smart Girls (1936, Henry Koster) [c]
Dreadfully thin comedy about three sisters (one Universal’s “new discovery,” Deanna Durbin) living in Switzerland who go to NYC to visit their uncaring, aloof father who divorced their mom a decade ago, determined to Parent Trap him back into their young adult lives as he stands on the cusp of marrying a gold-digging opportunist. It’s a parade of high-pitched whining with periodic stabs of random opera, smug schmoozing around by the likes of Ray Milland and John King, casually toxic behavior by nearly everyone, and the weakest and most ineffectual kind of farcical “business” filling the time between awkward crises.
The Prince of Tides (1991, Barbra Streisand)
An instructive story about how a stoic, unfeeling, confused man’s life can be changed by opening up to a therapist, especially if she’s hot and has sex with him. (CW: threats made against violins.)
Support the Girls (2018, Andrew Bujalski) [r]
For the first hour, this subtly pro-worker slice of life about the comings and goings among the young female staff at a sports bar and their long-suffering, kind-hearted manager (Regina Hall in a flawlessly judged, sensitive performance) is an absolute dream of natural, believable energy and understated emotional complexity. It goes off the rails near the end but the dialogue never flags, nor does the actors’ reading of it, and it does get eloquently at the ruthless wheel-spinning, futility and exploitation at the center of life under capitalism, but somehow its departure feels too abrupt to suggest the kind of meaning that its characterizations deserve.
The Lighthouse (2019, Robert Eggers) [hr]
The funniest Odd Couple remake yet! Like The Witch, this oceanic bad-weather folktale is rather vague as a piece of storytelling, nothing more or less than a piece of atmosphere — all iconic moments and foreboding images and sketched-out ideas that Eggers thought would be really cool. And he was right! What moments, what ideas, what a pair of outrageous performances (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson); add this to black & white film stock framed at 1.20:1 plus gorgeously designed sets and the boxes are ticked off whether I want them to be or not.
A Field in England (2013, Ben Wheatley)
Credit to the lovely black & white cinematography, witty dialogue and keen sense of open-aired claustrophobia, but it’s hard to genuinely like Wheatley’s bizarre treatise on the Aguirre-like fate befalling a group of deserters from the English Civil War who fall in with a nefarious alchemist and get high on shrooms. The whole thing is so dense and never really finds a groove after its intriguing initial setup; frankly, the aesthetic ingredients might well have been better suited for a straightforward war movie.
Amazing Grace (2018, Sydney Pollack) [hr]
Pollack’s unfinished documentary about the recording of the best-selling gospel record of all time is both a musical powerhouse and a cinematic joy, shot on phantasmagoric 16mm film in 1971. Aretha Franklin’s performance feels like humanity in peak form, in terms of raw emotion and elegant artistry; this isn’t unusual for her, but it’s amplified in the context of the Church, the world that spawned her as no other could have. You get front-row seats to Detroit musical history transplanted to L.A., and to the awe-inspiring scope of American music (specifically, black music) in all of its spiritual heft. Unmissable.
This year the indie rock band Big Thief made certain heads explode with the radical act of issuing two studio albums in a single calendar year; in the same circles, the Baltimore duo Beach House caused a similar disturbance not that long ago. But for their part, the band that essentially defined the parameters and artistic expectations of a rock band never stepped off the hamster wheel. In the least prolific full year of their existence as a recording unit, 1966, they managed to put together the seminal Revolver plus a single with two additional songs, mount a world tour and set themselves to the task of a total redefining of image. The following year, it was only six months after they soundtracked the Summer of Love and recontextualized the entire notion of the rock LP with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that they unleashed the ambitious, unpredictable multimedia project Magical Mystery Tour — a TV special and EP that would ultimately be transferred to the United States as a full-length album and, some years later, a popular theatrical feature on the midnight movie circuit. That it proved to be the Beatles’ first significant artistic flop (the film, at least, not so much the music) is almost incidental when you consider the sheer quantity of work into which they poured themselves from 1962 to ’70, and when you remember how rare it was that something they committed themselves to failed to “come off.”
Of course, the story is also somewhat more complicated than that linear version of events. We’ll have to wait another decade or so to get the full context that only foremost Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn can likely provide, but from what we do know, it seems that Magical Mystery Tour was viewed as a sort of make-or-break project for the band, the moment in which they would harness their status as the most celebrated pop musicians in the world to fully conceive and execute a unique concoction of pictures, music and story all on their own without the unwavering showbiz smarts of manager Brian Epstein guiding them. (Epstein had died very young in the late summer of ’67, though there have been some rumors down through the years that his control over the band’s career had dwindled almost to nothing.) It was a mass exposure to the band’s unfiltered instincts; it carries with it a hint of desperation, if only to prove that the band still had more to discover.
Already in the period just after Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles’ recording sessions had suddenly taken on an unfocused, ramshackle quality — by the time that milestone album was actually released, they were booking Abbey Road and spending time noodling on half-hearted material like “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” “All Together Now” and a host of unlabeled jams. The cliché about “no worlds left to conquer” inevitably springs to mind, as though there was a collective hangover from the wildly ambitious scale and success of Pepper. Brian’s death only reinforced the point that the Beatles were adrift; the Magical Mystery Tour project was initiated before he died, but really took shape in the months afterward with Paul McCartney spearheading, the concept and execution boiling over with evidence of a concerted attempt at harnessing the same degree of passion and excitement that had carried them through their last album. Hindsight makes it easy to see that they arguably just needed more time to recharge, but again, they were mostly following the career pattern Epstein had set for them: you don’t rest, you don’t celebrate, you immediately look around for the next idea.
Magical Mystery Tour, the film (and because it did eventually play in theaters in various parts of the world, we are calling it a film here, making it the Beatles’ third after A Hard Day’s Night and Help!), follows a vague narrative of the Beatles (who don’t seem to be playing themselves, exactly, but also aren’t really “acting” — they seem to just exist here among a horde of tourists) and others converging on a bus for a daylong excursion that promises breathtaking magic and lifechanging experiences. McCartney based the concept on tours he remembered taking with his family as a child; they tended to be very loftily promoted but finally mundane, like a picnic lunch a few miles outside the city limits, so the central joke of the film is that all the pretentious language and wild exaggeration about what a transgressive experience the Magical Mystery Tour is going to be turns out to be a lot of noise about nothing much — essentially, everyone is taken to a field for a foot race and later to a few different theaters, a tent, a strip show and a dance hall. And at one point, the landscape changes slightly.
One reason audiences, particularly in America, never seem to have picked up on the tour intentionally being a bust is that the humor is just that deadpan. (Malcolm McDowell’s narration in the fine documentary The Compleat Beatles concisely explicates the conventional wisdom: “The idea was to travel the English countryside in a bus filled with friends, actors and circus freaks and to film whatever happened. Unfortunately, nothing did.”) But the more pertinent reason is that the film constantly distracts us with psychedelic overtures; even though the Beatles seem largely to be mocking rather than upholding the pop-surrealist conventions of the day (like the Monkees’ film Head, in its best moments Tour is closer to actual avant garde filmmaking than to the TV-grade weirdness fashionable as of 1967; in contrast to Head, those moments are very rare), it’s much too easy to take the film as an earnest attempt at incoherent Free Love gibberish. If the picture is intended as a parody of the flower power years — which is certainly how the music, drenched in acerbic humor and vague menace, plays out today, with none of the wide-eyed juvenilia of “All You Need Is Love” present — then it seems to run at cross purposes with the story’s extremely British sensibility as a piece of comic understatement.
It’s toward the latter mode that the film initially leans; its opening scenes are quite enjoyably humorous and strange and set up a number of inspired comic notions, which are unfortunately discarded within about ten minutes. There’s an enthusiastic portrayal of Ringo buying up the ticket to the Tour itself from a flamboyantly disguised John Lennon, who also contributes uncharacteristically fired-up voiceover narration, and then an introduction to Ringo and his “aunt” Jessie (a callback to the earlier Beatles films: the introduction of a fictitious Beatle Relative), played with rather heroic aplomb by mostly unknown actress Jessie Robins. As in A Hard Day’s Night, Ringo demonstrates some serious acting chops here — his performances of impatient banter with his aunt are both amusing and eerily believable, so much so that it’s extremely disappointing the film doesn’t really go anywhere with this narrative setup, though Ringo’s affably charming throughout the picture, including in a sequence when he drives the bus through a foot race. Jessie is a more distinctive character by far, and it’s perhaps a window into the Beatles’ collective psyche that they give her a more complex inner life than they conceive for themselves (perhaps also relevant: that the four of them serve essentially as anonymous citizens in this tale) — she fantasizes about a romantic life with the hilariously sinister Mr. Bloodvessel soundtracked by Muzak renditions of old Beatles classics, and figures in the film’s most genuinely inspired scene, an actively bizarre Lynchian nightmare, the set in particular a rather remarkably weird concoction, that has John Lennon the maitre d’ shoveling spaghetti onto her table while she cries at length about her dead husband.
The other Beatles get even less story material than Ringo; Paul flirts with the bus line’s hostess (Miranda Forbes), briefly appears in military garb and has very few lines, George’s most significant onscreen moment is his song “Blue Jay Way,” and the best element of John’s work on camera here is when he goofs off with the little girl Nichola and you get to see what appears to be a bit of natural, tender behavior on his part. (McCartney, recording the film’s commentary track 45 years later, is audibly moved by this moment.) The four bandmates also show up in a couple of deeply misguided, antiseptic slapstick scenes as a quartet of magicians who seem to be operating the bus’s destiny, though again, the joke that they’re not actually accomplishing anything gets muddled by the poor staging. Magical Mystery Tour might be made more frustrating by the number of good ideas it fails to properly follow up on; you’d almost prefer it to be actually incompetent through and through.
It doesn’t help that the Beatles’ first two films were the work of a renegade artist of the cinema, Richard Lester, who placed his distinct and distinguished stamp on two features that were nevertheless very different from each other. Magical Mystery Tour, directed by the band themselves (with an assist, mostly technical, from Bernard Knowles), looks and feels like the work of amateurs, and its dime store version of Lester’s quick-witted abstraction and innovation (replete with the presence of good luck charm Victor Spinetti as a nonsense-spouting drill sergeant) doesn’t impress. You already know you’re in trouble after five or six minutes when the malaise of uneventful travel sets in and the film fails to conjure up any actual reason to set up its clip of Paul in Nice, France dancing along to “The Fool on the Hill”; subsequent scenes like the race and other pointless diversions are almost invariably overlong. In A Hard Day’s Night the song sequences were organic to the story, in Help! they felt like a supplemental treat, but here you’re desperate for them to appear just to break the monotony; even the Bonzo Dog Band parading around with stripper Jan Carson on “Death Cab for Cutie” is a welcome diversion. “I Am the Walrus” is the best of the lot, an ingenious and resourceful piece of visual excitement, though “Your Mother Should Know” is an engaging bit of old Hollywood hokum, while “The Fool on the Hill” and “Blue Jay Way” get some points for atmosphere and the instrumental “Flying” at least has the cinematic bona fides of utilizing discarded footage from Kubrick’s 2001.
That this aired on the BBC on Boxing Day (in black & white, which could only have made things worse in terms of the critical and popular reception) almost feels like an act of defiant trolling, which might make this fun and subversive if it weren’t all so labored. It does enjoy a reputation among some connoisseurs of kitsch, trash and sleaze, but El Topo it ain’t; it doesn’t get the excuse of being a piece of outsider art, being made by a prestigious world famous group with infinite resources at their disposal. Of course it’s a treat for fans and all Beatle people should see it and will at least enjoy some of it — it’s fun to play “Where’s Waldo” with Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans — but it feels very home movie-caliber and it’s really one of the rare moments the band’s sense of quality control failed them, which tends to be the case any time a musician attempts to “direct” a movie (see: Neil Young). It’s all a bit humiliating in light of the following year’s animated classic Yellow Submarine, an immersive and beautiful interpretation of the Beatles’ work that makes far more of it in cinematic terms than they could themselves, and which they quite short-sightedly considered a throwaway project until they actually saw it. But Tour is crucial for the post-Brian, pre-Apple moment in time it captures; if Submarine brought us the larger-than-life mythology of the Beatles, this film brings us the mere mortals, who were capable of shooting and missing and even completely fucking up artistically… at least, once in a very great while.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
It took multiple nights for me to make it through Early Summer, not at all a boring film and hardly a long one (just over two hours), first because it has been a very troubling and stressful few days, secondly because I was so overwhelmed by its beauty and gravity that I found it helpful to stop and savor and contemplate what it was giving me. Moreover, I felt that I wanted to delay my departure from its world for as long as possible. I’m in a lucky position because, with the exception of Tokyo Story which I saw some time before the others, I have experienced the key phases of Yasujiro Ozu’s storied career up to this point in something like a chronological fashion. It has been thrilling to watch the gentle comedies of his silent and early sound period (I Was Born, But…; The Only Son) give way to somewhat more melancholic dramas of interpersonal relationships such as Record of a Tenement Gentleman and A Story of Floating Weeds. Coming to the stirring Late Spring, to this film and to the deservedly celebrated Tokyo Story, there is the sensation of a world opening up, to Ozu becoming so fluent in the language of his modest, familial stories that they suddenly seem to capture, with the illusion of the incidental, a remarkably clear-eyed and direct appreciation of day-to-day life in all its natural rhythms and earth-shaking feeling, utterly free of artificial sentiment.
The picture revolves around the sprawling, three-generation Mamiya household, where the independent-minded secretary Noriko lives with her parents, brother and sister-in-law, and two nephews. At 28, she is regarded by the rest of her family as overdue for marriage, a situation pointed out by an aged uncle who comes to visit. These disparate characters and their friends and neighbors — all of them distinctive and vivid — all become intimate with us, helped along by a serious of performances that are frankly as good as film acting gets. Every movement, every vocalization, every subtle turn of head or eye is the full embodiment of something that seems instinctive enough to be totally free of any kind of pretense, but also considered enough that each moment — no matter how seemingly small — tells us something important. Few directors can filter reality so gorgeously as Ozu; William Wyler and Frank Borzage are two that come to mind, and Ozu was passionate about how studio-era Hollywood influenced his output (he references Katharine Hepburn in the dialogue here, and his most famous film is a remake of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow), but like those filmmakers, his job was made vastly more painless by his dependable crew of performers whose work is irreducibly miraculous.
Despite the formidable presences of Chieko Higashiyama (whose portrayal of Shige is so perfectly sustained and believable), Ichirō Sugai, Haruko Sugimura and others, clearly the heart and soul here is the same as that of Late Spring and Tokyo Story: Setsuko Hara, whose legend in some quarters has approached a ridiculous kind of immaculate worship, as though she were some invulnerable doll to be encased in memory for eternity after her retirement (which coincided with Ozu’s death in 1963), which ignores the toughness, sophistication and particularly the variance within her signature performances for Ozu’s films. Here she permits bursts of clear emotion and impulsiveness that would be unthinkable from her character in Late Spring, and displays a philosophical maturity even beyond the world-weariness she would exhibit in Tokyo Story. She also presents a striking contrast to Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1936 portrait of a young female professional in his Osaka Elegy via Isuzu Yamada’s exquisite performance as a beleaguered telephone operator in that film: we are given no evidence that she is nearly as troubled by the cheerfully solitary nature of her personal life as her family, and in fact she openly celebrates her singlehood with her stylish pal Aya (Chikage Awashima), both of whom mock the staid normies in their friend group for all their romantic devotions and strict family schedules.
