Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The First Four Films of Terrence Malick

Well it’s November 2nd.  The Cubs and Indians are preparing to play game 7 of the World Series and I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the world ends sometime during the 9th inning.  With that said, I appreciate you spending some of your last moments on earth reading my blog.  Like every blog entry ever I meant to get this written sooner, but life has a way of inevitably delaying everything I aim to do.

I’ll start by giving a little backstory as to why now seemed like a good time to revisit the films of Terrence Malick.  To start we have to go back a few months.  A few times a year random flash sales pop up where the typically expensive Criterion Collection is 50% off.  The previous sale I purchased Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and Wim Wender’s Road Trilogy (Alice in the Cities, False Movement, King of the Road).  Right around this time A New World was being released.  I figured since money was a little tight, I’d wait until the next sale and stock up on Malick’s films.  As of now, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World are part of the Criterion Collection, and amazingly enough I owned none of these films on DVD or Blu-Ray.  So fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when a sale on Criterion was announced, and I stocked up.  I got the idea immediately after to actually watch these four movies and offer my collective thoughts.

The debate obviously raged internally as to how to organize this article.  Would I offer full scale Kubrick sized reviews, or perhaps invoke my Vincente Minnelli piece from a few years ago and discuss these movies individually in a shorter capacity?  I suppose you can read on to see just what approach I took, but I opted for a third option, channeling an old essay I wrote in film school about Spike Lee’s first five films.  Mainly we’re going to talk about everything and how they relate in theme, style, perception, etc.  So I would highly recommend watching all of these films because there will be spoilers, but considering the most contemporary of these films is already 11 years old, you’ve have plenty of time.  Although one can argue the films of Terrence Malick are immune to spoilers.

Now for those long time readers I’m sure you are all well aware that I love Tree of Life, like more than just about any film.  This film blew me away like nothing I’ve ever seen in theaters, and I thoroughly challenge any film made in the 21st century to top it.  Despite how revelatory the film was, there were roots of it’s brilliance scattered throughout his previous films.  Much in the same way Godard seemed to incorporate everything he knew about cinema into Weekend, or Altman’s penultimate improvisational epic Nashville was the sum of all it’s previous parts, Tree of Life represented Malick putting all his successful early ideas into one sententious masterpiece.  As groundbreaking as Tree was, the elements of that film were present pretty much from his first feature.

Badlands was one of the films I was most excited to revisit for this project.  I hadn’t seen it start to finish in roughly 15 years and frankly wasn’t overly impressed by it.  My problem with the film the first time around was probably one of context.  The film presented itself as a lovers on the run tale, and it seemed like a much more boring version of other better known tales (Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves Like Us, etc.)  Watching it as some sort of sensationalized tale of a violent rampage and a story of doomed young love was the wrong way to approach this film.  Taken as the first chapter in cinematic universe of Malick it suddenly fits beautifully.  The film wasn’t sensationalized, it wasn’t meant to be some fast paced tale of doomed love, and these weren’t some sexy villains breaking the rules.

There are some common threads that pop up even in this first film.  For starters there’s the narration, which would be a common thread throughout Malick’s work.  Using narration to explain the plot is typically seen as a crutch for most storytellers, but Malick uses it in much the same way a novelist might.  It adds depth, Holly (Sissy Spacek) uses it to internalize her thoughts, saying things that couldn’t be filmed or spoken in a film.  This narrative technique would be exploited further in his later films, particularly in Days of Heaven.  He would eventually use multiple narrators in his later films, but the first two both use the narration of young women who seem largely along for the ride to add the depth.  On Days of Heaven, Linda Manz apparently recorded multiple hours of improvised narration, where Malick simply told her to say whatever came into her mind about the visuals she was watching.  Both offer narration that compliments the narrative but doesn’t explain what’s happening.  It isn’t a crutch for him, simply another cinematic device.

I would argue Malick is one of the few filmmakers who seems to be a complete filmmaker.  He uses every technique he can to illustrate his story.  His camera is often mobile,  free to roam wherever it feels best.  Multiple scenes are filmed with and without dialogue, and much to annoyance of his actors he often cuts out lengthy dialogue scenes and reduces them to a wordless single shot. 

The cinematography often gets the most attention in his film, and Malick’s in depth knowledge of cameras, lenses, and film stock is well documented.  His preferred use of natural lighting is often infuriating to the more experienced cinematographers, but damn it if he doesn’t always seem to be right in the end.  His preference for shooting typically leads to an absurd amount of film being used.  Editing his films can be seen as a monumental task, and it’s why in the case of certain films (like Days of Heaven) it took nearly two years.  Part of the idea is that despite some well worked out scripts, the man isn’t closed to new ideas.  Shooting scripts can go out the window if the lighting is just right.  If someone has a better idea on how to do a scene, he’s usually open to listen.  This gives the films something of a freedom, and it comes across when you watch them.  It also leads to many people expecting conventional narratives to be frustrated.

Both Badlands and Days of Heaven are fairly straightforward.  They are both 94 minutes long, and have an intimate quality to them.  Badlands is largely just about two people, and Days of Heaven expands to a quartet.  The landscape is important to these films, going as far as to lend the title to his first film.  It’s important to note that Malick is from Texas and this love of wide open spaces seems to be almost born in him.  He came from money, which often helps explain a fascination with people from the wrong side of the tracks.  Rather than get too in depth about his biography I find it necessary to mention two additional items.  First, he is a certifiable genius, the man is probably smarter than you.  Second, he was a philosopher, even teaching it at MIT.  Knowing a little about his background helps to illuminate some of his ideas towards cinema.

What many people thought would be Saving Private Ryan-Pacific, Thin Red Line turned into a philosophical exploration of the psychological aspects of war.  Much of the carnage is filmed with long shots, with many a shifting internal monologue, flashback, and muted soundtrack.  There are multiple moments where the film could venture into conventional war movie territory, but it never seems to linger for long.  It was based on James Jones’ book of the same name, and the author probably wouldn’t have recognized Malick’s interpretation had he lived to see it.  I was a fan of the film from the first time I saw it, and on an emotional level it probably remains Malick’s most powerful.  It was simply a miracle that it was made.  During the two decades separating Days of Heaven from The Thin Red Line many a rumor and legend began to arise about what Terrence Malick was up to.  He moved to Paris, continued writing, but from there the details are incredibly vague.  There was no shortage of A-list actors who wanted to be a part of The Thin Red Line, and although the cameos might seem slightly distracting, he makes sure to feature them early and often.  This film helped bring things full circle considering John Travolta was the first choice to appear in Days of Heaven

The one constant in Malick’s films is art director Jack Fisk.  He got his start at the Roger Corman school of low budget movies before getting his break on Badlands.  Fisk is something of the unsung hero in Malick’s work.  It’s amazing to see the progression from three story tree house in Badlands to the fort in The New World.  He was known for an impressive attention to detail, filling Spacek’s room with tons of character detail, earmarked books, and clothes in every drawer.   These things might be geared more towards helping actors get in character, but it creates a sense of lived in space.  As the scope of these films got larger obviously Fisk’s work got bigger.  The attention to detail and obsessive quest for authenticity in The New World was a common theme throughout the cast and crew. 

The Native American actors went through their own mini-boot camp to learn how to move and speak like a tribe in the early 17th century.  This helped create a sense of community not unlike the one for the soldiers in The Thin Red Line.  The fact that Malick seems completely unconcerned with financial returns on his movies, allows this sort of unusual luxury.  Each of his films seem like a self contained world yet part of a bigger picture.  What helps unite these films isn’t just the presence of Fisk or narration, but violence.  Badlands was a personal project for Malick that he had pretty much fully formed in his mind by the time he enrolled in the American Film Institute.  It was based loosely on the Charles Starkweather killings in the late 50s.  The film ends with a note in the credits about how it is a work of fiction, and comparing the true crime story to the finished film will naturally reveal some key differences.

Days of Heaven isn’t really a violent film by nature, but it is book-ended by a couple of murders.  It’s easy to think of that film as this really pretty picture that employed two absolutely incredible cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler.  The Thin Red Line by contrast is violent by nature but despite many explosions and attacks it’s far from gory.  It’s interesting to compare the first two films and their depiction of violence with the last two.  In Badlands the killing is just a chain reaction.  One bad decision just leads to another, and you get a feeling that Kit (Martin Sheen) starts to enjoy it.  He is concerned with his own legacy, even building a little rock monument to show where he was captured.  Bill (Richard Gere) is as much of a victim as a perpetrator, pushed into violence to survive in Days.

The killing is more a matter of course for The Thin Red Line.  The film does show the psychological aspects of fighting a war in a way that isn’t really shown in the much more personal violence of the first two films.  It’s somehow more humanistic despite the often faceless nature of war and war films.  These two threads get woven together beautifully in The New World.  The violence is part of surviving in a new and hostile place, but the personal attachment Smith (Colin Farrell) has to the natives makes it seem all the more tragic.  Despite the aloofness of Smith, the rest of the whites seem more in tune with history’s version of early settlers.  They are convinced they’re right, and have that classic European delusion of bringing civilization to these “savages”.  When the natives attack it’s more in the interest of their self preservation, and the white people seem much more on the defensive.  Violence seems an unavoidable by product of the world in Malick’s eyes through all these films, just in different contexts.  This is where the philosopher seems to really shine through in these movies.  The idea of violence would somewhat exhaust itself after The New World, as nature itself appears to be the violent force in Tree of Life.

