Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Favorites - Hyperballad (#39)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Hyperballad (1996/France/dir. Michel Gondry) appeared at #39 on my original list.

What it is • Bjork appears as an immobile sculpture, eyes closed in sleep - except when they briefly open - a tribute to the one moment of movement in Chris Marker's La Jetee? Simultaneously, she floats above as a sort of hologram, singing her song "Hyperballad" as the camera pivots around her form(s). Finally, most iconically, a video game avatar Bjork sprouts from the death mask-like visage and runs across the screen, the camera following her through a pixelated city, with the simple shapes of mountain peaks dominating the background. Michel Gondry's music video for this mid-nineties single touches on many of his favorite themes and motifs: simple, pleasing forms; a childlike sense of whimsy; multimedia interactions; the stark contrast of city and country. However, it also corresponds to the song's lyrics. Bjork sings a joyous ode to contemplating (and experimenting with) danger extremities each morning, before appreciatively returning to the security of her mountaintop home and companionship of her still-sleeping lover. And the the visuals reflect the gentle whirls and whoops of the electronic soundscape, a synthetic sound that feels organic. I only learned this tonight, while reviewing a video I must have watched at least a dozen times, that all of "Hyperballad" was shot on a single roll of film, each layer of imagery exposed over the same frames. There's an incredible sense of natural movement to the effect despite the laserlike precision necessary to pull it off.

Why I like it •

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Favorites - Daisies (#40)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Daisies (1966/Czechoslovakia/dir. Vera Chytilova) appeared at #40 on my original list.

What it is • Two girls named Marie (Ivana Karbanová and Jitka Cerhová) cavort across a surreal cinematic landscape. I'm not sure how else to describe the setting - these are not the types of locations that are supposed to reflect an offscreen reality (nor do the characters seem to have any "backstory"). The tanning shacks, nightclubs, train stations, farms, and - most memorably - dining halls we visit don't exist in relation to one another, any more than a Western saloon and Gothic castle stacked side-by-side on a Hollywood soundstage. The Maries are a couple Sherlock, Jr.'s, leaping from film to film - or perhaps channel-surfers who have decided to wreak havoc on their favorite dating, fashion, and culinary reality shows. But even these useful comparisons are reductive, "explaining" what requires only immersion. The film toots along like a manic cut of punk pop and the best analogy might be to a loose, spontaneous early Looney Tune. Chytilova proves herself the long-lost distaff Slavic live-action twin of Tex Avery but the Czechoslovakian censors weren't laughing. They were desperately trying to squash the blossoming Prague Spring (one thinks of the Blue Meanies stomping every flower in sight, though the arrival of Soviet tanks in a couple years would put an end to such whimsical fancies). The authorities did not take this "lark" lightly in 1966, banning the film and reprimanding the fiery director. And indeed there is an undercurrent of darkness to the party onscreen, a vigorous anger undergirding the actions of Daisies' carefree apple-pluckers.

Why I like it •

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Favorites - Through a Glass Darkly (#41)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Through a Glass Darkly (1961/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #41 on my original list.

What it is • Four characters - Karin (Harriet Andersson), who has just been treated from schizophrenia, her novelist father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), and her naive little brother Minus (Lars Passgard) - holiday on an isolated island. Emerging from the twilit sea, their boisterous laughter flickers on the soundtrack. The water looks cold, the light in the sky is dimming, and there is a fierce beauty to this image of fragile camaraderie. The chill they flee in this opening shot will catch up to them over the approaching night and following day, effecting a full transformation from curious, nervous innocence to devastating, irrevocable knowledge: most notably for the quietest character, Minus. The first film in Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy may, in its own way, be as iconic as The Seventh Seal. Its title, borrowed from Corinthians, has become a kind of shorthand for "serious art film" and its final twist is up there with the split faces of Persona or Death playing chess among classic Bergman images (though I'll admit when I first read about it as an over-imaginative kid, I thought they actually showed the damn spider sneaking out from behind the door, like in a monster movie...or like the oddly terrifying "god" marionette who pops out of a similar door in Bergman's much later Fanny and Alexander). The trailer for the film intones, through stodgy newspaper clippings (recommended by Bosley Crowther and the Academy Awards!) and somber, eat-your-vegetables narration, that this is A Very Serious Film for what Pauline Kael called "come dressed as the sick soul of Europe parties." But Through a Glass Darkly is as raw as it is austere. Buried in the severity of its reputation is the heartbreaking beauty of Sven Nykvist's gorgeous photography and Andersson's electric performance, a sensitive portrayal of madness. Although that's not quite correct...the film may be less about the direct experience of insanity than about the precarious nature of a moment's peace, the certainty that the drop is coming, and a vague euphoric thrill just before a precipitous descent.

