Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Favorites - Jammin' the Blues (#12)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Jammin' the Blues (1944/USA/dir. Gjon Mili) appeared at #12 on my original list.

What it is • The opening credits roll over an abstract shape - two circles, one inside the other. Then the shape tips up, revealing itself as the top of a hat, worn by Lester Young. Slowly he lifts his saxophone to his lips and begins to play, and the whole ten-minute short films reels out effortlessly from that point. Well, not effortlessly exactly. The musicians are in top form, both on the soundtrack filled back to front with three of their songs - "Midnight Symphony" (introduced by a narrator in the only lines of spoken word), "On the Sunny Side of the Street" (the only song with lyrics, sung by Marie Bryant), and the title track (accompanied by an unadorned, infectious dance from Bryant and Archie Savage). They are also working hard in front of the camera, but in a different way: precisely miming to their previous recording in the fashion of MTV music videos that would emerge thirty to forty years later. And behind the scenes, director Gjon Mili - an innovative LIFE photographer - carefully arranges lighting effects and camera movements with director of photography Robert Burks, while setting up the perfectly-timed cut-ins and cutaways for editor Everett Dodd (brilliantly, the movie will sometimes jump to a musician who isn't playing at the moment, as when Young calmly lights a cigarette and watches Bryant perform). All of this hard work feels effortless because it flows so naturally and because everyone seems to be having a good time. I think of the film as being massively underrated (it is), even writing for a caption in my #WatchlistScreenCaps series a few years ago, "The greatest fucking musical of all time, and no one knows it!" (of course when I tweeted this someone enthusiastically identified it right away). In fact, it was selected by the National Film Registery and nominated for Best Short the year it came out. Still, it deserves to be even more widely recognized not just as a notable example of its form but a small, perfectly-crafted masterpiece that can stand with the much longer musical narratives of that time or any other. However you categorize it, Jammin' the Blues sizzles.

Why I like it •

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Favorites - The Mirror (#13)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Mirror (1974/USSR/dir. Andrei Tarkovsky) appeared at #13 on my original list.

What it is • Everything is in luminous black and white, as if the images had been etched in a glowing stone. Awakened by a distant whistle, a child (Filip Yankovsky), slides out of bed and walks toward a large doorway. A split-second before the cut, something white floats through the frame, a garment caught in a gusty breeze even though we're inside. Then we are watching a stern man (Oleg Yankovsky) step out of view, revealing the woman (Margarita Terekhova) whose head he has just soaked. Her hair hangs down in an uncanny fashion that suggests her hair is her face (an effect recalled in the Japanese horror film The Ring and its America remake). We float back as she dangles her wet locks back and forth in slow motion; parts of the ceiling collapse in wet chunks, splashing onto the watery surface of the floor while a flame shoots up out of a stove in the background, an act of lonely defiance amidst the indoor torrent. The woman passes across our sight, parting her hair to reveal a strikingly beautiful face which locks eyes with us for a moment - although in fact this is her reflection, caught in several mirrors clustered around each other. We continue to slide away until all is dark.  •  The scene is set in color, defined by the greenery of the surrounding grass and trees, the brown wood of the log cabin, and the golden-orangish glow cast through the cabin's window. These colors are faded yet somehow still vibrant, exuding a warmth which is soothing, but not quite comforting. The boy and the woman, his mother Maria, huddle outside this cabin and introduce themselves as strangers from Moscow who have been relocated to the countryside. Shivering in the drippy weather, Maria's polite conversation implicitly asks for an invitation inside, but the woman of the cabin (Larisa Tarkovskaya), exuding a quiet defiance, is not particularly forthcoming. The child watches, lips locked and eyes scowling, soaking up the tension without necessarily being able to articulate why it exists. Turning near the window, outlined in the low light's glow, her hair tied in a kerchief so tight it resembles a skull cap, the hostess looks for all the world like a figure out of Vermeer. If the previously described sequence clearly spoke in the silent, subconscious language of dreams this moment plays out as an authentic fragment of reality, poetically pregnant but not revealing its secrets. The significance is locked away beneath the functionality of the gestures and speech.  •  Between these two marks, a boy (the same actor but a different character) wanders through an empty house. A offscreen chorus builds to an ominous crescendo as a frosty smudge on glass evaporates, and then all is quiet again except for a ringing phone. The boy answers it and speaks to his father (the grown version of the boy we saw in the other sequence), who tells him that when he was his age, during the war, he was in love with a redhead. And then we are back in time, looking at this bundled-up girl as she tramps through the snow. The following series of events, photographed in the pale white, blue, and brown of a Russian winter, could almost stand as a self-contained short film - an instructor (Ignat Danitsev) tries to impress firm but not too harsh discipline on a group of very young adolescents, including the stubborn oprhan Asafiev (whose actor I can't find). Asafiev resists his orders and nearly destroys them all with a grenade that fortunately turns out to be a dummy (thinking it's live, the instructor leaps on top of it, ready to sacrifice himself for the hapless child warriors). Then we are suddenly viewing old, scratchy newsreel images of soldiers dragging supplies through icy tundra, thick mud, and rippling waterways. Loud splashes and sighs fill the soundtrack, clearly added afterwards to the pre-existing footage, a present erupting from the past. • I chose all three of these sequences at random, by jumping back and forth across a YouTube video of The Mirror in its entirety. Like fragments half-remembered from a dream, they can hint at hidden treasures. I can't hope to approximate "what it is" in a mere paragraph, however long, so it seemed right to dip inside the film and explore certain moments up close before pulling back to explain why they add up to something so memorable.

