ORIGINAL INTRODUCTION: The following list is a work in progress. It is the collection of the absolute best of the best, masterworks of the cinematic pantheon. Many great films haven’t made the cut for the simple reason that criteria involved here are especially high. Imagine an emergency project of preserving the very best films, a kind of Noah’s Ark of Cinema. Necessarily, this is not a list of personal favorites. Nor is it a list of most popular or beloved films. Nor does it pander to intellectual fads and fashions in film/cultural theory. It is a list, compiled with sincerity and seriousness, of what I consider to the greatest achievements in film art. Needless to say, there are surely many great films I’ve yet to see(or have seen but perhaps have yet to appreciate)and so cinema continues to be an open field with worlds yet to discover.
The films are organized around directors on the basis of the Auteur Theory, which ideally identifies the director as the main ‘author’ of the film. Though far from perfect as theories go, it is inarguable that most, though not all, great films are the products of unique directorial personality, vision, and style. We mustn’t of course undervalue the contributions of others. After all, what would Leone’s Dollars Trilogy be without the music of Morricone or the presence of Clint Eastwood? However, it is most often the greatest directors who bring out the very best in their collaborators. It is no accident that Nino Rota composed some of his best music for Fellini, Sven Nykvist shot his most haunting images for Bergman, and De Niro performed some of his most memorable roles for Scorsese. Also, we are more likely to find a common styles and thematic concerns among films on the basis of directorship than any other factor. For example, though Ingmar Bergman made comedies, tragedies, and dramas with various actors and crew members, all of his films are recognizable as part of genus Cinematicus Bergmanius. The same cannot be said of, for example, Ingrid Thulin, an actress who starred in several Bergman films. The fact that she was in Bergman’s WINTER LIGHT and Visconti’s THE DAMNED doesn’t tell us much about either film. It is far more instructive to consider WINTER LIGHT as a Bergman drama and THE DAMNED as a Visconti epic. The only other players who generally compete with the director as The Author of film are the writer, producer, and especially today, the wizards of special effects. But generally, the writer has minimal power in the making of the film, and his original work is often revised by many other writers–and even by the director and producer. The producer generally wields the greatest influence on most Hollywood movies, but that usually explains why most movies tend to be generic and formulaic. Producers press the directors-hired-as-hacks to conform to the presumed or even prefixed appetites of the masses. On occasion, the producer is both a visionary and populist who combines originality and accessibility in guiding and inspiring the director to make the ‘perfect movie’–a work of art beloved by all. But more often than not, great films are the products of directors left alone to pursue their personal visions. With great advancements in film and computer technology, it is more difficult to tell where creative direction ends and where fanciful gadgetry begins. For example, how much of LOTR was the work of Peter Jackson and how much the product of the CGI Acme department? Nevertheless, if one were to compare the movies of Spielberg and Michael Bay, it’s clear that money and technology alone don’t make the magic. After all, whatever latest technology may be available, architecture still relies on the creative talent of the artist. So, it shall remain with cinema. At the end of the day, the great films are more the feats of imagination than of engineering, which is why Spielberg is a great moviemaker but James Cameron is not.
That said, some of the greatest films are less the products of directors shouting out commands than making sparks via the friction of creative collaboration. Great directors bring out the best in others, but others, if they’re good, also bring out the best in the director. It is a two-way than a one-way street. Would Coppola have achieved cinematic immortality without the collaboration of Mario Puzo, Al Pacino, and John Milius? Auteur Theory suggests that various collaborators revolve around the director. Though the astronomical metaphor is apt in many cases, creativity often tends to be more on the chemical or alchemical side. Inspiration is a key component of creativity, and inspiration, like fire, doesn’t come from nowhere. When fire is created by rubbing of two sticks of wood, the credit belongs not only to stick A or stick B but also to the very process of friction. So, even though the director is the biggest stick in filmmaking, it ideally rubs against the other sticks than lords over as the only club in town, batting down all the others. Near total control by the director may work for smaller, highly personal films, e.g. those of Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu. And it may work even on a large scale on occasion; 2001 by Kubrick and PLAYTIME by Tati, though it must be noted Kubrick worked in close collaboration with the Douglas Trumbull. More often than not, director as tyrannical club produces stuff as ridiculous as Bertolucci’s 1900 or Michael Cimino’s monstrous HEAVEN’S GATE(which however does have its moments).
REVISED INTRODUCTION: As is so often the case, the original aim of this project was compromised–or corrupted–with the ever irresistible temptation to add more titles falling short of masterpiece status. As with any experiment, permitting a bit of impurity contaminates the entire batch.
On the other hand, art is neither science nor religion. There is no infallibly objective way to measure absolute greatness, and it is pointless to argue what is and isn’t truly sacred in art. Art is made and graded by man, not by God or the gods.
Furthermore, list-making isn’t the same as wine making. Impurities which may ruin wines may, in certain cases, enrich art and culture. Some of the most memorable works of art are deeply or even fundamentally flawed; yet, those flaws may, on occasion, work to advantage by casting odd shadows on what might otherwise have been blaring brightness. Sun spots don’t destroy the sun; indeed, they make the sun more interesting. And though man conceived of God as Perfection, His flaws are as interesting as His purported perfection. This isn’t to say flaws are of the essence or constitute a natural advantage in art. Generally they are damaging, rather like genetic mutations. But just as certain mutations contribute something new–even something advantageous–, artistic flaws can sometimes be the budding of new possibilities that have yet to prove their worth. In another way, like birthmarks, freckles , or scars, flaws can add character or the element of humanness to a work of art. Independent films may not be up to professional standards technically, but the crudities can add a measure of vitality. Or, the crowd-pleasing elements of a film may make up in charm what they take away in consistency. Though people aim for perfection, nothing is as unhuman as perfection.
That said, upon reviewing the list I admit some titles fall rather too short of greatness, flaw or no flaw. And some titles, upon closer inspection, probably reflect my personal tastes or favoritism than genuine conviction of their pantheon status.
Though the initial attempt was to make the list as infallible as possible, it is now a collection of great films and not-exactly-great-films with something extra to recommend them.
The list is now something more, which may be something less. The more it gains in titles, the more it loses in its mission statement.
There is no other way I can justify titles such as RISKY BUSINESS, MODERN ROMANCE, CINEMA PARADISO, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, and ZATOICHI movies among others.
Of course, I am tempted to turn the list into something far more comprehensive, incorporating all near-great films and personal favorites of dubious artistic worth. But, if the peak of absolute greatness is too steep and frosty a climb, the opposite presents its own slippery hazards that may take us all the way down to bottom of the valley.
Finally, it should be obvious to anyone familiar with the Auteur Theory that this list has violated its precepts time and again in including great or special films by directors not exactly known for their auteur-ship. Who exactly would be the real auteur on a film like GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS or WIZARD OF OZ? And the inclusion of A CHRISTMAS STORY demonstrates that a generally mediocre director can rise to unexpected heights with excellent material and fine actors. So, even though the list is centered around directors, what it ultimately proves is a great film doesn’t necessarily require a Great Auteur.
* denotes masterwork.
** denotes masterwork above and beyond the call of art.
What kind of director was Orson Welles? If he’d only directed his lesser films–MACBETH, THE STRANGER, OTHELLO, MR. ARKADIN, THE TRIAL, and F FOR FAKE–, he would still rank as one of the greats. MACBETH, MR. ARKADIN, and THE TRIAL are extraordinary in many respects but fatally flawed in some way. MACBETH, shot in two weeks, looks crude and incomplete though the immediacy and vitality almost make up for its deficiencies. THE STRANGER is a superior B-movie thriller but doesn’t rise above the genre. MR. ARKADIN, like OTHELLO, has a great opening scene and is fascinating on many levels but feels like patchwork. THE TRIAL, adapted from the Kafka novel, is haunting and striking in its journey through the paranoid maze but fundamentally misconceived. Be that as it may, the biggest obstacle to Welles’ genius was lack of funding. After his first two films, he never had enough money and didn’t always spend wisely what he had. CITIZEN KANE, considered the Mona Lisa of cinema, is his most famous work, but MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was probably his greatest work, that is until it was cut from the original 140 minutes to 87 minutes. Still magnificient in its truncated version, the original cut was perhaps the greatest film that could ever be made. Alas, we’ll never see it.
UNDER CAPRICORN*STRANGERS ON A TRAIN*REAR WINDOW**THE WRONG MANVERTIGO**NORTH BY NORTHWESTPSYCHO*THE BIRDS*MARNIEFans of Hitchcock may bemoan the injustice of representing the Master of Suspense with only seven films(though he tops most other directors in this list). Fair enough. If I were to include every near-great(or merely great as opposed to especially great)movie by Hitchcock, ten more could easily have been added: NORTH BY NORTHWEST, SUSPICION, SPELLBOUND, MARNIE, NOTORIOUS, WRONG MAN, LIFEBOAT, LADY VANISHES, THE ROPE, MANXMAN. Indeed several more: BLACKMAIL, SABOTEUR, DIAL M FOR MURDER, etc. Even Hitchcock’s minor or bad films are more interesting than the films of most major directors. At any rate, I limited Hitchcock to the seven above because they represent the fullest realization of his ambition as both entertainer and artist. REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO are, in my estimation, his two greatest films, possibly the only ones worthy of designation as full-fledged works of art. STRANGERS ON THE TRAIN and THE BIRDS are probably the weakest of the bunch. THE BIRDS is essentially a one-idea & one-trick pony but masterly in its perverse eroticism. STRANGERS has a great villain and plot mechanics but is marred by the Farley Granger as the entrapped husband. Even so, it features some of Hitchcock’s most memorable images and set pieces, enough to merit its place in Ark Cinema. The most controversial title is surely UNDER CAPRICORN, a favorite of the French critics(who later became famous as New Wave directors). Hitchcock himself dismissed it as an abject failure, and it certainly has its share of problems, which, however, also serve as a kind of virtue. The color scheme, for example, is damp and drab, unpleasant to the eye, but the stale and shabby mood lends a feeling of depressive desperation to the near-tragic material. Joseph Cotten looks ill-at-ease as the romantic lead, but it suits his dilemma as a tormented soul whose defense mechanism against the world is bitter contempt. NOTE: Due to the revision of the Ark criteria, LADY VANISHES, SPELLBOUND, NOTORIOUS, WRONG MAN, LIFEBOAT, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and etc. have been added.
THE QUIET DUEL
As with Hitchcock, Kurosawa had a long illustrious career. Unlike Hitchcock he had a long dry spell while still at the peak of his powers. Between DODESKADEN(1970) and KAGEMUSHA(1980), he made only one film DERSU UZALA(for the Soviet Union). One could argue that he was in decline as an artist from the mid 60s to the mid 80s, when, by some miracle, he made what most critics consider to his greatest work except for SEVEN SAMURAI, namely RAN. If not for KAGEMUSHA and RAN, one could write off Kurosawa as an important artist after YOJIMBO(or RED BEARD if we want to be generous). DERSU UZALA is a splendid work, unmistakably that of a master but lacks for vitality. It’s a movie seen from the outside but not really felt from the inside. At his best, Kurosawa drew us into his characters. The problem with DERSU was possibly the result of misunderstandings between Kurosawa and the Soviet film crew. But, a similar problem drags much of RED BEARD, which, after the fine first act, turns into a long preachy sermon about ‘little people’. DODESKADEN, possibly his worst film, is like a combination of LOWER DEPTHS and RED DESERT: an earthy story of slum-dwellers used for garish avant-garde visual experimentation that ill-suits the material. It’s like skid row as color-coded conceptual art.
Then, why do I say Kurosawa suffered a long dry spell during the peak of his powers? Because KAGEMUSHA and RAN, his last two major films, make it clear that Kurosawa was still the Emperor of cinema, a titan to marshal the forces of nature(and human nature). Though hailed as a great comeback in 1980, KAGEMUSHA has since been overshadowed by RAN, which garnered the lion’s share of critical praise. I’m one of the few dissenters to this conventional wisdom, which is why RAN has been left out of Ark Cinema. While the first hour of RAN ranks with the Kurosawa’s best, much of the middle part is unbearable–especially the scenes with Hidetora and the jester. The movie returns to life in the final part, but the key moment of tragedy is completely botched. I consider RAN a film of greatness but not a fully great film. KAGEMUSHA, in contrast, is not as visually splendorous as RAN but features better storytelling. As character study and psycho-political drama, exceptionally insightful and moving. It has two major flaws: mediocre symphonic score and tragic overstatement with slo-motion and blaring trumpets following the last battle, but they are blemishes in what is otherwise a great film. One other film that I wanted to add is BAD SLEEP WELL, a dark and brooding foray into the world of corporate corruption. Sorry to say, it is brought down by plot mechanisms too clever for their own good. Except for SEVEN SAMURAI and YOJIMBO, even the great films of Kurosawa have some serious flaws–for example the overacting of Mifune and the ridiculous music in RASHOMON, the exaggerated gestures in THRONE OF BLOOD, the didactic anti-drug imagery in HIGH AND LOW, etc–, but the power, originality, and boldness more than make up for the shortcomings. Needless to say, even Kurosawa’s lesser films have much to recommend them. SANSHIRO SUGATA, MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL, NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH, LOWER DEPTHS, I LIVE IN FEAR, HIDDEN FORTRESS, DREAMS, and several others are full of warmth, beauty, and courage. NOTE: Due to revision in the Ark Criteria, BAD SLEEP WELL and RAN have been added.
SERGEI EISENSTEINSTRIKEBATTLESHIP POTEMKIN*
QUE VIVA MEXICO!*
IVAN THE TERRIBLE**IVAN THE TERRIBLE PART II*Few film artists were as blessed and cursed as Sergei Eisenstein. Trained in engineering and theater, his creative approach was scientific and poetic. He is as remembered for his theories on film as for his films, and indeed his films were theorems put into practice. In terms of sheer talent and intelligence, he outshines everyone in the first half of the 20th century, with the possible exceptions of Fritz Lang and Orson Welles. Another stroke of good fortune was the Bolshevik Revolution. A Jewish leftist, Eisenstein avidly supported the communist revolution and lent his talent to its struggle. It was as if the planets were perfectly aligned and smiling down on his fate… but then Stalin gained absolute power and breathed heavily down on ‘formalism’, codeword for experimentation and intellectualism in the arts. Worse, Stalin was quite ruthless in implementing his cultural policies, turning many an artist into nervous wrecks.
On the other hand, Stalin was neither a culturally rigid dogmatist like Hitler–for whom creativity was all about racial correctness–nor a lame-brained simpleton like Mao who had no use for art and culture at all. Though cultural life was severely limited in the Soviet Union, Stalin could be surprisingly lenient and supportive at times. In a way, this made things more dangerous for artists because they never knew if Stalin would approve or disapprove of their ideas. Reading Stalin’s mind was like forecasting the weather during hurricane season; one never knew which one would make landfall. Stalin would be genuinely supportive of artists at one moment but then suddenly do an about-face. To what extent this had to do with cultural policy, personality, or mood swings, no one knew for sure–and maybe Stalin wanted it that way, just as some dictatorial film directors produce tension on the set to keep everyone on edge. Creating art in this context was like playing the slot machine and the Russian Roulette. One could be rewarded handsomely or end up dead.
Ironically enough, Stalin’s ‘cultural conservatism’ actually did some good for Russia. By the early 30s, the experimental school had already run its course–as all movements do. Also, even at its creative height, it produced mostly agitprop than art. More importantly, Stalin was less destructive than some of the more radical communists(some of whom were supportive of the ‘formalist’ school; it is a common but grave mistake to think that the avant-garde artists of the early Soviet period were for artistic freedom; in fact, they were only for freedom for revolutionary artists, namely themselves, and, if anything, they were even more totalitarian and intolerant of ‘reactionary’, ‘feudal’, or ‘bourgeois’ culture than even the Stalinists were; indeed, some of them opposed Stalinism precisely because it revived certain elements of Old Culture. Like today’s politically correct ‘artists’ and commissars, the avant-garde-ists of early Bolshevism were NOT cultural libertarians but radical seekers of total power). Stalin, though Georgian in origin, was also something of a Russian nationalist who believed traditional culture should be preserved as long as it posed no threat to the new order. Stalin smashed his share of churches, but more would have been destroyed if Jewish communists had taken power.
Eisenstein, for whom everything seemed to be going right in the 1920s, got into some serious trouble by the decade’s end. During the early years of the Revolution, he was hailed around the world as the wunderkind of Soviet film art, a kind of communist Spielberg. His silent films such as BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN and OCTOBER were praised, studied, and imitated endlessly. But, as Stalin gained a firm grip on power, Eisenstein came under suspicion as a Trotkyite. The original cut of OCTOBER was ordered re-cut to minimize(and even vilify) Trotsky’s role in the Revolution. Though or precisely because it was such a dauntingly awesome piece of work, it then came under attack by Stalinists for the crime of ‘formalism’–something for ‘bourgeois’ aesthetes than a work of art for the masses.
Soon after, the introduction of sound complicated Eisenstein’s theories of montage. Film, as conceived by Eisenstein prior to sound, was less about stories and characters than an exposition on political and economic forces in history. In a way, his silent films were less motion pictures than motion posters, works of propaganda or political ads. Had he not been so gifted with visionary and poetic power, his films might today be of historical than artistic interest. But what an eye he had for composition, what instinct for motion, and what intellect to formulate ideas into possibilities. An able propagandist makes the good guys look good and bad guys look bad. A great artist, on the other hand, makes even the bad guys compelling and memorable, and Eisenstein was one of the great artists of the 20th century. Even his incomplete and crudely assembled QUE VIVA MEXICO! is a powerhouse of images, symbols, and moods.
With the coming of sound, however, characters needed to be flesh-n-blood individuals than merely representatives/archetypes of political ideas. Sound coincided with the triumph of cultural Stalinism. It wasn’t sure if Eisenstein could survive, let alone thrive, in the new order. With the looming German threat, Eisenstein came into good graces with the great national epic ALEXANDER NEVSKY. Having gained Stalin’s confidence, Eisenstein proceeded to work on a bolder project, IVAN THE TERRIBLE, his greatest work. Stalin loved it but then hated Part II.
Eisenstein fell out of favor again and died before completing part III.
Few artists arrived at such an opportune moment in history and with such stellar combination of talent and credentials. That was Eisenstein’s enviable fortune. And given the non-commercial nature of his films, an Eisenstein(like Leni Riefenstahl) wouldn’t have been possible in the capitalist West, especially in Hollywood-dominated America.