Early Summer is not the story of Noriko’s will being worn down by outside pressures, but nor is it entirely the story of a woman making a decisive movement that is fully her own — for all its understated yearnings, it does not have the tragic undertones of Late Spring, wherein kindness precludes personal self-interest to the detriment of overall happiness, and Tokyo Story, in which the march of time dooms seemingly everyone to ultimate loneliness. However, it also doesn’t fully escape the sense of the crush of time, the inherent despair in the inevitability of change, and of course the lingering death and fear of the war that hangs devastatingly over it. But in truth it is simply an honest, unsparing but by no means hopeless portrait of life simply moving in the only direction it can. Its people are not broadly right or wrong, their “motives” (if that’s even the right word) anything so simplistic; you can object to the way Noriko’s parents try to gently push her in certain directions without condemning them or the norms they propagate. There’s no doubt that, like all of Ozu’s major works, this is very specifically a film about a time and place — postwar Japan — but even more than in his other films of this period, it seems that the basic, heartfelt interpersonal dramas it explores could not possibly feel more universal or ring more with the truth of the complexity of familial love.
Ozu’s cinema is often almost indistinguishable from human memory — he films a day at the beach between Noriko and her sister-in-law with the casual, unforced beauty such a moment might take on as experienced or witnessed in real life, captures goofing-off conversations between friends that feel so intimate they could be home movies, and adeptly moves his camera (an abnormal technique in his case) to satiate our gentle curiosity while pulling back just when a lesser director might threaten to violate the integrity of his characters, might tell us more than we need to know or remove the mystery that reveals more than any explicit information could. Watching it is like replaying a series of longed-for moments in which one recalls feeling understood, perhaps by those who are no longer intimates but whose kindnesses hang over us in perpetuity. Early Summer is deeply invested in the languid, comfortable pacing of real life, but it’s also reserved completely for moments of enormous, soulful importance: what could be a smaller narrative than a lot of whispers about who a certain lady is going to marry? But conversely, what could be bigger or more shattering? That is the essence of melodrama as an art form; Ozu and Douglas Sirk have more in common than may be immediately obvious. Even if their methodology could scarcely be more different, Ozu is no shyer about the unspeakable poignance of his story than Sirk or Nicholas Ray might be, which you can sense any time Senji Itō’s score wells up from a seemingly insignificant moment, knowing that you as an observer will catch up quickly.
I’m left in awe, basically; I’m left wondering, how do you create something like this? How do you capture a moment as palpably lived-in as a family cheerfully, awkwardly shaping themselves up for the portrait shown above, when the line between performance and reality almost seems nonexistent? Because you don’t fully lose the consciousness that it is created; it doesn’t have the unfiltered, showy intensity of a Cassavetes film, for example, or (of course) a piece of cinema verité. Ozu shows his hand with the things he withholds, like certain characters who remain offscreen but are incessantly discussed, the willingness to incorporate a tangent of a man watching nostalgically as a train cruises by without explicitly calling out its meaning or purpose, or more pointedly, the fact that we are never given any real clue of how the relationship between Noriko and her ultimate betrothed will play out — their last conversation something as mundane as a discussion of a train schedule — because with the disbanding of the household, Ozu’s story, for better or worse, is finished. There is also the easy, naturalistic humor that’s brought in (much of it involving the child characters) which would never have a place in a film that was more self-consciously obsessed over “realism.” There is an appropriate, impeccable balance here between complexity and structure, and much of it is born of the sheer act of taking human emotions seriously and following their track. More abstract concerns are absent because within these lives are held the largest concerns of all. Even when the past, the larger world and the sadness in it are addressed, it is always with a depth of feeling that no more explicitly political film could likely ever muster, because the connections it fosters are more elemental than that. Everything and nothing happens within these two hours, just a pure immersion in people and a cautious optimism about their destiny, which is something that could only be carried to us so elegantly by cinema.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
When I was first trying to learn about silent cinema — largely without access to the films in question — I found many descriptions of The Docks of New York, none of which really articulated or attempted to explain its actual story. All spoke of lyricism, intoxication, as though the film were some sort of pure abstraction, not “about” anything. Upon finally encountering it many years later, I made two discoveries: one is that the film actually weaves a tale that is extremely, quite deceptively simple and straightforward, one that could be summarized in a cutting sentence: a hard-living dock worker comes ashore for a night, rescues a suicidal woman from drowning, then manipulates her into an overnight sham marriage he has no intention of maintaining. Secondarily, no one describes Docks in those terms because laying out its plot doesn’t even begin to give an indication of its poetry. It would be like labeling the aesthetically comparable L’Atalante as the story of a bickering honeymoon couple.
Josef von Sternberg’s finest, most ravishing and heartbreaking silent film is the peak of the ethereal, wrenching beauty and despair exhibited in his other contemporary works for Paramount, Underworld and The Last Command; all three are devastating, but this one is made more so by its lack of distance from day-to-day life. Unlike the gangsters, czarists and Hollywood filmmakers populating those narratives, its blue collar workers and bar denizens could be almost any of us, and Von Sternberg is humane enough to magnify the matters of our own hearts until they overwhelm the screen, and lend weight to the undeniably gorgeous images he conjures.
Inevitably, you first notice the intoxicating, almost overwhelming atmosphere wrought in the studio to evoke the world of the title. From the grimy end of the work day to the harbor itself to the unhinged, freewheeling hedonism of the dockside bar at which much of the film’s action takes place, we are completely drenched in fog and sadness. During a 12-hour period this ill-advised relationship between two nothing-to-lose characters is formed and then compromised and abandoned, with equally hopeless lives from around the waterfront cheering on every moment in a strange way, a forlorn Greek chorus that we sense has seen it all before. Hopelessness itself becomes a guard these people use to shield themselves from unfathomable misery. In its perception of suicide, fraught emotion, men being cads because they know nothing else to be, this is as sobering and palpably real as The Crowd; you could spend a lot of time dwelling on the complexity of the occupants and setting in both films — faces in the foreground and background, all pervaded with longing, and the suggestion that if the camera were to linger for a bit more time past its leads, there would be an infinite number of equally poignant stories surrounding us.
But we are here with these specific people, and it is an enriching experience even as it gazes into the void of fear, desperation, and the haunting presence of what can’t be said. In some ways it is the perfect story for silent cinema, despite seeming actively timeless, free of post-modern irony and closer to the cinema of Bergman or Ozu in its deep empathy and the sense of importance it gleans from unadorned human emotion. Its entire narrative, that of its central couple Bill Roberts and the broken Mae as well as the parallel fraying marriage between the perpetually angry engineer Andy (Mitchell Lewis) and his wife Lou (Olga Baclanova), is telegraphed in glances, pauses, avoidance. Dialogue beyond the sparse titles would offer no more explanation of these people than the actors already provide in their transcendent performances.
George Bancroft, so larger than life in Underworld, is achingly believable here; not a Wallace Beery-style brute with a heart of gold but an actually amoral force of nature who thinks no further than a few hours into the future, and until the finale seems self-interested to the exclusion of all the world and even, to an extent, his own potential contentment. Betty Compson’s characterization of Mae is deeply and extraordinarily touching largely because it has no simple thesis; a woman at the end of her rope who’s introduced with her leap into the New York harbor then is led through lust, hope, love, distress and anger by the events set into motion by Bill Roberts’ rescue, she is a three-dimenional lost soul whose plight neither Compson nor the film itself is interested in reducing to obvious metrics. Hers could be a tearjerking, shallow tragedy — briefly given a reason to live then broken and abandoned once again — but instead has the spirit and chaos of lived-in disappointment, unapologetic in its vividness and extremity. Baclanova and Lewis’ characters, too, avoid the superficial telegraphed narrative that their fraying relationship could easily imply, and so much of their success at presenting these as genuine human beings is in the painfully lifelike manner of their cold, embittered interactions.
My first time through The Docks of New York, I admitted to being frustrated by the final scenes, which seemed too much of a “happy end” copout to me along the lines of The Wind, Victor Sjostrom’s haunting narrative of a woman alone that abruptly spins into controversial patness seconds before the fadeout. Essentially, when Bill Roberts wakes up and prepares to move on with his life forever — briefly moved enough by the sad image of his “wife” reclining, temporarily at peace, to leave an extra couple of bucks on her nightstand, a perfectly gruff and meaningless gesture — he ignores every confrontation his behavior elicits, a peripheral crime of passion included, until he has a change of heart after boarding his ship and returning to work, an admittedly unlikely moment of redemtion that’s tempered somewhat by a courtroom scene that follows wherein Mae has been arrested for pilfering some clothes that Bill actually stole and gave to her. He takes the rap and goes to jail for her, and she promises to wait forever for him. It rang false to me initially, but on revisiting, I’m not entirely sure this final encounter is even particularly optimistic, with a palpable air of uncertainty to the beautiful closing pull away from her standing frozen in the courtroom, as she gets swallowed by other people and other cases. There’s no comparison to the silliness of The Wind‘s ending, which has never stopped me from considering that a great film. And everything before that moment is so flawlessly haunting it can scarcely negate the picture’s overarching tone of beguiling sorrow.
This was Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate silent film (and the last one to survive today, with The Case of Lena Smith now sadly lost); it dates from what by some measures may be the peak year of pure cinema in America, in which the Hollywood studios and their best directors had attained a singular language and artistic confidence that was producing work of phantasmagoric beauty and brilliance soon to be disrupted by the onslaught of talkies, though this judgment is inevitably based on the small percentage of pictures that have managed to remain culturally relevant today, perhaps an unreasonable sample size. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to view films like this and The Last Command as well as The Crowd, The Wind, The Man Who Laughs, The Wedding March and Chaplin’s The Circus, all from 1928, and not at least briefly lament the loss of such synthesized energy and grace among these outstanding artists.
I’m writing this on a week whose film-related discourse has been dominated by a controversy over some remarks Martin Scorsese made about the glut of serialized comic book movies, which have effectively shut out all other brands of popular and unpopular entertainment from regional multiplexes like those near me, and there has been some blowback against perceived snobbery from cinephile circles. Deep down I do fully agree with the concept that great art can come from anywhere, and that no individual or kind of individual has a right to decide what greatness means for anyone but themselves. Reliving an infinitely evocative film like The Docks of New York simultaneously makes me more and less sympathetic to the cult that surrounds something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the one hand, as infuriating as I know this line of thought can be, how can anyone look at a sequence like that in which Bancroft wakes up and sneaks out of the loft, surrounded by braying seagulls and with an entire novel written in each line of his face and not be affected? In what sense is it somehow snobbish to like this presentation of a yearning, conflicted, enigmatic moment between people and to dislike any other given piece of popular entertainment that would never even attempt to articulate this kind of subtle, heartfelt mood?
Secondly, and conversely, I think of all the people who responded with hurt to Scorsese’s comments — which I hasten to add I think everyone is inflating unreasonably beyond one fairly authoritative person’s opinion, which is all it is — because of how profoundly affected they say they’ve been by those movies, and what I respond to in that line of argument is that we do badly need to connect with people through art. I think it’s a basic need, and I think that if that need isn’t being met then you almost have no choice but to turn to whatever popular entertainment is available to you to try and dredge up those feelings, to make it OK to talk about things that can’t really be talked about, even if — in Marvel films, for instance — they are weighted down with tropes and metaphors I find exasperatingly silly. What I’m getting at is, watching Von Sternberg’s film play out, I wish so desperately I could share it with you somehow, to experience it and discuss it outside of a vacuum, to talk about movies like this outside the world of cinephiles and critics who’ve seen it all, and return to just coping with and processing its ideas on an interpersonal basis rather than strictly in the context of movies as a hobby or even as an artform with the weight of historical narrative behind it. This summer I’ve found myself more and more returning to the basic joy of appreciating great films as experiences, as art, untethered from critical vernacular; and I wish like crazy I knew more people who got the same pleasure from doing that. Like the characters in this film, I feel a certain desperation to connect in this terribly lonely world, which is the same lonely one in 2019 as in 1928. In other words, if you’re still reading at this point, I’d just like to say: hello.
[Includes some material from my Letterboxd capsule of the film from 2016.]
!!! A+ FILM !!!
The Killing is both a beginning and an end for Stanley Kubrick; although he made two earlier features, one barely released and one that briefly rotated on the B-grade circuit, this is the first of his films that matters in any broader sense, and the one that effectively launched his career as a director. Kubrick’s background, nearly unique among major filmmakers of his era, was in still photography; as a journalist he had work published during the 1940s in Look Magazine, before transitioning to motion picture film with a few documentary shorts. Apart from the striking, stark imagery to which he always seemed naturally drawn, there isn’t much indication in those works of just how singular an artist he would prove to be in the decades to come — but that changes with The Killing. Conversely, it is also Kubrick’s farewell to a certain kind of storytelling, seen also in his prior feature Killer’s Kiss and to a lesser extent in his shorts, marked by a pulpy grit, sleaze and chaos that would mostly be absent from the canon features with which he would later permanently make his name; because Kirk Douglas picked him up and changed his course with Paths of Glory and Spartacus, we won’t ever find out what Kubrick’s career might have looked like had he spent more time on small-scale crime thrillers like this, imbued with sleaze and desperation. But The Killing alone suggests, not to wish masterpieces like Dr. Strangelove and Eyes Wide Shut away, that it might well have given us some extraordinary cinema.
The most frequently remarked upon aspect of The Killing, which Kubrick produced with his partner James B. Harris and some financing from United Artists after essentially picking up a random paperback (Lionel White’s Clean Break) to adapt, is the tightness of its scenario. Discussed less frequently than it deserves in comparison to the likes of The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, the picture revolves around a brazen racetrack heist involving a small group of downtrodden employees and ex-convicts. Their leader is Sterling Hayden, a coolheaded schemer newly released from prison and attempting a clean break from his old life, with long-suffering girlfriend Coleen Gray clinging, secretly wounded that he’s immediately returning to crime but incapable of protesting. Although the film juggles multiple characters and timelines, Hayden’s Johnny Clay is its beating heart, the classic noir image of a calculating tough-break comeback kid who will be on easy street if he just gets this one shot, but one without a trace of the typical fear or longing. He seems to accept every event, even if it’s a shocking setback, before it even occurs, and is never caught displaying anguish or uncertainty until the final moments. His strength is both cautiousness and speed; the time to hesitate is in the broad planning of the operation, never in its execution.
All that said, when one looks closely at the mechanics of the crime documented here, they are largely unremarkable, and quite by design at that. This is not Logan Lucky or even a Dick Francis novel; getting lost in a procession of minute concerns would dilute the film’s impact. All Johnny is ultimately doing is setting up a few distractions, thereby creating hysteria, and thereby allowing for a simple holdup, the main special distinction of which is his hiring of an actual on-duty cop to inconspicuously cart the gigantic sack of money away. What we’re given to marvel at is not so much the event itself as the way Kubrick stages and then, masterfully, cuts it along with the otherwise mostly obscure editor Betty Steinberg; after a breathlessly tense, anticipatory first act, the film spends much of its blistering 85 minutes careening across the events of the day of the race, periodically skipping backward, repeating and recontextualizing moments, and breaking chronology to provide complete narratives for its various doomed participants.
All this works seamlessly, its only cop to convention being the dry House on 92nd Street voiceover (which will make some cringe, will delight others for its retro detachment) that clarifies the structure, because Kubrick is so much more interested in the people involved in the grand heist than he is in the intricacy of the scheme itself. And he focuses on those people, and those in their periphery, because what makes The Killing so fascinating and singular is, as in W.R. Burnett’s novels, the naive hopefulness central to the criminals’ faith in everything working out for them. (The forces of supposed Good are all but absent from the narrative as a controlling or contrasting ideal.) As a result of this, Kubrick and his cowriter Jim Thompson are able to make sympathetic audience vessels out of a whole troupe of scumbags and weirdos, because their wide-eyed longing for things to go right for once — and the trust they put in Johnny, in whom they believe so much they can taste it — is so familiar to everyone peering into these tiny rooms and dank corridors, especially anyone who’s ever just needed a few more days to set things right.