Why I like it •

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Favorites - Taxi Driver (#14)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Taxi Driver (1976/USA/dir. Martin Scorsese) appeared at #14 on my original list.

What it is • It is the mid-seventies. That's important, although the film has never ceased to be relevant; if anything, it may be even more pertinent today as the protagonist's profile fits a number of young, lone wolf killers in recent years. Nonethless, Taxi Driver arises from a specific era, in which New York was rough, dirty, and dangerous in the eyes of outsiders and residents alike. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is also a Vietnam veteran, a fact barely referenced in the film - he mentions serving in the Marines during a job interview, and later we see a NLF flag hanging on his wall - yet always hovering on the brink of its consciousness. Post-Watergate cynicism (perhaps also not so out-of-date in 2016) saturates the film's view of politicians and the society they run - it goes without saying that Travis' first target, a Presidential candidate, speaks only in superficial platitudes. The role of the women in the film is also informed by this particular moment, when feminism both rose out of and challenged the counterculture: both Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and Iris (Jodie Foster) seem independent and sexually liberated on the surface, but they are constricted by the aggressive men around them, for whom liberation means entitlement. Iris in particular provides a sensitive portrait of how exploitation and abuse could hover under the guise of freedom: only thirteen, she is pimped by the long-haired, sweet-talking hustler Scout (Harvey Keitel), whom she met at a commune. The movie also exists at the uneasy intersection of sixties rebellion and eighties conformity: Travis is an outcast who, despising other outcasts, desperately wants to "cleanse" his city of its "filth." His phobias are explicitly racially coded, in one of the film's boldest, most pertinent moves - this is an expert portrait of a very particular form of alienation and anxiety, in which an outsider clings desperately to one of the few qualities that makes him an insider: his whiteness (not for nothing was this film modeled after The Searchers). And of course this is a film that could only really thrive in its specific era, a bleak, alienating movie funded by a major studio and turning quite a profit at the box office (albeit small potatoes when compared to the blockbusters that started rolling out a year later). It's funny - working through the qualities that make Taxi Driver such a seventies film, I'm only reminded why it still resonates. Just as Travis' violent purge calms things down until they - inevitably - will simmer to the surface once again, so the topical qualities of Taxi Driver "disappeared" under the glossy superficialities of the eighties, nineties, and zeroes but never really disappeared at all...and now they stare back at us from the mirror with the added charge of forty repressed years.