In the end, it’s tragic that an artist of such caliber finished only a handful of films and died in abject fear of authority that had both hallowed and haunted him. But given his willing participation in one of the most brutal regimes in world history responsible for the deaths of millions, perhaps there was a poetic justice in the way he fell from grace.
Nevertheless, in terms of bravura originality and mastery of the film medium, only a handful of directors are even remotely comparable to Eisenstein: Lang, Welles, Mizoguchi, Kubrick, Spielberg, and perhaps Scorsese.
MARY OF SCOTLAND*
THE LONG VOYAGE HOME
HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY*
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE
THE QUIET MAN
THE LAST HURRAH
John Ford directed something in the order of a hundred movies, and many of them are surely of interest only to film scholars. Even so, I can’t even claim to have seen all the major ones. I remember liking THE INFORMER as a child but haven’t seen it since. But all said and done, Ford always struck me as a great good director than a great great director, but this isn’t necessarily a strike against him since, by temperament and vision, he wasn’t a showman or showoff. Ford never attempted anything on the scale or scope of CITIZEN KANE, 2001, SEVEN SAMURAI, TEN COMMANDMENTS, LOLA MONTEZ, LA DOLCE VITA, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, or even Howard Hawks’ RED RIVER. He worked on some big productions like DONOVAN’S REEF and CHEYENNE AUTUMN but in a low-key manner that was the hallmark of Ford’s near invisible style. No matter where the story was set or how big the production, the Ford universe was an enclosed box of rules regulating the motion and/or emotion of every object and character. This made most of his movies, especially in the later period, all of one piece, either worthy of admiration as a unified vision of life or ripe for derision for their lack of imagination, as if no matter the recipes and ingredients Ford was presented with, he could only make macaroni and cheese. Though Ford is often associated with Monumental Valley, aka ‘Ford Country’, contrast his approach with that of Leone’s in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. For Leone, the famous valley was space; for Ford it was a place. One might characterize Ford’s relatively smallness of vision as dramatically cramped and simpleminded, but there was a genuineness of heart beating with elements of nobility, even an unassuming grandeur that was very American, i.e. that a man’s stature should be measured by deeds and character than by style and hogging for attention. A Ford hero is one who does and walks away, not one who does and then gets up on stage or does not yet hogs the credit, which is why the James Stewart character in MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is tormented for the rest of his life. Though the director who’s most often been compared to Ford is Kurosawa, I would argue that Ozu and Naruse, at least among Japanese directors, were closer to Ford. By visual evidence, Kurosawa’s main inspiration had to have been German(especially Lang) and Russian(Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin) than American. In more ways than one, Ford was a minimalist, either out of a purity of vision or limitation of ability. Kurosawa, in contrast, was most famous for his maximalist movies like SEVEN SAMURAI and RAN. Ford was to American cinema what meat and potatoes is to American cuisine. Not particularly fancy or flavorful but hearty. Especially given the state of American popular culture lately, with all manners of excesses in movies, TV, video-games, music, and politics, Ford’s movies have special value as a moral and cultural compass, pointing to the place from which we came but have since forgotten, not least due to political correctness, which allows revisiting of the past only through shrill and selective judgmentalism, and to pornitarianism, which has little use for things that don’t lend immediate pleasure. Ford’s movies were not truthful about real American history — few Hollywood movies ever were — , but they did embody virtues integral to the development of the American character. And far from being mindless celebrations of the American past or present, they stared into the fetid well of hypocrisies that have ailed this nation, indeed humanity, from the beginning. Some Fordian values may now seen old-fashioned, irrelevant, or even evil — hardly surprising in a world where the highest form of moral virtue is supporting ‘gay marriage’ — but only because those values were integral to the creation of a new social order where people with full stomachs could come to take things for granted. Ford belonged to a time when people, American and Irish, knew what real hunger meant and relied on moral strength and physical stamina to preserve themselves, an alien concept in our world where even privileged upper class white women bitch and whine that birth control pills should be made available to them as a ‘right’. Ford was well aware that civilization is built on the shoulders of hard work and moral character but also understood that history was never as simple as ‘good guy’ vs ‘bad guy’. Even ‘good people’ must do ‘bad things’ to create a good society, so everyone becomes stained with the sin of history, one way or another. And when good times flows from the good society, people forget the dreary past with its stories of hardship or they pass simple judgments about ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ — especially fed to them by liberal/leftist Jews to undermine faith and pride in white civilization — without taking into account the different realities faced by their progenitors. It’s too easy to denounce ‘racism’ in the white man’s treatment of the American Indians if one never had to worry about Indian raids. Of course, Indians had their own narratives and justifications, which is why there’s no simple ‘good vs bad’ in history, and despite the white-centrism of Ford’s movies, he understood and respected the Red man, at least on terms more realistic than among those weaned on simple-minded political correctness that divides the world/history into a simple game of ‘evil racists’ and ‘good egalitarians’(and supporters of ‘gay marriage’). To the extent that most of Ford’s films are about people struggling for existence — against the elements, savages, poverty, political turmoil, and/or the darkness within one’s own heart — , they have a moral value not unlike the stories in the Old Testament. Just as the Bible tells of an imperfect tribe wandering through the wilderness with a dream of conquering, founding, and settling the Promised Land, Ford’s films, especially his Westerns, remind us of the struggles involved in the clash of egos, civilizations and cultures, man and nature, man and man, and man and God. Was Ford an ‘artist’? No in the strictest meaning of ‘artist’. Ford worked within genres, and even his movies that questioned the veracity of genres, such as THE SEARCHERS and MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, more or less stayed within the bounds of audience expectations. Ford’s main genre wasn’t so much the Western as the Morality Tale. Even in the bleakest of his movies, there’s a sense that, in the final equation, the basic moral order of the universe is preserved through the grace of God and the goodness of men. It’s a comforting myth, and to the extent that such movies are still popular, not least through the efforts of Steven Spielberg, the spirit of Ford can be said to be with us, albeit in a more cynically marketable form. The three Ford movies that mean most to me are MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, THE SEARCHERS, and MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. CLEMENTINE for its brute poetry. SEARCHERS for its darkness bordering on psycho-social complexity. And VALANCE for its elegiac beauty.
ALF SJOBERGTORMENT (writer: Bergman. Director: Alf Sjöberg.)*INGMAR BERGMANPRISON a.k.a Devil’s Wanton SUMMER WITH MONIKA*
EVENING OF THE JESTERS (a.k.a. Sawdust and Tinsel; Clown’s Evening)*A LESSON IN LOVEDREAMSSMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHTSEVENTH SEAL*
WILD STRAWBERRIESBRINK OF LIFE
FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTESFANNY AND ALEXANDERIn terms of batting averages, Ingmar Bergman is hard to beat. He made few if any film that could be said to be truly execrable, and even his less worthy films are of some interest. Personally, I don’t much care for his films of the late 60s and 70s — despite having a soft spot for THE SERPENT’S EGG and AUTUMN SONATA — , but PASSION OF ANNA and CRIES AND WHISPERS have their defenders. And SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE was regarded very highly as a mini-TV series in Sweden and in its shortened theatrical version in America. But from 1946 to 1968, a period in which he made around 25 films, he could almost do no wrong. Not that all the films were great or even very good; at the very least, they were solid as entertainment or art.
Bergman’s star has faded over the years for any number of reasons, and this is a pity for he was one of the supreme artists of cinema. But he was not one of the supremely important artists. If Bergman had never existed, the trajectory of cinema history would have been more or less the same. While one could admire Bergman’s insights, intelligence, dedication, and craft, he was not the groundbreaking artist on the level of Eisenstein, Murnau, Welles, Hitchcock, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Bresson, Resnais, and Godard. While Bergman’s body of work is many times more rewarding than Godard’s, the latter’s BREATHLESS probably had a greater impact on cinema than all of Bergman’s films put together. Of course, one doesn’t have to be revolutionary or ‘radical’ to be a great artist, but because of cinema’s coming of age in a century defined by rapid change, modernists and adventurers have been favored over classicists. Even Yasujiro Ozu, despite his quiet ‘conservative’ style, devised a grammar/expression unique to cinema and like nothing else in and outside Japan. As striking and powerful as many of Bergman’s films may be — and though the Bergman Touch is readily identifiable — , he is generally regarded as a master than a visionary of film art. PERSONA is the only Bergman film that might qualify as ‘radical’, but keep in mind it came after the more remarkable LA JETEE, MURIEL, and ALPHAVILLE.
Worst of all for Bergman, he was the posterboy of the Film-as-Art crowd whose most prominent spokesman was the much loathed John Simon. Similarly, it didn’t help Lina Wertmuller’s career — at least not in the long run as the academia and media came under PC domination — to be friends with John Simon. Call it the Simon Curse. Though unspoken and unofficial, a kind of Guilt-by-Association operates in the world of cinematic appreciation and discourse. Even feminist scholars tend to dismiss Lina Wertmuller, the greatest female writer-director of cinema, because she was a ‘humanist’ than a ‘feminist’ and friendly with Simon to boot. The academia of film studies is generally a place where most people think Chantal Akerman is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time whereas Bergman is, at best, treated as the Stanley Kramer of Film-as-Art. Bergman may have struggled and overcome the repressive Lutheranism of his childhood but his reputation was no match for the neo-puritanism of the Cultural Hegemonization — and ideological homogenization — of the Institutions in the West(as especially defined by radical Jews, silly feminists, and trivialist homos).
While Bergman is one of the greatest ever in terms of his body of work, PERSONA may be his only film that rises to the ‘pantheon’ rank of ‘greatest films ever made’. Thus, Bergman is the opposite of someone like Welles and Leone who made far fewer films but more masterpieces.
As assessing artistic worth isn’t a game of number crunching, it’s pointless to say who was the ‘better’ artist. But it’s true enough that Welles had a much greater impact on cinema as a whole. To be sure, any cultural influence could be good or bad, and even the influence of good artists can have bad consequences. YOJIMBO and PSYCHO are great films, but think of all the bad movies inspired by them. And Tarantino’s worthless PULP FICTION was possibly the most influential film of the 90s. But only a fool would rank Tarantino higher than Bergman.
BILLE AUGUSTPELLE THE CONQUERORBEST INTENTIONSDANIEL BERGMANSUNDAY’S CHILDRENLIV ULLMANNPRIVATE CONFESSIONS*FAITHLESS(Writer: Ingmar Bergman)*Ingmar Bergman gave up filmmaking after FANNY AND ALEXANDER and turned to writing and Theater. He continued making TV films, and a few of them, like AFTER THE REHEARSAL, were released in American theaters. Since the 80s, Bergman preferred to write screenplays for others to direct. BEST INTENTIONS was directed by Bille August, and FAITHLESS and PRIVATE CONFESSIONS were treated by Liv Ullmann. Fittingly enough, Bergman’s son Daniel directed SUNDAY’S CHILDREN, Bergman’s remembrance of his childhood with his loving but harshly stern father. If the Lutheran minister in FANNY AND ALEXANDER was Bergman spitting on his father’s grave, the nuanced love/hate portrait of the father in SUNDAY’S CHILDREN was Bergman’s attempt to come to terms with his father. And FAITHLESS, a confession of Bergman’s own failures as a man, was perhaps, a kind of indirect forgiveness of his father. Bergman, who railed against his father’s repressiveness, abused his freedom to destroy the lives of others. So, in the end, who was he to judge?
One reason Bergman gave up filmmaking(at least major productions for the big screen) was due to age. Filmmaking was stressful, especially for a perfectionist like Bergman. But perhaps the other reason had something to do with his need to examine his childhood and the story of his parents. The material was possibly too painful and difficult for Bergman to handle openly. He could sit down and write it down in the form of novels or screenplays, but the stress of directing the lives of his parents and his younger self on a movie set in full view of others might have been too much. And maybe he couldn’t be ‘fair’ with the material due to lifelong grudges. So, why not have others direct what might called the Parental Triology: BEST INTENTIONS, SUNDAY’S CHILDREN, and PRIVATE CONFESSIONS? Bille August’s work is cinematically the most impressive, but I prefer the natural modes of SUNDAY’S CHILDREN and PRIVATE CONFESSIONS.
Bergman became a great director beginning in the mid-50s with films like EVENING OF THE JESTERS(aka SAWDUST AND TINSEL), but there was loss(spontaneity) as well as gain(mastery). For this reason, I generally prefer the films he wrote but were directed by others. EVENING OF THE JESTERS, SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, SEVENTH SEAL, and PERSONA are greater works than TORMENT(Bergman’s first filmed screenplay by another director), but TORMENT feels less expressively tormented. Ironically, Bergman, who railed against the repressiveness of social traditions and conventions, was one of the biggest control-freaks in cinema. The problem of SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT is it has no ‘problems’. It is so perfectly self-enclosed that it’s almost like Bergman playing with toys with all by himself. It lacks the feeling of life in Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME. Ophuls and Mizoguchi were also control freaks, but at least their flowing cameras lent the images a hypnotic sensuality. Bergman’s visual strategy was more like that of a scientist poring through a microscope or a professor fixing a cold stare on his nervous students. Thus, there’s a kind of claustrophobic feeling about Bergman’s films. Bergman was a superb director of actors, but this was part of the problem in some of his films: The gloom and doom seemed less the characters’ own than overcast clouds hanging over them at Bergman’s behest(as if a creative predestination forbids them from finding meaning and happiness). If the Ed Harris character tries to make everything happy-and-nice for Truman(Jim Carrey), it’s as though Bergman excessively darkened the world for his characters inside the Bergman Show, as if everyone had to share his angst about the meaning of life. Especially beginning in the mid 50s, Bergman’s characters, despite the superb performances, seem less like individuals living their own lives than hapless prisoners trapped in the Bergmanesque universe.
Contrast them to the woman in PRIVATE CONFESSIONS(directed by Ullmann), based loosely on Bergman’s mother. She is trapped in an unhappy marriage, not in the auteur’s conceit of the human condition; she is a person in the world, not a figment in someone’s mind. Bergman’s best works feature filmmaking craft and creativity way beyond those of Ullmann(who’s no slouch either), but ‘better filmmaking’ can get in the way of the stories and characters. PRIVATE CONFESSIONS is spare but not severe. It’s told simply, but it’s this simpleness that allows the characters to come alive and tell their own tales. Because Bergman, as much a man of the Theater as of cinema, was so invested in delving into his characters, his cinematic control-freak mastery wasn’t always to his creative advantage. He created compelling characters but imprisoned them within walls of his private angst no less forbidding that the walls of the Lutheran minister in FANNY & ALEXANDER. This was less a problem with Ozu, Kubrick, or Bresson, whose films were more archetype-centric than character-driven.
There is great consistency in the quality and vision of Bergman, but that was also a limitation. Because Bergman’s films often featured trapped lives within trapped expression, it was like a case of double claustrophobia–also the problem of Michael Haneke. Bergman’s early films are rightly considered as minor works — and his later screenplays directed by other filmmakers may be less impressive in terms of ‘auteur’ filmmaking — , but they are fuller in life.
SISTERS OF GION
WOMAN IN THE RUMOR*
TALES OF THE TAIRA CLAN(aka TAIRA CLAN SAGA)*
STREET OF SHAMEBefore cinephiles in the West were exposed to a broader range of Japanese cinema, the big three were Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu. It was really with the DVD and internet that many of us gained fuller access to what Japanese cinema has to offer. Though the new breed of Japanese filmmakers in the 60s made their mark internationally, even most cinephiles in the West–even up to the 90s–tended to think, based on availability, that other than the Big Three, only a handful of Japanese directors–Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Mikio Naruse, etc–really mattered. It was only belatedly that many of us became aware of other notable talents such as Seijun Suzuki, Yasuzo Masumura, and many others. Though the Big Three may well deserve their special place at the peak, Japanese cinema hasn’t been a case of few giants on top and dwarfs at the bottom.
Of the Big Three, the main debate–at least people who care about such things–concerned who was greater: Mizoguchi or Kurosawa? The origin of this debate can be traced back to the French critics of the 50s when Kurosawa came of prominence with films such as RASHOMON, IKIRU, SEVEN SAMURAI, and THRONE OF BLOOD. For starters, French love to argue about everything. It’s like the French guys in APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX screaming ‘communist!’ and ‘socialist!’ The most sensible thing would have been to see the debate as one of apples and oranges, but French critics couldn’t resist drawing battle lines–and this eventually affect some Americans as well, especially the fans of Andrew Sarris whose preference of Mizoguchi over Kurosawa paralleled his championing Rossellini over DeSica.
To the best of my knowledge, most French critics preferred Mizoguchi–and later Ozu and Naruse–over Kurosawa. To the French, Mizoguchi was more authentically Japanese, more of an acquired taste requiring finer taste, and more of an exotic artist but minus the overt exoticism worn on the sleeve as presumably was the case with Kurosawa. It also didn’t help that Kurosawa’s films appealed to Americans and were inspired to some extent by American Westerns. The French could appreciate Hollywood as Hollywood but preferred a Japanese cinema that was distinct and unique, and they found such qualities more in the works of Mizoguchi. Andre Bazin entered this debate by pouring a mixture of water and gasoline to the fire. He praised both artists, and said a man who can only appreciate Mizoguchi is blind in one eye but a man who prefers Kurosawa to Mizoguchi is blind in both eyes.
Though overstated perhaps, but Bazin had a point. It takes a finer sensibility to appreciate Mizoguchi, and the rewards may be greater. Kurosawa’s cinema is more immediately powerful–especially with the fuming intensity of Mifune and the almost 3D effect of telephoto lunges of the camera–, but the meaning is to be found in the drama and action. When Kurosawa slows down or goes into still mode, his films can seem stilted and static. Mizoguchi, in contrast, developed a uniquely graceful mastery of cinema. You can sense something in the air even when nothing happens. And if Kurosawa went for bold cuts and wipes–and a wide-eyed and roaming camera–to accentuate shifts in time, place, and emotions, Mizoguchi could create new universes of existence and emotions with the slightest movements of the camera. Though Tai Chi is Chinese than Japanese, Mizoguchi was like the Tai Chi film artist. He didn’t need to hit hard or make wild gestures to demonstrate his unity with the forces animating the human heart and the world.
In that way, he was the greatest Japanese filmmaker ever, and possibly one of the top ten greatest filmmakers ‘of all time’. Kurosawa himself said Mizoguchi was Japan’s greatest director. Even so, Mizoguchi could never have directed SEVEN SAMURAI, YOJIMBO, and HIGH AND LOW, anymore than Kurosawa could ever have directed THE LOYAL 47 RONIN and UGETSU.