I would point out I was quite happy when Criterion announced they were releasing The New World.  For starters I hadn’t seen the film since it was originally in theaters.  I liked it but found it at times a bit slow.  Hearing that there was an extended cut of the film was something quite exciting, but I never put fourth enough of an effort to track this version down.  The new release features both the theatrical cut and the 172 minute extended cut, as well as a third original version.  I watched the 172 minute version and it simply adds some texture to the original story.  I followed this up with the 150 minute original cut, which admittedly was playing the in the background while writing this blog.  Considering so many of Malick’s work is in the details these contrasting versions don’t alter the story too much, simply adding a few extra layers. 

I feel The New World is arguably his most important script.  The story was apparently written around the time of Days of Heaven, but for numerous reasons was put on the back burner for decades.  I noticed that when Smith is commenting on the natives never uttering the word “forgiveness”, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) asks to be forgiven by her father later.  Something I noticed in theaters that was backed up by the extended versions is also the fact that the name Pocahontas is never actually uttered.  The first time she is ever even addressed by a name it is when she’s christened Rebecca.  It’s a subtle little detail, but one that I feel rewards the diligent. 

Overall these first four films are far from a warm up to something greater, even if you’ll excuse me in saying Tree of Life is superior to all of them.  I wouldn’t argue with anyone who would say one of these four films was Malick’s best.  Arguably the best thing about his often rambling philosophical style is that it resonates with people on a personal level.  Badlands is a perfect film, and an incredibly impressive debut.  It works because of it’s two leads, Martin Sheen’s charisma and Sissy Spacek’s ambivalence.  Malick himself appears as a traveling salesman, and would also appear briefly in Days of Heaven as a steel worker before entering his self imposed seclusion. 

Days of Heaven is a good film but one that misses the mark ever so slightly.  I’ve never been a big fan of Linda Manz narration, despite being in the minority with this.  Malick always had a bit of a fascination with accents, and there’s no doubt he was enamored with Manz’s, but I find it a little overdone.  The visual aspects of the film deserve all the praise you can give a movie, and despite the cinematic inexperience of the actors the performances are pretty solid.  Part of the problem with the film is in it’s legend.  Being the last Malick film for 20 years a lot of people over analyzed the hell out of this film, and what was something of a simple period picture became so much more.  It was more a testament to what could have been with his seemingly abandoned career.  As we’ve gotten more Malick, especially recently that promise seems largely fulfilled.  Days of Heaven almost seems like a sophomore slump, a good film that doesn’t quite hold up to it’s predecessor and it’s long awaited successor.

The Thin Red Line was the first Malick film I ever saw, and I really didn’t know much about the director or his long hiatus.  Perhaps for this reason I didn’t go in to the film with the same level of anticipation all the people who worshiped Days of Heaven had.  Since I watched it in my formative years as a film fan, I was obliged to compare it to other war films.  I loved it right away, mainly for how subjective the film was.  I could recognize even as a novice that the goal was to show more of the emotional toll of war than the physical or even mental.  Seeing it several times since it reveals new depths each time.  It would have seemed silly to consider it a better film than Saving Private Ryan, which it’s for better or worse always going to be linked with, but the more I’ve seen each the more I have to lean towards Malick.  Repeated viewings are kind to this film, and not to detract from Spielberg’s masterpiece, that film wins you over immediately.  There’s a bit of work that is required in The Thin Red Line, but it’s so worth it.

Having seen all three version of The New World I have to say it is a great film.  At times the film seems to wander aimlessly, and even the theatrical version feels a bit long.  There are a few head scratching moments, and there is a sense that things could have been trimmed without losing much of the ambience and plot.  Colin Farrell isn’t bad, but he does just seem to be more of a prop than an actor here.  He’s just sort of wandering aimlessly the whole time, but what do I know?  Without nitpicking, I feel like I should point out that filmmakers of a certain quality are judged by different standards.  With technical aspects all universally excellent, their work seems to be measured against each other, and although these four films are all masterpieces in their own right, they aren’t necessarily equal in quality.

Perhaps the ultimate compliment to an auteur is that these films all have a similar visual look despite being shot by 5 different cinematographers.  Emmanuel Lubezki (who has won the past three best cinematography Oscars) seems to have made a good impression on Malick.  After The New World, they worked together on his next three features.  Watching these first four films reminds me of the era when a Terrence Malick film was a once a decade experience.  He has started to make up for lost time, and his future films will probably fail to be as heavily scrutinized and poured over as these first four were, but the plus side is more movies.   So thank you for reading through my scatterbrain thoughts on one of America’s greatest directors.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Breathless (1960) - Jean-Luc Godard

There have been more film movements over the past century than I would care to calculate.  Some are vaguely defined, some were stylistic, some were political, some geographical, but few did more to reshape the concept of cinema quite like the French New Wave.  Godard’s debut feature, Breathless still remains the movement’s most definitive and most influential film.

The film’s reputation has been so exalted and canonized over the past several decades that it seems completely intertwined with film history.  I believe it helps clearly separate cinema into two distinct eras, the pre-Godard and the post.  The rules of cinema were open for debate, the subject matter could be anything, the methods of production were flexible, and things were never quite the same afterward. 

As indebted as this film is in history it’s legend began during production.  Godard who was a pretty well established film critic from Cahiers du Cinema, knew the power of the press when it came to making or breaking a movie.  He made sure to have various journalists visit the set and write about his unorthodox filming methods and had himself proclaimed as some sort of mad genius long before the public even got a glimpse of the film.  It was a calculated move that paid off and helped to ensure the film’s success as well as Godard’s desire to be included as a true cinematic auteur.

Now before I shit all over the film, I’d like to point out a few of the things that completely deserve praise and exaltation.  For starters, there is a certain sense of joy in this film that is noticeably absent from Godard’s later films.  He seems to legitimately be enjoying the process of making a film.  Godard had numerous false starts getting his first feature financed, and he was the last of the 5 seminal directors of the Cahiers group to begin his first feature (although Jacques Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient ran out of financing, and wasn‘t finished until after Breathless premiered).  Godard was in fact so excited to get to make a film he didn’t really stop to figure out what the hell he was going to do.

The story was originally suggested by friend and fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut.  It was based on a real life incident involving a man who shot a motorcycle cop in 1952 before being turned in by his American girlfriend.  In reality the criminal was apprehended, Godard saw a much more Hollywood style dramatic ending in mind for his version.  As he would do countless times in the future when given a synopsis, Godard changed a good amount of the details and the finished product barely resembled either the real life incident or the much more conventional script treatment Truffaut submitted.

The opening sequence is still quite exceptional, and I am under the impression that many critics and film fans base their praise of the film on these first 10 minutes or so.  The beginning has no formal credits, much like Welles’ Citizen Kane, but does have a dedication to Monogram Pictures which firmly sets the tone for the low-budget film noir homage the picture would become.  With a handheld camera, the film feels deeply personal.  Everything was shot on location, and the jump cuts are jarring but not disorienting.  Godard is drawing attention to the artifice of cinema in a very deliberate way.  The cuts are noticeable, but thanks to a unified sound track, they are easily followed.  The movie was shot without direct sound, so everything from dialogue to street sounds were done in post production.  This underlying sonic element helps to keep the film from derailing into amateurish territory.  Godard filmed several moments, including the chase from alternating angels, and when editing Michel pointing the gun at the police officer, the reverse shot is oriented to be pointing back at Michel.  Rather than sloppy editing, this is more of a deliberate attempt to break up the rules of continuity.  In the case of the gun, it makes it seem like Michel needs to shoot the officer in order to keep himself from being shot.

One criticism of the film is the fact that it is extremely amateurish.  No doubt Godard would find himself on the short list of greatest directors ever, but he had no clue what he was doing on this film.  He would write dialogue the day of the shoot, hand it to his actors and shout out the lines.  Since there was no direct sound, he knew everything would be dubbed after the fact.  It was infuriating for his actors who were barely able to tolerate what they saw as a madman without a clue. 

The final film was well over the two hour mark when initially completed.  Godard’s producer Georges de Beauregard insisted on delivering a 90 minute film to the theaters.  When discussing what to cut, Godard consulted with his friend and mentor, the director Jean Pierre Melville who appears as the celebrity Patricia (Jean Seberg) interviews for her paper.  Melville suggested cutting everything that was unnecessary to the central plot, that of the criminal Michel (Jean Paul Belmondo), Patricia, and his flight from the law.   This meant Melville suggested cutting his own scene, but Godard had another idea.  Rather than chop up entire scenes, he decided to remove fragments of each scene.  The idea was to trim whatever felt lagging or slowed the film down, regardless of whether it was an entire scene or merely a couple of shots.  This tightened up some of the scenes and helps explain the practical reason why there are so many jump cuts. 