Why I like it •

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Favorites - The Third Man (#15)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Third Man (1949/UK/dir. Carol Reed) appeared at #15 on my original list.

What it is • "I never knew the Vienna before the war," a cheerful narrator informs us, shortly before disappearing from the film altogether. It's that kind of movie. The music - starting even before this fast-paced opening montage, with the image of a zither playing under the credits - is defiantly incongrous (quite a bit more on that in a moment) with the shadowy streets onscreen and the murky intrigues of the story. Our hero, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) isn't much of a hero at all, an American abroad in a land whose pernicious complications he doesn't understand; the film itself seems to hold him in contempt even as it accepts him as our guide. The flashy title character, Harry Lime, is dead when the film begins and Orson Welles' much-celebrated role in the movie is little more than a cameo in terms of screentime (though boy do those handful of minutes pack a punch). The Third Man is very British in sensibility and attitude, as crisp and curt as Reed and writer Graham Greene could manage, but the two most important characters are American, and this may be the greatest noir, a very American form. Francois Truffaut once grumbled that British cinema was a contradiction in terms but The Third Man is as visually rich as any Hollywood feature with several of the most striking images in cinema history. My favorite is the final shot, as a figure approaches from the horizon, flanked by two symmetrical rows of trees, as leaves flitter down from the sky at random. Moving on a narrative level, striking as pure pictorialism, this single take also evokes the flavor of the entire movie, mixing meticulous order (the trees) with spontaneous energy (the leaves), leavening its air of inevitable fate (the long walk) with bracing dashes of ironic surprise (the unbroken stride, straight past the camera, leaving Holly to smoke his cigarette in bittersweet resignation).

Why I like it •

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Favorites - Meshes in the Afternoon (#16)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Meshes of the Afternoon (1943/USA/dir. Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid) appeared at #16 on my original list.

What it is • A woman (Deren) wanders alone through her Los Angeles home and rests in a chair. There, it would seem, she dreams an encounter with an eerie cloaked figure carrying a flower, whose face is a shard of smooth glass: a mirror in which no reflection can be glimpsed. Within this dream, time folds over itself. She is the woman in the window looking down at herself as she passes up the winding path. She is floating up to the ceiling, toppling fluidly down stairs, cascading through window curtains, as if her own house is a space station in which the standard experience of gravity no longer applies. She is still sleeping in the chair, vulnerable to a knife attack from own goggle-eyed double. Upon near-death a man (Hammid) awakes her, but this encounter too has an unreal tinge. The film ends with a fourth layer of experience, a macabre final image, but is this any more - or less - real than everything else we've seen? This avant-garde masterpiece repeatedly suggests that every clue is a double-edged dagger, most literally when the keys which the woman pulls from her mouth transforms into a knife in her open palm. Meshes of the Afternoon teases us with the temptation to make sense of what we see, while refusing to provide any digestible order to reassemble its gorgeous puzzle pieces. The film was creator/director/star Deren's cinematic breakthrough, a collaboration with her husband, the talented cinematographer Hammid, which also contributed to their personal and professional breakup. Deren's later films, for which she receives sole directorial credit, are perhaps more purely obscure and enigmatic; on another day, I could place them above Meshes and in any just analysis At Land and probably Rituals of Transfigured Time would be on equal footing. What uniquely intrigues about Meshes is its existence at the cross-section of narrative and pure experiment, and its touch of Hollywood glamor, reflected in a looking-glass which is at once more disorienting and far more lucid than the straightforward products of the dream factory.

Why I like it •

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Favorites - Star Wars (#17)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Star Wars (1977/USA/dir. George Lucas) appeared at #17 on my original list.

