Wednesday, June 7, 2017

#599: The Wings of Eagles

Directed by: JOHN FORD
1957, TSPDT Rank #831

Like many of John Ford's non-western films, The Wings of Eagles often flies under the radar in discussions of Ford's work. Released by MGM one year after The Searchers, this biopic about Frank "Spig" Wead, a naval aviation pioneer, screenwriter, and personal friend of Ford's, was also one of the handful of films which Ford could be said to have made primarily for himself. Although he initially had misgivings about directing a biopic on Wead's life, Ford made a tribute to his friend that only he could have achieved. He chose his two favorite actors, John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, to play the lead roles in the film, just as they had in The Quiet Man, which paid homage to Ford's Irish heritage in a similar fashion. Wayne and O'Hara play much different roles here, but the effect is largely the same, as Ford's affection for these actors resonates on the screen. Other Ford regulars such as Dan Dailey and Ward Bond deliver memorable performances as well - with Bond portraying a thinly-veiled version of the temperamental director himself, named "John Dodge" to prevent clever viewers from drawing any parallels. Ford's trademark sentimentality and humor are also here in spades, serving less as components of a realistic dramatization of Wead's life than as an expression of love for a departed friend. As the film's conclusion makes overwhelmingly clear, while another director might have crafted a film more faithful to the actual details of Wead's life, no other director would have made a film which feels as deeply personal as this one does.

Monday, May 29, 2017

#598: Yeelen

Directed by: SOULEYMANE CISSÉ
1987, TSPDT Rank #613

Unlike many other African films, Yeelen is set in pre-colonial times, and as a result it is primarily concerned with painting a picture of the cultures which thrived in what is now Mali around the 13th century (the century from which Mali's most renowned narrative epic, The Epic of Sundiata, dates). The film successfully creates a world which feels both believable and fantastic at the same time, with an aesthetic mastery that prompted critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum to deem it one of the most beautiful African films ever made upon its release. Souleymane Cissé’s career up to this point had consisted primarily of political films, which often had an overtly critical edge, and as a result, many admirers of Cissé’s previous work saw Yeelen as an abandonment of political meaning in favor of pure aesthetics. However, the film can also be seen as Cissé’s attempt to evade the scrutiny of the Malian government, whose suspicions had been aroused by his previous films, by hiding a political message within the "safe" territory of Mali's distant past and traditional epic narratives.

Upon closer examination, Yeelen, which centers on the story of a tyrannical religious leader's attempts to find and kill his ambitious son, can be seen as a meditation on the connections between pre-colonial African traditions and modern abuses of power. The father, Soma, is an esteemed member of the secret Komo society of the Bambara people, which claims to hold a monopoly over all knowledge and power in Bambara society. Soma could be compared with modern dictators like former Malian President Moussa Traoré, who use their status as a way to limit and control others in a despotic form of rule - which has often been viewed as the default form of African politics by Westerners. Soma's son, Nianankoro, on the other hand, can be seen to represent the constructive and liberating potential of African traditions, as he is the only character in the film able to stand up to his father's repressive beliefs and use the secrets of the Komo against them.

In this sense, Yeelen presents African cultural beliefs and traditions as rich, powerful forces which can be used for either good or evil. The film has numerous scenes depicting Komo rituals in full (despite the fact that the meaning of these rituals would be obscure even to most modern-day Malians), and it presents the Bambara and Fulani (or Peul) peoples as vastly different communities with distinct cultures, drawing attention to the arbitrary nature of post-colonial national boundaries. These fact that all of the film's dialogue is in either Bambara or Fula (rather than a colonial language like French) shows that one of Cissé’s aims with this film was to increase international awareness of these cultures and their histories, while also warning Malians and Africans in general of the potential for misuse inherent in traditional belief systems such as those of the Komo. Yeelen is definitely a beautiful film as well, but underneath the hypnotic visuals and apparently obscure storyline await many other layers of meaning for those who wish to unpack them, making each viewing of this film a new experience.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