Godard’s numerous film references and homage’s were also relatively new at the time.  Truffaut did make a small reference to cinema in The 400 Blows, but it was mostly a knowing bit of encouragement to his buddy Rivette’s yet incomplete Paris Nous Appartient.  Aside from the beginning dedication, Belmondo is constantly mimicking Bogart’s look, which is juxtaposed rather deliberately with a poster of his last film The Harder They Fall.  The film audio we hear in the film is from Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool, and several other posters and references pop up.  Melville’s presence is in itself an homage, as Godard was a very big fan of his Bob Le Flambeur, which was an early influence on Breathless.  For better or worse countless followers would show their love of cinema and throw in knowing winks to their idols and influences.

Melville being as pretentious as he can
Much of the dialogue is pretty ridiculous.  Patricia is perhaps fashioned after a classic femme fatale but she just seems painfully apathetic.  Most of Michel’s comments towards her seem to be about her promiscuity, a fact that he doesn’t even attempt to conceal about himself.  Her denunciation of him is announced so casually.  Both characters aren’t particularly likeable, but the actors playing them are so it certainly supports Fellini and Woody Allen’s ideas that casting was more than half the battle when making a film.

This scene might be boring but those abs aren't
The film is not a flawless masterpiece however.  The debt future filmmakers owe to Godard and this film is nearly impossible to calculate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the film itself is great.  The plot is standard enough low budget noir fare, but the lack of focus is apparent throughout.  Virtually a third of the film’s running time is just Michel and Patricia hanging out in her room talking and smoking cigarettes.  The scene works in a small way because of the screen charisma of it’s two leads, but the conversation is just the somewhat slightly immature and insecure ramblings of a director who is noticeably speaking through his actors. 

There is a wonderful spontaneity to the film that is part of it’s charm.  Shot on location with a skeleton crew, many of the street scenes were filmed with a small lightweight camera by Coutard sitting in a wheelchair being pushed by Godard.  Some police actually did show up when they filmed Michel’s death scene, and Belmondo deliberately timed his collapse to be right before landing in oncoming traffic.  Godard was obsessed with filming everything with available light, which led to some creative fixes for night scenes.  There was only one lab they could get film sensitive enough to shoot at night without added lighting, but it only ran in roughly 30 second reels, which led to Godard and Coutard hand splicing the film together.  Coutard would prove to be a willing partner, and their frequent collaborations in the future proved they did work extremely well together.  Godard’s main reasoning for shooting with natural light was the freedom it provided.  Godard hated the mechanical aspects of filming, and made sure he could be free to just film and make it up as he went along.

Godard and Coutard trailing their actors
I’m not sure how much of Godard’s spontaneous ingenuity was just plain laziness.  I mentioned earlier how Godard wrote the dialogue each day before filming, but much of the film was shot in the same haphazard way.  He wanted no producers on the set and kept the bare minimum of crew by union laws.  Godard also loved to not work.  Many days shooting would last on average 3 hours, where he would film a couple of random scenes and then dismiss for the day.  Much of the cast and crew found it incredibly unprofessional, and based on the style Belmondo for one thought that the film would be an incomprehensible mess that would never be released.  Jean Seberg, who made her acting debut following a well publicized talent search for Otto Preminger, found the conditions appalling.  Preminger may have tormented his actress, but he at least knew what he was doing on set. 

Godard rarely gave his actors any direction, preferring vague comments that had little to do with the film.  His instructions for Coutard were similarly cryptic, which is partially because Godard had no idea what he even wanted.  He spent so long just wanting to make a movie, he didn’t necessarily plan out how to do it.  Thanks in part to Coutard and the near documentary aspects of the location photography the film is still filled with highlights, but the rambling indecision of it’s auteur is apparent, especially on multiple viewings.  Godard’s main ambition seemed to be to make sure everything was in focus and the film at least looked professional, the rest could be figured out later.

Breathless despite it’s flaws and apparent sloppiness is still among the 5 or 10 most important films ever made.  Not only did it help break the French New Wave to an international audience, it inspired legions of film fanatics to make their own film.  Never was its influence more apparent than in the next decade’s American films.  The “film school” directors of 70s were all heavily indebted to the French New Wave, probably none more so than Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. 

Breathless can be compared to Birth of a Nation in terms of it’s importance, but the flaws of that film bare little resemblance to the ones here.  Griffith was an accomplished pro who was at the top of his craft, but also a bit of a racist.  Feel free to read my last blog post for elaboration.  Godard did have some extreme right-wing sympathies during this period in his life, and many accused his early films of being outright fascist.  Breathless however can hardly be called fascist or racist by a modern audience.  Oddly enough he was criticized by many of his peers for not being overtly political with this film.  Anyone familiar with some of Godard’s later work, particularly anything from about 1966 on would know that he more than made up for the absence of his political convictions early on.
Patricia mimicking Michel mimicking Bogart
Godard has a tendency to take himself far too seriously in his later work.  His recent films almost feel like grueling homework to sit through, so there is some solace in the entertaining aspects of this film.  The plot is fairly straightforward if a bit rambling, which is something to note compared to how incomprehensible some of his later work would get.  This would remain his most universally liked and praised film.  Although different Godard fans would all have their own personal favorite, it’s hard to argue that Breathless isn’t the best place to start.  I still think it’s a great film, just a far from perfect one.  It will forever be the defining moment of the New Wave, and the moment where cinema would never be the same.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

I’ve written a few words over the years about D.W. Griffith and his two seminal masterpieces The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.  In fact nearly everyone whose written anything about cinema has written a few words about these two landmarks of American film.  A couple of weeks ago I watched both films again and it got my mind aflutter.  Due to my tendency to write too much, here’s the first part of that review, on The Birth of a Nation.

It is hard for me to divorce these films from their historical era.  This isn’t necessarily a problem, because it is important to view things in the context of history.  We shouldn’t judge Robocop’s ED-209 with it's noticeable stop motion animation by today’s CGI-fests.  It’s important to know the limitations of the era and respect the often ingenious solutions filmmakers got around certain practical problems.  This helps explain some of the awe I have watching the battle scenes in Birth of a Nation, and particularly the Babylonian sequence in Intolerance.  I still wager Intolerance is impressive today, even knowing that modern special effects were over half a century away.

Looking at these films as a product of their time brings a few problems however.  The first is that we aren’t measuring the films by any universal criteria.  We give these films a pass on some of the acting, writing, and production values based on when it was made as opposed to ranking it alongside any contemporary work.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and these two films for better or worse helped define nearly all of Hollywood for the past century.  The other more practical problem is that modern audiences have no idea what life in 1915-1916 was like.  We’ve read history books, seen old movies, but do any of us really know the cultural zeitgeist of a century ago?  This leads to many modern audiences, myself included, projecting what they felt was normal or contemporary for the period.

So naturally we’re facing a certain dilemma, do we simply laugh at the over dramatic acting, and dismiss this as some historical relic good for a chuckle; or do we measure the films based on what was happening at the time and measure them against their peers?  Film is a medium that has continually evolved as new technology has developed.  It’s easy to discuss the artistic merits of paintings that are separated by a century or more, because paint + canvas = art hasn’t really changed that much.  Sure different styles and movements have come and gone in painting, but the tools have remained the same.  Music to a lesser extent can fall under the same category.  Classical music in particular can be compared across any era, because the instruments and basic music theory hasn’t changed much since the baroque period. 

Literature offers perhaps the closest parallel to cinema.  The structure of the novel is still very much the same as it’s always been, but so many other things have changed.  So many classic novels have entire plots based on obsolete or downright silly dated axioms.  This doesn’t stop these books from being great, but it certainly makes them dated and we have to trust in the writer to transport us to that world.  This is why books like Pride and Prejudice or Sister Carrie remain classics despite being nearly completely implausible in a contemporary setting.

I realize I’ve gotten ludicrously off base and I know what you want to talk about, racism.  It’s the elephant in the room with Birth of a Nation, the one thing that the film has been associated with throughout the last century.  This aspect makes that historical perspective tough to figure.  This was made in 1915, nearly 50 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed, so it’s easy to just shrug your shoulder and say people were just a hell of a lot more racist back then.  That doesn’t exactly let Mr. Griffith off the hook to just point and say everyone was a little racist back then.  So allow me to try and wrap my brain around the most troubling aspect of either of these films.

Now the film essentially breaks itself into two parts.  There’s the war, and the Reconstruction.  These can be separated by Lincoln’s assassination.  Griffith makes a strong point in this film to point out how much he loves Lincoln, and believes he could have prevented all the degradation and exploitation of the Reconstruction.  So it isn’t entirely accurate to label him a racist right off the bat.  Not all of the blacks in this film are portrayed as buffoons.  A few comically offensive ones certainly overshadow the more humane examples.  These things didn’t go unnoticed at the time, as many protests were centered around the film and the NAACP urged a boycott and outright banning of the film.