There’s no use debating the point that The Killing is part and parcel with a long line of heist thrillers that began long before it and persists to this day, or that it toys with a number of familiar, even clichéd genre tropes, even if far more competently and pleasingly than did Killer’s Kiss (which was basically just a programmer). Yet it’s unlikely that most 1940s noir or even gritty writers like Burnett would’ve exhibited the morbid, blackly comic interest Kubrick does in a pathetic yet oddly believable character like George Peatty, the cuckolded predecessor to the neutered, aggressive male losers played by Hayden in Dr. Strangelove and Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut. Peatty’s story harks back to Fritz Lang’s noir Scarlet Street (therefore Jean Renoir’s La Chienne) and inevitably to numerous other whining psychopaths in sham marriages with women they misguidedly adore, in this case the impeccably entertaining Marie Windsor as slightly awkward glam queen Sherry, who’s stepping out with young dumb hot crook Val (Vince Edwards) and spends all the rest of her time hectoring George, who in fairness does not make it difficult and frankly seems to demand a certain degree of torture. The horrendous Stella D’Oro Breakfast Treats domestic scenes of this marriage, during which Kubrick casts us relentlessly as voyeurs to the very dregs of miserable domesticity, are as knowing and witty in their fashion as the commentary on Mr. and Mrs. Spoon’s dead bedroom in Night of the Hunter (and contrast hilariously with the stoic narration). It is these telling, distressing moments of raw humanity that make these films stand out from the standard-issue dread of film noir.
Windsor’s height kept her mostly on the sidelines in the sexist film industry of the day, relegated to B-pictures (she’d just wrapped a Roger Corman movie prior to this) because she towered over her male costars, but Kubrick utilizes this as well as her Virginia Mayo-like budget-line decadence brilliantly, underlining the discomfort and distance in the marriage by emphasizing the smallness she elicits and exploits in George. When she wrings information out of him about the supposedly top secret plans being laid out in which he is involved, she nearly botches the entire gig by spying on a meeting of the criminals, then gets her illicit boyfriend involved and, just for good measure, tries to harness George’s depressing possessiveness of her by suggesting that Johnny sexually assaulted her. On paper his all sounds like a fairly routine femme fatale role, yet Windsor’s performance is phenomenal largely because — and both Kubrick and the character Johnny openly recognize this — her motives are no different from those of the men robbing the track. She’s gotten a raw deal too, and we can only imagine what series of bizarre events led her into this enigmatic sham marriage, the only power available to her being that which she holds over the lustful, vengeful but slimy and impotent George. (One genuinely wonders if there has ever been any sexual element to their union, and is tantalized by the oddly reasonable thought that George has been kept in constant limbo, a careful distance from her body, for the entirety of their relationship.) She is not a mysterious nefarious force stymieing a sad little old man; she is half of a union of terrible misfits whose lives are too far gone to reconcile with any warm reality of love or contentment. “Before, all I thought about was the money,” George says at one point when he starts to chicken out; sensing his apprehension, Sherry cuts him off: “Well, you just keep on thinking that way.”
This bizarre cross section of locked-door everyday life, the sideshow of overheard drama, carries through in the moments we’re granted with all the rest of Johnny’s charges, hired hands and loved ones, none of whom are one-dimensional characters despite the film’s brevity and our short time with each of them. There’s Ted de Corsia as a corrupt cop up to his ears in debt, and we get the chance to see the pleading in his eyes as he staves off his crooked creditors for just two more weeks, as well as the way he tries to rationalize his participation in the robbery later on, just listening to himself talk as others look on. There’s the lovelorn despair of Johnny’s girlfriend Fay, who’s been faithful for years without him and is terrified of losing him again, and has clearly been run ragged by the one-sided relationship. There’s the philosophical chess-playing wrestler Maurice (Kola Kwariani, a friend of Kubrick’s who in real life was… a chess-playing wrestler), who greets the latest commercial boon, providing chaos as a cover for Johnny at the track, with a certain amused distance and displays an undeniable thirst for life that marks him as maybe the one figure we meet who has any hope of moving forward. There is the rifleman played by monumental oddball Timothy Carey, a slurring Battle of the Bulge vet (he claims) with a little dog in his arms when we first meet him foreshadowing the finale that will have a dog putting the kibosh on all of Johnny’s last remaining dreams.
There is the haunting-faced ill wife (Dorothy Adams) of the track bartender (Joe Sawyer) who dotes on him even from her sickbed, patiently nodding at all of his promises of future riches even as Sherry sees only opportunism and a window for belittlement at the same suggestions, the tragic flipside of the Peattys’ marriage; once again, it feels real, like something we shouldn’t be allowed to see, and the narrator moves forward totally free of amusement. Finally there is sad-eyed Jay Flippen as Marvin, whose minor gestures set the wheels into motion, but more importantly a character whose paternal feeling for Johnny passes over into what amounts to an embarrassed expression of homosexual desire in their last verbal exchange, which Johnny gently rebuffs; that is a fascinating enough scene to bulk up an entire essay, and it’s almost never mentioned in analysis of the film. These little snatches of life feel really substantial, like something beyond the mere fun of watching a strategy form then fall apart — they are a direct rebuke to the idea that this is some sort of a “puzzle movie,” moreover to the idea, yet again, that Kubrick is a cold calculator of heartless movement.
And as to Johnny himself, he is hardly positioned as a cipher around whom all these other figures revolve; rather, you can sense why he inspires such faith in others, much of it being down to Hayden’s typically surehanded performance. While his behavior is socially reprehensible in the proper sense, he operates with a kind of integrity that communicates plainly to the audience, in a covert undercurrent to Hays-imposed morals, that he deserves to succeed at this wild plot. There are odd, telling bits of warmth and politeness he exhibits throughout the film, for instance the surprisingly patient manner in which he dispatches Sherry when he discovers her spying, or his spirited, friendly interactions with a motel owner delightfully named “Joe Piano.” It is strongly implied that, however equally well-motivated those he brought into this may be, he is not just a more assured but also a better man than most of the rest of them. (Nikki the shooter spouts off a racial slur at the security guard who will soon thereafter kill him; George is a live wire who needs no further explanation; and police officer Randy is amusingly seen completely ignoring a random woman’s cries for help when it threatens to inconvenience the timetable.)
Barely a step into his career as a feature director, Kubrick is already an intimidatingly accomplished visual stylist, and this is one of the most strikingly photographed late-period film noirs. His compositions and the cinematography by Lucien Ballard, who would later lens The Wild Bunch, plays up sad faces and ominous under-lighting, as well as an absorbing use of tracking shots between rooms, especially those claustrophobic settings in which events transpire before the races. Springing forward from the mannequins in Killer’s Kiss, the most exciting part of the New York director’s only genuine New York film, Kubrick finds more seamless opportunities for outrageousness and eccentricity here to match the urban, corrupting darkness of the script: Hayden’s eerie “wacky” mask, Kwariani’s splendidly bizarre shirtless wrestling scene in the middle of the bar, and the bloodbath that occurs when Val and George have their moment of crossfire. Indeed, the tremendously well-executed irony of that scene bears elaboration: the gang returns to a centralized location only to be compromised by Val who, in a bit of a Scatman Crothers moment, is then instantly shot and killed by an unhinged George. Elisha Cook’s last scenes in the film take his pitiful character to the logical extreme; his eyes appear increasingly lost and crazy, and in the freakishness of his climactic murder of his wife (a “bad joke without a punchline,” she moans after acknowledging verbally that she wasted her entire life), he is joined by an annoying parrot, unfazed by its cage’s collapse to the floor after a dying George grabs it.
The synchronicity of it all, the cruelty of its fucked-before-you-start fatalism, could be crippling if its events weren’t such an argument against the very existence of precision. Throughout the actual execution of the heist, flawed connections between people continually wreck the best laid plans. Marvin, lonesome and rejected, is drunk before anything actually happens; Nikki’s attempt to sweet-talk his way to the right vantage point for killing the horse mistakenly leads the guard to believe he’s made a friend, which then leads him to nearly circumvent the operation just by being polite; George’s raging jealousy, and Val’s raging greed, get nearly the entire cast killed; and finally, Johnny would perhaps make it home free if not for American Airlines’ baggage policy.
The closing airport scene of The Killing is among Kubrick’s career-peak tour de force sequences; it deserves to be considered in tandem with any of the signature moments in his various masterpieces, and it is a tragicomic triumph because it lays the failure of Johnny’s last-ditch scheme to leave town with the disputed cash squarely at the hands of the absolutely mundane matter of airline rules dictating that carry-ons not exceed a certain size. Johnny, the brilliant architect of this scheme, is finally done in because his fucking suitcase is too big, and he errs at last in his first-ever moment of obvious desperation — he did not break when he realized that the meeting place with the others was botched, or when he gathered that the secrecy of his mission had been compromised, or when Joe Piano asked if he’d like to have a drink, but now, with his girl by his side, he sees no easy way out and allows the bag to be checked. There is a wonderful moment when an AA employee brightly announces that they can reach a compromise: he can refund Johnny’s tickets, his beaming ineffectiveness akin to the people trying to be nice to Bruno in Strangers on a Train when his telltale cigarette lighter falls into the grate.
And still, in this age before x-ray baggage screenings, Johnny — who already seems resigned to failure — is only ultimately doomed when a woman’s small dog runs out onto the tarmac and the driver of the cargo vehicle swerves to miss him. The suitcase falls and there is the indelible image of millions of dollars flying in the wind as Johnny and his girlfriend look on, defeated, and make their way out to try and hail a cab, only to be stuck watching as the airport police move toward him. “What’s the difference?” Johnny mutters, but because of our position we know that it made all the difference — so many are dead, and so much was at stake, and now there is nothing. Somehow Kubrick manages to make the classic Crime Doesn’t Pay ending a moment of bleak, humane beauty, the absolute sense of loss as incalculable as death itself. The fate to which Johnny is resigned is the death of the future, the death of love; every snatch of life we’ve seen in the prior hour and a half comes careening back. My own mind can never help tracking back to the bedridden wife who will never see her husband again, in a scene that increases in poignance each time one sees the film. There is a great deal of strange, perverse fun to be had in watching all this unfold, but there’s also a sickening sense of destruction. The end is baked into the beginning. Perhaps the reason The Killing resonates so much, brings us calling back as if we’ve forgotten how it all unravels, is that many of us are born with a sense that all of our fondest desires will invariably meet such a fate. Perhaps we need to see it happen to others. Kubrick’s later films would prove at times more optimistic (Eyes Wide Shut), at times even bleaker (The Shining) about human relationships and the fragility of everything, but in many ways his first pass at expressing his philosophy seems to be his most honest and complete one of all.
[Post updated 2/9/20; Aguirre, the Wrath of God out, Once Upon a Time in America in]
“THEY SHOOT PICTURES, DON’T THEY?” TOP 100 [link to the TSPDT website]
1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
2. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
4. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
5. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
6. 8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini) [cap]
7. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
8. Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
9. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
10. Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa)
11. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)
12. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)
13. Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)
14. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
15. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein) [cap]
16. Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
17. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
18. L’atalante (1934, Jean Vigo)
19. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) [cap]
20. The Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov) [cap]
21. Rashomon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)
22. The 400 Blows (1959, Francois Truffaut)
23. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
24. The Godfather, Part II (1974, Francis Ford Coppola)
25. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)
26. Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)
27. Andrei Rublev (1966, Andrei Tarkovsky) [cap]
28. City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
29. La Dolce Vita (1960, Federico Fellini)
30. Mirror (1976, Andrei Tarkovsky) [cap]
31. Touch of Evil (1958, Orson Welles)
32. Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
33. Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)
34. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson) [cap]
35. Sunset Blvd. (1950, Billy Wilder)
36. Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)
37. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
38. L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
39. Contempt (1963, Jean-Luc Godard) [cap]
40. The General (1926, Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman)
41. Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
42. In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar-Wai) [cap]
43. Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)
44. Grand Illusion (1937, Jean Renoir)
45. The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
46. Ugetsu (1953, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
47. Playtime (1967, Jacques Tati) [cap]
48. Modern Times (1936, Charles Chaplin)
49. Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
50. Fanny and Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman) [cap]
51. Stalker (1979, Andrei Tarkovsky) [cap]
52. Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)
53. Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)
54. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)
55. Pather Panchali (1955, Satyajit Ray) [cap]
56. The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)
57. Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks) [cap]
58. M (1931, Fritz Lang)
59. North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock)
60. Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
61. Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
62. Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne) [cap]
63. Viridiana (1961, Luis Bunuel) [cap]
64. Pierrot le Fou (1965, Jean-Luc Godard) [cap]
65. La Strada (1954, Federico Fellini) [cap]
66. Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann) [cap]
67. The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)
68. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Sergio Leone)
69. The Seventh Seal (1957, Ingmar Bergman)
70. Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)
71. Amarcord (1973, Federico Fellini) [cap]
72. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)
73. The Battle of Algiers (1965, Gillo Pontecorvo) [cap]
74. The Leopard (1963, Luchino Visconti) [cap]
75. Journey to Italy (1953, Roberto Rossellini) [cap]
76. The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin)
77. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, Orson Welles) [cap]
78. Late Spring (1949, Yasujiro Ozu) [cap]
79. Pickpocket (1959, Robert Bresson) [cap]
80. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
81. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
82. Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami) [cap]
83. Jules and Jim (1962, Francois Truffaut) [cap]
84. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman) [cap]
85. Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch) [cap]
86. The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci) [cap]
87. Nashville (1973, Robert Altman)
88. Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
89. Gertrud (1964, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [cap]
90. A Man Escaped (1956, Robert Bresson) [cap]
91. The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)
92. Jaws (1975, Steven Spielberg)
93. Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi) [cap]
94. A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes) [cap]
95. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford) [cap]
96. Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) [cap]
97. Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker) [cap]
98. Last Year at Marienbad (1961, Alain Resnais) [cap]
99. Blow-Up (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni) [cap]
100. Once Upon a Time in America (1984, Sergio Leone)
Although I toyed with the idea back when I was lightly using Tumblr during my early Oscars projects, for the first time in one of these initiatives I kept a journal with running thoughts in addition to my regular Letterboxd reviews, the reason being that I thought it would be interesting to try and critique the elements that lead to a film gaining sufficient status as among the absolute Greats to show up on the upper reaches of this list. Please note that my criticisms aren’t of the list itself. They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? is a wonderful site and I appreciate all the work that goes into it. I started journaling a few weeks into the project and I’ve reproduced all of my entries below.
The project began January 6, 2019 with Blue Velvet and ended September 9th of the same year with Andrei Rublev. I watched and reviewed 24 films I had not previously seen and revisited eight that I had not seen in many years. I also happened to rewatch The 400 Blows and The General, both already reviewed here, during the course of these months.
NOTES ON AVAILABILITY
All 100 films are available to rent from the usual outlets with the exceptions of:
– Ordet, In the Mood for Love, La Strada, Gertrud and Sans Soleil, which stream on the Criterion Channel
– Shoah, in print physically from the Criterion Collection
– Nashville is available online for purchase only, but is also in print physically from the Criterion Collection
*** #1: prelude ***
They Shoot Pictures recently posted their latest revision of their aggregate 1000 Greatest Films list, which gathers data points from every imaginable critical survey, current and archival, and while I’m not yet ready to commit to the whole expanse of the list, I decided to fill in the gaps in the top 100 that I haven’t seen, or haven’t seen in 10+ years. My main reason for this is that I’m in the middle of a chronological jaunt through the major world classics of each decade and just finished the ’40s; that’s taking me about a year for each decade, and I’m enjoying it a lot, but I didn’t really want to wait that long to have an opinion on, like, The Conformist or Blue Velvet.