John Simon had much praise for Kurosawa and Ozu but complained that Mizoguchi was ‘vastly overrated’. Andrew Sarris said of Simon that he was the ‘greatest film critic of the 19th century’. This is both true and false. In a way, people immersed in 19th century literature and arts would likely appreciate Mizoguchi for watching his films require the kind of patience involved in reading novels and staring at paintings–and listening to classical music. The problem wasn’t so much Simon’s alleged 19th century sensibility as his impatient temperament when it came to certain aspects of film art. Even so, Sarris correctly assessed Simon inability to appreciate cinema as an artwork in its own right than in relation to the other arts.
Simon argued that Mizoguchi’s films were too sentimental, even soap opera-like, but this is true only if one focuses on the storyline–often of suffering women. In the treatment, however, there was little that was sappy about Mizoguchi, and if anything, his films were less of a tearjerker than Kurosawa’s. When people weep in Kurosawa’s films, it’s like storm clouds in their hearts have burst open. It’s as if Kurosawa endorses and joins in the emotions. Mizoguchi, in contrast, maintained a graceful detachment from the sorrow and grief, creating an effect that, far from being uncaring or unfeeling, was respectful of the unfathomable depths of individual suffering and their place in the ‘cosmic’–for lack of a better term–way of things. It was this balancing act between caring(for small lives) and knowing(the grander truth) that made his films so beguilingly beautiful. Though Spielberg is more a student of Kurosawa, his final scene in A.I., the greatest passage he ever directed, owe something to Mizoguchi, knowingly or not.
Given my ‘impatient’ nature, I’ve always much preferred Kurosawa over Mizoguchi. (Peckinpah and Leone may be the only directors I enjoy as much or more than Kurosawa.) And I confess I didn’t fully appreciate Mizoguchi until later(UGETSU being my first Mizoguchi film in 1985) as I became aware of many more ways to tell stories, convey emotions, and suggest meanings.
That the highest Mizoguchi film in the Sight and Sight Poll is UGETSU at #50 is a not healthy sign of the state of film culture.
Mizoguchi died in 1956, only six years into the second half of the 20th century.
In those years, he made eleven films, among them UGETSU, SANSHO THE BALIFF, CRUCIFIED LOVERS, STREET OF SHAME, WOMAN IN THE RUMOR, TAIRA CLAN SAGA, A GEISHA, and LIFE OF OHARU. In 1954 alone, he made three masterpieces. Mizoguchi’s output in those short years arguably makes him the greatest director of the second half of the 20th century–and his works prior to 1950 ranks him among the greatest of the first half of the century. One shudders to think what he might have achieved had he lived another six years, let alone ten or twenty.
YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE
RETURN OF FRANK JAMES
BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT
Film history has been one of disruptions as well as continuity, and disruptions–at least in the political sense–perhaps had the greatest impact on filmmakers of early German cinema for obvious reasons: the rise of Nazism and WWII. In the early yrs of cinema, Germany was one of the few nations that went toe to toe with Hollywood. And even as the coming of sound movies or talkies babelized world cinema and undermined European films–as America was the biggest market in the world–, Germany still held its own in the early 30s. Given the left-leaning sympathies and/or Jewish identities of many top film talents in Germany, the rise of Hitler inevitably led to rapid decline in quality–despite Goebbels’ attempt to shore up the remaining talent with all sorts of favors and rewards. To be sure, not every notable talent left Germany–far from it–, and German cinema during the Nazis was mostly known for mediocrity than awfulness–most films were like second-rate Hollywood genre fantasies. Still, many of the giants of early German cinema were gone for good. Lang and Sternberg were among them–though Sternberg had already secured his niche in Hollywood prior to the Nazi seizure of power.
The general consensus among film scholars used to be that Lang in exile languished with second-rate genre movies at the behest of crass studio moguls who had no use for ‘art’. Ironically, one might say he ended up rather like German directors under Nazism churning out predictable genre fare.
But the new breed of French film critics in the 50s centered around Francois Truffaut championed Lang’s Hollywood movies as just as remarkable, if not more so, than his German films. I haven’t seen enough Lang’s Hollywood movies to decide one way or another. What I do know is his Hollywood movies are exceptionally good.
Even so, Lang’s reputation as a giant is essentially founded on his German films, especially the Nibelungen Saga(of SIEGFRIED and KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE), M, and TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE. METROPOLIS has moments of greatness that rival anything put on film, but I always found 90% of it pretty tough-going. Lang’s Hollywood movies may be peaks among their kind, but Lang’s best German films are incomparable in vision, originality, and power. They are works of genius. The mythic grandeur and richness of the Nibelungen Saga have been matched only by EXCALIBUR, 13TH WARRIOR, and handful of other films. M is the best crime thriller and still ahead of its time. As remarkable as Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW is, it’s kid stuff compared to Lang’s first sound film. And with TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE, Lang mapped the paranoid mind long before Lynch with MULHOLLAND DR.
Eisenstein’s development of the Soviet montage was sheer brilliance, but Lang’s best films have gravitas, and they most certainly influenced Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY and IVAN THE TERRIBLE, Eisenstein’s greatest work. One wonders what the history of cinema would have been like had Nazis not come to power, directors like Lang remained in Germany, and German cinema continued in its early great tradition.
In the case of Billy Wilder, the general impression has been, “Germany’s loss was our gain.” It’s more complicated with Lang. If Wilder had something of Neil Simon’s Everyman Appeal that effortlessly transcended cultural barriers and easily translated into the populist mode of Hollywood, Lang was very much steeped in the culture and sensibilities of Europe in both the traditional and modern sense. He was a real artist than just a great entertainer.
PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC*
DAY OF WRATH*
GERTRUDFrom 1928, when Carl Dreyer shook the film world with THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, to 1964, when he directed his last work GERTRUD, Carl Dreyer finished only five films(six if we include TWO FILM, a film he disowned and one I haven’t seen; and I know next to nothing of his early silents prior to PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC). In contrast, Ingmar Bergman directed something in the order of 25 or 26 films from 1948 to 1966. Dreyer and Bergman have often been compared–and Bergman often commented on Dreyer–by film scholars, not least because both were Scandinavian directors.
But the crucial difference was Bergman was about clarity whereas Dreyer was about mystery. This isn’t to suggest that Bergman found an answer to every question; indeed most of his films end without clear resolution. Even so, the questioning comes into clear focus, almost like a body before a surgeon or a case before judge and jury. Intelligence was the greatest asset for Bergman.
Dreyer relied more on intuition. Though in terms of quality-and-quantity, Bergman is almost impossible to beat, each of Dreyer’s major films is greater than anything by Bergman(with the possible exception of PERSONA). The paucity of Dreyer’s output can be attributed to any number of reasons. Like Welles, he had problems with financing. There was also the social crises that plagued Europe since WWI. But, it was also Dreyer’s temperament and personality. Like Kubrick, he needed lots of time to think/feel deep about what he wanted–and many of these ‘ideas’ needed time to organically accumulate and take shape of their own accord. Most of his films are not major productions, but it’s difficult to think of other films so utterly committed in their vision and unity. In many Bergman films, we see a great mind at work. In Dreyer’s films, not just the mind but the totality of the heart and soul.
Though Bergman made films about the historical past as well of his own time, a sense of the present is always pervasive in his films. Whether it’s this day or this night, this year or hundred yrs ago, the sense of the here-and-now comes in to clear focus with almost scalpel-edge sharpness. Bergman may have been appealing to so many serious moviegoers because he did the concentrating for them, i.e. he focused their attention on Important Matters, Symbols, and Issues. In this regard, Bergman had much in common with Fellini and Kurosawa.
Dreyer worked differently. Even in his stories set in the here-and-now, there is always the suggestion of the somewhere else, something else, someone else. Had Bergman made JOAN OF ARC, the main focus might have been on JOAN. But under Dreyer’s spell, we are made as aware, if not more, of Joan’s longings and memories(even though we only see her in the present) as her dire condition under her tormentors. When the old man in WILD STRAWBERRIES thinks of the past, the past comes clearly into focus as ‘the present’. But in Dreyer’s films, even the now is never just ‘now’ and here is never just ‘here’. There’s a (sixth)sense of something mysterious that surrounds us at all times, regardless of whether we are attuned to it or not.
Thus, there is a fuzzy aura about Dreyer’s films, as if characters and places are surrounded by spiritual presences invisible to the eye. Dreyer’s VAMPYR derives its power not so much by showing us monsters and vampires as by creating a mood of a place that feels saturated with evil spirits. You don’t have to see to believe. After all, the fright one feels in a dark cemetery arises not from what is seen but what is felt. It is the rare artist who can visualize the ‘felt’.
There is a ghost story element to all of Dreyer’s films, even GERTRUD, with its dry shell of a character, at least on our first impression. But as time passes, our gaze searches for an entry into her locked averted gaze with its secret codes to a private world of wet memories at once crusting into fragility and fossilizing into stone. Like Mizoguchi, Dreyer understood real magic was more a measure of revelation than an act of exhibition, i.e. more an art of perception than in the object of perception. As fine as Cocteau was, his magic mainly consisted of visual tricks that tickled the eye. Same could be said for Kurosawa’s DREAMS. But Dreyer’s magic, like Mizoguchi’s in UGETSU, slipped past the eye and passed into the soul.
A MAN ESCAPED*
PICKPOCKET AU HASARD BALTHASAR**
UNE FEMME DOUCE LANCELOT OF THE LAKE* L’ARGENT*
Bresson’s career can broadly be divided in two, and the transition point roughly coincides with Bresson’s switch from b/w to color. Ironically, the stark b/w films offer an element of hope(at least of personal redemption), whereas salvation seems all but impossible in the color ones. Paradoxically, this makes sense in the Bressonian universe for b/w is the ‘color’ of sainthood. The black-and-white image portrays the world as one of light and darkness. It’s a world of stark contrasts buttressed by an uncertain grayness. It’s a vision of the world without distractions and diversions, like a spiritual X-ray image of the human condition defined by sinners and saints, many more of the former of course. As God’s existence is never a certainty, the life of the saint is a lonely, even a deluded and foolish, one. Above all, a saint must be stubborn, much like a mule. Since mulishness is hardly sociable or advantageous, most saints are products of temperament than of individual choice. The country priest has little in the way of social graces; he’s inept in earning the trust and respect of people around him. His personal nature erects a wall between himself and society, but this wall of obstinacy is something he climbs to touch God. The saints of Bresson’s films are hardly likable. They are ‘losers’ who are too stubborn to adapt to the ever-shifting way of social reality, but as such, they are less compromised and more single-hearted, digging away at the hole of ‘purity’ seen only by their eyes through the barrier of reality.
The major shift in Bresson’s vision began with MOUCHETTE, his last b/w film. In many respects, it resembled the earlier films in tone and texture. But Mouchette the gypsy girl seemed incapable of being touched by faith. She wasn’t stubborn in sainthood but in rejection of everything, including sainthood, just as everyone rejected her. She wasn’t a simple victim for she was born to unlike and to be unliked.
Bresson’s earlier characters were outcasts, rejects, or the repressed, but they clung to faith in the cause(MAN ESCAPED), God(Joan and the country priest), and redemption(PICKPOCKET). The donkey of AU HASARD BALTHSAR was unknowing but innocent and pure in its unknowing-ness. All were defined by stubbornness that, however, was moored to a certain spiritual quantity. Mouchette is a harder case for, despite her tough obstinacy, she refuses the possibility of purity/sainthood. She also refuses to be a victim. Thus, she cannot be spiritually saved, and yet in her refusal to accept the hand of faith, one can’t help but admire her in some way. Even the manner of her death is her own in her own way. She isn’t killed like St. Joan or the donkey. She kills herself but without even the element of self-pity betraying a desire to be grieved by the world. She turns her own suicide into a child’s play. Her soul refuses to be saved and commits a mortal sin; she carries stubbornness to its logical end. In one way, she is purer than the saints. Saints may be defined by stubbornness, but they submit to the Higher Being or the Higher Cause. Saints attune their stubbornness to the service of something. They refuse to surrender to the world in their surrender to the higher truth. In contrast, Mouchette won’t abandon her stubbornness for anything. In many ways, she is a wretched creature, one for whom we can’t feel anything like tenderness, something possible in Bresson’s earlier films. But in Mouchette’s refusal of even our kindness and sympathy, she possesses a nature more powerful even that of saints. But what is such a nature without direction, without a higher vision or deeper emotion? Mouchette’s suicide is her triumph but there’s no tragedy because her nature cut ties not only to the world but to truth beyond the world. If the boy in Truffaut’s THE WILD CHILD returns to the embrace of civilization, Mouchette rejects everything to the very end. By reasons of social prejudice and her own nature, she lived her own life on the periphery and died her own death all alone, fading from the world as if she’d never existed. Mouchette’s manner of death set the template for Bresson’s subsequent color films.
Suicide plays a central role in UNE FEMME DOUCE and THE DEVIL PROBABLY. And the character of L’ARGENT also attempts suicide.
With Bresson’s shift to color, it was as if his whole outlook changed. World of colors could be a appreciated for its beauty–FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER–, but it isn’t one for saints. For most of us, the vibrancy of colors is a happy diversion. For the stubborn of heart, life of the eyes is the death of the soul, especially true in the age of consumerism where bright colors are splashed everywhere, accentuating the most trivial with the seductive imagery.
The modern world is also more permissive, and there can be no saints where permission overrides persecution. What St. Joan was in the Middle Ages, her kind can only be the lost spirit in UNE FEMME DOUCE. For someone of Bresson’s stubborn temperament, the meaning of life was in the struggle, and there had been more to struggle for in the past. If Marxists found the bourgeoisie and capitalism too oppressive, Bresson might have found them too easy and tolerant. The modern world was saturated with colors; modern world made life tolerable for most people. The world was no longer for saints but for citizens and consumers. The more life became tolerable, the less it became meaningful. For many people, it was all for the better. But for those individuals born with the mulish souls, the meaning of whose existence was defined against the world, the tolerable was all the less tolerable for persecution had at least lent meaning to their obstinate nature. In persecution, the stubborn had always found the worth of their stubbornness, which could be redeemed into the stuff of sainthood. But in the modern world, the weird and difficult came to be merely tolerated and ignored. As such people were no longer burned at the stake by a misunderstanding world, there is nothing for the mulish but a meaningless existence or death by suicide. Saints are, by nature, pacifistic. Unlike radicals, they don’t pick a fight with the world. Instead, saints rely on the world to wage against them out of greed, cruelty, or lack of understanding. But the modern world, equipped with the means to satisfy the wants of most people and with the laws to protect the rights of most people, left the stubborn alone. A tolerant and plentiful world is for the saints what peace is like for warriors. A kind of death. Warriors need wars to fight, and saints need the world to wage war on them. But modern world merely ignored the stubborn as ‘losers’.
Bresson was one of a kind. A modernist with a medievalist soul.
There have been many admirers and imitators, but the only lesson of Bresson-ism is one must stubbornly do one’s own thing. And imitating him–as Bruno Dumont and others have done–isn’t it.
OSTERMAN WEEKEND THE WILD BUNCH was both Peckinpah’s greatest triumph and biggest curse. If not for that film, critics would have been kinder to his later works. But moviegoers hoped for and demanded another film of that caliber, and it simply wasn’t in the cards. Because Peckinpah’s fame was so closely associated with THE WILD BUNCH, all his subsequent films stood in its shadow. This was fair and unfair. Fair in that we want great filmmakers to keep making great films. Unfair in that a film like THE WILD BUNCH is almost a miracle akin to a royal-straight-flush. While art is a conscious endeavor, no artist, especially in a creative form as complex and multifaceted as cinema, has control over everything nor can he rely on the muse to strike again with the pure light. (This was especially true with Peckinpah, a man of ‘film sense’ than ‘film form’. Unlike the more cerebral Hitchcock, Welles or Kubrick, Peckinpah was an artist of passion and he knew it, which is why he came to depend–tragically or pathetically–so much on drugs and alcohol to recapture the mood that propelled him to make remarkable films such as THE WILD BUNCH and STRAW DOGS.) Therefore, every new Peckinpah film, rather than being judged on its own merit, came to be seen as another disappointment for failing to live up to THE WILD BUNCH. But part of the blame must go to Peckinpah for he had the raw talent and powerful vision to make, under the right circumstances, another film as good. Indeed, had his head been screwed on right, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA could have been that film, the ‘other WILD BUNCH’. Instead, he had to turn every production into a Randall McMurphy vs. Nurse Ratched cage-fight where he, the creative spirit, was presumably the martyr unfairly bound-and-gagged and whipped into submission.
Depending on whom you ask, Peckinpah never made a bad film or made only bad films after THE WILD BUNCH. Upon its release, THE WILD BUNCH had many detractors, but the test of time has established it as one of the indisputably great films of the 60s, a very great decade for cinema. Personally, I tend to agree with the fans of Peckinpah, but I have problems with BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA and CROSS OF IRON. CONVOY isn’t much, but then the material was only good for light action-comedy romp. The problems of ALFREDO GARCIA and CROSS OF IRON are more jarring because they had the stuff to become great films. Peckinpah’s lack of focus and discipline seriously undermined both. Peckinpah was a poor midwife, and the results were stillborn–or unwitting abortions.
Peckinpah counts as one of the great directors of the 60s and 70s, but his career was really a missed opportunity. He was both too much of an overachiever and underachiever. At his best, he was a great and original revisionist director of genre pictures, but he strained to be a full-blown film artist on the level of Ingmar Bergman. He simply wasn’t that kind of ‘auteur’, and the problems of PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID are illustrative of this.
The other side of him blamed Hollywood for standing in the way of his vision, threw up his hands, and played the underachieving ‘whore’, treating some of his films without the requisite energy and drive. Unlike Charlie Brown who tried to make the best of a second-rate Christmas Tree, Peckinpah pissed on some of his films. Even so, the piss had a distinct musty odor, and there was a creative auto-pilot within Peckinpah that worked hard at even what his conscious mind worked against. Movie-making was in his blood. In THE WILD BUNCH, the Gorch Brothers are given third-rate Mexican whores to play with, and even though Lyle Gorch feels bitter, he can’t help but drink and romp around with the girl, indeed getting soaked to the point of making her his fiance. That was Peckinpah.