What it is • Every touchstone of pop mythology has been thrown into the pot and brought to a boil: a poetic/kitschy opening ("A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."), spaceships rumbling overhead, lasers blasting against a starfield, a trek through the desert, an isolated farm, a princess, robots, aliens, a bar crowded with outlandish characters, a black-masked/cowled supervillain, a shrewd old mentor, a wisecracking outlaw, a republic transformed into a ruthless empire, aerial dogfights, shootouts, sword fights, a sneaky rescue operation, heroes disguised as villains, a daring swing across a chasm, a descent into a monster-haunted pit, a fearsome weapon, a noble ragtag resistance, a mystical religious code. The pleasure of Star Wars derives from two sources: the delightful eclecticism with which it gathers together its diverse inspirations, and the awesome clarity and precision with which these disparate elements are coalesced into a unified whole. Star Wars fuses the spirit of backyard play with careful craftsmanship and the result is unlike anything before or since - despite how often its accomplishment has been imitated (most recently by a new Star Wars film, shorne of its creator but still in the thrall of his creation). The story? Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lives on the spot "furthest from the bright center of the universe," the desert planet Tatooine, but the war between the Empire and the Rebellion comes to him in the form of two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) who arrive with a secret message for the nearby mysterious recluse Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) from Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Escaping his home in the Millennium Falcon, piloted by Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Luke will attempt to rescue Leia from the Death Star, while Obi-Wan must face his former pupil turned dark lord, Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones). But you probably already knew that. The context? That you certainly know: Lucas, fresh the popular rock'n'roll nostalgia of American Graffiti and the dystopian sci-fi nightmare of THX-1138, wrote an ambitious, nearly incomprehensible story outline and dedicated himself to realizing its sprawling vision with a makeshift special effects operation and a troubled British production tepidly supported by Twentieth Century Fox. Nothing much was expected (except perhaps a dangerous flop) before the film debuted in 1977 and changed movie history forever, following the lead of The Exorcist and Jaws by cementing box-office blockbusters as Hollywood's mainstay - and identifying the blockbuster with fantastical content, an action-oriented tempo, and a very youthful audience. The legacy? Beyond that broader impact, the film spawned a vast universe of narrative spin-offs, playful merchandise, and three phases of film franchises. First, the two sequels (1980 and 1983) continued this film's story, deepening and darkening it until it became an Oedipal struggle between father and son. Second, the three prequels (1999 to 2005), further darkening and expanding the universe while revolutionizing digital effects, alienated many fans of the original series from Lucas until he was a pariah within the community he himself had invented. Third, an open-ended series of films (2015 to, well, as long as Disney can make money), probably one a year, continuing the story but also expanding it around its margins, taking place in between existing films, focusing on backstories and side characters until no one narrative can define Star Wars anymore. The world of Star Wars has escaped the bounds of its creator, its original audience, the cultural moment that gave it birth, and the very first film phenomenon that initially seemed like a sui generis standalone marvel, not the kickoff of something much bigger. That Star Wars - not Episode IV: A New Hope but simply "Star Wars" - can become obscured by its own legacy, but that's the Star Wars I am here to celebrate. Part Pop Art, part pulp fiction, very much an auteurist project, Star Wars remains startlingly original if you can see through the haze: the home movie as big-screen epic.

Why I like it •

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Favorites - Nights of Cabiria (#18)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Nights of Cabiria (1957/Italy/dir. Federico Fellini) appeared at #18 on my original list.