One fifth of the titles on this list are films I first saw very early on, before I finished high school, in a time before I’d really feel comfortable remembering myself as a cinephile, even though they also represent some of the building blocks to my becoming one; and in fact The Apartment is a borderline case, since I believe it’s the first time I watched a movie because a director I then deeply admired (Cameron Crowe) highly praised it. It’s a Wonderful Life and Casablanca both came to me in my childhood, early enough that I only hazily remember my original impressions of them, but they have hung over me as a near-constant presence ever since, as they do over American culture at large; Casablanca is as good an introduction to studio-picture and WWII iconography as any, and it continues to cause much swooning thanks to the sophisticatedly hopeless romanticism of its script and the divine lead performances by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It’s a Wonderful Life, on the other hand, still stands as a bizarre selection to become an annual tradition for much of the country because it is an extremely dark, often even bitter film, as much a singular treatise on the aftermath of the war experience as it is the cuddly Christmas story that I thought I saw when I was younger; it’s really a film one must be an adult to understand, but it’s still quite a gift to all of us.
My two favorite films of all time, 2001 and Vertigo, were both introduced to me through cable television as a child, both around fourth grade, though I cannot tell you that I processed 2001 at all as a sensory experience. I watched it with my mom explaining the story (or rather, the plot of the novelization) to me and recounting her somewhat unpleasant experience seeing it theatrically on original release. (She recalls that the audience in Sanford, NC laughed when the ape discovered tools.) I don’t remember having much of an opinion of it apart from being slightly afraid of HAL, but it stuck in my mind as a fascinating enough artifact that I had no trouble understanding the numerous references to it in various media, and then found my memories of it being strikingly beautiful and vague validated when I finally saw it again, on a cropped VHS tape, in high school — at a time when that very poetic vagueness became a nearly automatic source of fascination. (Simultaneously, I found and devoured Jerome Agel’s remarkable book about the film and the popular response to it.) At the time, I was touched by the open-endedness of it; now I don’t find it particularly open-ended at all except in its extremely minimalist approach to narrative, which for me was completely right and proper and, in execution, achingly beautiful. The IMAX screening of it I saw in 2018 may well remain the apex of my moviegoing life.
Vertigo was a different matter; I was thoroughly involved in the story during an afternoon showing of the film, also sitting next to my mom, but I was prepared a bit for the twists and turns in the story because I had at one point been a fairly regular viewer of reruns of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Nick at Nite; what shocked me when I saw the film again about five years later was how much more tortured and serious it was than it seemed to me as a kid, programmed to take the story strictly at face value. Over the years, Vertigo has never wavered from a status as my favorite film by my favorite director; I don’t find it violated by its status as a totem for Hitchcock. Instead, I find its fucked-up, unapologetic core of emotional torment absolutely phantasmagoric in its intensity, and believe it touches dark corners of the human psyche that few other works of art would dare approach — far from an apology for its lead character’s manipulations and excesses, it stands as an indictment of humanity itself, love itself, and it seems at times to nearly burst with longing. Its power, in my view, is nearly frightening. For me, it also only bears faint resemblances to the rest of Hithcock’s output, which nearly without exception I appreciate for totally different reasons than I love Vertigo; the sole exceptions, I suppose, are Rebecca and perhaps Marnie.
One of the decisive influences in my early life of film watching was my sister’s vast collection of videotapes, mostly recorded from TV broadcasts of various films; her tastes ran mostly toward sci-fi and action films, but there were scattered exceptions like Once Upon a Time in the West, which was the first western I deeply appreciated for its mordant humor and quiet-loud dynamics, though she helped me a lot with getting through the slow parts; and North by Northwest. I actually had become extremely (or rather, even more) interested in Alfred Hitchcock after attending the exhibition devoted to his work at Universal Studios in Florida, and came away intrigued by his large filmography and the stories of his methodology, one of the first times I took an extremely close interest in the technical and psychological aspects of film-watching (the only previous evidence that I would be obsessive about movies when I grew up was that I went through all of my parents’ VHS tapes watching the opening credits of each one to see how their title sequences were structured; this, incidentally, was another reason the Sergio Leone film resonated with me). With commercial interruptions and a cropped print, I don’t think I was as seduced by Northwest as I’d later become, but I was thrilled to actually see it and was richly entertained, as how could you not be? Later, however, North by Northwest would come to represent in my view the most delirious and infallible variety of entertainment — a mindless rollercoaster of excess and fun that isn’t genuinely mindless or excessive at all. During my plunderings, I also ran across Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and, to my surprise, quite detested it, finding its story boring and its characters empty and meaningless, despite my youth. I spent much of my early adulthood assuming I’d just been too young for it, only to find when I finally watched it again (in “final cut” form) in 2013 that I still hated it, and nearly for the same reasons — its totally superficial interpretation of “film noir” has only aesthetic appeal and is appallingly inert as a narrative. If it’s not the worst film out of these hundred, it’s very close.
The late ’90s and the Master’s 100th birthday brought a flood of Hitchcock retrospectives on various networks, which meant I finally got to see the two (at the time) most hotly discussed titles in his oeuvre. (Vertigo was still, at this stage less than two decades after it was completely out of circulation for years, more a cinephile’s treasure than a universally beloved classic; its ascendancy to infallibility since then has been as remarkable as that of Apocalypse Now.) I was still young enough that my dad really didn’t want me to watch Psycho, and also young enough to care what he thought and feel I had to hide it when I did anyway. But I was absolutely floored by it immediately, and by Rear Window; it might have been at this stage that Hitchcock’s films became not so much a subject of intrigue as of actual passion. Shortly thereafter I got Truffaut and Spoto’s books and was pretty well entrenched. Both films play extremely well across all manner of generational lines to this day; it is little wonder that they take permanent residence on lists like this.
And I think it’s around this point, 1998-99, that I become an avid and dedicated viewer of movies discovering my own taste instead of piggybacking on that of my parents and siblings. In the fall of ’99, my dad decided that he wasn’t paying enough money to watch television and installed “digital cable,” a then-novel new invention that gave us access to an unholy number of pay channels running uncut movies. Once I realized the scope of what was now available to me, I attempted to initiate a routine of watching a film every evening — I rarely stuck to it very strictly, with calls to my girlfriend and various other distractions still out there, but found it pleasantly easy to fall fully into the morass, and it was during this period and the time just before and afterward that I first saw an enormous number of eventual favorites, and approximately ten films on the TSPDT list.
Touch of Evil was probably my first film noir; initially seen in its restructured “director’s cut” version assembled with the help of Jonathan Rosenbaum, it confused me in its sheer delirium and I don’t think I fully grasped the plot for years, not until I’d seen it maybe half a dozen times, but from the first I was captivated by its beginning and end, and I remember thinking about it a lot after I saw it, and remembering it with more intense fondness than I felt for it just after it ended. (Curiously, it wasn’t my first time with a Welles picture; that was Macbeth, seen in class earlier the same school year.) Next and perhaps even formative for me was Dr. Strangelove, which I’d wanted to see since I was a little kid and which did the biggest number on my sense of humor since I first discovered Help! in the early ’90s. Seeing that and A Clockwork Orange, also long a subject of curiosity, and revisiting 2001 in close chronological proximity really made me something of an auteurist for the first time, an experience I think an overwhelming number of cinephiles have early on with Kubrick. Like Hitchcock, though, Kubrick would grow up along with me in a way that other early points of interest whose entire filmographies I sought out like Cameron Crowe and (cringe) Kevin Smith would not. Though I’m aware that Kubrick attracts a heavy bro contingent that doesn’t really care that much about movies, only about a very received kind of pseudo-badassery (and I hasten to note that I do not look nearly as fondly on Clockwork today as I do the rest of his major works, except as a piece of graphic art), I find that to this day I am still discovering new elements, new nooks and crannies, in his relatively tiny body of work.
Another filmmaker who probably belongs in the category of “auteurs I once deeply treasured that have not grown along with me,” painfully, is Woody Allen, although I continue to admire and sometimes adore his films in an aethstic sense and occasionally in a narrative one — and I am fascinated enough with his career, and influenced and possessed enough by his films, that I am unlikely ever not to be some variety of a fan — but these days, it seems clearer and clearer to me that he isn’t a particularly mature artist, and that what I once took as Austen-like satire of the wealthy classes (in New York especially) was more straightfaced and tone-deaf than I wanted to believe in my teens and twenties, when I all but unreservedly worshiped the man. I think it’s also relevant that Allen’s writing, as would later be the case with the Coen brothers, tends to really congratulate his audience for “getting it,” and not being like those Other People; I always knew this, but once upon a time I felt flattered and honored to be one of the elite smart ones who really understood, failing to realize the emptiness of this one-sided relationship. It’s easy to get taken in by all of the pseudo-intellectualism, and also easy to miss the virtues of his work — including his onetime deftness with comedy — if you get seduced by the big charade, as was once a rite of passage for first-year college students, or genuine wannabes like myself.
Completely discarding the extremely thorny matter of his private life, I remain deeply conflicted about Allen, thanks largely to the fact that nearly every time I do revisit one of his better films, I find myself blown away once again by how a guy who seems like such an utter dunce can be blessed, at least occasionally, with such infallible artistic instincts. Annie Hall is a masterpiece, a romantic comedy for cynics that isn’t really cynical, a love story that’s really about longing for impossible things, a powerful and direct act of communication and common ground from a ridiculously privileged soul with whom we have virtually nothing in common, and a genuinely innovative, creatively restless and even exciting film, the sort of movie that genuinely feels like a reinvention of the form. (Manhattan, not on the list, is an even more extraordinary piece of work — and a far more socially problematic one.) It also reminds you of a key point about Allen’s recent history: that is, the reason people have a harder time reconciling themselves with his films today than they do with Roman Polanski’s, or for that matter with something like Michael Jackson’s music, is that Allen was so dedicated to making us feel as if he was talking straightforwardly to us from the heart in films like Annie Hall. It was so much of the appeal of a film like this that he seemed to break the fourth wall and strip away every bit of narrative distance in order to relate to us on a personal level. I think that was a facade, a kind of act of manipulation, and that the real Allen is represented by the much more sheltered and inert characterizations seen in work like Interiors or Husbands and Wives, or by the outright criminal sociopaths of Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors; there’s a telling lack of detail in the interpretations of working class characters, for instance, in The Purple Rose of Cairo. As Molly Haskell has argued, this does not render the films invalid as works to be appreciated and examined, it only changes their context. But I think it’s worth noting that hardly any other film on this list I consider great would require the kind of mental gymnastics I find myself almost involuntarily doing to defend my love of Annie Hall, including several by directors who as people probably aren’t much more upstanding than Allen. This is the price he pays for associating himself and his own persona so completely with his work, while also remaining almost psychotically guarded; I’m sure he would readily agree with me that you learn far more about Bergman from a Bergman film, or Dreyer from a Dreyer film, than you do about Allen from a film in which he literally stars as a version of himself.
A rite of passage in which I did not participate was “the Tarantino phase.” I despised Pulp Fiction, which I was quite eager to see given the fanfare around it, from the very first time I sat through it. I’m a little softer on the man now and I even like a couple of his films (Jackie Brown and Inglourious Basterds) but his sensibility is pretty far from mine overall, and Pulp Fiction to me as a kid constituted every tryhard guidance counselor trying to “relate” to me with buzzwords and appropriation of empty style, and as an adult still carries that same sense of desperation, and is painfully over-written and unfunny to boot. It’s a bunch of kids play-acting, basically, and I’m quite befuddled by its cultural cachet; and to be honest, I probably dislike it even more than Blade Runner… although as with that film I do get one bit of aesthetic pleasure: in this case, it is ingeniously structured and edited.
It was also around this time that I finally saw Jaws, a legendary title whose sequels I’d oddly been exposed to before seeing the film itself; I remember attempting it at some point as a child and either being circumvented by my mom for fear it would scare me or by myself out of boredom by all the time spent with characters standing around talking. It remains bizarre that Jaws is the film credited with inaugurating “blockbuster” Hollywood; for one thing, Airport and The Towering Inferno both predate it and the gulf between their quality and success is much wider. Plus Jaws is clearly so much more intelligent and engrossing than any of its progeny, as I found when I did finally see it and was thoroughly riveted. To this day, it’s a film that I almost involuntarily must see through to the end if I encounter it while flipping through channels in a hotel or something. Too artful and subtle to be worth blaming for the sorry state of mainstream cinema in the last few decades, it is ridiculously compelling through and through, and a genuinely great piece of popular entertainment… whose popularity and cultural largeness is almost wholly irrelevant to the actual experience of watching it.
I’m not sure when I realized I wasn’t a fan of “genre” films, something that leaves me alienated with a lot of the sort of people I enjoy hanging out with. I think probably in the summer of 1997, hanging out with my sister’s tapes, I started to get the uncomfortable feeling that my received wisdom about science fiction (of which everyone else in my family was/is extremely fond) wasn’t holding together, though it was years before I said it out loud, and gleaned quickly from trying to read Tolkien that I had no interest in even the best, most thoroughly well-conceived fantasy. Horror, I believe, may have taken a bit longer because it wasn’t something that was present at all in my household growing up. “Scary movies” were basically taboo as far as Dad was concerned because he was too nervous often even for just straight thrillers. Maybe this lack of identification is why, when I did begin to watch occasional horror films, I found the bulk of them almost painfully stupid and ineffective. The key exceptions, like George Romero’s earlier films, aren’t on this list, but one important one is — however, The Shining always struck me less as scary than, as Pauline Kael said, a florescent-lit, mystery-free curiosity that felt like an extremely strange dream more than it felt like an outright bad one. I didn’t pick up on its covert commentary about abuse for a number of years, probably because I was rather sheltered. But the first time I watched The Shining with my mother, who was totally inexperienced with this kind of movie, for whatever reason it suddenly seemed terrifying. I think the best thing you can say about it, besides that it’s a heap of melodramatic and visually audacious fun, is that no other film in the history of cinema, at least none that I’m aware of, looks anything like it. (Last Year at Marienbad is in the neighborhood, I reckon.)
Up to this point, nearly every movie I’d ever seen was American or British. I had no prejudice against subtitles or foreign cinema at all; on the contrary, once I had Leonard Maltin’s book and was reading about movies on a semi-regular basis, I had immense curiosity about world cinema, but there was no convenient access to it in my suburban universe (no driver’s license yet, either) back then the way there is now. Perhaps because of their influence on Hitchcock, I was most intrigued by the UFA-era German pictures, and the two I managed to see on cable, both of which are here, didn’t disappoint. Metropolis is an ideal first experience with silent cinema (though it technically wasn’t mine; I had seen some of the comedy shorts and with things like The Mark of Zorro from years earlier) for its bold iconography and vivid, simple storytelling (some would say sophomoric, but I disagree, simply because the film’s execution is too perverse for that). I was riveted by its otherworldly sets and special effects, unlike anything I’d seen, and by the strange beauty of its mystical perception of the future, which felt huge even on a tiny screen. Even before Metropolis I saw M, which had always intrigued me; not a horror movie at all, but this was something that did terrify me — the way that its dramatic story of a child murderer wandering the streets of Weimar Berlin was a transmission from such a different world but still, in so many ways, felt new and untouched. I was also deeply moved by Lang’s treatment of the killer, played by Peter Lorre, for the way in which he fully condemned his crimes without treating him as an inhuman monster — that felt bold, and progressive, to me; and as uncomfortable as it inevitably will make many viewers, it still is, along with its emphatic messaging against capital punishment.