What’s interesting to note narratively is that Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) who is shown to be the founder of the KKK, was pardoned by Abraham Lincoln.  It is meant to show the compassion and forgiveness on Lincoln’s part to the rebel Confederates, but it also unfortunately implies that had it not been for that presidential pardon the Klan might not have been formed.  I don’t think Griffith or original author Thomas Dixon Jr. were implying that Lincoln was in some way responsible for the group, but it is an interesting by-product.

I'm fascinated to know end with the amount of information we are given.  The Civil War itself is remarkably simplified.  Trying to condense the bloodiest conflict in American history into a one hour subplot will naturally involve leaving out a few details.  However the film moves along in a way that respects the audience's intelligence.  We’re supposed to know certain things, and Griffith assumes we have some basic understanding of the principles involved.  That’s why the Northern Stoneman’s and Southern Cameron’s are meant to represent two sides of the same coin.  They’re united as Americans but divided by geography.  It’s Griffith’s and Dixon’s belief that we are all one nation, hence the title of the film, and that essentially wealthy white people are one and the same everywhere.

That feeling when you can't look a white man in the blackface
Where Dixon in particular shows his Confederate pride is in his depiction of Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), based loosely on Thaddeus Stevens.  Stoneman isn’t necessarily wrong in his beliefs but certainly in his execution.  He is a staunch abolitionist and that’s something that isn’t exactly being contested here, but his plan for the Reconstruction is to punish the South, contrary to Lincoln’s plan.  As a patriarch in the beginning of the film during their visit to the Cameron’s in South Carolina, he is depicted as a pretty level headed leader.  His family is well brought up, and he is extremely progressive employing a “mulatto” named Silas Lynch (played by the very white George Siegmann).  Afterwards you can almost feel the Yankee loathing in Dixon, who made Stoneman a figurehead for every carpetbagger that came to exploit the South, and in particular the newly enfranchised freed slaves.

Again where this film gets troublesome is that the tactics used to give blacks the vote and suppress the former slave owning whites from elections are exactly what happened for the next century on the other side.  In fact when “order” is restored near the end of the film, all the freed slaves go back to being terrified of white men and want nothing to do with voting and holding office.  The scene of the black representatives is one that constantly gets cited among the films greatest sins.  You can view it as a sort of a caricature, everything in silent films had to be somewhat exaggerated and blown out of proportion to translate on the screen, so the unruliness of these newly elected members does reflect that.  By today’s cinematic standards it’s hard to watch without cringing at a few moments.  Members are barefoot, taking shots of whiskey, and all other manner of unruliness.  Rather than showing the utter chaos and confusion of the Reconstruction, it comes across as showing newly freed slaves as uncivilized baboons that have no business in government or decent society.  The black legislature even has the audacity to legalize interracial marriages, which is of course depicted as an atrocity here.

Nothing offensive about that at all
Now rather than spend this entire time talking about racism I’d like to point out something about the acting style in the film.  It was common in many Griffith films, but you can certainly notice here that no characters ever make eye contact.  They always turn their heads towards the camera or away from each other, looking straight ahead as if they are projecting for an audience.  Now this was a play before a film, so it’s possible Griffith just went with that style, but it makes the performances feel unnatural, even if it’s not immediately perceivable.  Naturalistic acting wasn’t a particular style in silent film, but watch just how many people fail to make eye contact when speaking here, it’s staggering.

Behold eye contact in all it's glory
Now back to mixed race marriages because although it is the type of fundamental human right we have lately taken for granted, it’s depiction here is important to note.  Gus, the black soldier who was played by the really white Walter Long, spots Flora Cameron and over-zealously mentions his intention to marry her.  In a modern film this might be met with some confusion, earlier he is seen spotting her and somewhat leering at Flora, but alone in the woods it’s depicted as downright terrifying.  Flora becomes arguably the most irrational character in a movie filled with them.  Rather than tell Gus no, and playing up her ladylike superiority, she immediately runs and flees.  As Gus tries to explain himself and make something of a compelling case for himself as a suitable husband, Flora warns him that she’ll jump off a cliff if he comes closer.  This is baffling behavior and makes you wonder just how damn racist people were that a woman would rather commit suicide than let a black man come close to her.  We’re meant to assume that Gus is depraved and Flora assumes he’s going to rape her, but Gus is just scared and frankly a little confused at the object of his affection acting psychotic.

Pictured, the reaction to a black man wanting to talk to you
When Flora jumps off the cliff it’s as good as Gus killing her.  The frightening thing is that Dixon, and possibly Griffith meant to show Ben and his Klansmen lynching Gus as a sign of vigilante justice.  I wonder however if it is that simple.  Watching the film several times, Gus seems a bit clumsy but his only crime is asking a white woman to marry him.  Silas Lynch is much more deliberately criminal, which I’d like to think is the white half of his upbringing.  I have to laugh at the hypocrisy that they expose in the film regarding Austin Stoneman.  When Lynch tells his boss and mentor that he plans on marrying a white woman, Stoneman congratulates him until he finds out that the white woman is his daughter Elsie (Lillian Gish).  He flips out, attacks Lynch and the idea is that racial integration is great until it’s your own family.  It is a bit disappointing reaction for Stoneman, who previously had Elsie break off her engagement with Ben for his KKK connection.  The man he supported and forced down South Carolina’s throats as the Lt. Governor isn’t good enough for his own daughter. 
Pictured: White Justice
Not long after this comes the film's most cringe worthy title card “The former enemies of North and South are united again in defense of their Aryan birthright.”  This is when the black militia are surrounding the cabin where the elder Cameron and his faithful servants are held up with two former Union soldiers.  According to Dixon, our mutual distrust and hatred of minorities has bridged the gap between the Union and Confederacy.  What more could you expect from a film where the heroes are the KKK?  It is deeply disturbing to see the KKK keeping black people from ballot boxes at the end as a sort of victory.  This is the type of shit that took a century to clean up in the deep South, where institutionalized racism still persists.  There is such a naiveté to this film, like Griffith wanted to show how progressive he was, but simultaneously had no idea what that meant.  This points to a larger problem in society, where racist people don't seem to be aware that they are racist.

The fucked up and disturbing aspects of this film's final act notwithstanding this is still a monumental work in the history of cinema.  It’s legacy is well documented.  Raoul Walsh who played John Wilkes Booth would later spend the next half century as one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors.  Lillian Gish appeared in films up until the late 80s.  John Ford was said to have been an un-credited Klansman in this film, who went on to win four best director Oscars.  It’s not hard to get six degrees of separation to anyone in Hollywood history from this film and it’s cast/crew.  Griffith himself claimed to have invented nearly every film technique there was, but like Edison and his similar inventing claims most have historically been refuted.  There is no doubt that the success of the film helped spread a ton of Griffith’s devices to other filmmakers who were influenced by this.  Including tinting, irises, night photography, and wide panoramic shots.

 Perhaps no filmmaker was better influenced than Griffith by the film.  His masterpiece Intolerance was a direct response to this, and it helps right many of the wrongs in the second half of this film.  Broken Blossoms made in 1919 is arguably the first sympathetic interracial relationship in cinema, albeit white and Chinese, and of course the Chinese man was played by a white, but I digress.  Griffith eventually went bankrupt trying to top this film, and after making two talking films, one about Abraham Lincoln, he was essentially blacklisted.  It’s standing as the top grossing film of all time stood until Gone With the Wind came out in 1939. 

There is no doubt of it’s historical significance.  The cultural impact was immediate, and no matter the exaggerations and inaccuracies of some of the historical elements it’s impact on the evolution of film was unparalleled.  The question though remains whether it’s a great or even good film on it’s own.  Separate the film from it’s context and influence and is it worth watching?  Despite some pacing issues, the first half is incredible to behold.  The scale and scope is still impressive today, but the second half poses numerous problems.  The politics and the obvious blackface is hard to sit through, but despite how wrong the climax might be, Griffith was the all time master at inter-cutting and filming a last second rescue.  It was his stock and trade, and something he perfected from his early Biograph days, and by 1915 it was as ubiquitous to one of his films as an Alfred Hitchcock cameo in one of his. 

Due to the extraordinary execution, it’s hard not to get swept up in the finale as you wait for the Cameron patriarch to be rescued, and then you stop yourself and realize you’ve just been rooting for the Klan to save the day.  Before you condemn yourself as a racist monster, you might have slight epiphany about the power of cinema and what it can do in the right (or wrong) hands.  It is hard for a modern audience to like the film on it’s own merit, it doesn’t have the more broad and sweeping appeal of Intolerance but there is still some greatness to be found there.  So do your homework and watch it already.

Monday, May 11, 2015

It's All Been Done Before: Cinema Repeating Itself

There are some people out there who love to tell you that there are no new ideas in Hollywood.  Everything is either a remake, reboot, sequel, or based on a previous story.  In some ways it’s true, but to be honest Hollywood isn’t the only part of the world repeating the work of the past.  Foreign films are just as guilty of the strategy, and even when a work aims to be original it inevitably draws rather obvious comparisons to a previous picture.  Welcome to post-modern film theory.