What it is • Cabiria (Giuletta Masina) is caught between two worlds, though it's clear where she ultimately belongs: she is a prostitute, living amongst the poor in a modest home. In an increasingly prosperous Rome this makes her an outcast, able to interact with wealth through her clients but unable to command it herself. She does own her little house, however, and is able to save up her money, aspiring toward marriage and middle-class comfort. Ironically, these aspirations will harm her more than any limitations: the film opens when a lover nearly drowns her to steal a purse and later a crowd at a magic show will laugh mockingly when, hypnotized, she guilelessly reveals her hopes and dreams. Throughout the movie, naive expectations will be raised only to be crushed by the disillusioning indifference or hostility of those - individuals, institutions, and social forces - more powerful or deceitful than she is. Just like its protagonist, Nights of Cabiria has an interesting place in Fellini's oeuvre, hovering between the lingering neorealism of his early works and the flamboyant flowering of his later, colorful dreamscapes. This in-between status is something Cabiria shares with La Strada, probably Fellini's most celebrated collaboration with his wife Masina, but Cabiria feels just a bit closer to his later works thanks to its setting. We are a dozen years out from the wartime rubble and the capital of Italy is already becoming a glamorous hotspot...for those who can afford the glamor.  Cabiria captures a fifties Rome which Fellini made internationally iconic in his next film, La Dolce Vita. There is an interesting relationship between these two movies: Cabiria, warm and earthy, suffering but full of heart; Dolce Vita, a bit more cerebral, living the "sweet life" but searching for a soul. Both follow a character's episodic ups and downs through Roman days and nights, but one film features a plucky, downtrodden female prostitute and the other stars an aloof, handsome journalist. There's even a scene in which a suave man makes love to an old flame instead of the woman he picked up on the street - but in La Dolce Vita this scene is told from the john's point of view, whereas in Nights of Cabiria it is told from the streetwalker's. The endings also seem to reflect one another: Cabiria, heartbroken but still spiritually alive, tears and a smile together on her face as she is surrounded by a sea of humanity; Marcello, cheerfully lost as he cannot hear "the call of the angel" from across a shallow stream on a beach.

Why I like it •

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Favorites - The Godfather (#19)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Godfather (1972/USA/dir. Francis Ford Coppola) appeared at #19 on my original list.

What it is • This grand epic, which uses the Mafia as its subject but takes as a model the mythical tales of kings and warriors, begins with the recitation of a sordid crime - the savage beating of a woman by two young men out for a joyride. This showcase for Marlon Brando and Al Pacino (among others) fades up not on their faces but on the unfamiliar expression of theater actor Salvatore Corsitto, born before World War I in Sicily, playing Bonasera the undertaker. This family drama, in which the clan is the most important unit and "Italian" (or really "Sicilian") is the only nationality that matters, begins Bonasera's monologue with the solemn sentence, "I believe in America." Despite its legend, The Godfather is full of surprises right off the bat. Perhaps equally surprising for those who have soaked up its influence from a distance, through the cultural osmosis of cartoons and parodies and casual impressions of Brando's raspy delivery, "the godfather" himself, Vito Corleone, isn't really the main character. The narrative largely belongs to Vito's son Michael, who starts the film as a uniformed Marine hero, the family outsider, and eventually ascends to become the title character himself (literally as well as figuratively: the climactic christening cross-cuts between his ritualistic renunciation of Satan and embrace of brutal violence to solidify his reign over rival families). How many people are left to be surprised by The Godfather? Obviously young potential viewers come of age all the time, but are they interested? This was, in a sense, the crowning achievement of New Hollywood, a marriage of Hollywood glamor and raw violence which could still seem shocking in 1972. It brought together the maverick of the Fifties - Brando, encased in jowly make-up with a dental fixture obscuring his speech - with the new mavericks of the Seventies, behind and in front of the camera, a passing of the torch just as important as the one occurring onscreen. But nearly forty-five years after it became the highest-grossing film of all time, it no longer even cracks the top 500 worldwide box-office hits - it's been nudged out by the action-oriented, adolescent-marketed blockbusters (including several spawned by Coppola's protegee George Lucas) that began dominating the box office just a few years later. Does the film still speak to audiences of the present? Anecdotally, I think it does. It still seems to enthrall viewers, young and old, who come across it in frequent TV airings, home video releases, or digital rentals. The story is well-told, the world is immersive, and most of all the characters are fascinating. If theatrical features no longer seem to follow its form, television most certainly does: The Sopranos, itself godfather of a generation of cable dramas, is impossible to imagine without this film's obvious influence on subject and, more subtly, on form. And most other prestige dramas of the twenty-first century follow the template of a stately style brought to bear on family drama, masculine assertion, and corruption of the individual. Born as a pulp bestseller fifty years ago (author Mario Puzo had resisted writing about Italian gangsters for decades but finally "sold out" in desperation), troubled in production (Coppola didn't want to do it and was nearly fired, along with Pacino, early on), The Godfather has achieved a cultural impact that no one could have predicted.