One of the major cinematic influences on my life during this period was my high school French teacher, who as part of our education showed us a number of films that positively enchanted me. She introduced us to Claude Berri, Jean Cocteau, and most significantly for our purposes, to Francois Truffaut. I knew who Truffaut was through Close Encounters, Fahrenheit 451 and his obvious connection to Alfred Hitchcock, which intrigued me since my impression was that he was so different a director to my all-time hero. She showed us The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s debut and an autobiographical narrative of his years as an abused young delinquent, a perfect film for adolescence, a perfect film for a dark classroom that feels absolutely end-of-the-world hopeless at that age, and I felt that Truffaut was talking directly to me about the pain of being a teenager (Jean-Pierre Leaud also closely resembled my by-then-estranged onetime best friend, and I was also more affected by his scenes of cavorting around with his pal Patrick Auffay than I liked to admit) — and in my twenties I would end up laughing at this viewpoint despite my gratitude for the experience, because what I had gone through then seemed so trivial compared to Antoine Doinel’s plight. Now that I have cycled back around to believing that I really was dangerously depressed and had no outlet to deal with it during those years, I believe stuff like seeing The 400 Blows at 15 or 16 made a huge difference in my life. (I also thought Paris looked like heaven, even in its seamier elements, and wished I could hope to see it. It never ever occurred to me that getting on a plane and going somewhere was something I might actually do someday.) And as far as films that grow up with you — well, there’s no moment in life on this planet when a film like this doesn’t fit.
I remember no learning curve with title cards or subtitles (or, for that matter, with black and white, which was still all over the place on TV reruns and such when I was young and had never disturbed me) and I think I am sometimes unfairly critical of others who do struggle with it because I didn’t find it a handicap, nor did my classmates at school who were in foreign language courses or other classes in which we watched movies. I confess I still do not understand why every discussion of older films must travel through this route, as it is the most boring subject matter imaginable, and should be the same for anyone with a more than casual interest in film. I suppose it can be an adjustment to fall in with an unfamiliar vernacular, but that should be an encouragement to persist, not to close oneself off from the immense pleasures of these often still luminous artifacts. Plus silent films are their own art form, at times superior to sound cinema, and come on — if you don’t think black & white movies generally look better than the typically ugly, pallid representation of color in most mainstream films, you’re probably a cop.
Moving forward… I became a major fan of Cameron Crowe for a while after Almost Famous (seeing his two incredibly lame Tom Cruise movies essentially talked me out of viewing him as an auteur, and I never caught up with anything he made after Vanilla Sky) and, somewhat ashamedly, first heard of Billy Wilder as a result of Crowe’s book of interviews with him, although the titles of many of his movies were familiar. The Apartment was Crowe’s all-time favorite film — he had the nerve to blame it for Jerry Maguire — and being faithful to his interests and addicted to the way that his movies and those of his mentor James L. Brooks and semi-protege Wes Anderson made me feel, I acquired a pan & scan VHS copy of The Apartment and fell hard and fast in love, and I think that was one of the turning points for me. At the time, I still had ambitions of going to film school; simply writing about films hadn’t occurred to me, but for now, Wilder’s film was a huge stepping stone in my exploration further and further into the past, and further and further into the idea of movies not just as vessels of fascination but as something that could have as emotional an effect on me as a piece of music.
All of the above, with the exception of Blade Runner and Pulp Fiction, basically formed my original tastes and have, save perhaps A Clockwork Orange, remained deeply important to me with the passing of years. Once I was an actual adult with the attendant freedoms thereby implied, I had my own cable subscription, and it all neatly coincided with the peak of the DVD era when virtually every major film gradually became available in what was then unbeatable quality, invariably in its correct aspect ratio and well-presented, often with high-quality supplemental material. I’m appreciative of the way streaming has made all this physically simpler yet, but I think the years when studios fell over themselves to issue most of their back catalogs on DVD will remain the most exciting time ever to be a budding cinephile, and it’s nice that libraries are now able to keep that moment alive.
The other great turning point in my cinematic life related to Hitchcock again, and to a specific film, The 39 Steps, but I’ve told that story before and that particular film isn’t here, so moving forward…
My teenage years descended into chaos and I didn’t make it to college, but after settling in to something like an adult life in Wilmington, my independence itself fulfilling a modest dream, my then-girlfriend and I eventually sprang for cable, and Turner Classic Movies was my habitat for the next couple of years. I attempted to move back toward the old regime of seeing a film every night, and once again the attempt at this kind of a structure — which was totally beholden to the whims of programmers, and I quickly recognized that only TCM was regularly showing much that I cared about — led me to a lot of films that would become favorites, and to my filling in a lot of gaps among the world cinema classics. I could bore you for hours with specific memories I have from this period related to the movies on this list: discovering Chaplin’s City Lights after a dreadful, demoralizing day at work and being blindsided by how ageless his comedy was, then by how unforced and heartfelt the pathos in the same film felt. (I’d seen clips and knew the Tramp’s iconography well but that was it.) That picture and Dreyer’s stunning, almost frighteningly vivid and alien The Passion of Joan of Arc were the transcendent titles that made me a lifelong aficionado of silent cinema, even though most silent classics can’t quite stand up to those two, which is why they are masterpieces. The sheer forcefulness of emotion in Dreyer’s work was something that struck me almost to the point of speechlessness; I knew it was remarkable, but hardly knew what to do with it, and today I think Dreyer is the filmmaker whose work most consistently disrupts and confronts me on an guttural level. Even going back to a relatively innocuous title like the silent comedy The Parson’s Widow and all the way up to another passionately spiritual film, Day of Wrath, the beauty and generosity of his work throttles me.
In December 2004 I finally saw the movie of all movies, Citizen Kane, and have spent my life since then quietly stewing at everyone who claims it’s overrated; looking at the film, it’s difficult to imagine what a person who dislikes it wants from entertainment or art. Even though I knew many of the iconic scenes via parodies from The Simpsons, everything in this then-63 year old film felt impeccably fresh and new and full of imagination to me — a savvy, sharp examination of society, media and complex humanity. Plus it’s just so much fun; I was over the moon about it, and felt that every bit of the exorbitant praise it had been given since before I’d been born was fully deserved. I was retroactively annoyed with a family discussion I remembered from when it topped the 1997 AFI list, when it had been alleged by a sibling and parent, who’d dutifully rented it during that news cycle, that its innovations were no longer impressive in light of, like, Star Wars… which, well, whatever, I guess that was just a preview of how impossible it would eventually become for me to discuss pop culture in mixed company! As for the notion that the film is all aesthetics, propagated so frequently by the likes of Roger Ebert, I can’t disagree more; if you can level that accusation at Kane, a film I think of immense emotional power, you can just as easily lay it at The Third Man, whose mise en scene courtesy of Carol Reed (despite rumors, Welles had nothing to do with except in front of the camera) is equally electrifying. But I find both films to be cathartic, moving experiences.
I dove further into auteurism: Billy Wilder, represented here by the ghostly and slyly cynical Sunset Blvd., a film I adored and still adore despite its nastiness, which also was something of a revelation in light of the way that we think of classic Hollywood’s attitude toward itself; Roman Polanski, whose Chinatown was one of the few New Hollywood touchstones whose power was immediately apparent to me and still stands as an uncommonly well-judged creation, updating the film noir aesthetic with a seamier, more direct narrative that is actually devastating; Ingmar Bergman, who I instantly connected with on discovery of his heart-on-sleeve romanticism and sense of beauty and wonder despite his often bleak worldview. Even the legendarily drab The Seventh Seal played less to me as a meditation on misery and death than as a celebration of life. Confronted with all of my favorite Bergman films, I always found myself looking out my window afterward with longing and utter appreciation.
And lastly, I finally filled in my most glaring Kubrick gap (only Killer’s Kiss and Fear and Desire among his features, neither of them significant, would remain unseen for a while longer) with Barry Lyndon, which I saw on the same day I had an important job interview after trying to catch it on TV for months. I made a huge deal of it, setting my VCR timer (was it really so long ago?) and sitting down with it in the middle of the night, lights down and everything, and making sure to dedicate myself wholly to the experience. I was hypnotized for the duration. It’s another film that attracts criticism I don’t understand — too long and boring, too stuffy and formal, too flat and unemotional, all beautiful pictures and no substance — as indicated by how many times I find myself overcome with each viewing, and by how sharp its dry wit is; I consider it the paramount example of sweeping, powerful, intelligent storytelling on film — and of course, yes, it looks absolutely heavenly. It was the first time in years that I wanted to immediately watch a film again after it was over. For a while afterward I named it as my favorite Kubrick or even, if memory serves, my favorite film. It’s certainly never far from either distinction, and frankly I don’t think I’ve discovered anything since then that shook me quite as much, though a number of pictures have come close.
Something I notice is that, among the films out of these hundred that I saw before 2004, only a couple stand out as movies I actively disliked, then or now; that starts to change drastically once I’m in my twenties, and I guess once I feel like I have a right to some sort of prejudice. I wonder if it’s a character flaw within me that I stopped being able to embrace almost everything, and I certainly can say that I watched the movies that didn’t work for me with a completely open mind — not only that but with an active desire to enjoy and appreciate them. With all that in mind, I finally got around to several movies that were a “no” for me and, as of my last revisit, remain a “no” if sometimes a softer one. So no, as much as it damns me to some sort of cinephile prison to say it, I don’t like Martin Scorsese. I was shocked, stunned even, to find myself curiously unmoved by both Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, which I saw in rapid succession in the mid-2000s; I thought the former was coated with silly half-assed ironies and desperate, empty machismo; even though, yeah, it’s critical of Travis Bickle as a character and the seamy world he inhabits, I wasn’t taken at all with the notion of spending a couple of hours steeped in that world to be instructed about how awful it was. And at least that film had Bernard Herrmann’s ingeniously eerie score; all Raging Bull has going for it for me is that it’s technically impressive, studying a specific character whose arc of abuse and despair I simply don’t find the least bit interesting — and I find both films totally hate-filled and deeply unpleasant, and dealing with their shouting showboatiness is the opposite of a good time to me. I disliked both all the more when I rewatched them as a slightly more seasoned moviegoer; I completely understand what Scorsese is doing, I just find it obvious and dull in theory, protracted and excruciating in practice, and that unfortunately has held for all of his culturally important films I’ve seen (none more than Casino, which is outright contemptible) save Goodfellas to an extent.
I was actually quite tortured by how I responded to my first two Scorsese pictures. (First three, really; I think I’ve seen all of The Last Waltz in bits and pieces over the years, mostly around this time, but consistently became so exasperated with it that I shut it off.) For that matter, I had a similar experience with Fellini: I loved the first film of his I watched, I Vitelloni, and experienced diminishing returns with each one thereafter, including this list’s La Strada. I just thought I was missing something and worried quite a bit about it rather than concluding that I just didn’t like them and had reasonably good reasons for same. But the film that broke this tendency, the one that finally caused me to question the idea that the wisdom of film historians I still maintain are smarter than me was going to hold fast and true, to the letter, all across the annals of cinematic history, was Blow-Up.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s arthouse classic, one of the defining films of the European cinema of the 1960s, so infuriated me that I pretty much changed my outlook on “received wisdom”; today I think received wisdom — at least from those who are passionate and knowledgeable — has its place, but I think this was a crucial life lesson for me. At any rate, apart from the fascinating and exuberant scenes of the Yardbirds playing, I think Blow-Up confirmed every fear I’d ever had about the potential emptiness of the once-edgy art film as a form; what made it more forcefully irksome for me was that it briefly masqueraded as a thriller, during the intriguing scenes wherein David Hemmings, as the well-to-do promiscuous Mod photographer, stumbles upon a murder mystery and a conspiracy in the background of his unrelated photo session. Antonioni’s entire point is that the listless ennui of Hemmings’ character’s lifestyle leads naturally into a scenario in which this brief snap out of his boredom is abruptly met with distraction and apathy and ends up being dropped altogether by character and film both, which leads us into a finale of tennis-playing mimes and an awkward fade into nothingness that at the time left me grouchy for days. It seemed like the sort of stuff my friends taking creative writing courses in college would come up with; at this writing, I have not yet revisited the film but I will be interested to see if an increased knowledge of the period and its concerns, as well as knowledge of much more irritating (and iconic!) youth culture films of the ’60s like Easy Rider, will affect my perception.
After Blow-Up, I started leaning a bit too far in the other direction, making much of how cool and individual I was for seeking out these important cinematic classics and not liking them, though still being equally open about those I did love. So I made no bones about my disdain for Jules and Jim, despite being a massive fan of its director, or of The Godfather, which I did try very hard to appreciate — but pretending its lazily macho, crime-fetishizing narrative was transcendent wasn’t something I could pull off without gritting my teeth, and when I saw it again some years later I still found it soapy and meaninglessly violent, its key virtue being Gordon Willis’ breathtaking cinematography. (Marlon Brando’s marble-mouthed performance does less than nothing for me.) Obviously it has merit, and it should be seen for continued cultural relevance alone, but furthering or validating its place in the canon is beyond me.
One of the great white hopes of revisiting the most widely beloved and praised of canon films is that eventually, it will all make sense to you. That very notion was one of the original centerpieces of this blog; in my experience, the difference between my early adult self and myself now is that I’m slightly better at expressing why I don’t care for some of these movies, not so much that my views of said movies has changed greatly. There are exceptions, however, among these hundred films; of those that predate this project, my greatest turnaround is probably on the two signature 1930s films of cinema’s great humanist Jean Renoir. With the exception of The River, which I always loved, it seems that I wasn’t quite ready for Renoir’s sensibility as a younger man — both The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, the latter especially, sang out to me much more when I saw them in my thirties than they did on my obligatory (but excited) first encounters with them. Perhaps controversially, I do not consider either one a masterpiece, but like many of Renoir’s other beautiful films of the period, tough as often as warm, they seem to come from a purer, more principled cinematic world, one more curious and empathetic toward people, good bad and ugly, than the moralist tide of classic Hollywood and all that persisted in its wake. (In the case of Rules, I used to have a problem whereby I seized upon certain elements of a film I liked — in this case, the very first moments — and was dejected when the rest of the picture didn’t have the same flavor. Kane spoiled me, probably. I had this same issue with Night of the Hunter and its clash of unnerving terror with schlock.)
The happiest instances I can name are probably Seven Samurai — a film I admired but thought was much too long and repetitive until I saw it projected on a modest private setup in my future wife’s apartment, then was totally wrapped up and enraptured in it; it’s an extraordinarily universal piece of communication, so little wonder it enjoys cachet with the heaviest of scholars as well as the most lightweight of film bros — and The Magnificent Ambersons, which I went out of my way to tape (inconveniencing and pissing off an ex in the process!) off TCM when it aired a couple of months after I first saw Citizen Kane and was in the heat of Welles-mania. At the time, it seemed too compromised to me, its early moments of wild, ambitious epic storytelling falling apart as things wore on, but when I revisited in the last few years I discovered that I probably just wasn’t mature enough to pick up on the film’s soulful despair. Finally, maybe this doesn’t count, but in the midst of my binging every Billy Wilder movie I could manage to sync up with on cable, I of course at last saw Some Like It Hot, and I actually really loved it, but my friends, you have not seen the movie until you see it while ridiculously high on edibles, at which point the entire thing becomes debilitatingly funny.
It was probably inevitable that I’d eventually get sick of waiting around for TCM’s schedule to align with my own; I waited about a year and a half to try and catch my #1 most wanted-on-the-watchlist title, this list’s own Bicycle Thieves, to no avail, so in early 2006 I bit the bullet and signed up for Netflix, which by then had been offering their DVD by mail service for about seven years. And Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves — a few months ahead of its canonical rebranding under that title after a half-century of The Bicycle Thief — was indeed the first film I received in the mail from them. I had a friend at the time, a film major with a real sense of scope and history whose tastes diverged sharply with mine, who had told me that this was a perfect film, a monument of unfiltered heartbreak. Of course I also knew its reputation. But I felt let down when I actually saw it, finding it actually so broad and direct in its tragic messaging that it came across as obvious and maudlin. My friend was bitterly disappointed with this response, and implied that my reception of it (as well as, incidentally, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) painted me as a heartless intellectual who only craved Hitchcockian thrillers and visual pyrotechnics and couldn’t appreciate simple human connections. In fact it spelled the beginning of the end of our relationship; perhaps I should not have offered my unfiltered response. (I’d previously made this error with someone else with Harold and Maude, and I know how miffed I get with people over 2001 and such, so maybe the message is: don’t fuck with your friend’s favorite movie. At least not in front of them.)