The thin line between homage and plagiarism has existed since cinema began.  Unlicensed shot-for-shot remakes of popular movies were rushed out almost immediately in cinema’s first decade.  In some cases historians have a hard time distinguishing who ripped off whom.  For most modern film fanatics, the trend picked up steam a during the French New Wave.  It was celebrated to throw little in-jokes and references to earlier films.  These directors were paying tribute to the movies they loved before with character names, props, locations, costumes, even exact shots.  It’s something Quentin Tarantino has taken a lot of criticism for doing more recently.

There are two recent foreign language films I wanted to talk about that don’t exactly seem to pay tribute to earlier films but remake them in a way that’s hard to mistake.  Those two films are Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013), and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013).  Each film is living and embodying the national cinema of it’s respective pasts so unapologetically that it’s almost insulting. 

The Great Beauty

I’d like to start by saying I loved this film.  You know what other film I loved?  La Dolce Vita.  This film is La Dolce Vita with an older protagonist and shot in color.  I’ll accept the fact that Federico Fellini has been dead for quite some time and since no new Fellini films appear to be surfacing anytime soon, this is the next best thing.  In fact Sorrentino’s film is considerably better than the last two plus decades of Fellini’s work.  Fellini had a tendency to push himself to grotesquery almost as an involuntary urge to top himself, or at the very least not repeat his previous work.  When it came time for him to make Intervista, he blatantly embraced the past and made something of a sequel to La Dolce Vita.

You could say Sorrentino is channeling the late Fellini, inspired by his work and the pre-eminent chronicle of Rome’s social aristocracy.  Or you could say he remade the film in his own image, similar to how Rob Zombie remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre and called it House of A Thousand Corpses.  Now comparing anything to Corpses is clearly an insult, so let me remind you Sorrentino’s film is actually good.  Unlike Zombie he is a director who does seem to have some clue as to how to make a movie.  His leading man doesn’t quite have the charisma or youth of Marcello Mastroianni, but it might make the imitation too unmistakable if he did. 

Toni Servillo does a fine job in his role, and like Mastroianni and Fellini, is a frequent collaborator with his director.  Servillo has appeared in 5 Sorrentino films, but isn’t exactly a stand in for the director.  Fellini and Mastroianni were born 4 years apart, so many liked to view Mastroianni as a more idealized version of Fellini.  A stand in for the director and although the autobiographical undercurrents of La Dolce Vita weren’t quite as pronounced as they were in 8 ½, it does make a valid argument.  It’s more reasonable to say Mastroianni played a version of Fellini that wasn’t real, but much more cinematic.  Complete with imaginary problems Fellini sometimes projected upon himself.

Servillo is actually 11 years older than Sorrentino so we’re not exactly picturing the aging actor as an idealized version of the director/author here.  I was looking at Servillo as a more mature but just as aimless Mastroianni.  His character wrote one book decades ago and is still getting his ass kissed because of it.  He’s been part of Rome’s high society and spends his time talking politics and philosophy with a bunch of aimless rich people.  In one particularly touching seen an older aristocratic couple is getting by renting themselves out to parties as guests.  The Duke’s and high born people of the ancient Rome still exist in this world but are seen as more living museum pieces.

Servillo’s character Jep is part of high society, whereas Marcello seemed to be allowed to hang out there.  Jep wrote a classic novel as a young man and has pretty much milked it ever since, writing a few puff pieces here and there to sustain his lifestyle.  Marcello seemed more ambitious to crash the party, kept around because he was amusing enough.  Both films deal with a search for purpose in the world and also with a confused look at what exactly is art.  Jep sees two separate artists perform in the film and seems to dismiss both as cheap charlatanism, as if to say the only people making art have pushed it too far out that it ceases to qualify as such.

The film is well worth searching out but it helps highlight my point that it isn’t just Hollywood repeating itself, but that these new films with old themes can still be good cinema.  Perhaps it is a bit unfair knowing that any film featuring rich people in Rome is probably going to draw some comparisons to a Fellini film at some point in time.


Like The Great Beauty, Ida also won the best foreign language film Oscar, but that isn’t the reason I’m including the two here.  In fact I had to look that up after the fact, which shows how little that particular award means.  It channels the earlier film to pay a particular tribute to another kind of world cinema in the early 60s.

Whereas The Great Beauty is all about some rather glamorous and empty soul searching, Ida is much more rooted in history.  Pawlikowski wanted to beat you over the head with what he was doing here.  The film itself is somewhat subtle.  Several things remain unexplained or vaguely alluded to, but stylistically he is very blatantly evoking the bleak Easter European cinema of the early 60s.

Shooting in black and white is always a conscious “take me seriously” stylistic choice, and can often elevate a routine film into art house territory.  Where Pawlikowski takes it a step further is by shooting in the old Academy ratio of 4:3 and setting the film in 1962.  It’s not just a period film, but one that he hopes looks just like a Polish film from 1962 would. 

This goes a step further in the plot.  Long story short (spoilers?), a young orphan is about to take her vows at a convent.  She discovers that she still has a surviving aunt, who informs her that she’s actually Jewish and her parents were killed during WWII.  Ok so to look back on these films, complete with vague underhanded Communist bashing, make it seem exactly like a film of it’s period.  The scars of WWII hung over Europe, particularly Easter Europe for decades.  Whereas Italy and France seemed to move past a lot of these themes by the early 60s, most of Eastern Europe seemed fixated on the war.  Czechoslovakian cinema did it with a wonderfully subversive humor that masked the often scathing political commentary.  Polish cinema was a little less guarded. 

The problem I have with Ida is that it has no reason to exist.  I’d rather see some newly restored films from the period and experience authentic Polish cinema from the 50’s-60’s than this modern throwback.  It’s like when someone is telling you about a new band and referring to them as “Beatle-esque”, wouldn’t you rather just listen to the Beatles in that case?  You could say my problem with Ida is the same one many people had with the Sorrentino film.  I’ll grant you that, Fellini does a better job at being Fellini than Sorrentino does, but hell I’ve seen La Dolce Vita 10 times, I’d like to watch something a little different. 

Pawlikowski’s film seems to be digging up old wounds, with old techniques to say the same things countless European art house films have been saying since WWII ended.  Nazis were bad, the Holocaust was awful, many good people did horrible things to survive, etc.  I’m sorry if this sounds like I’m belittling a catastrophic historical event, I’m not, I just don’t get why this topic needed to be told again as if it were being told 50 years ago.  I feel like a couple decades ago we reached our peak of WWII and Holocaust themed films.  Schindler’s List seemed to be the definitive fiction film about the subject, and you can argue Roberto Benigni jumped the shark by making a dramedy about it with Life is Beautiful.  I’m not exactly bad mouthing Life is Beautiful, but that subject seemed to be officially exhausted in the eyes of cinema. 

In defense of Pawlikowski, he isn’t overtly dwelling on the Holocaust.  There’s a lot going on within the films brief running time.  He manages to make the film also slightly coming of age and a road movie without spending too much time dwelling on atrocities.  I just couldn’t help but feel throughout the film that this was extremely familiar territory to tread upon. 

Now a look at one more bonus post-modern example

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

Nothing stops Woody Allen from making a movie.  For better or worse the man pumps out a new movie every year.  He will get serious on you, but won’t go too long without offering up something a little light hearted.  Magic in the Moonlight might not pack the same punch as Blue Jasmine, but it is definitely worth checking out for a pretty simple reason I’m about to explain.

Sometimes I’ll watch some random old movie, possibly on TCM or from the many depths of my film collection.  Regardless of the film/style/studio/director etc. it has this unique charm to it.  As if Hollywood were largely incapable of making movies that didn’t please everyone back in the day.  You often hear people lament about the golden age of Hollywood with the tacked on phrase “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”  Well Woody Allen heeded your cries and gave you a movie just like they used to.

Allen doesn’t make the stylistic choices Pawlikowski made with his direct reference.  He films Magic in the Moonlight like a contemporary film that happens to be a period picture.  The film stars Colin Firth as a hugely successful magician Wei Ling Soo whose actually named Stanley.  He is recruited by a fellow magician to help expose a fake psychic named Sophie played by Emma Stone.  Along the way shenanigans happen, and people may or may not fall in love.  I won’t ruin things because you should see it.

The point is that this film would be right at place with an MGM logo, and perhaps Robert Taylor or Clark Gable standing in for Stanley and Jean Harlow or Joan Crawford as Sophie.  It has lots of rich people hanging around in huge houses going on long walks, people discussing marriage almost immediately, but with enough healthy Woody Allen skepticism and intellectually high brow conversation to remind you who wrote it.  Allen channeled the popcorn entertainment he grew up with and made a contemporary version of it.  The story itself is probably too crazy to work in a contemporary setting and I think that’s one reason why critics were divided on the film.  No one would have batted an eyelash if this film were released in 1936. 