Why I like it •

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Favorites - Mulholland Drive (#20)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Mulholland Drive (2001/USA/dir. David Lynch) appeared at #20 on my original list.

What it is • So many elements reel us into the first few minutes of Mulholland Drive. A strange, colorful jitterbug swims into view, pop Americana and surreal avant-garde colliding as figures cascade inside one another and repeat across the screen. Then a point of view shot, with heavy breathing on the soundtrack, descends onto a pillow and disappears into darkness. Angelo Badalamenti's instantly evocative score emerges, its synthesized majesty provoking mixed responses so suited to a film about the magic and deception of the film industry: glamor, tragedy, artificiality, deep emotion. The drama begins with a likely murder attempt thwarted by a violent car crash. We meet the potential victim (Laura Elena Harring) whose amnesiac confusion reflects our own: who is she, how did she get here, what does it all mean?? Mulholland Drive is a gripping, carefully-told narrative for all its experimentation. That's what frustrates so many viewers while engrossing others - we are primed to expect answers but we aren't ready for the way they are presented. This desire only escalates as the main plot begins: bright-eyed ingenue Betty (Naomi Watts), an aspiring actress newly arrived in Hollywood, discovers that "Rita" (as the amnesiac names herself) has wandered into her absent aunt's apartment. She vows to unravel the mystery of this beautiful stranger. As the film proceeds, it introduces a separate storyline that seems connected in some subterranean way: a shadowy cabal prevents a film director (Justin Theroux) from executing his desired creative decisions in increasingly baroque, ominous fashion. Meanwhile there are cutaways to other events. A hitman (Mark Pellegrino) goes on a darkly comic killing spree, quite likely stemming from that early aborted assassination. There's even a one-off scene with two men in a diner (Patrick Fischler and Michael Cooke), where one of them describes a terrifying nightmare about a "man behind this place...he's the one doing all these things." The scene ends in one of the most viscerally terrifying moments in cinema history. As we travel between characters and locations, we are given a grand, romantic tour of Los Angeles: the shiny airports, the rundown bungalows, the hidden nightclubs charged with occult energy, auditions in small corner offices and bustling soundstages alike, meetings in cold corporate office buildings and abandoned cowboy ranches with blinking overhead lamps. The spirit of this journey is summoned in a single montage as a series of sinister men, most of whose faces we can't see, call one another - a story of the city's highs and lows expressed in telephones, suggesting that all these levels of reality are interconnected. Where are all these threads taking us? Seemingly patterned along the lines of Grand Canyon or any given Robert Altman film (perhaps Short Cuts if we want to stick with the L.A. theme), Mulholland Drive owes its multiple strands to another source - it began life as a TV pilot for ABC. Like many viewers, I didn't know this when I watched, and the setup seemed perfectly natural. Then the blue box opens...and everything changes.

Why I like it •

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Favorites - On the Waterfront (#21)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. On the Waterfront (1954/USA/dir. Elia Kazan) appeared at #21 on my original list.

What it is • Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) has it...okay. A former boxer whose potential was short-circuited by his loyalty to a mobbed-up brother Charley (Rod Steiger), Terry now "works" on the New Jersey docks but he's given cushy gigs by the grateful boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) of the crooked local. Johnny is grateful because when the film begins Terry is already a snitch and a stooge - but he's a snitch and stooge for the hoodlums who already run the docks, not those who want to clean it up. It's the latter possibility many find unpalatable; they are hard-wired to view informing as transgression only when it hurts the powerful. After his collusion results in the death of a friend (Ben Wagner), a guilty Terry begins to fall for the young man's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Both she and the hardbitten Father Barry (Karl Malden) prod Terry to "rat" on his protectors for the good of the workers, even though many of them will turn their back on him for his "betrayal." On the Waterfront is in many ways a small, focused film whose gargantuan reputation looms large over movie history. There are two major reasons for the film's notoriety. The first reason is the acting, particularly Brando's (though Steiger deservedly comes in for high praise too), which culminates and has come to define an era of shifting values in screen performance - tilting toward a kind of stylized authenticity rather than the polished sheen of the studio system's Golden Age, New York Method vs. L.A. star power. The second reason is that Kazan, so respected for his sensitivity in crafting believable performance, is slammed for articulating a generalized "defense of the informant" immediately after he himself identified eight Communists before HUAC. Skeptics duly noted the yawning gap between the powerful villains of the film and the beleagured leftists whom Kazan had actually betrayed. I can remember watching the Academy Awards broadcast in 1999 when a nearly 90-year-old Kazan received a lifetime achievement award and a huge swath of the audience refused to applaud - or even booed. The wound still felt fresh a half-century later.