As one of the leading New Wave directors to emerge in the late 50s, it seemed for a brief spell as though Truffaut could do no wrong. 400 BLOWS was a landmark film, one that melded the warmth of Jean Renoir, poetry of Jean Vigo, and grit of Neo-Realism. Truffaut, a movie junkie, paid homage to the past but packed his first film with distinct quality all his own. Despite his fiery rhetoric as a controversial film critic, Truffaut was no radical or revolutionary as a filmmaker, but none of this mattered as his first three feature films, in their combination of tradition and innovation, convinced the world that anything was possible. It was as though Truffaut transcended all categories. He was seen as a personal artist in the best and truest sense. 400 BLOWS was perhaps the most ‘conventional’ of the first feature films of the great New Wave directors, but it remains one of the best. Though BREATHLESS may be more important in film history, 400 BLOWS has more lasting value as a work of art. It hasn’t dated a day since it was released. It’s filled with youth and energy, a sense of boundless possibility. Yet, there’s also the mood of sobriety and limitations, of a life, despite its promises, hemmed in by walls and barriers. Some of the obstacles are social and external, some are psychological and internal. Both the boy in 400 BLOWS and Catherine in JULES & JIM wanna play by their own rules, and in doing so, break the rules of society. They are both heroes-and-rebels and renegades-and-outlaws. It was this balance of rebellion and respectability in theme and style that marked Truffaut’s first three films. A man of great empathy, he was capable of seeing things from all sides, a quality that he no doubt inherited from Jean Renoir and perhaps Andre Bazin. But just when Truffaut seemed capable of doing just about everything, his career began to falter. He continued to make interesting and even near-great films on occasion, but the rebel side of Truffaut faded, and he became content to be something like the poet-laureate of French Cinema. If some filmmakers burn out, Truffaut’s inspiration simmered away in a warm tub. He wanted to be celebrated and loved, and his films became ever more lovable. But such softness–and sometimes soft-headedness–dulled the edge that made his first three films so remarkable. Of the later films, TWO ENGLISH GIRLS might have been a great film if not for the lackluster Jean-Pierre Leaud. STORY OF ADELE H. is solid but lacks style, a fatal flaw. After all, the New Wave had begun essentially as a stylistic movement/experiment. As Truffaut became part of the Establishment, he no longer took chances. At his silliest, he cranked out the Antoine Doinel series like Stallone with the ROCKY franchise. He continued to make good/decent films, but something vital was gone. He won international acclaim with DAY FOR NIGHT, but it was the New Wave resold and re-branded as generic mannerisms. He was showered with prizes for THE LAST METRO, but it was more a celebration of his career and fame–and a self-congratulatory tribute to the myth of the French Resistance–than a film of much artistic merit. Indeed, like most latter-day Fellini films, no one talks about it anymore. But, Truffaut’s place in cinema is secure for his first three films and the flawed but inspired revisions of genre films, such as FAHRENHEIT 451, still one of the most memorable sci-fi films in movie history.
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON
MEET JOHN DOE* IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE**
Movies have always been a popular art form, but few filmmakers had a knack for populist appeal as Frank Capra did. While 99% of Hollywood films appealed to the masses, relatively few had the magic touch. Capra’s movies did, and not for nothing do we speak of a movie being ‘Capraesque’. Capra’s magic touch has both won him many admirers and many detractors. For better or worse, Capra had an influence on movies such as E.T., BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and other monster hits. For the cynically minded, Capra is neither to be praised nor trusted. They contend that if Capra’s populism was sincere, he’s to be pitied as naive and simple-minded. On the other hand, if his populism was a clever ploy, then he is to be despised for pushing buttons on the suckers.
For myself, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON seem, at once, willfully simple-minded and cleverly manipulative. They are well-directed(like everyone else by Capra) and have much to recommend them, but they play on the heartstrings shamelessly, and as such, have something in common with Spielberg’s lesser films. Though Spielberg has often mentioned David Lean and John Ford as his inspirations, the magical quality of his films owes more to Capra. WAR HORSE, for example, is an homage to Ford and Lean in form, but its heart is pure Capra–as was the case with THE TERMINAL. And the problem with SCHINDLER’S LIST is it’s rather like MR. SMITH GOES TO AUSCHWITZ.
Oddly enough, Capra appears to be one of the main influences on the radical paranoid cynic Oliver Stone, not least in JFK with Kevin Costner in the neo-Mr-Smith role. One wonders to what extent these latter day filmmakers are channeling Capra sincerely or opportunistically, in good faith or bad. Are they carrying the torch of populist redemption or have they stolen the fire of cheap audience manipulation? With a film like GREEN MILE, we know the writer and director were being totally cynical. I mean not even the most willfully naive liberal can believe that a mountain-sized Negro would rather weep over a little white mouse than tear open a white guy’s bunghole in prison. Though many Americans find old Capra films too ‘naive and childish’, the great irony is that many more Americans today go weepy over GREEN MILE, Oprah cult, Obama cult, and the like.
So, there is a negative legacy to Capra-ism. I think Capra partly understood the danger, with the dark side of populism being explored in MEET JOHN DOE and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. (If Spielberg’s A.I. is his greatest film, it owes to its contemplation of the darker potential of fairy tales–how they can be concocted and controlled by the powers-that-be to misdirect the innocent, the simple-minded, and the trusting.) MEET JOHN DOE shows how hope can bind but also blind. But a certain crudity of the supporting characters undermine it from being truly great. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is perhaps the most beloved movie–not least as the unofficial Christmas movie–, but the designation has unfortunately discouraged many film critics and scholars from acknowledging its great depth and beauty. It deserves its place in the pantheon with CITIZEN KANE, SEVEN SAMURAI, and 2001 as one of the greatest films.
Perhaps the director who channeled the spirit of Capra in the most meaningful way was Akira Kurosawa. ONE WONDERFUL SUNDAY, IKIRU, and RED BEARD certainly owe something to Capra. Kurosawa welded immediacy of neo-realism with the heart of Capra-ism. If Capra, working in Hollywood as a populist director, was compelled to end all his films on a high note, Kurosawa had the freedom to dig deeper, to peer further to the dark side of innocence. Fellini, in films such as THE WHITE SHEIK and NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, probably owes something to Capra as well. Many cinephiles, as would-be sophisticates and hipsters, would rather not dwell on Capra’s place in cinema, but he was incontestably one of its giants, even if a lesser giant. He was certainly preferable to the other great populist, the bloated DeMille.
In truth, Capraesqueness is only as good as the director employing it. It can be used to emphasize the need for love, hope, trust, and community in a dark world or it can be used to push the buttons on suckers to rake in millions of bucks. It can be IKIRU or GREEN MILE.
THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS
Michael Mann has established himself as one of the major directors of the past three decades, and perhaps his reputation is deserved given his ‘artful’ reconfiguration of action genres. His contemporaries are Walter Hill and John McTiernan. One might say Mann has the talent of Tony Scott and ambition of Ridley Scott. Or, maybe he has the eye of Ridley Scott and the vision of Tony Scott. (But then, following BLADE RUNNER, Ridley was hardly better than his lesser brother.) Mann’s movies certainly look good, and one wonders if Mann’s true calling was tailoring. His characters are better suited than conceived. Indeed, watching his films is like window shopping through an array of high end stores. There’s something inane and vapid about them, all the more so for Mann’s inflated posturing that is often mistaken for philosophical signification. Whether the characters are walking or talking, they seem to be self-consciously narcissistic; they seem to be posing or making grand gestures: consider the bogus ending of HEAT where DeNiro dies stylishly followed by Pacino gazing ‘meaningfully’ into infinity like he’s in some kind of fashion passion play. It’s ridiculous and phony, yet it’s easy to understand why many are impressed by such shtick. The appeal is no different from the eye-candy sugar high that some get from MADMEN the TV series. Looking good counts for something. Of course, Hollywood has had a long history of making stars look good, but there was a human quality to actors like James Stewart, Cary Grant, and James Mason. And tough guys had grit and personality: consider Cagney, Bogart, Wayne. In contrast, Mann’s characters are like mythic heroes whose heads are up in the clouds whispering with the gods while their mortal bodies battle it out in the world of mortals, of course always clad in the proper attire as it’d be uncouth to kill or die in the wrong pair of pants.
For better or worse, Mann has been one of the most influential visual artists since the 1980s, more for his TV show MIAMI VICE than for his movies. I think I watched half an episode of MIAMI VICE once–I couldn’t watch any longer lest I might puke–, and the show turned out to be one of those things of which it could be said, “It changed everything.” The main appeal of MIAMI VICE wasn’t the story, characterizations, themes, etc. It was two guys looking real good and stylish. My initial reluctance to see TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. owed to the suspicion that the once great Friedkin was selling out to get on the slick 80s bandwagon, but Friedkin’s masterpiece didn’t so much copy the style as run it through a wringer. In contrast, consider Mann’s own MANHUNTER–also starring William Peterson–, which is only an empty exercise in style, posturing, and slickness. To be sure, it has a certain appeal and works on its own terms. It’s certainly not a bad movie and may even be a good one, but I never much cared for the sterile aesthetics of Mann. Mann’s heat is too cool for passion. Compare Mann’s heroes in COLLATERAL and PUBLIC ENEMIES with the old school personalities like Cagney(as directed by Raoul Walsh), Muni(as directed by Howard Hawks), or Bogart(as directed by John Huston). Walter Hill conceived of cold/cool killers but not without an element of raw vitality, the stuff of red meat. In contrast, Mann’s cinema is dining out at a sushi bar. Even when it’s about hoodlums and killers, it’s so professional, so yuppie. Compare Mann’s use of Cruise or Depp with Hill’s use of Bronson in HARD TIMES. Mann’s only film with some element of grit was THIEF, his first starring James Caan. (And JERICHO MILE if we include Mann’s TV work.) I included THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS because of its astounding action scenes of blood-curdling sexual power. It’s one time when Mann’s mostly empty mythologizing hacked into the nerve centers of man’s violent nature and rendered it thrilling and thunderous than merely smooth and slick. When the men clash in that film over land and women, it really gets primal. Otherwise, it’s just a pretty picture with wooden characters.
Mann’s main contribution to both TV and cinema is what might be called the nihilo-narcisso-professional-yuppie-fascist style. You can see it everywhere, from MADMEN to AVP(ALIEN VS PREDATOR). It’s a variation of Eisenstein’s method of ‘typage’. In Mann’s case, it might called ‘hypage’ for hype-age. He basically has a bunch of good/cool/hip looking guys and reduces everything about them–not only their looks but their manners and lines–toward serving the iconic image of the narcissistic-sophisticated-professional-fashion-conscious killer. It’s action film as iPad or Apple product. One might mention Jean-Pierre Melville as Mann’s predecessor, but Melville’s control of his material extended beneath the surface. Mann is closer to Bertolucci, another vapid dispenser of pretty pictures for prettiness’s sake.
Mann may be a master-forger, but he is still a master at something, which is a hell of lot more than can be said for Tarantino, the true disease of our age.
Francis Ford Coppola is a strange case in movie history. Almost never has a director who exhibited so much greatness so quickly and so thoroughly lost almost every vestige of it. Not that Coppola failed to make good films after APOCALYPSE NOW. PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, GARDENS OF STONE, and TUCKER are solid. And there are flourishes of talent in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA as well. But what happened to the director who once made THE GODFATHER movies and APOCALYPSE NOW? All directors eventually fade, and Kurosawa of the 70s and 80s wasn’t what he had been in the 50s. Even so, what was great about Kurosawa could still be glimpsed in DERSU UZALA, KAGEMUSHA, RAN, and even DREAMS. Most would agree that Welles’s greatest films are CITIZEN KANE and MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. However, even lesser Welles films such as MR. ARKADIN and THE TRIAL could only have been made by a great master. Fellini’s decline in the mid 60s and thereafter was steep and embarrassing, but Fellini made more than his share of great films in the 50s and early 60s before going stale.
In contrast, Coppola made only three great films: THE GODFATHER, THE GODFATHER PART II, and APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX. Some might mention THE CONVERSATION, but it’s provocative at best and pales next to the best paranoid political thrillers of the 70s.
Granted, Coppola’s great 70s films are awesome enough to establish him firmly in the canon, but what happened afterwards? One explanation is that he burned out, but this excuse has been made all too often in cinema. I don’t think that was the case. Fellini, for example, didn’t so much burn out as inhale his own hot air–and surrounded himself with an entourage of yes-men who praised everything he did. A burn-out case should have had no energy to keep making movies. But Fellini and Coppola were still brimming with energy to make more movies. And they attained the means to pretty much do as they pleased. They were likely more spoiled than burnt out. They lost their sense of balance and direction.
In the case of Coppola, the problem began with APOCALYPSE NOW. Though an impressive feat, it is half great, half ridiculous–even awful. Even so, it has enough great stuff to carry it through. If REDUX version is preferable to the original, it’s because, paradoxically enough, it feels shorter even though it’s longer. A long drive with rest stops takes longer but is easier on the body than one without. The problem with the original theatrical version is that, after the helicopter attack sequence, it is one long continuous morbid journey into darkness. And when we finally meet Kurtz, it’s darkness upon darkness. The additional scenes to REDUX aren’t necessarily good, but they offer some lightness to balance out the darkness. They also humanize the characters, making them out to be something more than personality types.
Though APOCALYPSE NOW took a considerable toll on Coppola, it also energized him. He overcame a great ordeal, and the result was much lauded and became a media event/sensation. The trouble began soon afterwards with Coppola’s turn to unfettered personal filmmaking. One of the most oft-heard cultural narratives would have us believe that the 70s had been all about personal filmmaking whereas 80s brought back the studio system. But in Coppola’s case, his greatest successes, THE GODFATHER movies, were the product of Coppola working for the studio, whereas his two biggest failures, ONE FROM THE HEART and RUMBLE FISH, both made in the 80s, were his most personal projects. Coppola has often mentioned the latter two as the ones he’s most proud of. But, they are awful, even excruciating.
So, the problem was not that Coppola burned out or didn’t get to do what he wanted. The problem was the opposite. He got to have all the toys and candies, and what it revealed was the empty cavities of his imagination.
Coppola was at his best as a director of other people’s visions. THE GODFATHER was the gangster fantasy of Mario Puzo, and John Milius wrote APOCALYPSE NOW. Coppola, as writer, certainly improved things on both films, but Coppola was incapable of originating a great vision of his own. When he got the chance, the result was, at best, the somewhat interesting–THE CONVERSATION–, and, at worst, something as dreary and senseless as ONE FROM THE HEART and RUMBLE FISH. Coppola as auteur director thought that filmmaking was all about bravura directorial one-up-man-ship. ONE FROM THE HEART and RUMBLE FISH are frenetically (over)loaded with all sorts of effects, but they cannot mask the fact that the stories are flat, characters are cardboard, and/or the music/performances are terrible.
And judging by THE OUTSIDERS and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA, one must also question Coppola’s sense of proportion. THE OUTSIDERS might have made a decent gritty film about a youth gang, but Coppola pumped it into a teenage greaser GONE WITH THE WIND. It’s like turning a Eddie Cochran song into an opera. And BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA is way over the top, also garish and tawdry. As for THE GODFATHER PART III, the less said of it the better.
Even so, there’s PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED with a beautifully heartfelt performance by Kathleen Turner, maybe her best. And TUCKER, though self-serving and self-reverential in conflating Coppola’s travails with those of the misunderstood titular hero, is a good old-fashioned romp celebrating American freedom and ingenuity. Both movies show little sign of greatness, but very-good-ness is always preferable to the phony would-be-greatness of some of Coppola’s later self-indulgences.
According to some film fans, Luchino Visconti is one of the triumvirate of Italy’s greatest film directors, the others being Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. Others think he made only one great film THE LEOPARD. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Though I admire several of Visconti’s films, THE LEOPARD stands out as his only true masterpiece. Similarly, BLADE RUNNER is Ridley Scott’s one truly great achievement.
Like early David Lean, Visconti revealed, with OSSESSIONE, a flair for mood and characters. Like later Lean, he demonstrated the control and stamina for epic scale. Maybe those who’ve climbed mountains cannot return to hiking the hills again, but the cost of scenery could be the loss of sense. Some directors can work big and small, but directors with the Napoleon Complex tend to lose sight of the human element. Humans may get caught up in big events, but people are only interesting as persons. And while some actions may be bigger-than-life, they still have meaning as part of life. Werner Herzog’s FITZCARRALDO and Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW are so caught up in the grand concept and mega-production, neither has a clear grasp of direction and meaning. Maybe Herzog and Coppola thought they would stumble upon the answer along the way. Generally, this is not a good idea in filmmaking. A confused writer can go off into his or her lair and immerse oneself in the search for meaning. Film making is a grueling process and usually doesn’t afford the time to be ‘creative’ on the set, especially in huge productions.
Visconti found the perfect balance of the personal and historical, as well as the poetic and operatic, in THE LEOPARD, surely one of the greatest films. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of his other films. LUDWIG has lots of impressive visuals, but the central character is hollow, story is static, and emotions are flat. Visconti’s films of the rich and powerful are certainly sumptuous, but THE LEOPARD is the one with the consistency and proportions.
THE DAMNED is a delicious film, a sleazy, trashy, and artsy Nazi-themed precursor to THE GODFATHER, a diabolical bacchanalia oozing with lust and nastiness; it is also a hackneyed diatribe of a sermon about Evil. Most interesting is the repressed tension between its horny celebration of the wanton material and its unconvincing condemnation of the corruption of power. It’s Thomas Mann crossed with Danielle Steele.
DEATH IN VENICE is overblown and overwrought, ripe to the point of bursting with stale juices were the zooming camera to approach any closer. ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS is a well-made and handsome film but maybe too handsome. It handles the story of a poor family in iconic form — a prole LA DOLCE VITA — and may have influenced, rather unfortunately, Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER, which is similarly confused.
Visconti is said to have been one of the progenitors of neo-realism. The noir OSSESSIONE is a grubby little movie, and LA TERRA TREMA established Visconti as an important director. Shot on location casting actual inhabitants of the fishing village, LA TERRA TREMA has the unrelenting look and sound but not necessarily the feel of realness. It’s more a work of blunt physicalism than heartfelt realism. For this reason, LA TERRA TREMA seems more abstract than real. Visconti, a homosexual aristocrat with Marxist pretensions, may have chosen the project more as a social obligation or ideological monument, a cross to bear, than as an opportunity to tell a story of living and breathing people. Paradoxically, Visconti’s earnest effort at brutal truth may have rendered it less true. It looks more like a work of behaviorism than humanism. Despite the grimness and violence, the film lacks the passion of Luis Bunuel’s LOS OLIVDADOS and Emir Kusturica’s TIME OF THE GYPSIES, films that not only observed the bodies but captured the souls of their characters.
