Wednesday, September 20, 2017

#607: Performance

1970, TSPDT Rank #178

Nicolas Roeg made his directorial debut with this mind-bending psychological thriller, together with his co-director Donald Cammell, who wrote the script, while Roeg took charge of the film's cinematography. As such, the credit for this film, especially its complex themes of identity and the repercussions of performance, should go as much to Cammell as to Roeg, although the fact that Roeg went on to have a much more notable directorial career (with much of his work building upon this film) has led him to be given most of the retrospective credit for it.

Certainly, the stylistic make-up of this film was unlike anything that came before it, which is likely Roeg's doing. He employed audacious cross-cutting throughout the film, while using primitive visual effects to convey abstract psychological themes in a very uncanny way. The presence of Mick Jagger and Stones girlfriend Anita Pallenberg also elevate the film, giving it a dose of rock 'n' roll energy and wild-side flair that conventional British actors wouldn't have been able to convey. Jagger's musical performance in the film isn't all that spectacular, but it performs an important narrative function and allows Roeg and Cammell to make proper use of their famed star.

The other music in the film, provided by Jack Nitzsche, Randy Newman, and others, is uniformly excellent - giving the film a unique, earthy feel which complements its groundbreaking visual style. This unusual confluence of elements has made Performance a veritable cult classic, but Roeg and Cammell probably also deserve a fair amount of credit for liberating films from the burden of linear, reality-based narratives. While others, such as Alain Resnais and Michelangelo Antonioni, had tread this ground before, Roeg and Cammell did it here in a particularly arresting and immediate way, resulting in an uncanny film that has influenced many of the most adventurous filmmakers of the past few decades, while continuing to confound expectations today.

#606: The Green Ray

Directed by: ERIC ROHMER
1986, TSPDT Rank #350

Eric Rohmer was a master at exploring the minutiae of human nature, the tiny details within his characters' interactions that hint at some hidden truth not usually discussed or even acknowledged. In The Green Ray, Rohmer eases the viewer into a character study of Delphine, a lonely young woman who finds the prospect of summer vacation unbearable, as she has no one to share it with. At first she just seems indecisive and flighty, but eventually we realize that it's something deeper. She leaves Paris to three different vacation spots, and each time finds herself alone with nature - not comforted, but instead made even more aware of her isolation. These quiet scenes are the most powerful moments in the film: the frame becomes filled with rich greens and blues, and Delphine's inner feelings can be sensed as she moves through the beautiful landscapes in a somber recognition of her empty emotional state.

But Rohmer chooses these moments carefully, never wallowing in them or forcing them upon the audience. Instead, the effect is subtle and fleeting, and the viewer is otherwise given plenty of occasions to watch Delphine in various attempts at social interaction, searching for something to hold on to, attempting to make connections with those around her. Then, Delphine overhears a discussion of Jules Verne's novel The Green Ray, and the rare light effect to which the novel (and the film) owes its title to. This phenomenon is never fully explained, acting as a mysterious force as the film moves towards its conclusion.

While the conclusion is abrupt and ambiguous, it gives the film the feeling of a parable, from which the viewer is meant to draw their own conclusions. Was there value in Delphine's journey, or was it all merely a random series of disappointments followed by an equally random moment of satisfaction? Is there hope in the film's final scene, or is it merely a mirage, to be followed by more misery? Rohmer doesn't answer these questions, leaving the viewer with a feeling that Delphine's journey is only just beginning, and that there's no real resolution in life - only a collection of fleeting moments that we must attempt to make sense of in retrospect.

#605: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

1975, TSPDT Rank #198

If Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life was a celebration of hedonism and sexual freedom in the medieval era, Salò suggests that these qualities have been corrupted by the ruling classes in the modern era. The film transposes the Marquis de Sade's infamous novel, The 120 Days of Sodom, to the Republic of Salò, the fascist regime through which Mussolini ruled Northern Italy with the support of the Nazis between 1943 and 1945. The plot, which follows four fascist leaders as they degrade and torture sixteen lower-class girls and boys, is remarkably similar to Sade's novel, essentially equating the upper-class depravity of libertinism with fascism.

Salò has long been considered one of the most shocking and disturbing films of all time (one of the reasons I had not seen it before now), but while much of its more superficial shock value has worn off due to the recent arrival of "torture porn" films like Hostel and The Human Centipede, what remains most disturbing about the film is its examination of the inherent evil of modern power structures. In fact, beneath every act perpetrated by the four fascists lies a sick satisfaction derived from the feeling of having power over the powerless. During one bout of particularly humiliating torture, one of the men notes that it is his "social privilege" that excites him, and that without inequality, there can be no true happiness.

Although his films were always influenced by his Marxist views, with Salò, Pasolini's philosophy took a decidedly dark turn. Here he makes the grim suggestion that victims are often complicit in their oppression, with the simultaneous assumption that these willing victims are the ones who will eventually become oppressors of others. Those who resist are shown to have little besides a cruel and painful death ahead of them, devoid of honor or dignity, with its only value being to provide the perpetrators and their collaborators with entertainment. Within this context, it seems that Pasolini had abandoned the idea that redemption was possible for humanity, arriving instead at the conclusion that cruelty only gives way to more cruelty in a bottomless downward spiral of meaningless depravity.