#597: Black Girl

Directed by: OUSMANE SEMBÈNE
1966, TSPDT Rank #840

Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène is commonly known as the "father of African cinema" - and for good reason. He is responsible for a lot of firsts in the realm of African cinema: first short film by an African-born filmmaker (Borrom Sarret), first feature film by an African-born filmmaker (Black Girl, aka La Noire de...), first feature film in an African language (Mandabi), etc. So in this context, Black Girl would have been historically significant no matter what its content. However, Sembène rose to the occasion and used his first feature film (financed by the French Cultural Ministry) to convey a piercing allegorical vision of post-colonial Senegal-France relations. The film's protagonist, a young Senegalese woman named Diouanna, represents Senegal in this allegorical context, while her bourgeois French employers, who pay her way to Paris so she can become their housebound maid, represent France. The relationship of the French couple towards Diouanna is sickening and abhorrent - she is treated like an animal, and is expected to live a life which essentially constitutes domestic slavery.

But while the stark presentation of this abusive master-servant relationship would make an effective enough statement on its own, the structure of the film, which intersperses flashbacks from Diouanna's former life in Dakar with scenes from her life in France, makes the film's message infinitely more powerful. In these flashbacks, we see Diouanna's dreams and aspirations for a new life of excitement and freedom, which strike a harsh contrast with the inhumanity of her life in France. Even more importantly, we witness her initial disdain for her native culture, which leads her to see moving to France and experiencing its modern culture and elegance as a preferable alternative to the perceived dead ends of her own community. Of course, this is not what her experience turns out to be, and the juxtaposition of these two settings creates a shattering effect.

Ultimately, Black Girl concerns a tragic failure to connect, as the French and Senegalese characters each seem destined to project their own preconceived notions onto the other in perpetuity. Just as the Senegalese characters are seemingly unable to escape from a servile relationship with their former colonial masters and retrieve their culture from subjugation, the French characters seem doomed to be haunted by the spectre of their colonial injustices. Therefore, whatever opportunity there is for connection is ultimately squandered, as both sides settle into time-honored roles for reasons beyond their understanding. In its uncompromising portrayal of these themes, Ousmane Sembène's first feature film set a powerful precedent for the exploration of African post-colonialism which would remain a dominant focus in his work throughout his career.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

2017 List Update

It's that time of year again - the new TSPDT list has been posted! As usual, some films that I've seen have moved onto the list and some have dropped off (although apparently more of the former, as my count has increased slightly, from 591 to 596, with the new update). The big change this year is that Bill (the man responsible for calculating this master list each year from thousands of lists and polls) has decided to drop a formerly crucial component of his calculation process - the so-called "stood-the-test-of-time" formula, which effectively penalized films released within a 10-year span of the list or poll which listed them. Since this formula served to ensure that the list was perennially skewed towards older films which had "stood the test of time", its removal has allowed some more recent films, such as There Will Be Blood and The Tree of Life, to attain a higher place on the list. I've already seen both of the aforementioned films, but maybe these changes to the list will also result in allowing more films from the past few decades into my future writings.

In other administrative news, I would like to announce ahead of time that I am in the beginning stages of finding a new home for the blog. This move will be fairly far off for the time being, but I hope to ultimately make some substantial changes to the overall appearance and functionality of the blog as a result. If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions on this, feel free to let me know.

And as always, if you are interested in exploring the 1,000 Greatest Films further, I highly recommend going straight to the source: http://www.theyshootpictures.com/gf1000.htm
All thanks are due to Bill Georgaris for his tireless work on this incredible website and list. The list has truly become the gold standard for many die-hard film buffs over the years, and without it, this blog would obviously not exist. So once again, thanks to Bill, and thanks to everyone who reads this blog. I greatly appreciate your interest and support.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