Other than THE LEOPARD, Visconti’s most satisfying film is probably SENSO, not least because of Alida Valli’s powerful performance. It strives without straining for epic scale, and its troubled lovers aren’t, as in some of later Visconti’s films, merely beautiful animate objects moving around beautiful inanimate objects.
Filmmakers striving for ‘auteur’ status tend to take themselves seriously, but few directors in the history of cinema took themselves as seriously as Andrei Tarkovsky did. The breadth and depth of his seriousness was staggering. It was a seriousness that permeated every aspect of the creative process. Some artists take their subjects seriously but themselves not so much, or vice versa. Some serious ‘auteurs’ maintain a degree of humility, therefore limiting their gaze to very specific or tightly constructed concerns — Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman come to mind. Some directors are serious in their perfectionism but content to make movies for the mass audience — David Lean for example. Kubrick was something more than a perfectionist; he was a conceptualist who pondered big ideas. Even so, he shielded himself from taking himself too seriously, not least by keeping ideas and emotions in separate compartments, mixing them only in small doses in controlled experiments. Terrence Malick is also a perfectionist, more a lyricist than a conceptualist. He strives to be the Walt Whitman of cinema, and TREE OF LIFE tries to be the cinematic equivalent of LEAVES OF GRASS, or Frames of Grace.
Tarkovsky took himself and his art seriously on many levels: historical, cultural, national, intellectual, conceptual, (auto)biographical, spiritual, moral, etc. There are so many layers of seriousness in his films that they can be overbearing. Like Wagner, he saw himself not only as a total artist but as the total Russian, total Christian, and total man(son, husband, and father). He may not have been the Star Child, but he saw himself as the Earth Child. He was like a the Holy Trinity of Cinema.
His semi-autobiographical film MIRROR is hard to take because Tarkovsky’s psyche, biography, family, and individuality are presented as holy reflections of the history and destiny of Russia itself.
Of course, every life is in some way connected to everything else, but MIRROR is half-baked, or half-cracked. It isn’t as insufferable or laughable like Malick’s ludicrous TREE OF LIFE, but MIRROR is essentially an interior monument to oneself. That it ranks so high in the 2012 Sight and Sound Greatest Movies of All Time Film Poll is a sign that the film community, of both critics and directors, can be awful silly. Anyone with any sense knows Tarkovky’s two great masterpieces are ANDREI RUBLEV and STALKER. At best, MIRROR is a ‘noble’ failure though ‘self-important’ is more like it.
Even so, Tarkovsky couldn’t have made ANDREI RUBLEV and STALKER if he wasn’t such a serious pain in the ass and so full of himself. At their worst, his qualities made some of his films seem pious, sanctimonious, self-aggrandizing, self-righteous, ponderous, and rather witless — and there are stretches in SOLARIS, NOSTALGHIA, and THE SACRIFICE(and of course in MIRROR) that had me rolling my eyes. But a masterpiece like ANDREI RUBLEV simply couldn’t have been made by someone who didn’t take everything as seriously as Tarkovsky did. It couldn’t have been made by someone with better sense and a level head, no more than a great religion could have been founded by a normal person with a balanced mind. It had to be a total effort, a complete outpouring of one’s soul, imagination, obsessions, fears, and visions. It could either one of the greatest films or one of the worst. In this sense, we have to value Tarkovsky’s failures as well as his successes because his two towering successes could only have been made by someone willing to risk everything to attain and reveal the higher/deeper truth heretofore unseen and untouched by man.
Like the boy who forges the bell in ANDREI RUBLEV, Tarkovsky had to be part-fool as well as part-genius to embark on an artistic venture so ambitious. All great prophets are half-fools, half-geniuses.
The boy doesn’t know if the project will succeed or fail. The suspense and the power derive from the boy’s craziness and something like faith as well as from his skills and determination. If the boy — also we the audience — knew for certain that all would go well, it would have been just a piece of engineering. Instead, the boy, in his arrogant foolishness and crazy daring, has to draw from the deepest recesses of his inspiration and creativity to compensate for his imperfect knowledge of the science of bell-making. Thus, it becomes an artistic and spiritual project than merely a technical one. To the very moment when the bell is tested, everything hangs on a prayer. So, when we finally hear the sound, it is a holy moment. ANDREI RUBLEV is like that great bell. There was no way anyone could have known how a mad venture like this would turn out, especially since Tarkovsky had only one feature film under his belt.
Given the nature of Tarkovsky’s ambition, temperament, and pretensions, his scorecard is far from anything like a perfect record. Kubrick fared better for, despite his great ambition, he carefully staked out the mountains he set out to climb and assembled the best equipment and methodology with which to do the climbing. Tarkovsky was meticulous about his preparations too, but he did his climbing with arduous faith. Kubrick sought the most elegant ways to handle the toughest tasks; Tarkovsky wanted to carry the heaviest crosses across the roughest terrain — and in this, he had something in common with Werner Herzog.
And if various aspects of Kubrick’s psyche are carefully reflected in his films, Tarkovsky’s films are invested with his entire soul — more like his ego in his lesser films.
In a way, it was unfortunate that Tarkovsky made his masterpiece so early on. It took Kurosawa ten years to go from his first feature films to SEVEN SAMURAI. Fellini improved his craft on a more modest scale with films like I VITELLONI & LA STRADA and worked more conventionally with LA DOLCE VITA before orchestrating the incredible bio-epic 8 ½. Antonioni established his reputation with a series of smaller films before making his landmark L’AVVENTURA. Tati gradually worked his way up toward finally earning the opportunity to conceive PLAYTIME. Likewise, Mizoguchi’s THE LOYAL 47 RONIN and Imamura’s PROFOUND DESIRES OF THE GODS are culminations of proven careers. And Leone made his name with Dollars Trilogy before directing the awesome ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Truffaut and Godard hit high notes early but in films of more modest ambitions. Kubrick was a well-established director before 2001.
Tarkovsky’s only feature film prior to ANDREI RUBLEV was IVAN’S CHILDHOOD, a powerful if somewhat strained and arty war tragedy about a boy during the Great Patriotic War. Though Tarkovsky gained acclaim with his first feature, who would have expected something as monumental and profound as ANDREI RUBLEV? One is reminded of Orson Welles with CITIZEN KANE, but as great as Welles first films were, almost nothing in cinema matches the sheer scope and depth of ANDREI RUBLEV, a work of astounding duality that it is, at once, the most modernist and most medievalist of films, something both entirely ‘radical’ and wholly traditional; and timeless too.
Because Tarkovsky hit such a high note so early in his career, he might have become excessively self-conscious as The Master in his later efforts. Interestingly, as solemn and grim as much of ANDREI RUBLEV is, it is not without moments of fun, especially when the boy bell-maker enters the scene. He is both wise for his years and a braggart charlatan, both a craftsman and a gambler. Like the boy, Tarkovsky took a great gamble and forged one of the greatest bells in cinema. He made something so great that he may have feared making anything less worthy in his subsequent yrs. SOLARIS could have used a bit more lightness. With NOSTALGHIA, we’re not sure if Tarkovsky is making a film or erecting a church, and if the latter, to the glory of God or to his own sacred memory(especially about his mother who might as well be Mother Russia herself). THE SACRIFICE was meant as a testament, and it’s as if Tarkovsky regarded his looming death from cancer as a kind of grand gesture, a sacrament for the salvation of mankind. To be sure, even Tarkovsky’s lesser works have moments of great sublimity, but given the stakes involved, if Tarkovsky’s films don’t work as a whole, they don’t really work at all, just like a giant plane, no matter how astounding and awesome in parts, is something close to a disaster if it can’t lift off the ground.
Tarkovsky made only seven feature films, and of them two are masterpieces. Even so, he ranks as one of the greatest directors for his total commitment and faith in cinema as a vessel of truth with which there was no compromise. He threaded the links among individuality, biography, history, nature, and the cosmos. At his best, he had the power to penetrate the dream of history to attain and hold the great mystery, something like the Grail of the Quest. No one can hold such an object for long, no more than a prize fighter the championship belt. But few directors, even great ones, ever lay their eyes on it, let alone hold it. Tarkovsky felt its weight in his hands.
THE KILLER’S KISS THE KILLING*
PATHS OF GLORY*SPARTACUS LOLITA**
DR. STRANGELOVE** 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY**
A CLOCKWORK ORANGE*
FULL METAL JACKET*EYES WIDE SHUT* If time is the ultimate judge of art, it’s been very kind to Stanley Kubrick, now almost universally regarded as one of the true geniuses of cinema.
Though his talent was duly recognized early on — especially for PATHS OF GLORY and DR. STRANGELOVE — , Kubrick’s place in the cinematic pantheon wasn’t always assured. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY had as many detractors as defenders, and the critical split was even more pronounced with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Both the audience and (most)critics disregarded BARRY LYNDON, and critics generally dismissed THE SHINING. Many critics unfavorably (and unfairly) compared FULL METAL JACKET with PLATOON and other Vietnam War movies. EYES WIDE SHUT marked the return of Kubrick after a 12 yr hiatus in the same year(1999) that saw Lucas’s re-emergence with THE PHANTOM MENACE, and as many critics dismissed Kubrick’s final work as they did Lucas’ latest installment of his space saga.
But in hindsight, the virtues of Kubrick’s vision and imagination far outweigh the faults and limitations. Even Kubrick’s most problematic films continue to provoke and stimulate discussion and debate, rare even of great movies by other master directors. Andrew Sarris initially dismissed the ‘stargate’ scene in 2001 as ‘Instant Bergman’. Others complained of Kubrick going the full distance with machinery but giving short shrift to humanity. Kubrick threw so many people off because he was, from start to finish, a peerless pioneer who was far ahead of the game, redesigning and re-envisioning the dimensions of cinema. Many critics were stuck in a ‘Newtonian’ system in terms of plotting, characters, themes, and the like. Even critics who preferred ‘art films’ were more comfortable with the obvious European specimen than with Kubrick’s strange creatures that stalked the fine line between art and genre. The general truism held that European films were impoverished(given the smaller budgets) but more personal and artistic whereas Hollywood movies were more lavish but less personal/meaningful. Thus, ‘poverty’ came to be associated with purity of art/truth, and expense came to be associated with waste and philistinism. So, what was one to make of a film like 2001 that had the production values of CLEOPATRA and the artistic gravitas even beyond the works of Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni?
It took some time for moviegoers, critics and public alike, to catch up and adjust to Kubrick’s re-inventions of cinema. But Kubrick wasn’t merely ahead of his detractors but his champions as well, whose earnest admiration blinded them to the true perversity of Kubrick’s vision. Few were willing to acknowledge how the figure of Strangelove was the real (anti)hero of the movie.
Many viewers were confounded by the duality of Kubrick’s films. Though one of the most intellectual directors, all of his films are accessible as entertainment. Even a child can figure out the basic storyline of BARRY LYNDON or THE SHINING. Kubrick’s films are strange and mysterious but not narratively ‘difficult’ in the manner of certain films by Alain Resnais, Luis Bunuel, or Jean-Luc Godard. Even elements of mystery, such as the monolith in 2001, can be more or less interpreted along sci-fi lines. One can shut off one’s mind and still have a grand time. Plenty of college students loved A CLOCKWORK ORANGE as a rock star rebel movie. Lots of army guys got a kick out of FULL METAL JACKET. Yet, one needed only to scratch the surface to be aware of the startling bending of rules of space and time, psychological as well as physical, far beyond anything achieved by most other film-makers, including the masters. Allegorically, metaphorically, and/or conceptually, they present a host of meanings, suggesting parallels, symmetries, and/or links among seemingly different mind-sets, social systems, and power dynamics. A character says in EYES WIDE SHUT, a ‘dream is never just a dream’; likewise, a Kubrick film is never just a film. Despite all of Kubrick’s conscious effort, he sought to get under the skin, to play with the subconscious. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about the Hal computer in 2001 is not so much that we listen to its ‘mind’ but that we sense the humming of its ‘soul’. It’s as if it too has a ‘subconscious’ beyond the power of its ‘conscious’ power to reason and analyze. Just like there is no single correct interpretation of a dream, there can be no single correct interpretation of Kubrick’s films. They were made to be ‘felt’ through subconsciously as well as thought through consciously. Each film is open to as many interpretations as there are viewers, just like the same mirror reflects a different face before each person. A Kubrick film doesn’t present the same truth to everyone in the audience. Instead of projecting its truth onto us, it provokes us to project our truths onto it and have them navigate through a labyrinth wherein the questions of good vs evil and sanity vs insanity become ever less certain, more problematic, and more fascinating.
Kubrick’s very biography reveals certain key idiosyncracies and contradictions. In the post-Holocaust era, he was N.Y. Jew who relocated permanently to London and remained fascinated with German high culture. He even married the niece of Veit Harlan, one of the most admired and notorious Nazi film directors. Though Kubrick was reflexively hostile toward critics of Jewish power, on some level he may have enjoyed fulfilling the role of the devious Jewish character in Harlan’s JEW SUSS. His marriage was probably both an expression of his love for German beauty/culture and an act of Jewish defilement of ‘Aryan’ beauty with his hairy Talmudic lust. Though uniquely Jewish in many ways, he was also uniquely different from other Jews. In contrast, Woody Allen has always been Jewish through and through, even with his Bergmanesque films about cold wasps. Allen’s strain to be ‘Nordicly’ non-Jewish was but just another manifestation of Jewishness, a kind of Zelig-ism.
That simply wasn’t the case with Kubrick. For one thing, Jews love to talk, and Allen’s movies are nothing without talk-and-more-talk. Kubrick loved to talk in personal life and had many long conversations with all sorts of people, but his films tend to be heavier on images than words. At first glance, they seem bigger on idols than ideas, yet the idolatry of Kubrick’s cinema also serves as a secret vault of ideas. The monolith in 2001, for example, could mean just about anything. It is both idolatrous and anti-idolatrous. Like pagan idols, it has a specific form and shape, yet like the Jewish concept of the abstract God, it suggests an infiniteness beyond recognition via human eyes/senses. It’s like an idol of anti-idolatry, a kind of paradox. It stands tall and overwhelms everything around it, yet it is a black void, a black hole that negates the physicality of reality. It is both the ultimate matter and anti-matter. It is like a fusion of the pagan and the monotheistic. It is like a Platonic solid, the key to everything in the universe, both an idol and an idea.
There are long stretches in 2001, BARRY LYNDON, THE SHINING, FULL METAL JACKET, and EYES WIDE SHUT with hardly any dialogue or voice-over narration. Also, there are almost no Jewish characters or concerns in most of Kubrick’s films. Even the work he adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s DREAM NOVEL was turned into a story with white gentiles as main characters. Yet, Kubrick’s handling of non-Jewish characters and themes was the opposite of Allen’s quasi-Nordic snooping around ‘cold wasps’. Allen was either nakedly Jewish being Jewish or nakedly Jewish hiding Jewishness. Either way, it was all about his Jewishness.
Kubrick, a far more devious character, didn’t repress his Jewishness but let it to slither smoothly through the tapestry woven with the lives of gentiles, privileged or otherwise. Allen worked in salesman mode, either peddling Jewishness as Jewishness or as counterfeit gentile-ness. Kubrick worked more in the mode of a plumber of dreams. Instead of materializing his Jewishness into a shtick, he turned it into liquid and gas that would permeate every room and square inch of space of the world he created. He held sway over his audiences in the way that the Jewish computer game designer holds sway over gentiles in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. In a way, his films are dream gas chambers in which we are lulled into emotions and thoughts without our recognition of their Jewish(and possibly lethal) nature. The cunning Jewish side of Kubrick relished playing with our minds and fooling us. But the truth-seeking artist side of Kubrick provided hints and clues as to how Jews, himself included, play the game of power. His films confess as much as they conceal.
Though Spielberg has often been mentioned as his opposite, they had one thing in common: the duality of their utter Jewishness and utter crossover-ness. Watch any Spielberg movie carefully enough, and it’s packed with Jewish concerns and obsessions. Of course, Spielberg finally spilled his Jewish beans with SCHINDLER’S LIST. One wonders if Kubrick refrained from ARYAN PAPERS because it would have given the game away. As Hollywood is Jewish-dominated and Holocaust is worshiped as a new religion, there would have been no moral or cultural opposition to Kubrick making such a film. But it would have been an admission of his ethnic concerns and obsessions(as key to understanding all of his films). Kubrick loved pulling the strings from the shadows; he got used to staying in the closet. He wanted to be known as a film director who happened to be Jewish than a Jewish film director; in truth, he was as much the latter as the former, and he knew he didn’t have a choice. A believer in biology, he knew that his Jewishness wasn’t just a matter of cultural identity but personality created by a set of genes. As Dr. Strangelove hid his Nazi-ness, Kubrick sought to ‘hide’ the creative element of his Jewishness, at least in the world of his movies.
Though presented as villains or unsavory characters, the characters with whom Kubrick identified most closely were the men who played the game of power; he didn’t care for the boy-scout-idealists who spoke in platitudes. Thus, the most interesting figure in PATHS OF GLORY is the devious general who royally messes with everyone’s mind. The villain in SPARTACUS is infinitely more interesting than the goody-goody hero, which may have been one of the reasons why Kubrick and Kirk Douglas didn’t see eye to eye. The character of Dr. Strangelove steals the show. The monolith in 2001 plays with humans in the way that Kubrick and other brilliant Jews toyed with gentiles.
The duality in Kubrick’s films partly stems from a combination of resentment and identification with the powers-that-be. On the one hand, because Jews were excluded from the aristocratic and Wasp club in the past, Kubrick identified with the rebels, outcasts, and the victims of the Power. But Jews have had their own exclusive club of tribalism for thousands of years, indeed much longer than European aristocrats did. Also, as a people of immense pride and higher IQ, Jews weren’t seeking to be equal with everyone else but to take over the Castle and keep others out. Thus, the character of Jack Torrance in THE SHINING is both a kind of Nazi and a kind of Jew. Thus, EYES WIDE SHUT presents a vision where old wasp power melds with new Jewish power. Tom Cruise’s character goes to what seems like a neo-aristocratic mansion ruled by Wasp-lords but discovers later that one of the secret members at the orgy was a super-rich Jew. It’s like Jews have become the new Wasps. Despite his Jewishness, Kubrick messed with other Jews as he did with gentiles, and in this sense, he was like Bob Dylan who proudly maintained his Jewishness but kept a certain distance from the official Jewish community with its brash agendas.