Why I like it •

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Favorites - The Virgin Spring (#22)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Virgin Spring (1960/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #22 on my original list.

What it is • Based on a famous folk ballad, The Virgin Spring may be Bergman's least complicated film about faith: without getting too specific, a Christian noble (Max von Sydow) experiences tragedy, repents after a violent reaction, and experiences a miracle. Viewed this way, it may not be surprising that Bergman was dissatisfied with the movie. While impressed by the naturalistic sun-dappled photography of characters moving through forests (this was one of his earliest ventures with cameraman Sven Nykvist, maybe his closest collaborator behind the camera) he felt his own direction of the action was too derivative. But The Virgin Spring is also one of Bergman's most unflinching explorations of depraved humanity. Despite the simplicity of its storytelling, the emotions run deep. Grief, guilt, lust, resentment, all coalesce in the (double - maybe triple) destruction of innocence, centered on one of the most brutal rape scenes of its time. This resulted in frequent censorship (including one court case between Janus Films and the town of Ft. Worth, Texas, which Ft. Worth won) and later inspired Wes Craven's revenge horror film Last House on the Left. The scene is not particularly graphic. It is psychologically rather than physically raw, terrifying because it depicts the utter helplessness of the victim. Whether or not you agree with The Virgin Spring's view of justice, vengeance, atonement, and divine will, whether you see said view as ambiguous (Bergman introduces an element of rival paganism into the mix, which - as I recall - suggests a struggle of forces rather than a world simply dominated by God's authority), the film's stark content will force you to draw your own conclusions.

Why I like it •

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Favorites - My Night at Maud's (#23)

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. My Night at Maud's (1969/France/dir. Eric Rohmer) appeared at #23 on my original list.

What it is • In the ancient, quiet town of Clermont-Ferrand, Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintagnent), a Catholic convert, meets up with an old friend, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a Marxist. Contesting the claims of faith, they are particularly captivated by the dilemma of Pascal's wager: the idea that one should choose the less likely but more rewarding prospect. Shortly afterward, Vidal introduces Jean-Louis to a charming divorcee, Maud (Francoise Fabian). The long conversation which unfolds in her apartment, as she invites Jean-Louis to spend the night - platonically or otherwise - is at once a protracted intellectual version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with the gender roles reversed (as I think CriterionCast pointed out) and a test of the philosophical question Jean-Louis and Vidal debated earlier in the film. Jean-Louis has already committed himself, mentally anyway, to Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), a pretty blonde whom he has never met but whom he fell in love while observing her at Mass. Is she the one he is wagering everything on, sacrificing short-term happiness with Maud for an idealized marriage with her? Or is the other way around; is he going for the safe bet with this quiet, good Catholic girl (or so he believes) and missing out on a riskier but possibly more deeply enriching relationship with Maud? The film holds many ambiguities and conceals several tricks up its sleeve, but despite the cleverness of its overall shape and its fearlessness in articulating every concern (My Night at Maud's has long been synonymous with "talky film") this is also very much an exercise in atmosphere. Like all of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales - this was titled as the third, but released as the fourth - the film is gorgeously shot (in this case and several others by Nestor Almendros) and makes beautiful use of its evocative location. The Moral Tales may be aggressively verbal, but they are also luminously visual.

Why I like it •