#591: Roma

Directed by: FEDERICO FELLINI
1972, TSPDT Rank #566

Roma is usually cast as a minor entry in Federico Fellini's filmography, but it is a highly original film nevertheless, and one which can be seen as a cross-section of the elements which Fellini would return to repeatedly throughout the second half of his career. It sits comfortably between Satyricon and Amarcord, arguably the twin pillars of Fellini's latter-day filmography, combining the vivid surrealism and fascination with the distant past seen in Satyricon with the nostalgic and semi-autobiographic evocations of WWII-era Italy which would be explored further in Amarcord. Fellini alternates between these two points of focus throughout the film, while also experimenting with a forward-looking, semi-documentary approach which combines elements of classic city-symphony films like Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera with the cinema-verite style popular at the time of the film's production. However, some sections of the film fail to fit into either of these three categories - such as the famous "ecclesiastical fashion show" sequence, which evades easy description or categorization, while also providing one of the most vivid examples of the term "Fellini-esque" imaginable. This combination of diverse styles and approaches serves to make Roma a truly one-of-a-kind film - one which, out of all Fellini's films, might provide the most wide-ranging view into his singular philosophy and approach to filmmaking.

#590: Thelma & Louise

Directed by: RIDLEY SCOTT
1991, TSPDT Rank #623

When I think of Ridley Scott, I usually associate him with sci-fi thrillers (Alien) and big action films (Gladiator). In Thelma & Louise, however, Scott showcased his ability to make an iconic road movie infused with reckless abandon and desperate passion. The film follows the travels of the two titular friends, on the run after a rebellious weekend in the wilderness takes an unexpected detour into murder - turning the two women into outlaws. The murder victim is a man who seduces Thelma in a bar and attempts to rape her in the parking lot, before being stopped by Louise - who shoots him in cold blood after he fails to show the faintest sign of remorse for his actions. In murdering this man, who would likely be considered innocent under the circumstances by the law, Louise (a woman with an implied rape history herself) effectively avenges herself, Thelma, and all other rape victims who have been blamed for a crime which was perpetrated on them while the real perpetrators were allowed to go free. This aspect alone would explain the film's status as a feminist classic, although the characters of Thelma and Louise help to cement this reputation. Both are extremely well-drawn and complex characters (unusual for female characters in a mainstream Hollywood film, especially of the time period) who act on their own volition and are thoroughly unapologetic about their actions - staging them as a revolt against the society that has oppressed them since birth. These potent themes, along with the wildly shifting power dynamic between the two women as the film progresses, make the film a thrilling and multi-layered experience. While there might be better road movies out there, it is still hard to think of another mainstream Hollywood film of this era that explored such groundbreaking themes while still retaining an undeniable atmosphere of exhilaration.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

#589: Bambi

Directed by: DAVID HAND
1942, TSPDT Rank #568

It takes all kinds of movies to make a list of the 1,000 Greatest Films. Because of this, violent Hong Kong action films can easily sit alongside the early animated features of Disney Studios on this blog. Bambi isn't the first of these early Disney features that I've covered - Fantasia and Dumbo both received reviews in the early days of the blog, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio are among the many films from the TSPDT list which I have seen, but which for whatever reason have flown under the radar of this blog (more on these "undocumented" films to follow in the near future).

Bambi, however, is a film which I had not seen since I was very young. Now that I have more knowledge of how it fits into the larger picture of Disney's early film history, it seems primarily like an attempt to import some of the more pastoral combinations of image and music seen in Fantasia (released two years earlier) into a simple narrative framework. From what I remember, connections could also be made some of the more surreal sequences of Fantasia and Dumbo (the first Disney film to be released in the wake of Fantasia), but in Bambi the focus is much less on narrative and more on creating sequences of pastoral beauty. Parts of the film actually seem like they might have been originally developed for Fantasia before someone had the idea that they could be developed into a standalone feature.

What narrative there is here follows a young deer named Bambi, as he grows up and comes of age, learning the facts of life (and death) in the process. There's also a running line of commentary on the intrusive and destructive effect of humans on the animal world. This theme is expressed in a much more blunt fashion than the Disney/Pixar films of today, with the death of a parent being shown as a normal occurrence for the animals who inhabit this cruel world. While this point of view is sometimes taken to a melodramatic extreme, it is effective nevertheless, and makes the story compelling enough to hold the viewer's attention for an hour and change. However, the film's primary attribute is its incredibly rich hand-drawn animation - which has become possibly even more impressive with time, and the advent of the computer animation era.