Why I like it •

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Favorites - The Mother and the Whore (#42)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Mother and the Whore (1973/France/dir. Jean Eustache) appeared at #42 on my original list.

What it is • We meet Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young man in early seventies France, as he wakes up next to an unidentified woman and tiptoes out of the room without waking her up. Downstairs, he knocks on another door and asks a different woman if he can borrow her car. She agrees amiably, as if this happens all the time, and Alexandre is off to a cafe to browse for future conquests (including an ex-lover to whom he professes wounded, undying adoration; we - and ultimately she - see right through). Alexandre doesn't appear to have a job. He lives with Marie (Bernadette Lafont), a shopkeeper who fulfills "the mother" role of the title (at times), taking care of him financially and willing to give him a tongue-lashing whenever he attempts to bullshit her. Early in the film, he meets Veronika (Francoise Lebrun), "the whore" of the title (again, ambivalently and more than a bit ironically). She is not literally a prostitute, and so the moniker (which she denies) is surprising in an age of supposed sexual liberation. She is a Polish emigre and hardworking nurse whose very casual promiscuity initially appears as frank and unapologetic as Alexandre's (and a good deal more honest). However, even more than the others, a deep pain reveals itself with time. These three characters intersect before Eustache's casual camera, in mostly unadorned rooms (Veronika's hospital grotto is one of the loneliest and most simply evocative I've seen in a movie) or bustling cafes (with the buzz of real-life conversation surrounding the actors). The film is almost entirely composed of their conversations, carried mostly by the mile-a-minute Alexandre. Its minimalistic content and lengthy form (close to four hours) suggest something perverse and uncinematic, yet The Mother and the Whore is utterly captivating, one of the most celebrated films of the seventies. It really has to be seen to be understood.

Why I like it •

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Favorites - Rosemary's Baby (#43)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Rosemary's Baby (1968/USA/dir. Roman Polanski) appeared at #43 on my original list.

What it is • Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy Woodhouse (John Cassevetes) move into the Bramford (really the infamous Dakota), a grand old New York building. Rosemary, who lacks a profession or the sharp personality of those around her, is initially overshadowed by more colorful characters like her eccentric neighbors, Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). And yet the film is entirely centered around her point of view and as it progresses, our identification with her grows more and more intense. The central sequence in this development is one of the creepiest setpieces in horror history: Rosemary dreams/hallucinates/actually experiences a demonic ritual assault but wakes up the next day with only a foggy memory of what happened (therefore, the most important step of our identification with Rosemary occurs when we witness something that she herself is later unaware of). She begins to suspect her kooky neighbors and demure husband, a struggling actor, have wicked intentions for her unborn baby. The paranoia is palpable and the film is enveloped in a suffocating sense of suspense even though most viewers will have a pretty clear sense of what's going on (either going in or after the "dream"). That's because the tension results less from plot machinations than from Polanski's masterful sense of pace and atmosphere, and from the power of the central themes - a woman whose control over her life slips from her fingers, until she seems to be hemmed in from every corner - and Farrow's embodiment of these themes in her fragile form and quaking expression. Surprisingly, the film is often quite humorous, never more so than in its equal-parts terrifying/hilarious conclusion. Rosemary's Baby has a quintessentially fifties/sixties borderline-nihilist sick humor backed by a genuine sense of apocalyptic, barely-contained anxiety.