But I was also kind of hurt by the implication, and assumed that I was missing something. (My second viewing of the picture a decade later didn’t help, though I’d learned by then of a more generalized distaste for Italian neorealism, with some exceptions; it’s more of a resistance to the fusion of style with social messaging than it is with any particular deficiency of the films themselves.) I couldn’t possibly be a smug disregarder of regular people’s nuanced problems, right? I felt I could point to a million contradictions, but then remembered how many of my favorites (like Kane, for instance) were routinely accused of being inhumane exercises in pure technique. It didn’t help when one of my half-dozen subsequent Netflix titles was Jean-Luc Godard’s pioneering Nouvelle Vague world-alterer and scrappy crime narrative burlesque Breathless, a movie my friend and I did agree on but one that could scarcely help my case in this regard when I fell absolutely in love with it since it’s so commonly viewed as an act of criticism rather than a piece of storytelling craft. And finally sitting down with Chaplin’s Modern Times, I loved a lot of it but found parts of it unbearable in what I then felt to be easy sentimentality. (I no longer feel as strongly about this.) Then there was Lawrence of Arabia, one of those films it seems everyone loves — but that I could find no feasible way into except as scenery porn. I still can’t, though I wonder if seeing it theatrically someday might change my opinion at least a little. Was I really just a hardline unreachable cynic, already set in my ways? Was my ambition of delving into the canon going to prove totally pointless?
While Fanny and Alexander would prove another point of contention (and one that I have somewhat warmed to since my first encounter), Bergman provided a less discouraging answer with Wild Strawberries, a film about a professor gaining a new lease on life on the eve of its end that I happened to see at the nadir of a yearslong depression, coinciding nearly exactly with a career change that wasn’t making me as happy as it should have, and that managed to lift me out of my despair at least momentarily. Bergman always does, which is interesting since his films are so overcome with death and sadness; there is comfort, though, in their thirst for life, and in the feeling that a great artist like Bergman hurt and bled just like you, the viewer. My reaction to Singin’ in the Rain was similar, and in the most unlikely manner, on top of the fact that it was unexpectedly so modern and uproarious in its comedy. (Its sense of humor boasts Simpsons-level degrees of irony and pop satire.) It was long one of the missing pieces in my knowledge of the classics that I dreaded most, thinking then that it wasn’t possible a Hollywood musical could ever work magic on me (something else I’ve completely turned around on), but as a result of my almost comically extreme loneliness at the time I saw it, the warmth of the three-way friendship at the center of the film throttled me in its sincerity — I wanted so badly to have that kind of connection, and was so grateful to at least witness it even in so artificial a setting as a Hollywood movie. So it wasn’t that I was unreachable, I was just only reachable by films that deigned to try and speak to me from the heart, sometimes almost incidentally, rather than out of concern.
Once I had access to basically every significant DVD release via Netflix, I set about seeing everything on the American Film Institute’s then-canonized top 100 that I hadn’t already; there are a lot of films on that list that I admire but that don’t mean a whole lot to me personally — Goodfellas, The Wild Bunch and the second Godfather are all impressive but I just don’t like those kinds of stories or characters much — plus one that I had to see twice to truly comprehend (The Searchers, an introspective and beautiful but disturbing summation of midcentury American culture) and a couple that I have seen twice and still don’t feel totally confident about: Apocalypse Now and Nashville always seem deeply flawed to me when they’re playing in front of me, but in retrospect I can’t seem to get them off my mind. Both are on a lengthy list of necessary future revisits. Maybe not surprisingly, it was Chaplin’s The Gold Rush that I had the easiest time with, both because I’m simple-minded and because Chaplin’s methodology of communication with the largest possible audience is so ageless and universal.
It was also thanks to Netflix that I started to earn some sort of rudimentary knowledge of varying national cinemas. I responded quickly to Soviet propaganda via Battleship Potemkin thanks to its sheer visual fieriness; it has not been diluted in its effectiveness by its generations of presence as a film school staple. Tarkovsky’s Stalker was a less visceral experience, one I still don’t rate highly because of what I view as its endlessly meandering philosophical mumbo jumbo (not a popular opinion, to say the least!) but a film that was so incredibly striking and memorable in aesthetic terms that it didn’t entirely leave my mind for years despite my not liking it much. I associate that film, Herzog’s eerie German touchstone Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Klimov’s Come and See (not on this list) with a certain exceptionally unmoored and uncertain time in my life. I wish I liked them more as films, but their more general mood certainly haunted me and continues to do so. It certainly put the relatively lackluster Hollywood pictures I was slogging through at the same time into perspective. (One of the few highlights of that excursion, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is here — but I like it less than most people, and indeed less than most John Ford films!)
I took somewhat longer to comprehend Japan’s cinematic legacy, not least because I began the journey with Kurosawa, who ended up being a director I loved but one whose work I am less keen on than I am on that of the other masters Mizoguchi and Ozu, whose smaller-scale and more emotionally raw stories would be more to my taste. That said, formally I couldn’t find fault with the immortal, culture-changing Rashomon and found it gorgeous and exciting — though the Kurosawa films I’d later count among my favorites would be those that were not period pieces. Another country with a sizable presence both on this list and on my investigations of that time was Italy, and I’m afraid that — aside from the works of Roberto Rossellini — I have still not found a director from that country to whom I’ve fully warmed. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita left me totally cold (but will be reevaluated here), I had issues with La Strada as mentioned, and 8 1/2 seemed both engagingly otherworldly and impenetrable in its self-indulgence. One last world cinema classic I like less than I should, but I have hopes it will change: The Battle of Algiers — which is extremely impressive in a technical and ideological sense but which I find too far afield of a comprehensible approach to humanity, though why the same exact thing doesn’t bug me in Eisenstein’s pictures is a matter I’ve yet to unpack.
Over the next several years, the films of the 1920s and ’30s would become my most consistent area of interest and passion. I suspect one of the events that spurred this was my first viewing of Sunrise, which gradually became my favorite of all silent movies — its heartfelt and imaginatively presented portrayal of a marriage that was fractured then rebuilt caught me at precisely the right time in the same way that Singin’ in the Rain had, and I’ve been grateful ever since for the way it stirred me and validated my own feelings about love. The General was a delight of a different kind, my formal introduction to Buster Keaton, who as a performer I’d probably rate even above Chaplin even if his features aren’t quite as consistent, and even just given the scattered silents among these hundred films, it becomes difficult to argue with the concept that the era before sound was the most exciting for film as a singular, fully developed art form that has no analogue anywhere else — not in literature, in theater, in music.
At this point, there’s a lapse of several years before my encountering of the last third of these 100 films. For the first few years I had this blog my focus was writing out my impressions of movies I already knew fairly well, something I sort of regret now, and I self-corrected by switching over to a different format — shorter reviews, stronger focus on exploration — a few years in. And for whatever reason, once I picked back up with the decade-by-decade canon project, with the Sight & Sound top ten lists — I found myself making discoveries that I responded to immediately, nearly without fail. Probably this has something to do with my being much more experienced and mature by the time I turned 30, and therefore more equipped to handle what these hoary old art films were bound to throw at me. Plus, with the Sight & Sound list in particular but also the silent, ’30s and ’40s canons, these are heavy hitters, movies that haven’t so much stood the test of time as defined, stretched and commanded the progression of film history. It was scarcely surprising that I would love the haunting chamber piece Persona given how I already felt about Bergman, or The Man with a Movie Camera considering my affection for untethered avant garde shorts of the same period. But it’s intriguing to me that this block of films was, in sum total, not at all hit-and-miss for me; the only ones I didn’t fall pretty hard for were L’Avventura and Children of Paradise, and I still admired both. Greed, Tokyo Story, In the Mood for Love, Ugetsu, Pather Panchali, Late Spring, and the enchanting L’Atalante, which nearly instantly became an all-time favorite — these could just as easily have been building blocks of my love for cinema as any of the major pictures noted above, and they come from a much more diverse and challenging range of nations, periods and filmmakers.
And when discovering movies like this, my prevailing emotion is always almost sheer joy at how fucking much movies can show us, lives they can lead us to, images they can bring us, what they can teach us about everything: art, the world, everyday life, storytelling. Whatever you think of lists or “critical consensus,” how could I not want to ensure that I wasn’t missing any great experience heretofore unknown to me? It was in this spirit that I began finally seeing the last 24 movies on this list that I still had yet to run across, and revisiting those about which my opinions had been formed in my early to mid-twenties and never revised.
*** #2 ***
In contrast to my optimism at the end of the introduction, what I’m finding so far is that the movies that drifted to the top of this list that aren’t already well-loved favorites often tend to have a particular sensibility that I don’t particularly gel with — that goes for those I saw long ago and am revisiting, and for those I’m seeing for the first time. I’m almost wondering now if I am experiencing some sort of an unconscious bias against arthouse or world cinema. Conversely, though, is it possible that nearly two decades of being aware of these movies without seeing them has managed to catch up with me — to give me expectations that would be impossible to meet?
So far I have seen the following as part of this project:
– Blue Velvet
– Sans Soleil
– Rio Bravo
I feel like a philistine when I tell you that Rio Bravo is the only one I felt strongly positive about, and even with that in mind I doubt I would ever think of it as one of the hundred best films ever made. In the other three cases, I don’t think I lack understanding of what the movies are doing or driving at, but none of the three totally work for me; I enjoyed Blue Velvet and admired Viridiana but had huge reservations about both of them, and in both situations I’m sure they are things that were 100% intended by their directors, with whom I’m quite broadly familiar, which is where I hit a wall: basically it’s where I come to the end of what I can really say as a lover of film or as a critic (if I am one), because finally it comes down to highly personal and often inexplicable reasons for liking or not liking what a director is doing. Sans Soleil — a “filmed essay” about… stuff… by Chris Marker — is just a style of cinematic communication that I find boring and pretentious; I know people who find life-changing value in it, but I feel much more clueless about that response than I do about anyone loving the Lynch or Bunuel films.
… and I’ve revisited these that I had seen once, long ago:
– Aguirre, the Wrath of God
– La Strada
These are very “film 101” titles; they tend to be movies that a dedicated student of film sees relatively early in their exploration, and in my case that was true of two of them, but I had polar-opposite responses to them at the time. I was all too ready to accept the things I didn’t like about La Strada — a mournful, morbid document of a pure-hearted woman having endless violence visited upon her by the burly dipshit in her life — as being evidence that I was the problem; I was honest about my lack of enthusiasm, but was quite ready to blame myself rather than the film. Toward Blowup I was outwardly hostile, and refused to consider any possible depth within the symbolism and messaging; I strongly suspect this is because I find the story itself rather clumsy now as then, and moreover because Antonioni is toying with a series of tropes — those of the classical thriller film — that are near and dear to my heart and in fact prompted my deeper interest in film in the first place.
In 2019, my positions have reversed. I’m much more accepting now of what Blowup is attempting to say, though I maintain it lacks a coherent point of view and that its basic examination of nihilism in the guise of existentialism (there’s no point to caring about anything because there is no real value to be placed on actions so you may as well not exist) is trite, which isn’t changed by the fact that Antonioni looks at it with some skepticism. My overall perception now is more that Blowup‘s iconic status and its handful of sublime moments somewhat compensate for its shortcomings, though nevertheless it bears no relationship in my opinion to a much stronger film that might have been made for the same material, because it lacks the emotional follow-through to make it; it’s a pet peeve of mine when someone convinces themselves that deliberately saying nothing, or giving up on all conviction, is itself a statement. So when this film gets totally wrapped up in belaboring the point that none of what it has shown us really matters, it just ends up feeling very simplistic and trite to me; and somehow, that’s even more the case if the actual point is that Antonioni is questioning the society that would lead to such a psychological construct, because what a boring way to go about that. So I don’t like the film. But in 2005, it made me so furious that I never even got as far as attempting to decipher it.
Meanwhile, while I would easily consider La Strada a better film, it invites a lot more hostility now, partially because having seen a lot more Italian cinema since I first encountered it, I’ve found myself unable to take Federico Fellini very seriously as a filmmaker. Like a lot of the neorealist classics that heavily influenced him (some even consider his I Vitelloni, which I do quite like, a neorealist piece), his breakthrough work is an admirably mounted production whose emotions are almost unbearably simple-minded and obvious. The “misery porn” accusation carries some weight in the context of a film whose entire premise is left on the shoulders of its impoverished heroine who’s forced into total dependence on an irredeemable rapist. When tragedy inevitably strikes, we’re left with the image of said rapist and abuser crying to the heavens, but I simply can’t see any motivation for us to feel anything but pleasure at his misery because so little work has been done to render him a complex character. It’s an example of how the arthouse classic sometimes suffers the same moral and emotional incoherence as the Hollywood blockbuster: what has Anthony Quinn’s character done to earn our sympathy? Nothing, except that the cinematography, the carefully maintained mood and mournful atmosphere has determined that we should feel a certain specific way in this specific moment. It’s a dramatic shortcut, and it’s insulting.
I originally saw Aguirre quite a few years after these others, by which time I was relatively seasoned, though I wasn’t really emotionally prepared for the unnerving, sunlit clarity of its visual style nor for its haphazard, deliberately interminable structure — which means to force an audience to withstand the heat, misery and mounting insanity of its scenario. Its audacity just tried my patience at the time, but it’s one of a few scattered films that stayed in the back of my mind and my dreams for years after I saw it; when I did revisit it a bit ago, I found that even keeping in mind I had originally disliked it, it couldn’t live up to the distorted view I’d had of it in my memory. The symbolism is rich, the audacity is arresting, but the screenplay and performances are not nearly as compelling as the intoxicating nightmare world Herzog places around them. Still, there is no question it is a deeply interesting and unique film, and a more fascinating one than either of the aforementioned. (By way of illustration, so much of Blowup has forced its way into the visual lexicon of the ’60s, and of art film in general, that it now almost seems like the embodiment of various clichés. But Aguirre remains so indelible — it neither looks nor feels like any other movie.)
So all this unconscious correction leaves us with the question of whether my reactions to Blue Velvet and Viridiana will become more nuanced with time; but I suspect that I have now reached a point at which I am more familiar and comfortable with myself and my opinions, and that my impulse to doubt my criticisms mostly comes from a place of awareness at the extremely celebrated status these movies enjoy with my fellow cinephiles. It’s always risky to venture any sort of a dissent in the face of a classic, as one doesn’t want to be the oaf contributing an Amazon review of, say, Citizen Kane with the utterly useless dismissal “I didn’t see what all the fuss was about” or similar.
… Lastly, these were revisits of films I’ve seen multiple times and liked/loved, but was now viewing for the first time in many years:
Thus far in the project, Breathless is the only long-awaited revisit to a beloved film I’ve had time for, though Night of the Hunter and, ironically, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive are forthcoming. Breathless connects with me completely, in all the ways that Blowup explicitly doesn’t: while it deeply enjoys the air of hipster glory it’s able to glean from Belmondo, it also feels intense pleasure at breaking him down and humiliating him, and there’s never any sense that Godard is favoring his version of reality over those of Jean Seberg as his long-suffering American girlfriend, who’s independent enough that she’s never really stuck playing his victim. Breathless doesn’t generally have the reptutation of being a richly emotive film experience, but for me it is (just like Citizen Kane). While Godard again makes his own presence known through his unorthodox, manic editing techniques and his camera’s general unstoppable vitality, the film never has the quality of detachment that the other movies described above seem to intentionally employ, and I wonder if this isn’t the key reason it so excites me. Godard’s films are often treated as acts of criticism, and in the sense that Breathless more or less helps me define the shortcomings of these other films typically cited as masterworks, perhaps it still makes the most sense in that light.