I’m not saying this is a masterpiece of old timey storytelling, just an example of one man paying homage to his predecessors and proving that yes you can still make ‘em like they used to.  Perhaps the mixed reception of the film might help explain how modern audiences are largely too cynical for old Hollywood.  It’s the same reason a damn good movie like Down With Love (2003) is rarely mentioned among the best romantic comedies of the last 20 years.  The reason I liked Allen’s film more than Pawlikowski’s is because Allen didn’t have to beat you over the head with his nostalgia.  He didn’t have to change the aspect ratio or shoot in black and white. 

If you are still interested in original storytelling, you can always just watch Birdman.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Top 100 Directors: 20-1

20. Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard; Ace in the Hole)
Billy Wilder has always made some of my favorite movies.  His track record is nearly unparalleled in cinema, but as a director I’ve always just sort of shrugged my shoulders at his style.  Over the past couple of years I’ve really begun to notice that Wilder the director deserved just as much if not more praise than Wilder the screenwriter.  Double Indemnity is a masterpiece of cinematic style and still THE definitive film noir.  Sunset Boulevard is a textbook in shadow and deep focus photography.  Ace in the Hole is still one of the most criminally overlooked social satires of the 50s.  I haven’t even begun to mention how Wilder might be the best comedic director who ever lived.  When your resume lists as many masterpieces as Wilder, it’s hard not to put him on this list.

19. Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront; East of Eden)
There are some people who frankly will never forgive Kazan for naming names.  Instead of whining about saving his own skin though, Kazan turned his name naming into the basis of his greatest film.  Sure the stakes between informing on suspected communists is a little different than mob violence, On the Waterfront is on the short list of the greatest films of the 1950s.  Kazan helped usher in the new wave of method acting, and he had an absolute gift for coaxing legendary performances.  Often like Ray, Kazan would use canted angles, subjective camera shots, and intricate framing to capture the psychological state of his protagonists.  Like Wilder (and many others coming up) he also has one hell of an impressive list of masterpieces.

18. Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise; Design for Living)
The subtleties of Ernst Lubitsch’s directorial style have long been labeled as the “Lubitsch Touch”.  They’re barely noticeable on first look, but the more of his work you watch the more you start to notice some similarities, and the better appreciation for his body of work you get.  Ernst got his start as an actor before occasionally getting a chance to direct.  After making some wildly successful historical epics and comedies in Germany, he became one of the first Germans to be seduced by Hollywood.  It worked out to his advantage because Lubitsch literally became the face of the Jews for Hitler.  His series of sly sophisticated bedroom comedies became a staple and no matter what style he worked in, these were always his bread and butter.  Lubitsch also became one of the early masters of the film musical and in particular Love Parade and One Hour With You remain masterpieces of the genre.  The more of his work I watch the better it gets, and I’m not sure there’s a better compliment for a director.

17. Robert Bresson (Au Hassard Balthazar; Pickpocket)
In terms of tone and themes, there probably isn’t another director further from Herr Lubitsch that I could have put here.  The unquestioned master of austerity, Robert Bresson made a career of directing bleak, deconstructed, emotionless dramas.  Like many other masters, he tended to take his sweet time between films.  He directed only 13 films between 1943 and 1983, and all of them are must watch cinema.  I was never as fond of his color films as I was his earlier black and white, but many disagree.  Perhaps there’s something befitting the bleak outlook of his work with a lack of color.  When it comes to singular visions, there is no one who made movies like Bresson.  

16. David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia; Oliver Twist)
There was a time when Lean was damn near my favorite director of them all.  It took me awhile to realize that so many of the best films I was watching happened to be directed by the same man.  By the time I discovered his vastly different, but still excellent Noel Coward collaborations I became convinced Lean could do anything.  He got his start working as a film editor but made a name for himself with Brief Encounter and two Charles Dickens adaptations (Great Expectations and Oliver Twist).  Although he could make great romance films and comedies, his true legacy remains a trio of epics beginning with Bridge on the River Kwai.  Lawrence of Arabia in particular remains the greatest Hollywood epic ever filmed, and also a film that could never be made again.  Lean found a way to make a big budget blockbuster an art film.   

15. John Ford (The Searchers; Grapes of Wrath)
Although he never served as his own screenwriter there is something unmistakably identifiable about the cinema of John Ford.  There is no mistaking his Westerns for those of Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher, or Sergio Leone.  Ford’s protagonists were flawed people whose heart seemed to be in the right place.  Over the course of his career, Ford made upwards of 100+ movies and quite a few of them are essential American cinema.  The only man to win a best director Oscar 4 times, it’s a testament to his versatility that none of those statues came from a Western.  His version of the Grapes of Wrath is one of the extremely rare times that an incredible book got turned into an incredible movie.  Then there’s The Searchers, just simply one of the greatest things cinema ever produced.  If John Ford isn’t in your top 20 directors list, you’re not watching the right movies.

14. Jean Renoir (The Grand Illusion; Boudu Saved from Drowning)
The son of impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean financed some of his earliest films by selling his father’s paintings.  There must have been something in those genes though because Renoir wound up becoming quite possibly the greatest of all French filmmakers.  During the 30s, Renoir was unstoppable, and seemed to produce about two masterpieces a year.  He pre-dated Orson Welles with his innovative use of depth staging, and of course some lengthy takes.  Renoir also overlapped dialogue like Hawks, and was the first great cinematic humanist, before Ray or Kurosawa.  His later work is also well worth checking out but even if you stopped at Rules of the Game you’d know all there is to know about Renoir.

13. Kenji Mizoguchi (Life of Oharu; Sansho the Bailiff)
If I were giving out prizes for which director jumped the highest on my list, Kenji Mizoguchi would take that honor.  There was a time when I’d probably put him as my third favorite Japanese director, but my eyes have been opened.  His films are melodramatic, often heartbreaking, and sometimes too bleak for their own good.  However his style of filmmaking is so beautiful and exquisite that it serves a perfect balance to the harsh subject matter.  It took me many films and multiple viewings to even start to notice Mizoguchi’s craft.  He has a virtuosity that is unmatched yet somehow finds a way not to draw attention to it.  Thanks in part to David Bordwell’s excellent book, Figures Traced in Light I really got an eye-opener into just how brilliant Mizoguchi’s staging was.  There really is no Japanese filmmaker whose work I look forward to watching more than Mizoguchi’s.

12. Joel and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski; Raising Arizona)
These two just can not be stopped.  If you’re unfamiliar with their work, please stop reading my blog and never speak to me again.  The Coen brothers have been doing things their own idiosyncratic way for thirty years now and rarely miss a beat.  Last I checked Intolerable Cruelty might be the only film of their’s set in the present day.  Therefore we should go ahead and crown them the masters of the period picture.  I’ve probably seen Lebowski 50 times in the past decade and it will never cease to get old.  Even the brothers “bad” movies are often just misunderstood.  They’ve also managed to walk a fine line between hilarity and occasionally gruesome violence, which was never better showcased than in Fargo.  Hell you’ve seen their work, you know how great they are.  Next entry.

11. Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev; The Mirror)
There are a grand total of 7 feature length films directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.  These might be the greatest treasures in all of cinema.  Tarkovsky is everything an art house director should be.  His films are puzzles, they make you think, they’re slow and contemplative, stylistically innovative, and so far removed from the mainstream it seems an insult to call them movies.  His films are often epic in scope but surreal in nature.  He never hesitated to take a break from the narrative to film some beautiful images.  The opening of Andrei Rublev remains one of my favorite things in the history of ever, and the entire film of The Mirror is a collection of similarly breathtaking images.  Tarkovsky was the first director I watched every film from, and from the first viewing to the last they have been truly spellbinding. 

10. Woody Allen (Annie Hall; Manhattan)
Here we are, the top ten.  Since about 2002, Woody Allen has had himself penciled into my top ten.  The man is a phenom, making a film a year, every year for over 40 years.  It’s bound to happen that they aren’t always winners, but it makes those great films even greater.  I’m pretty sure it’s impossible not to like Annie Hall, it is the perfect film comedy, and a movie so good it shouldn’t even be called a romantic comedy.  After Annie Hall, Allen got confidence and started trying his hands at more experimental work, channeling his heroes Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini.  Perhaps no film better represents the two sides to Allen’s work quite like Crimes and Misdemeanors.  It helps that last film of his I’ve seen, Blue Jasmine is probably his best in two decades, showing that your faith in Allen will eventually, always be rewarded. 

9. Luis Bunuel (Los Olvidados; The Exterminating Angel)
Cinema’s greatest surrealist was Luis Bunuel.  The man made movies from the silent era into the late seventies, and in some ways even seemed to get better as the years went on.  He managed to infuriate the Franco regime in his native Spain on multiple occasions and it’s all the more reason to love him.  No one really made movies like Bunuel either.  He never believed the poor were noble down on their luck people, he thought everyone was pretty despicable given the chance.  Los Olvidados was the anti-Neo realist picture and it’s better than every damn one of the films it mocks.  He mocked everything from religion, to politics, to the upper class, working class, and the poor.  Nothing was sacred to Bunuel and his films reflect a lifetime of defiance. 