Pasolini described Salò as not only a critique of fascism, but of modern society as a whole. He spared no one in his unrelentingly pessimistic vision of humanity, least of all the audiences who would see the film in the aftermath of his brutal murder by a male prostitute only days before the film's premiere. In witnessing the vile events portrayed in the film, without a single protagonist or sympathetic character to identify with, the viewer also becomes implicated in them - as a passive spectator of the brutal and disgusting spectacle which the film presents. While he probably meant this film as more of an angry personal statement than a final testament, Salò ended up becoming both - one of the most uncompromising films ever made as well as a definitively disturbing look at the corrupting nature of modern power structures.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

#604: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Directed by: JAMES CAMERON
1991, TSPDT Rank #648

It's rare that I see a film that I feel truly doesn't belong on a list of the 1,000 Greatest Films, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of those films. It's not a bad film by any means - James Cameron is a consummate craftsman if nothing else - but its formulaic sense of humor and saccharine emotional core (a futuristic killing machine becomes a father figure to a troubled kid and learns what it means to be human as a result) do nothing to add to the interesting and terrifying concept that Cameron laid out in his original Terminator film. In fact, The Terminator is still the only Cameron film I've seen that has any sense of vitality or urgency - like Aliens, Terminator 2 is a sequel that successfully transforms its brilliantly tense and effective predecessor into a bloated, action-packed, and mind-numbing Hollywood product. It's been successful enough to earn a reputation as one of the best action films of all time, and even successful enough to earn a place on the 1,000 Greatest Films. But while this is a precisely-rendered film with cool and stylish visuals, beyond the spectacular, crowd-pleasing veneer, it's completely empty, devoid of any depth, resonance, or creative spark (except for the impressive special effects work). There's just not much to see here besides a finely-tuned action film, and its effectiveness in that arena has surely been dulled by the technological advances in the genre over the past 25 years. But as far as these types of soulless blockbusters go, Terminator 2 is probably still the gold standard.

#603: Heat

Directed by: MICHAEL MANN
1995, TSPDT Rank #368

Heat is a classic film noir updated for the age of blockbuster action thrillers. The setting is the same, Los Angeles, but the landscape is virtually unrecognizable. After fifty years of urban sprawl and population explosion, the city has now grown to an unmanageable size and even the blinding sunlight doesn't help to put anything in perspective. Michael Mann's style is one of cool hues and fluid motion, with editing so slick that scenes often blend together without the viewer noticing that one scene has given way to another. In the film's world, everyone is a liar, a cheat, a maniac, or a combination of the three - not because they want to be, but because they feel they have to be. Everyone acts according to their nature in the end - nothing is truly left to chance. Human nature is brought into the light - no one is innocent, this is not a world of hard-edged blacks and whites anymore.

Overall, Heat is an incredible piece of work. The narrative is masterfully handled, with a world-class cast, and a script that refuses to give in to easy answers. It's the epitome of neo-noir - noir brought into the light and made new. What once lurked in the shadows, just below the surface, has now taken over everyday life. No one is safe, no one is innocent, and there can be no apologies, regrets, or self-pity - just a full-fledged commitment to one's nature, and nothing else.

#602: Kings of the Road

Directed by: WIM WENDERS
1974, TSPDT Rank #289

After the warm-up provided by his previous two films (Alice in the Cities and Wrong Move), Wim Wenders set out to make the ultimate German road movie with Kings of the Road, and I doubt that any other film has as good of a claim to that title. Wenders perfectly conveys both the mood of 1970s West Germany and the feeling of being on a road to nowhere. While Alice in the Cities boasted a much more dynamic chemistry between its two main characters, and Wrong Move had a clearer geographic start and end point, the aimlessness and desolation of Kings of the Road is its greatest attribute and makes it feel like a step forward for Wenders. While the film can feel a bit disjointed at times, it's amazing that it coheres as well as it does when you consider that it was mostly improvised, with no script to follow whatsoever. Wenders and the two main actors (Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler) clearly had a knack for getting inside the characters' heads and coming up with situations and dialogue which fit the gradually developing mood of the film. Since the viewer spends so much time with these characters, becoming accustomed to their unusual relationship and their various eccentricities, the ending to this purely episodic film ultimately feels so fitting that it seems scripted - even if it wasn't. You could say that this film was a gamble that paid off, or a testament to the possibilities of improvisational filmmaking, but I think that for Wenders, the journey was the destination. He simply took the journey, and in return, he got the film that he wanted to make.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

#601: Alice in the Cities

Directed by: WIM WENDERS
1974, TSPDT Rank #534

Alice in the Cities is a clear precursor to Wim Wender's later film Paris, Texas. Both present a vision of America as seen through European eyes, while portraying unexpected friendships between an adult and a child. However, in this film, we see the desolation and emptiness of America from the perspective of a foreigner (played by Wenders regular Rüdiger Vogler), rather than as a metaphor for an American character's detachment from those around him, and the relationship which develops between the main character and the young girl (Yella Rottlander) entrusted to him by her mother (Elisabeth Kruezer) is more unusual than the relationship between a father and his long-lost son in Paris, Texas. Nevertheless, the roots of that film are here. Cinematographer Robby Müller makes the identical-looking small towns and beaches of the East Coast look as forlorn as the desert landscapes of the Southwest, while the scenes in New York convey contradictory feelings of excitement and alienation - just as in the Houston scenes in Paris, Texas.

Wenders' contempt for television is also on full display here, with Vogler's character delivering multiple speeches against American TV's tendency towards constant commercial breaks and the promotion of an idealized American dream (a late night showing of John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln is used as an example). Unlike television, Alice in the Cities is a collection of fleeting moments, which fade in suddenly and fade out just as quickly - sometimes before they can even be properly registered. Other moments are more extended, such as the many small interactions between Vogler and Rottlander, which serve to gradually establish their relationship and make it believable to the viewer, despite the highly unbelievable nature of the film's overarching storyline. But what all of these moments have in common is that none of them are designed to sell a message or a product. Instead, they stand as a tribute to the unpredictability and inherent value of human relationships, which has remained one of Wenders' guiding principles throughout his career.