As this project continues, I will be intrigued to find out whether the pattern of my emotional distance from arthouse classics grows, or if there are throttling pleasures to await me. I would obviously be disappointed if Rio Bravo remains my only treasured discovery from this project — but hey, a treasured discovery is a treasured discovery.
*** #3 ***
Several months into this project, it has at least brought me to a film that I found not merely successful and satisfying but enrapturing. On inevitable revisits down the road, I feel I may come to consider Sansho the Bailiff a masterpiece. It was less than surprising in the sense that it’s the work of a favorite director, Kenji Mizoguchi, whereas so far the list has mostly left me stuck with dubious entities like Cassavetes, Visconti and Fellini. Visconti’s The Leopard outpaced any other film on the list (apart from Lawrence of Arabia) for sheer boredom.
A revisit to David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. confirmed that it is the most refined, assured version of the surreal vision of the world he exercised on the enjoyable but flawed Blue Velvet and the TV series Twin Peaks, sharing with both an adherence to an subversion of the tropes of various pulp genres, from film noir to the daytime soap opera. For me, Mulholland is wonderful both because of its complete instability as a piece of narrative and because, like the pilot of Twin Peaks, it captures moments of human grief without apologizing for them, which I believe is Lynch’s most significant accomplishment as a storyteller. The movie is also wonderfully seamy and fun, though, and after being neutral about Lynch for a while I was overjoyed to find it fully held up for me.
My experience with the unwatched items on this list overall has continued to be disappointing; and as usual, I find myself questioning what “kind” of viewer and lover of cinema I really am. I obviously don’t fit with the film-bro culture of blockbusters and Scorsese movies (the Empire reader, in shorthand); but it also seems as if I have little patience for many arthouse staples. The latest round of titles — my exposure aided immeasurably by the new Criterion Channel streaming service — were, on average, just “fine” to me. I don’t have any serious objects to Amarcord, Jeanne Dielman or A Man Escaped; I admire what all of them are up to and I don’t have any problems understanding their essences or following how people might come to celebrate them deeply. But they don’t ring out to me in an explosive enough way for me to even begin to think of them as among the best films of all time.
Am I simply too picky a viewer? I don’t believe so; I’d say it’s more likely that I’m too American a viewer — films from my own country, “masterpieces” included, don’t have this much difficulty reaching me. I also don’t think I’m letting myself be disappointed by the pedestal these movies are on. One commonality with Robert Bresson’s Escaped and Chantal Akerman’s Dielman is that they are fascinating to think about, but less revelatory to actually watch. There are elements to admire in real-time in both of them: Bresson amps up suspense from confinement with few dramatic tools at his disposal, working as he does from a dry firsthand account of a prison escape in wartime; and the thesis of Akerman’s film is delivered by an extraordinarily nuanced performance from Delphine Seyrig, who tracks a painful change in gestures and expressions by a matter of degrees. But I don’t connect to these films even as I can’t fault them; there is soul to them, but it does not communicate with me.
The sob-inducing, heartfelt Sansho is my cinema, on the other hand; I guess I like directors like Mizoguchi and Bergman who have no qualms about living inside rich, hypersensitive emotions. Films that deliberately withhold that, much like people who withhold that, aren’t my speed. Fellini’s Amarcord is somewhere in between; I like his nostalgic but tempered glimpse at the past, but I also find his memorializing of it to be somewhat indulgent and cliched. Certainly Fellini is someone who withholds nothing, but I think some degree of ironic distance is handy — Hitchcock and Kubrick being my favorite directors, both men who were interested in people but also in irony, which causes many to resent them, but which I think sets them apart without making their works less emotional. (I’m well aware some audiences consider the idea of Hitchcock and Kubrick being more emotive directors than Akerman and Bresson to be blasphemous and incomprehensible; but yes, I find their characters to resemble real people more than those in most narrative films on this list.)
I could be persuaded out of my views on Visconti’s The Leopard, but it will never be the sort of movie I’m going to have much to say about; it’s a very long, pretty historical epic documenting societal and personal transitions that are very heavily talked out but still mostly theoretical. It’s gloriously empty and did absolutely nothing for me, but its rapturous reception in many quarters speaks for itself. (I have a history of being left a bit at sea by even the Visconti films I liked a lot more, La Terra Trema and Osessione; I used to joke I had a bias against Italian cinema but it may not be a joke.)
I have no room for such kindness in the case of John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, a nightmarishly bad film that gains all of its decades of credence from wrongheaded theories about acting and cinema that so badly limit the possibilites of either art form that I believe to promote or encourage them is to actively seek out the death of art. Woman centers around an intolerably hammy performance by Gena Rowlands as a person badly in need of a grip that’s been inexplicably praised as “realistic,” because the same people who think Marlon Brando is a Great Actor think that “realism” equates to wild gesticulations and unpredictable freakouts. The film is just three straight hours of this, meant to be harrowing but just as often as unwittingly funny as a Lifetime movie; in practice, it’s infinitely more infuriating because of how much Cassavetes believes he is “revealing” in the act of refusing to make a single significant creative decision about a story that isn’t interesting enough to be told in the first place. I’m still mad. Cassavetes was a clown, and by and large, his cult hates real cinema.
*** #4 ***
For a while it seemed like this project was going to prove something of a bust for me, aligning too much with the exact breed of arthouse film that doesn’t do a lot for me. Jules and Jim, while not as awful as I thought when I was younger, still seemed shallow, aggressively adolescent and not worthy of Truffaut, despite a smattering of cinematic imagination. Among new-to-me films there was a run of pictures that, in the most boring position possible, I found compelling but liked only mildly or partially: Kiarostami’s Close-Up is a fascinating and witty narrative experiment but also feels surprisingly insubstantial next to its reputation; Bertolucci’s The Conformist is bold, inventive and distinctive in many ways but I felt unable to find much connection between its premise and its aesthetic pyrotechnics, with a story that seemed less ambiguous than just aimlessly vague; and Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, while clearly a film whose imagination and restlessness would have sung out louder than the heavens to me if I’d seen it a decade and a half earlier, gave me too much of a cotton-candy sick feeling at its excessive length, with its playfulness after a time registering as indulgence. And to my rather extreme shock, I found a Dreyer movie (well, a second one; I also cared little for Vampyr) that largely disagreed with me. There’s much to appreciate in Gertrud but its stilted acting and plodding pace work against its clearly intended emotional crescendos. I was less surprised to be unmoved once again by Robert Bresson, whose Pickpocket elicited nearly the same response in me as A Man Escaped, except this time with the real-time intrigue replaced by a complete dissonance erupting between myself and the cold-eyed protagonist. I just wasn’t capable of caring about him.
But then, toward the end of this run, I was confronted with a series of experiences that were transcendent in one way or another. I had long been curious to see Claude Lanzmann’s eight-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah but was put off many times by the sheer investment of time and emotional energy I knew it would require. And truth be told, I spread my encounter with it out over four nights, but every moment of it was riveting, somehow especially in the moments when Lanzmann’s interviews with victims, witnesses and participants seem to stumble over matters of practicality: when he has to use a hidden camera with a closed-circuit TV outside to film his chats with various Nazis, or when language barriers and his various translators cause delays and confusion in communication. It’s a film whose entire weight gives a different message than any of its individual parts, an accumulation of despair and memory that can paralyze you in its awfulness but feels completely valuable and necessary to capture. The results are strangely poetic, and thanks to the immediacy of the color cinematography and the almost mundane formatting of many of the discussions there is perhaps no greater examination of the banality of the evil, and our startling closeness to this moment in history.
Much more fun, though no less accurate a vision of evil in its fashion, was Night of the Hunter — a film I actually saw way back when I was first starting to acquaint myself with classic movies, around 2005, at which point I found it often striking but also so campy I couldn’t quite suss out its mood. Frankly I don’t know what film I was seeing back then, though I’ve had a few conversations with film buffs who still have a similar reaction to the movie, finding it a little too weird. For me, however, the tone, palpable menace and fable-like beauty of Charles Laughton’s only directorial effort is now stirring. Not only is it filled with more indelibly dreamlike images than almost any Hollywood film not directed by Orson Welles — in fact its existence in the time, if the waning days, of the studio system is quite miraculous — it weaves an elemental story of good and evil so convincingly it makes a child of you again, something achieved by only the rarest of storytellers. By approaching his thriller from the eyes and souls of children, Laughton ensures its elegiac permanence, like a rich, full-bodied memory that never leaves you. I expected for the film to improve greatly in my estimation on revisit, but was delighted when it immediately joined an informal list of my all-time favorite films.
Getting the feeling of being transported and inspired by a film, having my perceptions and notions of the medium challenged, is the impetus behind projects like that. And despite the fact that I’ve been aware on some level of what Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad was for years, upon actually seeing it I found myself returning to that giddy feeling of being floored by something larger, smarter, more thought-provoking than can easily be summarized. Once again I return to the essence of film as embodying a waking dream: here, the memory of a memory, or perhaps the memory of a lie, with a man pursuing a woman within a gorgeous, cavernous estate that seems to exist outside of any normal sense of time and finding their history, their current being, their future in question — there is no clarity or narrative simplicity, no tying of the bow to make the film’s mysteries explicit, only a sense of lyricism and vague terror washing over you. It is the sort of powerful experience that no other medium can replicate; and the idea of trying to understand it, to transfer its immutable truths to our own rational world, is beyond obscene. To see Marienbad is to be lifted into a singular, irreducible vision; it’s one of the most unique pieces of art of the last century, and while I’m stating nothing about it that isn’t obvious, it’s the sort of film that seems to render other films facile and irrelevant, and I would wish I had not waited so long to see it except that in a strange way, I wonder if the earlier versions of myself already described above in this piece would have been quite so captivated. Perhaps I found Marienbad at just the right time. Perhaps the right time for movies like Close-Up is still forthcoming.
After Marienbad, I found myself focusing a lot on the feeling of being immersed. There is some chance it is a change in my own attitude that prompted this; whatever the case, in my wanderings through this list I struck upon three consecutive movies that felt, even in the context of the smallish TV in my living room, like they demanded and overtook the space I was occupying. Jacques Tati’s Playtime is, like Marienbad, going to require many further viewings for me to fully wrap my head around it, but its intricacy and the tangible spaciousness and detail of its elevated, futuristic reality are another example of the sort of filmed expression that makes so many commercialized ideas about what the medium is generally “for” feel terribly limited. After watching the film, it felt to me as if I had actually been to another place and spent time there, and even weeks later, I still remember nearly every moment vividly, even though it hurled images and ideas and gags at me more quickly than I could feasibly handle. Having seen Jour de Fete last year, I was surprised to find Playtime somewhat less humorous, yet no less of a balletic pleasure — and its aesthetics almost couldn’t be more up my particular alley, even though the film is really a reaction against the kind of heavily industrialized environments it documents and parodies.
As noted before, Godard’s Breathless was a formative experience for me and as an older viewer I see even more in it; Pierrot le Fou was a disappointment I felt I would have gotten more out of when I was younger. It seems that Contempt, another major work I’ve been meaning to get around to for decades, hit me at just the correct moment. It bears some similarities to Pierrot in that it documents a fraying relationship in harrowing detail and employs a meta-narrative on the nature of the artform while promoting the brash communication style of Hollywood genre films, here with the help of Fritz Lang who’s present as an actor portraying a version of himself. Where Contempt succeeded most for me was in its exceptionally vivid sense of place: the temptations and languid atmospheres in which it occurs offer such a riveting contrast to the interpersonal pain being explored in the script, and as such it feels like a complete and real-world experience that transcends cinema while simultaneously upholding its pleasures and malleability. And Godard is more perceptive about this relationship than it initially appears, with its dramatic dropoff perfectly laid out in a manner that we can clearly see even as his hotheaded protagonist cannot.
Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which I first saw long ago and disliked quite a bit, has a similar utility. I surprised myself by rather enjoying it this time, even if I’m somewhat more suspicious of it than I am of Godard’s film, largely because Godard seems a bit more intelligently compartmentalized — he knows exactly what he’s saying (not in a didactic sense), and I’m not sure Fellini does, although that said, the more I think about this crown jewel in the man’s filmography the more I think I may slide on into full-on loving it the next time I see it. That’s not least because of the immersion factor: its world felt so staggeringly real and huge to me that I’ve found myself thinking of various scenes almost constantly since this second viewing. It’s about a philandering journalist who wanders from party to party in Rome among people he knows peripherally, cavorting around with the idle rich and such, while his very long-suffering fiancee sits at home waiting for him. It’s all pretty grim and the point is kind of that the constant availability of indistinct “good times” only leaves a person numb, but I always find that sort of messaging a bit insincere coming from super privileged types, even artists. It’s very easy to wag your finger at excess and excitement when it’s extremely familiar to you, just like it’s easy for a billionaire to say that money isn’t everything. A big issue I have is that I think I take the opposite message to the one intended by the film. Namely, I can’t escape how fun these parties seem and how vibrant and interesting life in the city looks, the very things Fellini is implicitly scolding; I’m not even a party person, but there’s something seductive about the idea of being in the eye of a hurricane. It’s possible that I’m just coming around to the actual point of the picture in a roundabout manner; there’s no doubt its conflicts are intentional, but there is such a strange brew of moralizing and excess in it, and it’s hard to spend so many hours with such a prick. I will be fascinated, though, to see it again; and I must say my being unable to shake it has caused me to turn around on Fellini a bit.
** #5 **
For this last entry, we’ve almost fully shed my contrarian impulses. Among the five hallowed film masterpieces I needed to see to put this project in the can, I loved all but one. Admittedly, that was a big one — Robert Bresson’s legendary donkey movie Au Hasard Balthazar, which I think was quite hurt in my estimation by not truly being a donkey movie, with the interference of too many human dramas and all of them rather banal — but it wasn’t altogether surprising, since I’ve yet to see a Bresson movie I particularly liked and don’t seem to gel (so far) with his specific manner or his philosophy on storytelling, use of actors, spirituality, etc. It does end with a nicely cathartic and beautiful moment (though it didn’t completely resonate with me because of everything prior), and that turned out to be the theme of these last several films.
Something that was surprising was that, evidently, I like Tarkovsky. One of the most cinephile-beloved of all filmmakers, the Russian master was of course responsible for Stalker, another picture I disliked that nevertheless I never was quite able to “get over” in some sense, just because it was so visually striking and its mood so singular. But my feelings about Mirror and Andrei Rublev were not nearly so complicated or nebulous, even though both films are arguably have even more sophisticated and unusual narrative structures. Rublev was how I closed the project so we’ll come to it in a moment; convinced I wouldn’t understand Tarkovsky (spoiler: some of his more ardent fans had kind of pointed me to this conclusion, I have to admit), I had carefully spaced out these two movies of his in the hopes of staving off any potentially negative experiences, which is funny because I absolutely adored both. Mirror is a similar experience to Marienbad, at least for me, though unlike that film it’s in color and must be one of the most beautiful color films ever shot. It is a treatise on memory whose entire emotional current is built on images, which comment on one another across time periods. Once again, perhaps because of the sort of acolyte Tarkovsky can tend to attract, there are a million people online trying to “crack the code” of the film, which strikes me as such a banal exercise when just watching it and allowing its strange, subdued world to wash over you is such a valuable experience, one that seems to encompass so much about the way we view ourselves, our lives, other people. And it captures the sensation of stream of consciousness as well as any films I’ve seen from the golden era of avant garde cinema, even as its ambitions seem to far outpace those shorter pieces.