Why I like it •

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Favorites - Out 1 (#44)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Out 1 (1971/France/dir. Jacques Rivette & Suzanne Schiffman) appeared at #46 on my original list.

What it is • Two theatrical troupes rehearse - if that's the proper term for their loose, playful methodology (one bemused director, played by Michael Lonsdale, remarks that their production of Prometheus Unbound has forgotten all about Prometheus). A pretty shopkeeper (Bulle Ogier, whom critic J. Hoberman described as "delightfully cannabisated") spends most of her time lounging with purposeful-looking layabouts who apparently have some vague idea about starting an underground newspaper. Two strange, charismatic outcasts (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) enact cons - one by pretending he is a deaf-mute harmonicist, the other by flirting with men until their guard is down so she can steal their cash. These fragments circulate independently of one another - either amusingly or frustratingly depending on the viewer's mood - until they slowly, surely begin to coalesce. An actress (Hermine Karagheuz) passes a mysterious note to the young con man (an action she will later deny). The con woman steals letters from a bourgeois household which refer to murky, possibly dangerous liaisons. Connections are drawn to Honore de Balzac's History of the Thirteen, with its enigmatic conspirators drawing connections between disparate events, and Lewis Carrol's The Hunting of the Snark, a nonsense poem in which we strive for deeper meaning at our own peril. Is Out 1 a coded message whose non sequiturs and shaggy-dog storytelling conceal a fascinating secret (perhaps a metaphor for May '68, a meditation on dreams and reality, or a revelation of subconscious truths too uncanny to name)? Or is it a puzzle that purposefully doesn't add up, teasing and tricking us into creating links out of thin air, when the true pleasure is to be found in sitting back and letting the massive movie's sense of a playfully unfolding present wash over us? If both answers appeal to your sense of cinematic adventure, then this 13-hour opus (aired as a miniseries in the early seventies, and seldom screened since) may be for you.

Why I like it •

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Favorites - Chinatown (#45)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Chinatown (1974/USA/dir. Roman Polanski) appeared at #45 on my original list.

What it is • It opens with old-fashioned credits, title cards with a classical font over an abstract sepia-toned background. Though made in the seventies, the film immediately pulls us back to the forties, the era of film noir, or perhaps even further into the thirties, when Chinatown is set. Then the first shot reveals something we never could have seen in actual Golden Age Hollywood: fairly graphic black-and-white photos of an extramarital sexual tryst. Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) carefully watches a cuckolded husband (Burt Young) flip through the sordid stills and immediately three important aims are achieved: we learn about Jake's dirty business, a relatively honest living in a crooked town; we meet a very minor character whose story purpose will pay off later; and we realize something important - this film will lure us in with nostalgia, but its outlook is clear-eyed and unsentimental. Like three of the last five films on the list, and like the film I am immersed in at the time of the writing (the not-so-unrelated O.J.: Made in America), Chinatown takes place in - and is very much about - Los Angeles. Screenwriter Robert Towne was eager to convey his view of William Mulholland's real-life water scheme via the fictionalized story of Noah Cross (John Huston), a charismatic, deeply corrupt businessman who may be involved in diverting water from farmland so that drought-affected L.A. will have to push outward to the Pacific. Some people stand to make a killing on real estate - even if a few other people have to be killed for getting in the way. As Gittes investigates, he falls in love with a mysterious, possible dangerous young widow (Faye Dunaway) and discovers dark secrets both societal and personal.

Why I like it •

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Favorites - The Big Lebowski (#46)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Big Lebowski (1998/USA/dir. Ethan & Joel Coen) appeared at #46 on my original list.