In the 60s and 70s, many critics dismissed Kubrick, especially beginning with 2001, possibly because they felt intimidated by the sheer force of his imagination and ingenuity. (The violent reaction to Peckinpah and Leone had similar underlying reasons. Many critics were simply unprepared to deal with boldness on the scale evinced in works like THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, and THE WILD BUNCH.) No one since the masters of Silent Cinema and Orson Welles had expanded the perimeters of cinema as much as Kubrick did, and in some ways, Kubrick’s achievement was even more remarkable than those of giants who preceded him. Prior to 2001, even the greatest films looked like possibilities realized by rare talents, but Kubrick’s landmark film seemed like a realization of an impossible idea with impossible means. CITIZEN KANE and SEVEN SAMURAI, amazing as they were, impressed the audience as the best use of available technology and human talent, but 2001 struck the audience as something staggeringly beyond the power of man. No one had even dared to imagine, let alone create, such a thing.
Critics could understand the ‘Hollywood movie’ and the ‘European art film’, but something like 2001 exploded all categories. The old dichotomies were made irrelevant. Kubrick’s films had the power to mesmerize and hypnotize. Critics, being rational creatures, were reluctant to ‘surrender’ to something like 2001, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, or BARRY LYNDON. They wanted to maintain their power of intellect over the art of film, to probe and analyze it. 2001 simply overwhelmed them. It was even beyond the ‘erotics of art’. It was the cosmonautics of art.
Though Beethoven has often been invoked to underline the point about artists being ahead of their time, it is justified in Kubrick’s case because, as with the German composer, many scholars/experts with a dryly intellectual and/or moistly humanist approach to cinema simply couldn’t process Kubrick powerful all-encompassing vision. They felt before it as the old ladies do before the sumptuous dinner in BABETTE’S FEAST.
It was therefore easier to accentuate some flaw in Kubrick’s film to degrade or even dismiss the whole thing. There was a time when respectable opinion favored Andrew Sarris’s silly contention that Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN is the best American film of the 1970s, all the while ignoring BARRY LYNDON and THE SHINING.
This isn’t to say Kubrick’s films were perfect. Paradoxically, Kubrick’s perfectionism was geared against perfectness. Kubrick worked at perfecting his expression but never his vision. A perfect vision is a museum piece. It holds clear meaning and, once understood, hasn’t much else to offer. Kubrick wasn’t interested in concepts of perfect truth and meaning — a film like WILD STRAWBERRIES where everything falls into place and apportions significance to everything and every character in the manner of ‘art film for dummies’. Though a beautiful piece of work with striking images, what’s there to be said for an image of a clock with missing hands? It’s symbolism 101.
Kubrick worked at perfecting images to provoke permutations of meanings, a kind of algorithm of a maze that, while premised on a kind of hidden logic, never led to a final resolution. A final resolution would be as deadly to the truth as Final Solution was to the Jews, an idea that served as the philosophical basis for TRON: LEGACY. Kubrick was one of the few film-makers in the history of cinema whose genius and talent could be characterized as ‘beyond the infinite’.
I WILL BUY YOU
Masaki Kobayashi directed twenty-two films, nine prior to the HUMAN CONDITION trilogy that made him famous. He began in the humanist vein so prevalent among film makers of the 1950s, especially in Europe and Japan. Following the war, Europeans and Japanese felt mired in defeat and struggled to crawl out of the hole of history. After the disasters resulting from the hubris of Japanese militarism and German supremacism, humanism served as a safety valve and value system, an outlook to restore the sense of man’s fragility but also resilience. If film noir turned bleakness into style and sensuality, neo-realist humanism confronted social crisis and personal dilemmas as intertwined challenges to be overcome or at least alleviated with the requisite virtues of honesty, will, and good-will. Even at their bleakest and most depressing, neo-realist humanist films reminded people of the latent goodness in the hearts of most men. Even when the good lost, it was evidence of the existence of goodness in the world.
Though there were clear parallels between the early films of Kurosawa and Kobayashi, the latters’s tended to be less sentimental and somewhat colder, almost veering into noir territory. In Kurosawa’s early films, even the bad guys have something resembling souls, however dark or small such may be. A sense that even those who choose not be saved could have been saved. A sense of universality even if people choose not to see eye to eye. Tragically, each person’s soul is trapped within its own bottle of intoxicants, mostly of vanity, pride, and petty greed. Even so, there’s something like an innate sense of goodness that could be stirred within each person. In IKIRU, even gangsters don’t have it in their stomachs to beat up a pathetic old man. There is the total creep in RASHOMON who steals the baby’s clothes and laughs, but in the laughter and exaggerated emotions is an evidence of soul, however ugly and twisted it may be. It is inhumanly human. There is something childlike about the killer in STRAY DOG. And the tough guy antics of the gangster in DRUNKEN ANGEL is partly a ruse to repress his softer side; he reminds us of Doc Holliday in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE who, having found solace in corruption and dissipation, doesn’t want to be reminded of better days and better angels of his nature. Even the amoral kidnapper in HIGH AND LOW explodes with human fury in the final scene. His soul reacts to the fires of hell. It is hot-blooded than cold-blooded after all.
Things are darker in the works of Kobayashi. His main characters are generally men of higher virtue who find themselves surrounded by people who really might as well have no souls. It isn’t so much a case of the man with the good soul up against men with bad souls but man with a soul against those without. Thus, the sense of isolation in the films of Kobayashi is greater than in the works of other humanist directors.
Not surprisingly, Kobayashi developed one of the most austere formalist styles in movie history. Some viewers may have been put off by this: the fusion of humanist concerns with formalist concepts. And indeed, parts of HUMAN CONDITION feel somewhat strained because of the seemingly incompatible welding of the soft and the hard, of the personal and impersonal. In this regard, Kobayashi came closest to early Kubrick who, in films such as PATHS OF GLORY, SPARTACUS, and LOLITA, also layered the intimate and the institutional atop one another in equal measure, thereby confounding a lot of people.
Perhaps one crucial difference between Kurosawa and Kobayashi owed something to their biographies. Kobayashi served in the military and participated in the occupation of Manchuria. Though Kurosawa bore witness to the destructive power of war(as parts of Japan were flattened by American bombers), he spent the war years making films. He witnessed the suffering of Japanese(as victims), but Kobayashi experienced the full extent of Japan’s savagery in northern China(as aggressors).
Kurosawa viewed Japanese history, culture, and soul as essentially noble but marred by tragedy and folly. Kobayashi arrived at the ‘radical’ conclusion that there is an emptiness at the core of the Japanese soul. YOJIMBO and SANJURO are cynical works but not exactly attacks on Japanese culture or samurai tradition. The town in YOJIMBO is run by merchants, and SANJURO’s villains are corrupt samurai, not all samurai.
HARAKIRI is a much darker film for it questions the very mythos and ethos of samurai-ness.
And yet, the greatness of HARAKIRI stems from its duality. Though an attack on the systems of Japanese social hierarchy and honor-laden psychology, its extremely Japanese style of dissertation does Japanese culture proud. Even as it exposes the moral bankruptcy of the samurai order, the aesthetics drawn from Japanese tradition presents an immaculate and impressive world. The film’s act of destruction is also an act of construction. The hero, even as he’s come to reject and rebel against the samurai value system, executes his plan in striking samurai fashion. To an extent, it is a subversive act, a case of an outlaw samurai using samurai-tricks to undermine the samurai. But, even as he morally rejects the values of the samurai, he can’t let go of the pride and honor so intrinsic to being a samurai and so deeply embedded in his character. He can reject the mind but not the mind-set of the samurai order. Thus, in a finale that may influenced Kubrick, the walls that enclose the embattled samurai might as well be the barriers within his soul.
HUMAN CONDITION trilogy and HARAKIRI are his most famous movies, and HARAKIRI is surely one of the greatest films ever made. No less ambitious were KWAIDAN and REBELLION. Whatever their faults, KWAIDAN’s segment “Hoichi the Earless” is a crowning jewel in the history of cinema, and REBELLION features what may be Toshiro Mifune’s most tragic role and has one of the most richly ambiguous villains(exquisitely played by Tatsuya Nakadai).
McCABE AND MRS. MILLER* NASHVILLE*Robert Altman was one of the most legendary American directors of the past forty years. For many, his name is synonymous with ‘auteur’ film-making, maverick independence, and integrity. Though having gained recognition in the early 70s along with directors such as Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, and others, he was considerably older than most. Born in 1925, his generational peers were Arthur Penn, John Cassavetes, and Sam Peckinpah. Had American cinema been less censorious prior to the 60s, Altman might have made his mark earlier.
But the room for expression in subject, style, sexuality, and violence only began to open up with landmark films such as BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE GRADUATE. Altman simply couldn’t have made films like M*A*S*H and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER in an earlier era, no more than Peckinpah could have made THE WILD BUNCH or STRAW DOGS in the 50s. Therefore, though older than the most of the young Turks of the late 60s and 70s such as Bogdanovich, Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, Scorsese, Milius, Schrader, and others, Altman made his name in the early 70s thanks to the new cultural climate. Not only could directors show and do more in terms of sexuality, violence, and language, the Zeitgeist favored the director-as-auteur, and the film industry allowed directors to develop and show off their personal styles. And Altman’s films of the 1970s embodied the new spirit. Where Altman differed from most other directors was in his versatility. Not only were his films unique but they were unique from one another. Peckinpah made violent and less-violent movies, but one could always recognize his signature on them. One could say the same of Cassavetes, Scorsese, De Palma, and Friedkin. Their styles were unmistakable. Altman was more chameleon-like. The arty THREE WOMEN and cerebreal IMAGES(or QUINTET for that matter) have little in common with free-wheeling M*A*S*H and the laconic-hipster THE LONG GOODBYE. One would be hard-pressed to find much in common between MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER and SECRET HONOR.
Altman was doubly special to many critics for being himself and pushing beyond himself. He also never ‘sold out’, though perhaps because he simply didn’t know how. Like Peckinpah and Penn, there were things he simply didn’t have any feel or knack for. He was bound to feel irrelevant as movie culture changed in favor of the summer blockbuster and ‘respectable’ serious films like OUT OF AFRICA(as opposed to the more quirky personal films of the early 70s).
That said, it’s rather depressing to note that Altman’s batting average has been downright abysmal. In retrospect, M*A*S*H is an ugly, cruel, and stupid movie. Its satire is specious, its attitude pure jerk-a**hole. It wallows in trashy sadism but pretends that the crazy act is only to preserve sanity in an insane world. It offers vulgar cynicism as a crutch for not thinking. It’s mostly bad boy pranks and antics, where most of the victims are women, straw man targets, or hapless outsiders(like members of the opposing sports team). They serve no purpose but to encourage smug feeling of superiority in the viewer simply for mindlessly rooting for The Team, which, in this case, is bunch of 60s counterculture bad boys dropped into the Korean-War-as-allegory-for-Vietnam. Its raunchy irreverence had great impact on the ‘comedies’ that followed, culminating in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE that rehashed or remashed MASH-isms into even more offensive jokes.
Nevertheless, M*A*S*H was remarkable for its verve, style, and high spirits. Cassavetes and other independent directors had gone there before with raw improvisational styles, but the logistics of M*A*S*H was almost unprecedented. Altman juggled so many characters, narrative threads, events and non-events into a display of bravura film-making. It was a perfect case of ‘disorderly orderly’. Cassavetes worked with portraitures; Altman worked the entire canvas. It was like Renaissance painting meets Bunuelian anarchy and hippie bad manners. As with BONNIE AND CLYDE, the freshness of M*A*S*H still remains, even if the ethical content now seems dubious and even despicable.
Altman followed up M*A*S*H with BREWSTER McCLOUD, an audacious comedy/satire lost and self-negating in a tailspin of its own cleverness, irreverence, and fanciful whimsy. Its one happy result was making Bud Cort sufficiently well-known to be cast in HAROLD AND MAUDE, the role for which he was born, no less than Perkins with PSYCHO.
Then came MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, surely Altman’s best film. Though ostensibly a Western, it is like no other. It has one of the richest mists of tone and mood in American cinema. Altman went beyond characterization, action, ethics, realism. His impressionist shrouding of the Western myth personalized, even privatized, what had become a collective and shared mythology. MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER is both more realistic and less realistic than other Westerns. People and places seem real, what with all the raw language, grime, mud, and sweat. Yet, dream and romance are at its center, hovering and lingering smoke-like, drifting like the snow that descends upon the world of blood and mud. Thus, it is less about recovering the actual past than about re-imagining the private dreams lost to the passage of the time and to the formulation of Western myths into communal legends. The film ends with the woman withdrawing into her own dream in which reality blends with fantasy, alleviating social determinism with wistful romanticism. It is the most private and enigmatic of Westerns, possibly taking some cues from the pot-smoking Indio character of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, a kind of progenitor of Noodles in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA who relies on dope to both escape from and into the past. MCCABE AND MRS MILLER’s musical counterpart would be BASEMENT TAPES by Bob Dylan and the Band. If orthodox folkies worked to recover actual songs from the past, Dylan and the Band strove to enter into the lost dreams of musicians past and channel/riff ghostly inspirations from them. It is one of the most remarkable achievements in American cinema. Sadly, it flopped at the box office. For older audiences, it was no kind of Western, and for younger audiences, it wasn’t another BONNIE AND CLYDE.
After MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, Altman made two films of note in the 1970s — though all of his films have coteries of ardent defenders — THE LONG GOODBYE and NASHVILLE. The neo-noir-ish take on Raymond Chandler seemed hip and offbeat at the time, especially with the very Jewish Elliott Gould doing a twist on the private eye conventions. It is a solid piece of film-making, but it hasn’t aged very well. Like Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN, one had to have been there to feel its cultural weight, less for its merits as film than for its being at-the-right-place-at-the-right-time. It struck all the right poses for the film community looking for something at once edgy and accessible.
NASHVILLE was, in some ways, more problematic, and it’s not without a certain half-baked stupidity. Also, having the actors write their own country songs — as if country songs are so stupid that anyone can do it — makes it somewhat condescending and cartoonish. Yet, some of the characters are finely drawn, deceptive in their simplicity, and full of surprises; their masks melt into real faces; we begin laughing at them but end up feeling for them. At its best, NASHVILLE brilliantly crosses back and forth among satire, sociology, and tragedy. Altman uses the country capital of the world as metaphor for American capitalism and its culture of escapism. Nashville is presented as square and hip, young and old, populist and old-boys-network. It is America-for-every-earnest-soul and America-as-machine-rigged-by-operators. It presents an America that is grounded in tradition but where the tradition is premised on amnesia: nostalgia for fairytales than the truth.
Rest of Altman’s works, however, is one long story of decline and stasis. While POPEYE, COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME JIMMY DEAN, and SECRET HONOR had their admirers upon release, who really cares about them or revisits them anymore?
To be sure, there was much hype about Altman’s great ‘comeback’ with THE PLAYER and SHORT CUTS, but THE PLAYER is as slick and phony as the Hollywood it supposedly satirizes. It was so biting and edgy that half of Hollywood signed up to play parts!
Worst of all(and like so many New Hollywood directors), Altman was no longer even trying to make his films look unique and different. M*A*S*H, MCCABE AND MRS MILLER, and NASHVILLE(and his other 70s films) all had distinct styles and textures, but THE PLAYER looked and felt just like any other 1990s film. SHORT CUTS did for LA what NASHVILLE did for country music, but it had maybe one interesting character and half an interesting storyline. It keeps us awake only by jolting from one lame storyline to another. PRET A PORTER, though also multi-narrative, failed even at that. Altman’s final triumph was supposedly GOSFORD PARK. It won lots of accolades and a bunch of Oscar nominations. Had it been directed by anyone else, it would have been dismissed as something akin to Masterpiece Theater by BBC.
Altman lost it after NASHVILLE, but he’d become such a legend that even his meager achievements were profusely praised in knee-jerk fashion. Fellini and Godard benefitted similarly from name-recognition and cultural/intellectual baggage. Godard was such a seminal figure of 60s cinema that many critics continued to praise his every new film as an event despite its being yet another case of Godard confusing his migraines for wisdom, his depression for depth.
That said, MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER and NASHVILLE are very great films, and Altman will forever be remembered for them. Though his batting average was poor, he did hit two grand slams that expanded people’s appreciation of cinema’s richness and potential. In that sense, he was something of a giant.
BREATHLESS (aka Out of Breath)*LES CARABINIERSA BAND OF OUTSIDERS (aka A Band Apart)*A MARRIED WOMAN ALPHAVILLE**
TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HERFIRST NAME CARMENJLG/JLG
Jean-Luc Godard is perhaps the most famous of the ‘intellectual’ film directors. While French cinema never lacked for men of ideas, Godard had an intellectual style/persona to match his cinematic output. Some people were born to make films(and probably wouldn’t have been at good at much else), but even if film had never been invented, Godard might have gained fame and notoriety as critic, thinker, theorist, philosopher, ideologue. That quality was both the strength and weakness of his films. More than most film-makers, he had wide-ranging interests in all sorts of subjects, issues, and forms outside and even antithetical to cinema. Thus, his films were always more than films and stretched the boundaries of what cinema could or might do. Yet, this meta-cinematic outlook sometimes made his films un-filmic or even anti-filmic, indeed as if Godard was working in the wrong medium. Why not write an essay? Why not work as a journalist? Why not become a professor and give lectures? What was he doing making films that increasingly offered less and less in terms of cinematism(as most people understood it)? If Godard initially broadened the grammar and possibilities of cinema, he later seemed to do everything with film but make films. Imagine someone using the form of music to write, sculpt, paint, and critique ‘ideas’ but not make music. For a while, during the so-called ‘Maoist’ period, Godard declared war on cinema as a bourgeois means of psycho-social control and claimed to be deconstructing the deceptive inner-workings of capitalist powers-that-be. No one paid any attention, and Godard soon tired of it too, and so, he then turned cinema into a platform of philosophical inquiry where, unless you know the references and obsessions, you wouldn’t know what the hell is going on. I sure don’t.