8. Federico Fellini (8 ½; La Dolce Vita)
Last time I made this list I decided to watch every film from the directors in my top 20.  Some directors dropped down a bit after seeing some of their less than exemplary work others deserved a bump up.  Fellini was one of the two who benefited from this project (the other is coming up).  In terms of cinematic auteurs, Fellini is arguably part of the European Mt. Rushmore.  He managed to make critically acclaimed films that even casual fans of art house cinema could love.  In the 50s he went from co-screenwriter to world renowned director and never looked back.  La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, and of course 8 ½ are enough to put him on the short list of greatest directors ever.  You might have also guessed, this was the last of the “big 4” Italian directors I mentioned.

7. Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho; Strangers on a Train)
Seriously, do I need to tell you why Alfred “fucking” Hitchcock is on my list?  Just stop, go rent a movie or a dozen, the man needs no explanation or justification. 

6. Jean-Luc Godard (Weekend; Pierrot le Fou)
To me, JLG is the defining watershed moment in cinema.  He is the point at which cinema forever changed.  He was the most innovative and prolific of the early new wave directors, he never stopped trying to push the boundaries of cinema.  His output has slowed down tremendously over the last decade, but he’s still just as crazy as ever.  There is a certain subversive joy in his 60s work.  A playful way he toyed with every convention of cinema.  He knew the technical aspects of film, and cinematic language and used all of those to try and concoct his own new rules.  In one decade he did more to change cinema than anyone since Melies and the Lumiere brothers.  His films have gotten consistently more challenging but often times they’re worth it, but Godard has made a habit out of making you work for it.

5. David Lynch (Blue Velvet; Mulholland Drive)
There is no filmmaker whose work excites me quite like David Lynch.  If I saw he had a new movie coming out, I’d stop what I was doing and lose my mind.  Lynch is in many ways a cinematic godson to Luis Bunuel, but whereas Bunuel used surrealism to attack the establishment, David Lynch just thinks in dreams.  I’d vote that Lynch understood and mastered the importance of sound in cinema better than probably every other filmmaker period.  Lynch has even proven in the past he can make a conventional story, but to me that’s a waste of resources.  No one has mastered the art of the surreal with occasional elements of horror, suspense, and art quite like Lynch.  He is quite possibly the most gifted artist in film.

4. Orson Welles (Citizen Kane; Touch of Evil)
The other director who got a boost from my top 20 project a few years ago was Orson Welles.  To me I always took Welles greatness for granted.  I loved his films, but every critic loves his films.  It was almost passé to say Welles was a master director, much like naming Citizen Kane as your favorite film.  However like my love of Kane, I realized there’s a reason he got so much praise from everywhere, Welles probably was the greatest director who ever lived.  The reason he clocks in at number four is because it’s my list, and also his career was too often marked by what could have been rather than what was.  The word “genius” gets tossed around far too often in film, but when it comes to Welles there was no other word to describe him.

3. Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas; Raging Bull)
Another in my list of “needs no introduction”.  Martin Scorsese has been the best American filmmaker for nearly 5 decades now.  From Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street he’s been a force to be reckoned with.  A film nerd in much the same way Godard was, Scorsese used the cinematic language to his own advantage.  His films are full of references and the occasional homage to the cinematic past but almost always done with an emphasis on entertainment.  His subject matter could get ugly but he never ceased to be must watch cinema.  Scorsese understood the importance of film editing, and no matter the running time, not one of Scorsese’s films feel like they’re a minute too long. 

2. Ingmar Bergman (Persona; The Seventh Seal)
For the past decade or so I’ve often flip-flopped between Scorsese and Bergman at #2.  In the course of making this list though I had to give the edge to Ingmar.  Now that his career is officially in the books, and now that I’ve seen pretty much everything he ever wrote or directed I feel fairly confident in saying Ingmar Bergman was the greatest European director who ever lived.  The man had no shortage of personal demons but always seemed to find a way to turn those into legendary cinema.  Even his two English language films are better than given credit for.  Bergman simply brought everything I love about cinema to his work.  He occasionally dabbled in surrealism, loved deep focus compositions, had many a long take, and thematically he seemed to touch on every philosophical idea worth exploring.  Bergman and Scorsese are pretty much neck and neck in terms of masterpieces, but Bergman gets the edge if for no other reason the fact that he made Persona. 

1. Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey; The Shining)
Are you surprised?  You shouldn’t be, I’ve made no great mystery of who my favorite director is, was, and probably always will be.  From the earliest time I had a favorite director Kubrick has held that position.  In many ways he’s the cinematic equivalent of Queen for me.  I’ve written somewhat lengthy reviews of all of his films for this blog, and my take on Full Metal Jacket somehow is the most read entry here.  Regardless Kubrick is the greatest of them all.  He was nowhere near the most prolific of directors, but from 1956-1999 there were no bad movies.  In fact there were no films I’d even consider average.  To me Kubrick had two settings, great and phenomenal.  Like Welles he preferred working with adaptations, and like Welles he was better at everything than everybody.  The only thing really separating them is that Kubrick was that potential realized.  He had the creative control and financial backing to make the best movies possible.  So to me, Kubrick’s career is in many ways what Orson Welles should have been.  There, list over.  Now go watch some movies.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

My Top 100 Directors: 40-21

40. Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express; Happy Together)
Wong might have a little push from the recency effect, that is to say I just watched The Grandmaster and Wong’s greatness is pretty fresh in my mind.  Although a martial arts biopic, it is still so distinctively Wong.  His work is allegorical in nature and his narratives often feel like dreams.  That isn’t to say he’s a surrealist, it’s just that they tend to jump around and when it’s all over you barely remember what his movies were about, just about how they made you feel.  Occasionally it seems Wong is capable of just shitting out a great movie with minimal effort, and in the case of Chungking Express that’s pretty much what he did.  However that film happens to be one of the most delightful movies I’ve ever seen and encapsulates all the dizzying camera pans and lonely hearts he’s always been obsessed with.

39. Werner Herzog (Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Cobra Verde)
Damn near the best of all the West German filmmakers, Werner Herzog is also probably the craziest.  He’s become more myth than man and I’m not entirely sure he doesn’t have super powers.  Like Wim Wenders he’s also bounced around between fiction and documentary, but lately he’s steadily become one of the best documentarians out there.  Grizzly Man probably remains the high point of his non-fiction career, but ask any of his fans and they’ll probably say his best work was with his best friend and fellow lunatic Klaus Kinski.  Despite nearly killing each other while filming Aguirre, they managed to work together on four more films, all of which were excellent.

38. Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Flowers of Shanghai; City of Sadness)
I had every intention of including Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-Liang on this list, but sadly they missed the cut.  So we can resolve the greatest Taiwanese filmmaker debate right now.  International cinema’s HHH, has been at the forefront of world cinema for decades.  A descendent of the Mizoguchi/Antonioni school of long takes and elaborate staging, Hou is a director after my own heart.  1989’s City of Sadness is on the short list of the greatest of all Taiwanese films, but my money is on Flowers of Shanghai, where each scene is one continuous take, the type of stuff I get giddy over.

37. Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather; Apocalypse Now)
How much are a few great years worth?  When it comes to cinematic high points, it’s hard to argue anyone ever was better than Coppola from 1972-1979.  I’m even a fan of One From the Heart, but I understand it’s failure.  Following his own loss of creative control, Coppola turned into a pretty mediocre low rent director of forgettable movies.  There have been a few noteworthy blips here and there, but the man’s greatness can best be summed up by Apocalypse Now.  If we counted the Godfather films separately, Coppola would be the only director to accomplish the astonishing feat of directing 3 of my top 10 films.  He also served as the would be godfather of the American film renaissance of the 70s, although he cut his teeth where so many others did, working for Roger Corman.

36. Roman Polanski (Chinatown; The Pianist)
If it came to the award for most tragically unlucky man in film, Roman Polanski would probably top that list, as it is he’ll settle for 36 on my director list.  A true international filmmaker, Polanski got his start in his native Poland before heading to the UK and for a time Hollywood.  He’s since made movies damn near everywhere and some of them are just plain phenomenal.  Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth, The Tenant, Chinatown, The Pianist, Ghost Writer, Repulsion, Cul-De-Sac, the man has a list of masterpieces a mile long.  Polanski was also a fan of deep focus photography and dabbled in surrealism on more than one occasion. 

35. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Berlin Alexanderplatz; The Marriage of Maria Braun)
The last of the big three in West German cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder has pretty much always been my favorite.  I’ve written plenty about how amazing Berlin Alexanderplatz is, his other work was always worth it’s weight in gold as well.  A fan of melodrama he was a Douglas Sirk for the 1970s.  In the case of some of his films, notably The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, he employed my favorite long takes to wonderful effect.  Fassbinder was also far and away the most prolific of his West German counterparts, and it’s taken Herzog nearly 30 years to catch up to his output. 