What it is • Following their Best Picture-nominated Fargo (1996), the Coen brothers made what appeared to be a lark. Chronicling the misadventures of Jeff, the Dude, a Los Angeles layabout who becomes entangled with a kidnapping plot, the film seems to have been fairly well-received. That said, I recall - and re-examining the evidence bears this out - quite a bit of critical bafflement. Not only were the reviews perplexed by the film's gleefully convoluted plot, they were struck by such a trivial follow-up to the most acclaimed work of the Coens' career (the most recent film to land on the AFI's Top 100 in 1998). If the critics were mostly mildly amused, the audience didn't seem particularly engaged at all - the film barely made back its budget. Two years later, the Coens' O Brother Where Art Thou? grossed nearly five times the amount of The Big Lebowski and in 2007 the brothers won the Best Director award that had eluded them for Fargo, this time for the somber, impeccably-executed No Country for Old Man (which, incidentally grossed ten times as much as Lebowski). Overall, they've directed fourteen films in the eighteen years since their little Lebowski floated lazily in and out of theaters, many highly acclaimed and several reaching a wide audience. Hovering just around sixty, they have years of prolific filmmaking ahead. And yet there is a very good chance that this will remain their most beloved film for the foreseeable future, and likely the work they will be most fondly remembered for. Wikipedia sums it up best with the following juxtaposition:
Peter Howell, in his review for the Toronto Star, wrote: "It's hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of Fargo." ... [Howell] more recently stated that "it may just be my favourite Coen Bros. film."
Why I like it •

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Favorites - Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (#47)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992/USA/dir. David Lynch) appeared at #47 on my original list.

What it is • Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) lives in a nice neighborhood in the bucolic Pacific Northwest town of Twin Peaks. She is a popular high school girl whose world seems idyllic. But a cloud falls over her expression once she steps away from her demure best friend Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) and sneaks into a bathroom stall for a bump of cocaine. Later, she tells one boyfriend James Hurley (James Marshall) to "Quit holding on, I'm long gone..." and then mocks her other boyfriend (!) Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) to his face. When she and her friend sit lazily on sofas to discuss boys, poetry, and hypotheticals about "falling through space," Laura's response evinces an acute desperation that her friend doesn't really understand. Only when Laura return home alone and discovers pages torn from her secret diary does the trouble really begin - at least for us in the audience. For Laura, the trouble has been going on for at least five years, involving repeated rape and psychological torment by the mysterious "BOB" (Frank Silva), a creepy long-haired man who climbs through her window at night, although she grows to suspect, rightly, that there's more to this image than what she's seeing. Mystical as the flavor of the film is at times - it features eerie dreams, uncanny figures, and visits to otherworldly realms - its suffering is grounded in real human emotion. The first forty minutes of the film plays like a massive red herring, in which we follow an FBI investigation into a murder on the other side of the state. The victim's (and killer's) relationship to Laura is eventually revealed, but the characters and the tone of this sequence lull us into thinking Fire Walk With Me will be one type of film (an offbeat, archly comic murder mystery), when in fact it is something else entirely: one of the most empathetic portraits of sexual violence ever placed on a screen.

Why I like it •

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Favorites - Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (#48)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973/USA/dir. Sam Peckinpah) appeared at #48 on my original list.

What it is • Pat Garrett (James Coburn), an old friend of robber and gunslinger Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson), has taken a job as sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico. His first visit to Billy is cheerful but foreboding, filled with a mutual understanding that their interests are slowly being pulled apart. Warm feelings aside, they will inevitably become enemies. Over the rest of the film, that understanding is borne out by events, as Garrett attacks and arrests Billy, then pursues him once he dodges the hangman. The dance of death is a game in this movie, in the classic fashion of westerns where lawmen and outlaws can fluidly switch sides, where each side knows the rules, and where all parties abide by a certain code of honor and least initially (in one version of Pat Garrett, the director himself pops up in a cameo near the end, to call the film's "hero" a "chickenshit badge-wearing sonofabitch"). Against such a backdrop, the violence could seem arbitrary, like a gladiatorial contest to prove who's the toughest, cleverest, and/or fastest draw. But this dance of death is also determined by larger, more powerful forces - in this case, Governor Lew Wallace (Jason Robards) and the Santa Fe Ring, a cabal of wealthy, corrupt individuals who will eventually target Garrett as well. In real life, near as I can tell, Gov. Wallace (who incidentally wrote Ben-Hur, itself about a friendship falling prey to political power) actually fought against the notorious Ring. Within the film, however, we are given a sense of power operating without any moral considerations. The outlaws are certainly no worse than the politicians, and may be more honest: certainly Garrett does not come off well with his pitiless pursuit of old friends and adherence to a well-paying cause he doesn't believe in. To observe that the violence onscreen is meaningless is not to suggest it lacks gravity. This is most evident in the scene where Sheriff Colin Baker (Slim Pickens) is wounded in a shootout. He crawls off to stare at the dusk while his wife drops to a knee at his side, tears streaming down her face. Depending which version of the film you see (and hear) "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" emerges on the sounbdtrack either with Bob Dylan's voice crackling in our ears or simply as a poignant instrumental (save for that spooky humming). Pickens turns to look past the camera with a haunted expression that speaks just as loudly as the iconic music. This overwhelming realization of mortality is among the most moving sequences I've ever witnessed in a work of art.