Godard’s central problem was he could never honestly face his demons. For all his intellectualism, his primary muse during his greatest period — from 1960 to 1967 — involved women. BREATHLESS, WOMAN IS A WOMAN, A MARRIED WOMAN, A BAND OF OUTSIDERS, ALPHAVILLE, MASCULIN FEMININ, LE MEPRIS, PIERROT LE FOU, MY LIFE TO LIVE, and etc. are all centered around women… or especially A woman(in the majority of them) in the figure of Anna Karina, his wife for a time. The Godard-Karina pairing was one of the most special in cinema, up there with Joseph Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich AND Yasujiro Ozu and Setsuko Hara. One side of Godard delighted in the allure and beauty of women. Some of the most poetic moments of female beauty, feminine grace, and womanly charm are found in Godard’s films. Of course, the French have been masters at this — think of Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, Resnais, Demy, Lelouch, etc. What made Godard special was the extent to which he alternately or simultaneously approached women from a sensual, sexual, social, political, mythical, philosophical, and political points of view. Despite the title of one of his films, woman was never just a woman for Godard. While Bergman and Hitchcock were more the master directors of women, few directors matched Godard’s sense of mystique when it came to the opposite sex.
As it turned out, the intellectual — perhaps partly rooted in Calvinist attitudes — side of Godard had serious problems with his romantic fixations. Truffaut loved women and saw nothing wrong with loving them. Things don’t turn out happily in JULES AND JIM, MISSISSIPPI MERMAID, TWO ENGLISH GIRLS, and STORY OF ADELE H., but despite the tragic outcomes, they all share an unshakable faith in the beauty and power of love, i.e. there is music and poetry even in being destroyed by love. Godard had similar feelings, and a part of him wanted to embrace the passion, but another part of him resented the emotional subversion of intellectual faculties and ideological clarity(and male authority). Thus, many of Godard’s films are filled with love and fascination with women but also simmer with an hatred of women as the subverter, betrayer, bitch, prostitute, an attitude that runs through the films of Sam Peckinpah as well. In BREATHLESS, a character says, “men love women, women love money”. Men are no angels but they will give up everything for love, and even the low-life hoodlum in BREATHLESS does just that. He dies for the girl. The girl, on the other hand, betrays him and then just walks away. In LE MEPRIS — aka CONTEMPT — , a French writer loses his wife to a rich movie producer. It’s like the writer is stuck between a rock and a hard place. If he won’t sell out, he’ll remain poor, and his wife will see him as a nobody. If he sells out, he’ll make some money, but he’ll lose respect as a slave to men with more money. Either way, he loses the girl.
Men believe in beauty and love whereas women go with the most powerful and richest men. The girl in BREATHLESS and the producer in LE MEPRIS are Americans. Part of Godard’s increasing anti-Americanism was due to the resentment that rich and powerful Americans were undermining the authority of French men. As Godard grew increasingly leftist, he couldn’t put it in those ‘sexist’ terms as it would have sounded caveman-ish and reactionary(though, paradoxically, he was turning leftist because of his ‘rightist’ emotions). But sexual angst largely fueled his growing anti-Americanism. It was bad enough that the Germans had invaded and occupied France. (Germans, at the very least, were fellow Europeans steeped in high culture and intellectual culture.) The idea of vulgar and uncouth Americans, with their big fancy cars, consumer products, pop junk, and etc., winning the hearts and bodies of French women really pissed him off. Of course, most French women weren’t literal whores to American men. But they were becoming addicted to American popular/consumer culture centered in the new imperialist power. As a leftist, Godard couldn’t rail against Negroes and Jews(big players in American consumer and pop culture) — and he couldn’t wave the French flag — , but his leftism was a kind of sexual nationalism. Godard claimed to have wept at the scene of Ethan(John Wayne) sparing Debbie in THE SEARCHERS. Part of the reason, I suspect, was that Godard identified with John Wayne’s character. Ethan’s rage is fueled by sexual anger. The Indians have raped and killed the woman he loved and then abducted her daughter… to turn her into a whore sucking on Indian penis and worshiping Indian gods. Godard felt similarly about French women or women in general. He loved women, but women seemed to go with big money and power(centered in America). He believed in personal film-making, in cinema as truth/art/commitment, but most French women — and all other kinds of women — cared more about pop culture junk and Hollywood. The pop savages were winning. American culture was turning French women into a bunch of silly squaws. So, a part of Godard was filled with murderous rage and suicidal impulses. Like Ethan, he too wanted to lash out against all those traitor bitches. So, he may have been moved by the image of Ethan overcoming his rage and hatred and sparing Debbie.
Given Godard’s leftism or professed leftism, this is all very ironic. After all, it was the American cowboys and Jews, not American Indians, who dominated the world order. And Godard, no less than Truffaut and others, had a great fascination with American popular culture and Hollywood. During the 1950s, Godard even championed lively American pop culture against the stuffiness of French culture. However, even Godard’s pro-Americanism was a kind of anti-Americanism. Godard never liked Hollywood per se; he really favored idiosyncratic Hollywood directors deemed to be rebels and subversives within the industry. One of his favorites was Nicholas Ray, maker of oddly obsessive movies like BIGGER THAN LIFE and JOHNNY GUITAR. Godard loved THE SEARCHERS because it was a new kind of movie from John Ford.
That Godard later married Anne Wiazemsky in a Calvinist ceremony and then maintained a long relation with ultra-intellectual Anne-Marie Mieville reveals a puritanical side to Godard’s character. As much as he loved Anna Karina, they couldn’t get along. He was too intellectual, she was too sensual. It was rather like Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. Karina may have excited him more than any other woman, but he was filled with jealousy and fears that she might go off with men with big money and big power. He sensed that she would never appreciate intellectually and morally what he was trying to do.
That said, several of his films from 1960 to 1967 rank as amongst the finest of the decade and among the most inspired/influential in film history. Even his clunkers from that period have a certain spark. To be sure, Godard never made anything as great as 400 BLOWS, JULES AND JIM, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, LE JETEE, MURIEL, ARMY OF SHADOWS, SECRET DEFENSE. (One exception might be ALPHAVILLE.) But to depreciate Godard’s place in cinema on such grounds would be to miss the point. Godard was never after perfection or completion. He approached cinema with a multiplicity of possibilities, weaving it into the very fabric of his films. One can admire the films of Bergman, Truffaut, and Fellini as finished products. Godard the modernist left his films ‘incomplete’ to leave it up to the viewer to connect the dots and fill in the blanks. In this sense, his films were theorem-based than theme-centered. The meaning of MASCULIN FEMININ changes with every viewing. French have been the masters of multi-angularity with ideas and images, and Godard was, for a time, a top practitioner.
Unfortunately, a cult has grown up around Godard, and some people worship him as something akin to a god. Of course, some critics, especially John Simon, have been viciously unrelenting in their attacks on just about everything Godard did. It is my guess — probably the consensus at this point among the honestly inclined — that Godard will be remembered for his films from BREATHLESS to MASCULIN FEMININ and forgotten for much else. (TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER of 1967, FIRST NAME CARMEN of 1983 and JLG/JLG of 1994 may be exceptions.) But from 1960 to 1967, Godard made fifteen films, an amazing feat in and of itself.
Some critics may argue that his later films are more thoughtful, but even if true, I have no idea what the ‘thought’ is behind something like KING LEAR. Also, cinema, as an art form, is more about poetics than philosophy. Godard’s earlier films were both pointed and poetic whereas the later ones seem pointlessly philosophical. If philosophy majors can make something out of Godard’s later ‘oeuvre’, good for them. The rest of us dummies will just have to plead ignorance.
Of course, it would have been wrong for us to expect Godard to make the same kind of films over and over. Times change and artists grow. Older Renoir made different films than the younger Renoir. But then, Luis Bunuel never lost his sense of humor and spirit of fun to the very end. Sadly, Godard fell into some kind of morbid funk from which he never recovered.
STEVEN SPIELBERG JAWS*
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND*RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK*
EMPIRE OF THE SUN
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN*
MINORITY REPORTCATCH ME IF YOU CANINDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL*
THE ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN*
Some great directors are like forces of nature. Kurosawa and Peckinpah come to mind. Spielberg is a phenomenon. The greatest wunderkind of cinema, he’s been both the most accessible and most inexplicable of directors. Just about everybody around the world has seen and enjoyed Spielberg’s movies, yet the ideas, inspirations, and circumstances that combined to shape Spielberg’s imagination are almost beyond imagining. His power seems almost otherworldly. Someone in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS utters that Einstein may have been a space alien too, and it might as well apply to Spielberg himself. It may all seem rather odd when Spielberg grew up in the prosperous and peaceful suburbia in the Middle America. And yet, Spielberg didn’t quite fit in. He was skinny and unathletic; he was Jewish at a time when some people might make an issue of it. He was extremely bright, rather typical of Jews. And yet, like Bob Dylan, he didn’t really fit into the Jewish cultural set either. His sensibility was far removed from that of New York Jews, radical leftist Jews, and counterculture Jews who came to dominate and define much of Jewishness. Dylan in NY in the early 60s deftly played the ‘radical folkie Jew’, but he never abandoned his roots in the other America, small-town or rustic, that was so often ignored or dismissed by the cultural urban literati set. In CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, space aliens intrude upon the house of an Indiana mother and child, but the child, instead of being afraid and running and hiding, feels a natural affinity with the space aliens and wanders off with them. To the mother, it’s a kidnaping, but to the kid, it’s a trip to wonderland. In E.T., the boy character of Elliott develops the closest bond with a giant walking Raisinette from outer space. In both films, the strong sense of familiarity and community is interwoven with fascination with and affection of the fantastical Other. Spielberg grew up under a far more pleasant circumstances than Michael Jackson — though Jackson reached stardom much earlier — , but they felt a natural affinity for one another and became good friends in the 80s — though the relation got strained when Jackson got too weird and even sang a song about wicked Jewish lawyers. Both Spielberg and Jackson felt apart from the norms of their respective communities. Jackson privately wanted to be like a Disney cartoon character in a city filled with rowdy and dangerous Negroes who be cussing all night long. He secretly kept a little white mouse for a pet — and he wasn’t even a mountain-sized Negro. Quite likely, Spielberg the child had all sorts of imaginary friends, and perhaps one of them eventually became E.T. Of course, many artistic types feel alienated from the norms of their ‘small-minded’ communities. But if many such types go into subversive, rebellious, or alternative mode, Jackson and Spielberg, like Phil Specter and Brian Wilson, were in love with mainstream culture. And yet, because they were oddballs and obsessives — what most mainstream people are not — , their relation with popular culture was always contradictory, even troubled. E.T. became one of the most popular movies of all time, but in some ways, it’s a rather disturbed story of a little boy who prefers to befriend a giant walking turd from outerspace than hang with other kids. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS was a mega-hit and made a lot of people feel good, but it’s about an obsessive guy who leaves behind his entire family to go off with soybean-shaped freaks from another world. And who the hell knows what Jackson was really singing about in ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’ or ‘Billie Jean’?
Like Woody Allen, Spielberg began in entertainment mode but then aspired toward seriousness. Allen the comedian was hyped — at least for awhile — as “America’s Bergman”, and Spielberg the Jewish Disney later made films in the vein of Lean, Kurosawa, and Ford. While many critics grew accustomed to and even celebrated the transformation of Spielberg into an artist, others doubted the depth of Spielberg’s commitment or understanding. While works like SCHINDLER’S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and MUNICH are technical masterworks — RYAN has maybe the greatest action sequences in film history — , the writing and acting rarely rise above Norman-Rockwellian homiletics that flatters the viewers for their sharing in the glow of gilded sentimentality. I want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony… drink Coca Spielberg.
Even the serious side of Spielberg comes most alive in his genre movies such as A.I. and MINORITY REPORT. Similarly, Hitchcock spoke more truth with VERTIGO or THE BIRDS than with the stark realism of THE WRONG MAN. Spielberg has a better grasp of the mythic aspect of human psychology — not least because he grew up(or didn’t grow up) with fantasies — than with issues of individual psychology or being. While Spielberg is almost unparalleled in depicting physical details and violence in SCHINDLER’S LIST or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, both films utterly fail as portraits of social or personal psychology. What worked for Frank Capra in his populist films just don’t work in Nazi death camps and the limb-strewn blood-soaked battlefields of Europe. Thus, some of Spielberg’s serious films suffer from the discrepancy between the preponderance of abject physical realism and the absence of psychological insight. After showing us so much hell, it’s a bit too much to ask us to put our faith in the ‘brotherhood of man’ shtick. After all, it wasn’t sentimentality but the brutal Allied war machine that finally defeated Hitler’s evil empire.
As for Spielberg’s entertainment films, the power of their magic has yet to be fully understood. His critics have charged that Spielberg has been just a film wizard who loaded his movies with lots of action and effects for the mass popcorn-munching audience. In other words, his success was all about the Formula. But consider all the formula-driven and effect-loaded movies of the 70s and 80s. Think of all the AIRPORT sequels, the disaster movies, the animal attack films, and so on. Why were most of them failures or soon forgotten while we still discuss the magic of JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, E.T., and JURASSIC PARK? Spielberg has the Midas Touch, and even if it didn’t always do the trick — TEMPLE OF DOOM and LOST WORLD are rather painful — , a skill of that magnitude cannot be fully understood as a matter of formula or mere trickery for it springs from deep within, a mysterious place hidden even to Spielberg but one reliably provides him with creative fuel on the basis of some inner-covenant we can only guess at.
Spielberg’s standing as one of the most innovative directors seems all the more amazing when he never worked outside mainstream cinema, i.e. he never, like Vertov or Eisenstein, tried to be ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’. He was always appealing to the mass audience, and he borrowed from and improved upon film language as already developed by others. But once Spielberg got through with something, his imprimatur was unmistakable. Spielberg didn’t merely lift and move images about as did most directors, even great ones; he juggled them with the greatest of ease. He always did it in the spirit of fun and accessibility, which is why they seemed so ‘conventional’ than innovative or revolutionary. How could something so seemingly easy and entertaining possibly be all that special? But then, the very best make the most difficult seem so easy. Just like Nadia Comaneci.
AMERICAN GRAFFITISTAR WARSSTAR WARS: ATTACK OF THE CLONES*
Given the centrality of the director(as ‘auteur’) in film culture, Lucas has been underestimated as creative force. Since his beginnings in the early 70s, he has directed only six films, of which four are STAR WARS movies. Nevertheless, Lucas has been a key figure not only with EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and THE RETURN OF THE JEDI but the very popular INDIANA JONES series. In a way, Lucas was born in the wrong era. Despite his knee-jerk diatribes against Reaganism and conservatism — and interest in black issues(even marrying a Negress) — , he’s been a profoundly conservative personality — though not always in the good way. Though Spielberg has often been compared with Disney, it’s Lucas who’s the true heir of Uncle Walt. Like Disney, he preferred working on grand concepts while delegating tasks to others. Like Disney, he needed to maintain a certain distance between imagination and execution, not least because of his asocial tendencies.
Lucas was born in the wrong era. Having gone through the radical 60s and hung around rebel types of his generation during the era of Vietnam and Civil Rights struggle, he imbibed many of the ideas and values of the Counterculture. But one need not scatch deep to come face to face with a soul that is obsessive about order, continuity, and stability. Indeed, even his sympathy for blacks tends to hearken back to the pre-60s era. His fondness for black stereotypes, his need for a mammy wife, and his preference for Nice Negroes over angry blacks all hint at a man who’s nostalgic for America before all hell broke loose in the 60s.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI longs for that moment in the early 60s when young people were freer than ever but with innocence intact. That dream for lost innocence is what many of Lucas’ films have been about. INDIANA JONES series are set in the world of heroes and villains long before the 60s with all its angst and doubt. In this, Lucas had something in common with Brian Wilson, a California boy whose formative period was also in the 50s and early 60s and who came to prominence with fast & furious yet innocent songs about girls and surfing. For Wilson, it didn’t help that music culture tended to be drug-centric than other forms of art. Film, being more techno-centric, had a more tenuous relation with drugs. Also, operating machinery requires sobriety at all times.
The great contradiction within Lucas has many layers. In AMERICAN GRAFFITI, he welcomed the dawn of the 60s, basking in the breaking light of a new era. And yet, it’s also a poignant elegy for an America forever lost after a decade of turmoil and crisis. THX 1138 is a dystopian exercise in unrelenting ‘technophobia’ — where the futuristic state controls every facet of life — , yet it’s also obsessively fascinated with the possibilities of technology. The ending is ambiguous, at once rebellious and conservative. By escaping from the underground world, is the hero embarking on a new adventure or has he returned to how things used to be? STAR WARS marvels at the wonders of technology, but its core heroes are Jedi knights who lead ascetic lives. And though filled with adventurous heroes and rebels in the American cultural mold(especially Han Solo), there’s a good deal of sermonizing about the need for order, obedience, and reverence, especially as pertaining to the master/apprentice relations among the Jedis. Yoda and Kenobi are always lecturing Luke to control his passions and follow the true path of the warrior-defender. Success with Luke is the only way they can redeem their failure with Annakin.
Lucas said he was born into a solid Republican family, and his father saw little value in Lucas’ passion with cars and movies. Lucas rebelled and became a world-famous film-maker. Defiance paid off, but a part of him perhaps felt a measure of guilt. At any rate, having absorbed the values of the Counterculture, Lucas was sworn to join in the quest against the Man and the Order. But the only way Lucas knew how was to promote his vision of Order and be the Man himself. It’s like Darth Vader who represents the bad order must be countered with the good order. It really comes down to bad fascists vs good fascists. Judging by his reverence for the right-wing scholar Joseph Campbell, fascination with the fascist aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl, and boundless nostalgia for the world prior to the 60s, there’s always been an fantasist element in Lucas’ view of things. It’s been said that conservatives are realistic pragmatists, whereas liberals are pipedreamers. Yet, not all conservative souls are alike. While some prefer pragmatism with the world around them, others long for a time that can never be reclaimed again — like Alec Guinness’s character of Feisal in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA longing for the vanished gardens of Cordoba. In this sense, conservatism could be just as much of a pipedream as liberalism. It’s telling that all of Lucas’ films are either set in the lost past(AMERICAN GRAFFITI) or the future(THX 1138). Or both, as in STAR WARS that seem futuristic but is said to take place ‘a long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away’. It’s hard to imagine Lucas making a film about the urgent present. Like the character of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room”, Lucas was a dreamer than a dealer, and that someone like him became one of the giant moguls of film has to be one of the most unlikely stories in arts and culture.