I was forced to step away from this project for nearly a month, during which time I only had time for one new title, which was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, the last major gap I had remaining in his sound-era filmography, and a fascinating slow burn of a film that already struck me as stunningly rich in its characterizations and dimensions of feeling, among a rural family whose lives are shot through with a touch of inexplicable eccentricity, well before it became an astonishingly powerful story of death and faith that is so persuasive and overwhelmingly graceful in its final moments that one’s conflict with its central and core belief in a sacred world beyond our own is made completely beside the point. There was never an expression of faith so harrowing, or so magical. I was beside myself after watching.
Somewhat less successful to me was the similar emotional climax of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, but luckily everything else about it was so shattering that it hardly mattered. The picture stars his then-wife Ingrid Bergman and the great George Sanders, two of my favorite Hollywood-era actors who are here permitted the opportunity to display their naturalistic chops in a setting very different from the typical studio film in which they starred. One interesting thing about being aware of these films without seeing them is that it’s actually not difficult, usually, to find oneself quite surprised by the actual nature of what one finds when finally sitting down with them, even in a superficial sense. In this instance, I knew Bergman was part of the cast but had no idea Sanders was, and was riveted by the opportunity to see them as an embittered married couple with achingly depicted resentments on both sides. The film mostly sticks with Bergman, who distractedly witnesses the mystical undercurrent of her surroundings but is unable to see past her well-earned consternation over her marriage. My only argument with the film is that I think its sense of the miraculous at the finale is unearned. Nevertheless, as a portrait of alienation within a frayed, long-dead romance, it is beyond profound.
And last of all came Andrei Rublev, a film that at the outset of this project I felt I had every reason to dread: 185 minutes (in the director’s preferred version; longer variants exist), a historical epic and a biopic (of a medieval Russian painter of Orthodox icons), and from a filmmaker about whom I felt skeptical. While I needn’t have delayed the film after all — every minute is riveting, and while its ending crescendo is subtler than those of the two aforementioned, it is earned impeccably and left me on the verge of tears for the entirety of the closing montage — I’m somewhat glad I did, as it was an experience sufficiently overwhelming that it seemed a perfect place to cap off my exploration of the first hundred movies in this aggregate. What struck me about Andrei Rublev beyond the shocking realism of its settings, the audacity of its unfurling mise en scene, and the seamless blend of subtle and grand exercises in drama, was how it seemed to contain everything about life itself by virtue of using the title character, about whom little is really known, as an observer of that which we do have documentation, therefore becoming one with us, and therefore becoming almost the platonic ideal of a portrait of an artist and of art itself: the way in which we process that which is too large for us to hold. Like the work of Rublev’s shown in the closing montage, the film like all art becomes both the essence of life and a superior, more considered and communicative version of it, just aching to be seen, and aching for the kind of love that makes it the best part of our lives. Like Ordet, its final release comes with a religious subtext, but one whose power is undiminished for the non-believing viewer, which when you think about it is an extraordinary achievement.
Watching the movie I was reminded of the feeling I got when finally seeing my favorite film, Kubrick’s 2001, in 70mm (really, IMAX) last year — in my day to day life I can sympathize with my friends who don’t care for strange old subtitled films or intentionally obtuse narratives about creation and the sum total of human history. But in the moment it was unfolding, the film felt like the most important thing in the world to me, felt like the whole summary of who I am and what the world as I understand it means, and what life itself is worth, and in that moment, even if just for a second, I could not possibly sympathize with seeing it in front of you and not having it mean everything in the world to you. What was really happening was not a rupture with the rest of the human race, or whatever proportion of it doesn’t like or would never watch Andrei Rublev (or 2001); what was happening was that I was connecting, on the deepest possible level, with something larger than myself or with any conception of a limited world, and all I wanted in the entire universe was for everyone else to be able to feel the same thing I was feeling. The power of that identification is why projects like this matter to me, and why I am so glad to have this outlet. Perhaps ten years from now I will look back on this and wonder why I had some of the negative responses I explained earlier on, in the same way that my original reviews of La Dolce Vita and Night of the Hunter now seem so silly to me. In fact I hope they do. I hope that someday I find my lifeline to every one of these 100 pictures, because experiences like that I had watching Rublev are rare and wonderful, and as long as I’m breathing I want as many of those as possible, and the hell with any implication that the seeking out and enjoying of those isn’t important. Thanks for reading.
MGM’s beloved Dashiel Hammett adaptation The Thin Man, which kicked off a whole spate of more sanitized sequels, is a persuasive and sympathetic portrait of a good marriage because it’s so unsentimental, with no goopy assurance needed of the pair’s mutual devotion, no evidence floated that we’re “safe” in status quo normalcy because husband is the provider and wife knows her place. Nick and Nora, retired dick and heiress respectively, direct none of the jealousy, resentment or insecurity at one another that a lesser story would lazily harness for artificial conflict — in fact, the film (with Hammett’s novel adapted skillfully by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, a husband and wife team) deliberately takes time out to mock such conventions. It’s something that gets harped on a lot here, but it’s such a relief compared with Hollywood’s perception of long-term relationships as some laborious process of people grudgingly accepting abuse from their spouse as the eternities pass.
And with only vague (though unmistakable, seeing how this just missed Hays) markers of their sexuality available, we get the studio-picture stand-in for same: banter — constant, adroit, still snappy and uproarious after 80+ years. The banter has its origin in Hammett, who based it on his much more fractious relationship with Lillian Hellman, but it’s mutated marvelously first by the screenwriters and then by William Powell and Myrna Loy, a couple of geniuses walking a tightrope in such a way that you know they’re showing off but somehow you can’t get annoyed at them for it, permitted by director W.S. Van Dyke (“one-take Woody”) to improvise individually and jointly, and boasting some of the best chemistry of any pair of actors ever thrown together, especially incredible in the context of peak-stable MGM. It just looks so fun (and, frankly, hot) to be them, or even just to be around them.
Though it sits differently in one’s memory because their scenes are such a joy, there’s relatively little of the iconic duo in this movie; they get a handful of scenes together (and Powell gets a decent number on his own) but those are by a longshot the best parts of the film, so much so that they overshadow a great deal of the actual plot. And the barbs fly fast and furious: it’s not just that when Nora frets over Nick’s pending, potentially dangerous departure to surreptiously work on the case of the missing inventor, one mark of the times being that chivalry of a sort prevents her from joining up when things get really hairy, and she chides him for the possibility of her being made a bereaved wife, Nick dryly responds “You wouldn’t be a widow for long,” it’s that she comes back with “You bet I wouldn’t,” a perfectly cynical expression of her deep affection and a play on his own love for her that still doesn’t faze him. They both know what they really mean to each other, so much so that it’s a matter of security and intense trust that they are able to exchange in this verbal and physical ballet together (as with Edna Best and Leslie Banks in Hitchcock’s original British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, released the same year) — to the extent that when Nora walks in on Nick platonically comforting a much younger woman, the daughter of the disappeared man at the center of the mystery, she only playfully chides him and there is never once the suspicion that she has seen something she shouldn’t, or on his part that he has to defend himself against the awkwardness of the moment.
Van Dyke’s rapid shooting style overcomes its relative artlessness through its feeling of lively spontaneity; you even envy the guests at that terminally awkward suspect dinner party (and certainly at the much drunker and sexier Christmas fete earlier on). The film is an active assault upon all of the pleasure centers, replete with frothy mystery and an adorable dog, but with everything centering around the extraordinary characters, layabout alcoholic cum semi-competent detective and his self-assured, witty spouse, who sit on the very precipice of the Code, just enough so that ample sensuality comes through here that would be relatively sparse in the rest of the series (all of which reprise the Thin Man title even though only this entry has anything to do with a thin man), despite Powell and Loy’s consistent effectiveness as a couple.
But let’s not forget, this is actually a whodunit — and while it’s interesting and full of intriguing characterizations and performances, the mystery elements certainly take a back seat to the real story, of ex-detective Nick letting Nora talk him into trying his hand at a case post-retirement. It’s set up engrossingly with an opening ten minutes that seem like the start of an entirely different film and remains diverting at the rare points when it’s our focus, but it grows increasingly confusing and muddled in typical Hammett fashion while the big revelation is wholly anticlimactic and makes little logical sense — and this reminds us, inevitably, that said resolution isn’t truthfully why we’re here. Apart from the moments when the marriage collides with harsh reality, as when a gunman comically intrudes upon their bedroom, the intrigue could be more seamlessly integrated, apart from demonstrating how Nick knows what he’s doing only marginally more than the police. Each time we’re torn away from scenes at home with Nick and Nora, aimless or not, and have to return to matters of story business that take us away from Powell and Loy’s effortless repartee, it has a bit of the feel of a frustrated orgasm.
On the series Moonlighting, directly inspired by Hollywood films like this one, the cases the detectives solved were always used as ironic comments on the state of their relationship; perhaps the morbid back-alley muck, corpses and gangsters and all, that plays out behind the main attraction in The Thin Man is a sort of commentary as well, letting us remember how irrelevant the larger world can appear when your company is this good. Whether it’s intended this way or not — by Hammett, by Van Dyke, by the actors and screenwriters — there’s something touching about the way that the whole setup just feels like an excuse to introduce us to Mr. and Mrs. Charles, divine characterizations stuck inside a relatively ordinary paperback narrative. That doesn’t mean that we don’t just want to watch a whole movie of the two of them hanging out and pretending to get on each other’s nerves, but we acknowledge that such a thing wouldn’t have been possible in mainstream entertainment; like a lot of really bold, adventurous studio films from the first half of the ’30s, though, it all really makes you wonder what-if and why-not.
[Expanded from my Letterboxd capsule of 2017.]
There’s little doubt by now that Fellini isn’t to my taste, but I was deeply unfair to his watershed arthouse touchstone La Dolce Vita as a young cinephile who wanted everything to be Double Indemnity, and was wrong to characterize it back then as a fatalistic montage of parties, even though critics like Dave Kehr have similarly argued that the film is a bit empty. But like Amarcord and like the Altman films it seems to have directly inspired, this is a series of episodes, all of which are beautifully photographed and performed, and several of which are riveting, not least because (in a sense that suggests L’Avventura, made the same year) the settings of Fellini’s micro-narratives, all centering Marcello Mastroianni as a horny but bored journalist in Rome, are so rapturously vivid that all of the human dramas positioned within them attain considerably more grace than they might otherwise have, like for instance a tryst with an heiress in a prostitute’s dilapidated apartment, or an unrequited sojourn with an actress that ends with an ecstatic dance in the Trevi Fountain.
Still, the most riveting scenes are models of good characterization that doesn’t necessarily infect the whole picture, which has been criticized since its release in some circles for relying on archetypes. Apart from Marcello himself, who we can believe is weary and confused and weighted down with a sense of loss thanks more to the performance than to the way the character is written, we meet the stoic, warm and seemingly wizened writer Steiner (Alain Cuny), who quietly betrays a certain malaise that turns out to have ominous consequences; Marcello’s long-suffering girlfriend (fiancee?) Emma (Yvonne Furneaux), who opens the picture in the midst of a suicide attempt that appears to be the latest of many; and most tellingly of all, Marcello’s troubled absentee father (Annibale Ninchi), whose dirty-old-man boasting and misguided hedonism appear more to us than to Marcello, whose pain about their distance renders him nothing more than a child again, as the sad eventual consequence of the empty world he inhabits.
And there are others, other grand gestures and iconic moments that justify their reputation; where I get lost a bit is in the film’s actual arc and thesis. My issue comes down to this: is there any profundity in Fellini simply straightforwardly expressing the contradictory aspects of his point of view as if just laying its shortcomings out will excuse them? I have a similar struggle, in a sense, with Lubitsch, whose Heaven Can Wait seems to acknowledge the full breadth of pain caused by his own infidelity but operates on the odd premise that simply being aware of one’s asshole tendencies makes them acceptable. Fellini also wants to have it both ways with all of his characters here — his presumptive autobiographical vessel Marcello, in advance of the same basic role in 8½, wanders through a decadent life of longing, fucking and betraying but his misgivings about it are treated sentimentally, as if his being upset about his impulsive behavior makes him three-dimensional and sophisticated. Steiner, the friendly domesticated sophisticate he knows, talks of the beauty of fatherhood but is secretly bored and unfulfilled by his complacent lifestyle — yet the sight of his seemingly happy home obviously reverberates within Marcello when he takes Emma back after a huge blow-up in his car wherein he accuses her of smothering him. Alas, this moment of decisiveness is negated in turn by the tragic and quite monstrous end Fellini assigns to Steiner, which results in a total orgy of apathy on Marcello’s part in the final portion of the film. In place of Antonioni’s eventual tennis-playing mimes, we get an adolescent waitress Marcello saw earlier waving to him from a distance on the beach as the sun rises, suggesting innocence in a way that admittedly looks and feels intoxicating — even though this very nostalgia for a free, blissful naivete that also drives several other Fellini pictures just plays as mythical and hackneyed thematically. The simple world Marcello and Fellini seek is an impossible object to touch because it is, frankly, nonexistent; and the irony is that those frantic, desperate graspings for it are the mark of an eternal child.
Yet you can’t quite help but go with it — that innocence, that moment of unguarded kindness by the sea, has the same sharp purity of feeling as the redemptive end of Nights of Cabiria, and here too is a sign of the basic duplicity of La Dolce Vita, because not only does this ethereal, childlike ideal look stunning in Fellini’s hands, like everything you’d want out of the world, but for the most part so does the exact behavior and stultifying chaos it seems to rebuke. Of course there are moments of tedium when Marcello is carousing around with friends and attempting to climb into bed with virtually every woman he meets, regardless of outside promises and obligations; but there are also moments when you want to be right there in the midst of it all. Needless to say, the film’s and lead character’s statements about moral decay and debauchery wouldn’t be convincing if it looked like a dreadful funeral march — though I think Sofia Coppola managed to use that technique quite convincingly in Somewhere — and it’s fortunate Fellini doesn’t scold us for our voyeuristic glimpses at what is often a sexy good time, which is the tactic employed by all too many finger-wagging movies about excess and excitement to this day: they wallow in the muck and then punish the viewer for getting a thrill out of the wallowing.
But verbalizing doubts about one’s move away from old-world familial comfort, which certainly carried its own hefty collection of problems and the potential for the same variety of emotional stunting, while also glamorizing and forgiving the hard-living, promiscuous fast-lane culture — and at extravagant length, to boot — seems less insightful than simplistic, an avoidance of real insight. Though they are equally flawed films, Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Buñuel’s Viridiana deconstructed the empty ideology of abundance in a sharper, wittier manner, which betrays the great truth of Fellini’s work in this vein: he doesn’t really want to give all this beauty up, he just wants you to know he has very mixed feelings about all of it. In the end, while I don’t question anyone’s right to feel depressed or apathetic, it seems to me that Marcello, surrounded by interesting and vibrant friends in a gorgeous city full of life, will have very little to complain about once he finally and completely breaks up with a woman he treats terribly and clearly doesn’t love. Moreover, I get the feeling that someday Marcello, whatever his future holds, will look back on this time with the same wistful yearning that’s screwing up his evenings now; he strikes me as someone who never will be satisfied with the present. Perhaps that’s the feeling the film actually means to convey: a perpetual and neverending dissatisfaction with society and self that precludes nothing much apart from quiet, endless sulking that occasionally interrupts all the indulgence. But if so, it limits us to the role of dispassionate observers, no matter how wonderful some of the things we get to look at are.