Why I like it •

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Favorites - Murder, My Sweet (#49)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Murder, My Sweet (1944/USA/dir. Edward Dmytryk) appeared at #49 on my original list.

What it is • Raymond Chandler has been treated on the big screen many times; this particular novel was adapted again in the seventies under its original title (Farewell, My Lovely), with no less a noir luminary than Robert Mitchum in the lead. The most infamous actor to portray Philip Marlowe is, of course, Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep but if you're seeking an offbeat alternative, you'd naturally be tempted to go with Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye (I have some respectful issues with Robert Altman's take on Chandler, but this isn't the time or place). Too frequently overlooked, however, is the first Marlowe: song-and-dance man Dick Powell, looking remarkably world-weary a decade past his bright-eyed Busby Berkeley days. Murder, My Sweet is not the first Chandler adaptation (it isn't even the first adaptation of Farewell, since two years earlier The Falcon Takes Over had borrowed its plot wholesale) but earlier incarnations of his work had changed the name of detective hero, as if it didn't even matter. Of course it matters. Marlowe is one of the most iconic characters in modern fiction and Powell's stoic, exhausted, but forthright version of the private eye honors its literary source. In some ways, this Marlowe may actually be closer than Bogie's (whose own star power may have obscured the character's nature). Ultimately, though, the film is here for its intoxicating atmosphere, the most perfect evocation of noir's je ne sais quoi that I've ever encountered, thick with fog, chiaroscuro, wet streets, tightly packed deep frames, harsh lights hitting the lens, and that gorgeous, gorgeous shot of a femme fatale embracing our skeptical hero as her cigarette smoke curls in the air beside him. So that's what it is. The murder mystery plot? Please, don't make me try to explain that! I've forgotten the details and always have trouble following these sorts of stories as they unfold, with their bewildering array of suspects, double crosses, and red herrings. I'm not sure even Chandler knew what was going on, though Marlowe himself probably had it all figured.

Why I like it •

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Favorites - A Walk Through H (#50)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. A Walk Through H (1978/UK/dir. Peter Greenaway) appeared at #50 on my original list.

What it is • The screen is occupied by a succession of drawings, caught somewhere between outlandish abstraction and ridiculously detailed cartography. The soundtrack is occupied by narration and an occasional burst of frenzied music, the narration leaning to the latter reading - in fact, our guide specifically refers to the sketches as maps - while the music often accompanies activity, be it quick cutting or zooms. At a glance, this is perhaps the simplest film on the list, a thirty-five minute journey through an art gallery with a voiceover telling us stories we can hear but not see. The deeper we dig, however, A Walk Through H is actually an incredibly complex experience. The drawings are both ornate and suggestive, not entirely obscure but with a significance just out of reach - like we're waking from a dream. The narration jauntily assumes our familiarity (or rather, hinges on our baffled amusement) with a dense mythology of people and places as if we've just cracked open a spin-off book attached to a central text we never read. The deadpan non sequiturs and Carollesque absurdities are amusing on their own terms, but all the more intriguing for their offhand references to a bigger story. This was one of Greenaway's earliest works, and while his later films (like The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and A Zed and Two Naughts) would grow ever-bolder in their fusion of obsessive categorization and bohemian experimentation, A Walk Through H remains the purest expression of his unique sensibility.

Why I like it •