For someone who imbibed the values of the Counterculture, the public persona Lucas cut out for himself has been incredibly square and staid. He’s more Norman Rockwell than Robert Crumb or Andy Warhol. And for a liberal, he had an instinctive rapport with John Milius the right-wing looney. One wonders how the history of film might have played out if, as originally agreed, George Lucas had embarked on APOCALYPSE NOW than on STAR WARS.
Perhaps, it could be argued that with the great financial success of STAR WARS, Lucas discovered his true self. While there was a genuine artist inside him — as only a true artist could have conceived of and executed something as original and brilliant as THX 1138 — , Lucas felt most natural in being a peddler of nostalgia, albeit with a futuristic or state-of-the-art twist. So, STAR WARS took us back to fairytales but with space ships and laser guns. So, INDIANA JONES took us back to the world of Saturday Matinee serials but with the latest film-making gizmo commandeered by Steven Spielberg, possibly the most dazzling film talent in history. And there was the great passion of his life, Industrial Light and Magic and spending time with his kids in his Skywalker ranch, his private Disneyland where he could tune out the world.
In a way, it’s sad that the artist who showed such promise with THX 1138 and AMERICAN GRAFFITI morphed into a popular entertainer and marketer of childhood fantasies filled with escapism and ‘innocence’. Those who expected him to blossom into another Coppola, Kurosawa, or Lean were surely as disappointed as Kenobi and Yoda were with Annakin. But as Rocky said, ‘ya gotta do what ya gotta do’. Stallone also began working in 1970s with gritty films like THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH, a kind of life a ‘greaseball’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI not without merit. He then made ROCKY, an incredible balancing act of 70s naturalism and old-fashioned crowd-pleasing formulaism. Stallone then tried other things but failed at just about everything except more ROCKY movies and some RAMBO movies. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do. It’s the nature of the business, and maybe, that’s what you were really meant to do.
Likewise, STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES became such cash cows for Lucas who became increasingly business-minded that the dream of working again as a personal artist(if such hope lingered) faded further and further into the future as mere procrastination. And today, no one believes that Lucas will ever make a personal film again. Twelve years passed before Kubrick finished another film again, but at least he was always researching and working in the mode of an artist. Lucas seems to have completely lost the will and desire. He had just enough imagination left to fill ATTACK OF THE CLONES with some astounding and mind-blowing special effects — the final series of action sequences are truly spectacular and awesome — , but there was little else to show for. Like the old man in JURASSIC PARK, he now seems content to dream his dreams within the confines of his theme park home. He has become Jabba the Hutt.
THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
TIM VAN PATTEN
BOARDWALK EMPIRE Episode 2
STATE AND MAIN
JAMES FOLEYGLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (Writer: David Mamet. Director: James Foley)*
FISTFUL OF DOLLARSFOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE* THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY**
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST**
DUCK YOU SUCKER*ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA**
SPIDERHISTORY OF VIOLENCEANDREI KONCHALOVSKY
RUNAWAY TRAINSHY PEOPLE
LA NOTTETHE ECLIPSE* BLOW-UP*
LA STRADAIL BIDONENIGHTS OF CABIRIALA DOLCE VITA8 1/2** TOBY DAMMIT (from Spirits of the Dead)*
JOHN BOORMANPOINT BLANK* DELIVERANCE*ZARDOZEXCALIBUR*HOPE AND GLORYTHE GENERALTHE TIGER’S TAIL
THIS HAPPY BREED
STRAIGHT STORY MULHOLLAND DR.** WILLIAM FRIEDKIN
THE EXORCIST*SORCERERTO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.* OLIVER STONEPLATOONBORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULYHEAVEN AND EARTH*NIXON*ALEXANDER: FINAL CUTWORLD TRADE CENTER
TODAY WE LIVE
COME AND GET IT
BRINGING UP BABY
ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS
HIS GIRL FRIDAY
TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT
THE BIG SLEEP
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE
MAN OF MARBLE*DANTON*KATYN*SERGEI PARAJANOVSHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS*COLOR OF POMEGRANATES**JAN TROELLHERE’S YOUR LIFE**EMIGRANTSTHE NEW LAND FLIGHT OF THE EAGLE*HAMSUN*PIER PAOLO PASOLINIACCATONE*GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW*HAWKS AND SPARROWS
LA GUERRE EST FINIE
MON ONCLE D’AMERIQUE
COEURS(aka Private Fears in Public Places)
There are varying degrees of feeling sorry for certain artists. Some died tragically young, like Jean Vigo, and some failed to fulfill their promise due to self-destructiveness and/or circumstances related to the industry or public taste; Sam Peckinpah comes to mind. Mike Nichols, in contrast, continued to have a long successful career in film and theater, eventually being crowned with the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. So, how does ‘feeling sorry’ come into the equation? Well, consider the auspicious beginning in film with WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, soon followed by his greatest achievement THE GRADUATE. At a time when ‘serious’ American moviegoers were hoping for American cinema to ‘grow up’ and mature into the kind of art form that the European counterpart proudly stood for, Nichols seemed to be the right man for the job. And Nichols himself worshiped the Europeans; it was even reported that he fired someone for negative remarks about Fellini’s 8 ½.
Nichols obviously saw himself as an ‘auteur’ and a maestro, and why not when he became the overnight darling of the critics and when THE GRADUATE connected with both mature and youth audiences. He seemed to have won over everyone. Similarly, Woody Allen would be hailed in 1977 as “America’s Bergman” with ANNIE HALL. The difference is, of course, that THE GRADUATE has stood the test of time whereas Allen’s work now seems rather weak.(On the other hand, at least Allen remained true to his vision, however limited it may be.)
So, what happened to Nichols as an artist? For a while, he did his best to stay in the game. His sudden success gave him the opportunity to choose any project with lavish funding, and the ensuring product, the adaptation of Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22, while not exactly a total disaster, was one of the misconceived and miscalculated major works of the period. Spielberg would stumble into similar problems with his monstrous1941. Heller’s kind of sardonic humor — where the burlesque is tightly wound and muted in the Kafkaesque — called for a careful balancing of absurdity and banality; the madness had to be ordinary. But like Welles with THE TRIAL, Nichols underlined everything or put it in bold letters, producing a Stalinist cast of sarcasm that required a fork lift for every joke. It’s a fascinating failure, a confused mess by a director overreaching to be the American Fellini. For all his intelligence, his auteur ego got the better of himself. Certain things aren’t meant for circus treatment, and Jewish humor is different from the flamboyant and grandiloquent Italian counterpart. But Nichols turned a con game into a carnival. If Heller could see a great war as a game of cards, Nichols turned the card game into the ‘greatest show on earth’. One wonders what David Mamet might have done with it with a smaller budget.
With THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, Nichols strove to expand on his personal style, but both are marred by dramatic and intellectual strain, but CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, a true labor of love, even if it fails as art, can be admired for its total commitment and professionalism. In the later years, Nichols would make some good movies, some of them hits. He remained bankable and a much adored figure in both film and theater. He didn’t crash and burn in the manner of Friedkin, Bogdanovich, Peckinpah, Altman, and others. But the artist for whom so much was expected of and hoped for in 1967 was nowhere in sight. Even his good movies in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s lacked personality and individuality. In style and vision, they could have been made by any professional. And in that — the man who would be the American Fellini or Antonioni — , it is rather sad that he became just another glorified journeyman director. Like Benjamin in the final shot of THE GRADUATE, the future was going to be in ‘plastics’.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY
NAGISA OSHIMAMERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE*GOHATTO(aka Taboo)*JONATHAN DEMMECITIZENS BANDMELVIN AND HOWARD*SOMETHING WILD*JOHN FRANKENHEIMERTHE BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZTHE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE**THE TRAINTHE ICEMAN COMETHFRENCH CONNECTION IIKON ICHIKAWABURMESE HARPMEN OF TOHOKU
BEING TWO ISN’T EASY
DAWN OF THE DEAD
RIKYUCHARLIE CHAPLINTHE GOLD RUSH*CITY LIGHTS*MODERN TIMES*THE GREAT DICTATOR*MONSIEUR VERDOUX*JACQUES RIVETTESECRET DEFENSE*D.W. GRIFFITHBIRTH OF A NATION*INTOLERANCE*CLAUDE CHABROLLE BEAU SERGELES COUSINS*LES BICHES
LA FEMME INFIDELE(aka The Unfaithful Wife)
WEDDING IN BLOOD
STORY OF WOMEN
THE FLOWER OF EVIL
THE MARQUIS OF O
BALLAD OF NARAYAMA*DR. AKAGIShohei Imamura’s films are marked by three competing and even contradictory impulses: realism, anthropological-ism, and experimentalism. The realism imbues the characters and their circumstances with humanist intimacy. But the anthropological approach nullifies sentimentality, moralism, and political-ism that, for better or worse, became the hallmarks of realist and neo-realist cinema. Imamura’s depiction of modern humans has something like the the non-judgmental ‘objectivity’ of documentaries about primitive non-Western cultures, and of course, Imamura’s point is Japan — and possibly by extension all of so-called modern society — resiliently remains raw and primitive at its core. Despite profound changes wrought by Westernization, Imamura held to his conviction of presenting characters as driven less by modern ideas than impulses, instincts, and intuitions of feudal, tribal, rural, primitive, and/or even animal(down to the insect level)import. For Imamura, the introduction of modernity into Japan from the West represented both the greatest release and the greatest repression of the natural and primitive. Modernization ensured greater freedom for everyone to do his or her own thing, to act naturally, and yet its idealized view of humans as rational & moral agents bound by rule of law(as opposed to rule of raw)seriously negated and regulated vital barbarian energies that were the stuff of life. And yet, Imamura couldn’t have been more different from someone like John Milius who romanticized the dark heart of the barbarian warrior. Imamura looked past the idealized categories such as ‘warrior’, ‘hero’, ‘saint’, and ‘martyr’ and saw in humanity a species of which even its strongest and noblest members could be stomped like ants. Perhaps, this owed not only to his sensibility but to his experience of history: Japanese ‘warrior heroes’ committed ghastly atrocities in WWII, and all of Japan’s mythic delusions about itself couldn’t save it from American bombs that crushed millions like insects under the foot of a child. Imamura valued the primitive vitality of life but was well aware of its amorality and brutality. He saw neither the Eden nor the Fall in primitivism but rather the ceaseless cycles of life that were the only real reason why life exists at all and will go on existing. Imamura’s acceptance of humanity for what it is was less a matter of the heart than of the stomach. For many humanist artists, people were worthy of forgiving and embracing out of the conviction(or self-willed illusion)that most people are essentially good. Imamura, like Pasolini, Cassavetes, Frears, Scorsese, and Kusturica, took the position of accepting humanity in all its rawness and vitality because, well, what else was there to do? Ants live, work, and die in the ant world because they are ants. Same with humans. Good or bad, we really don’t have a choice but to be what we are. Of course, not all artists and audiences have stomachs for such an unfiltered view of life. Even movies that depict much bad behavior try to wrap things up and end on a high note, as in CRASH, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, BAD LIEUTENANT, or DO THE RIGHT THING. Thus, if some directors have a low tolerance for cruelty and barbarism and switch into the higher gear of moralism when things get too ‘crazy’, Imamura kept his gaze fixed on humanity’s perpetual ways that defied all the various categories ranging from ‘saints’ to ‘sinners’. BALLAD OF NARAYAMA is powerful but not always easy to take.
None of this means that Imamura was devoid of moral reasoning or a nihilist by nature — like certain Japanese film-makers who wallowed in mayhem for no other reason than puerile fascination with style. Rather, as a thinking artist committed to his vision of truth, he felt an obligation to probe and present humanity for what it is. He wasn’t the sort of doctor who would withhold bad news from his patients. Just as a surgeon has to stare into human innards, Imamura observed humanity with open eyes, ears, and nostrils.
Another aspect of Imamura’s cinema is the experimentalism, though never as overt or committed as that of Hiroshi Teshigahara, Hani Susumu, Yoshishige Yoshida, and Nagisa Oshima in the 60s or of certain French New Wave directors. Imamura was naturally playful and as fascinated with the styles and forms as with stories and characters. His experimentalism could sometimes be a bit outlandish and overeager — as in PORNOGRAPHERS — but, at other times, as inspired as those of Kubrick, Tati, or Tarkovsky — especially with PROFOUND DESIRES OF THE GODS, not only his best film but one of the greatest in cinema. Even so, he didn’t allow experimentalism to get ahead of the material and exist for its own sake, a temptation that befell more than a few talented film-makers. Nevertheless, the experimentalism was always there, problematically but powerfully wedded to the substance that some people might have regarded as too raw and crude in its realism to allow for any sustained personal expression. In this, Imamura had something of Luis Bunuel in him, the Spanish film-maker who perversely wedded the real and the unreal in ways inconceivable to most artists.
Imamura belongs to a special class of film-makers whose body of work will continue to provoke questions and offer up surprises for as long as cinema exists. His films are inexhaustible as social document, entertainment, satire, art, and study material.
WINCHESTER 73THE BEND OF THE RIVERNAKED SPURMAN FROM LARAMIE*EL CID*THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIREBUDD BOETTICHERSEVEN MEN FROM NOWDECISION AT SUNDOWNTHE TALL TBUCHANAN RIDES ALONERIDE LONESOME*WESTBOUNDCOMANCHE STATIONJEAN-PIERRE MELVILLELES ENFANTS TERRIBLES*LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE*LE SAMOURAI*ARMY OF SHADOWS**LE CERCLE ROUGE
A COP(aka Un Flic)
THE BIG CITY(aka Mahanagar)
GONZA THE SPEARMAN
SAVE THE TIGER
PINOCCHIO*(Directed by Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen)FANTASIA**(Directed by Norman Ferguson, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Ford Beebe Jr., Jim Handley, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, and Ben Sharpsteen)BAMBI*(Directed by James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, David Hand, Graham Heid, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, and Norman Wright)ALICE IN WONDERLAND(Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske)SLEEPING BEAUTY(Directed by Clyde Geronimi)OLIVER HIRSCHBIEGELDOWNFALL*JOSEPH L. MANKIEWICZALL ABOUT EVE*ROLAND JOFFETHE KILLING FIELDS*THE MISSIONJURAJ JAKUBISKOMILLENNIAL BEE*QUAY BROTHERSQUAY BROTHERS VOLUME 1QUAY BROTHERS VOLUME 2OTTO PREMINGERFALLEN ANGELBONJOUR TRISTESSE*EXODUSADVISE AND CONSENT*BUNNY LAKE IS MISSINGMITSUO YANAGIMACHIHIMATSURI(aka Fire Festival)*VSEVOLOD PUDOVKINSTORM OVER ASIA*WOLFGANG PETERSENDAS BOOT*IN THE LINE OF FIRE
LATE SPRING*EARLY SUMMER*TOKYO STORY*TOKYO TWILIGHT*EQUINOX FLOWER*OHAYO(aka Good Morning)**UKIGUSA(aka Floating Weeds)*AUTUMN AFTERNOON*MAX OPHULSEARRINGS OF MADAME DE*LOLA MONTEZERMANO OLMIIL POSTO*FIDANZATI(aka Fiances)*ONE FINE DAYTREE OF THE WOODEN CLOGSMIKIO NARUSEFLUNKY, WORK HARD
NO BLOOD RELATION
APART FROM YOU
EVERY NIGHT DREAM
STREET WITHOUT END
THE HELLSTROM CHRONICLE*
THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL
THE BAND WAGON
AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS
GATE OF HELL
THE ASSASSINATION OF TROTSKY
THE CHRONICLE OF ANNA MAGDALENA BACH
ME AND ORSON WELLES
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG
THE MACKINTOSH MAN
JOHN ERICK DOWDLE
JOSE LUIS GUERIN
IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA
LEE CHANG DONG
WAKOLDA(aka THE GERMAN DOCTOR)
HEAVEN CAN WAIT(directed with Buck Henry)
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE*
SISTERS OR THE BALANCE OF HAPPINESS
MARIANNE AND JULIANNE
PAUL MCGUIGANWICKER PARK*JEAN-MARC VALLEEC.R.A.Z.Y.*ATOM EGOYANSPEAKING PARTSEXOTICA*FELICIA’S JOURNEY*ARARATBLAKE EDWARDSBREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S*PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAINCLINT EASTWOODOUTLAW JOSEY WALES
AFFAIR IN THE SNOW
EROS PLUS MASSACRE
I HATE BUT LOVE
THIRST FOR LOVE
I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
THE BIG LEBOWSKI
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
INSIDE LLEWLYN DAVIS
THE STORY OF JACOB AND JOSEPH
LULLABY OF THE EARTH*
A WOMAN’S FACE
A STAR IS BORN*
THAT FORSYTE WOMAN
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
STATE OF SIEGE
KENJI MISUMITHE TALE OF ZATOICHIFIGHT ZATOICHI FIGHTJOHN FARROWTHE BIG CLOCK*PETER BOGDANOVICHTHE LAST PICTURE SHOWMARTIN RITTHUD*HOMBREPETER FONDATHE HIRED HAND*ARDAK AMIRKULOVTHE FALL OF OTRAR*ALEKSANDR SOKUROVTHE SECOND CIRCLE*MOTHER AND SON
THE STORY OF RUTH
THE GREAT SILENCE
LA VIE DE BOHEME
PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS(aka PRISONER OF CAUCASUS)
LIKE FATHER LIKE SON
BIRD OF PARADISE
REQUIEM FOR A DREAM
CARO DIARIO(Dear Diary)
STRANGER THAN PARADISE
DOWN BY LAW
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
A BRAND NEW LIFE
BANDITS OF ORGOSOLO
THE WIDOW OF ST. PIERRE
13 CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING
BRUCE NYZNICK & LAWRENCE SCHILLER
THE MAN WHO SKIED DOWN EVEREST
OF MICE AND MEN
LARS VON TRIER
THE LAVENDER HILL MOB
THE THIRD SECRET
CHARLES CRICHTON, ROBERT HAMER, BASIL DEARDEN, & ALBERTO CAVALCANTI
DEAD OF NIGHT*
POTOP(aka THE DELUGE)
WITH FIRE AND SWORD
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
LUCIEN CASTAING-TAYLOR & VERENA PARAVEL
KYLE PATRICK ALVAREZ
MARCO TULLIO GIORDANO
BEST OF YOUTH
DILLINGER IS DEAD
INVESTIGATION OF A CITIZEN ABOVE SUSPICION*
ALL IS LOST
THE KINGS OF SUMMER*
DAVID O. RUSSELL