34. Spike Lee (Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing)
Once upon a time, New Jack Cinema was a thing and a wave of angry young black men began making movies.  Of that bunch the only one to sustain any level of greatness was Spike Lee.  Many people seem to know Spike more as that weird little Knicks fan, but he’s made some of the best American films of the last 30 years.  Despite being born in Georgia, Lee is a true New Yorker, and he often seems like he could be a black Woody Allen.  Like Allen, Lee hasn’t always made amazing films, but just when you think there’s nothing else worth watching, he’ll surprise you with another instant classic.  Malcolm X remains the blueprint of what all good biopics should be.

33. Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List; ET: The Extra-Terrestrial)
It’s not hard to have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Senor Spielbergo.  The man might just be the best technical filmmaker since Alfred Hitchcock, but all too often his tendency for manipulation is too noticeable and often embarrassing.  At his best, Hollywood has never had a better director, which explains why the man can probably do anything, but at his worst you have things like The Lost World happen.  The older I get the more I tend to notice his tricks, but for pure escapist joy I can’t think of anyone better.  Unlike a lot of other filmmakers on this list, I really shouldn’t have to tell you about him.

32. Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses Gaze; Landscape in the Mist)
If you’ve paid attention to the directors I love, this name shouldn’t come as a surprise.  If you’re asking who the hell Theo Angelopoulos is, then I feel sorry for you.  Even more than Jancso, Tarr, or Antonioni, Angelopoulos is the unquestioned master of long takes.  His tracking shots are so lengthy and elaborate that they sometimes skip entire time periods within a single shot.  He is the first and last name I think of when it comes to Greek cinema, but his films are definitely for the patient.  Sadly Angelopoulos passed away in 2012, before completing his film The Other Sea, the final part of a planned trilogy.  His remaining work is truly mesmerizing and well worth repeated viewings.

31. Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc; Ordet)
There are plenty of directors who made a successful transition from silent cinema to sound, but few used the transition to mark utterly distinct film styles.  Dreyer was Denmark’s leading director who enjoyed a fairly prolific run of films during the 20s.  From 1919-1928 Dreyer made 9 films in different styles.  A couple comedies, two historical epics, and one certifiable masterpiece with The Passion of Joan of Arc.  However between 1932-1964 Dreyer made a whopping four films (not counting Two People which he disowned and was pulled from distribution).  These films featured extended takes (because of course they did), deep focus compositions and often were of a morbid and somber tone.  Vampyr is one of the strangest would-be horror films of all time, and well Ordet might be the best religious film ever made.  The one constant throughout his career was the man was a hell of a director.

30. Pedro Almodovar (Talk to Her; All About My Mother)
I recently watched I’m So Excited and wondered just what the hell goes on inside Pedro Almodovar’s mind.  His films are so distinctively his, filled with a frank depiction of depravity that always seemed just a bit on the silly side.  For years he’s been simultaneously embarrassing the Spanish film industry while also serving as it’s reigning king of cinema.  Almodovar is also one of the few European directors who has had the luxury of seeing every one of their films distributed to the US.  Nobody makes movies like him, and with All About My Mother and Talk to Her he even topped himself.

29. Fritz Lang (M; Metropolis)
I’ll be honest, I didn’t think Fritz Lang would drop this far on my list this time.  The greatest of all German filmmakers, Lang was also one who enjoyed a near seamless transition to Hollywood.  Lang had a few obsessions, particularly the manipulation of the masses, mob justice, mind control, and constant shadows.  Metropolis has been mangled and restored so many times, in it’s (Nearly) complete form it remains one of the most spectacular of all silent films.  Lang’s first sound film though, 1931’s M is his masterpiece.  Peter Lorre is absolutely terrifying as the child murderer, and on the strength of these two films alone I would have put Lang on my list.  The fact that he managed to produce good to great movies for another thirty years after M only helped his cause.

28. David Cronenberg (A History of Violence; Videodrome)
My one and only Canadian representative, David Cronenberg was at one point considered a mere horror director.  Then he got labeled as a Canadian David Lynch (a title Guy Maddin eventually took), but now it seems he is the equal of no one.  Cronenberg has made a career out of making people occasionally uncomfortable and rarely if ever shying away from some gruesome stuff.  Some of his films are head scratching puzzles, others are like strange disturbing dreams, and others still are just plain amazing.  There are no shortage of masterpieces throughout his 40 plus year career, and I have little reason to doubt there won’t be more to come. 

27. Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby; Scarface; the Shame of a Nation)
In the golden age of Hollywood Howard Hawks was truly unique.  Hawks was never tied down to one studio and spent the 30s into the 70s picking and choosing his own projects.  Along the way he made damn near the greatest classic gangster film with Scarface, the best screwball comedy with Bringing Up Baby, some of the best Westerns with Red River and Rio Bravo, and some quintessential film noir with The Big Sleep.  He even took a turn at sci-fi with The Thing From Another World, but that was as a producer.  There really are no directors with the kind of track record Hawks had and the unquestioned mastery of damn near every type of film.  He was also the first director in the sound era to realize that multiple people talk over each other, and was an early pioneer in multi-tracking dialogue.

26. Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night; Rebel Without a Cause)
So much has been written about Nicholas Ray by so many that I don’t feel I can really do him justice.  Ray was a champion of social misfits most likely because he himself was one.  In an era of big bold Cinemascope productions, Ray got experimental with his framing, camera work, and staging.  A complicated and troubled figure his films never ceased to be extraordinary.  I’ve gone on and on about how utterly in love I am with the film They Live By Night and that is just pure Ray.  Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger than Life, In a Lonely Place are all masterpieces in their own right.  Even the worst of his films, like Born to Be Bad or Hot Blood are still more visually exciting than the overwhelming majority of 50s films.  The man was a god to cinema, whose influence is nearly impossible to measure.

25. Abel Gance (Napoleon; J’Accuse)
Did I say influence?  Abel Gance is quite possibly the most innovative filmmaker who ever lived.  Gance pre-dated the Soviet montage movement with La Roue, and employed every trick in the book with his masterpiece Napoleon.  What’s really staggering is how he took to sound cinema like a fish to water, and used sound for more than just dialogue in much the same way as Rouben Mamoulian.  With the exception of La Roue, it took many years before Gance was given his proper due, and in many texts people seem to overlook just how innovative he was.  Napoleon might very well be the best damn French film ever made.

24. Buster Keaton (Our Hospitality; Steamboat Bill Jr.)
In regards to the Chaplin-Keaton debate there really is no debate for me.  Buster Keaton was far and away the better filmmaker, but suffered the unfortunate bad luck of losing creative control.  The fact that his directorial career all but ended in 1928 is the reason he isn’t far higher on this list.  During his period of creative control he probably established himself as the best actor-star of all time.  There’s always some debate as to who directed what considering nearly every one of his films Keaton is sharing directorial credit with someone else.  However with his deadpan expression, his incredible physical comedy, and cinematic innovation remained a constant. 

23. Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai; Ran)
Arguably Japan’s greatest director and probably the one to have the greatest impact on cinema outside of his homeland, Akira Kurosawa is simply one of those giants of world cinema.  From the 40s to the 90s he was an unquestioned master filmmaker.  A huge fan of Shakespeare he brought out a unique perspective on some of the bard’s best known stories.  Kurosawa was more than adept at contemporary as well as historical pictures and produced countless masterpieces in both.  Ikiru is one of the most extraordinary Japanese films ever and manages to be profoundly touching as well as his most socially critical film.  Like Renoir before him, Kurosawa was a humanist filmmaker, who clung to the notion that deep down people were good. 

22. Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura; The Passenger)
The third of my big four Italian directors, Michelangelo Antonioni has the distinction of having the longest career.  He died in 2007 at the age of 94, and continued sporadically making movies into his 90s.  After a start as a screenwriter, Antonioni virtually redefined world cinema with L’Avventura a film that remains one of the most polarizing pictures ever made.  It firmly established what would be his calling card.  In Antonioni’s world, people were fickle, rich, bored, lonely, and lost.  He was Italy’s master of the long take, and the final shot of The Passenger might very well be the greatest tracking shot in all of film (second only to the opening of Touch of Evil). 

21. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction; Kill Bill)
Some of you might think I’m putting Mr. Tarantino too high, but well my list, my rankings.  Another director I’m hoping every single reader of this blog is familiar with, Tarantino has been the best American filmmaker to come out of the 90s.  Nobody writes scripts like him, and few people have inspired such over analysis as he has.  Like the members of the French new wave, he wears his influences on his sleeves, but in many cases he far trumps them.  He has managed to make exploitation genre pictures works of art.  I’ll still argue with anyone who claims there is a better film from the 90s than Pulp Fiction.  I’d also like to remind my readers to revisit Jackie Brown, a criminally forgotten film that’s as good as any of his other films, possibly better.  He’s been taking his sweet time between projects, but when it’s Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, they’ve been well worth the wait.  I sincerely hope he’ll crack my top 10 when his career is all said and done, let’s hope he keeps up the amazing work.