Monday, October 6, 2014

#510: Written on the Wind

Directed by: DOUGLAS SIRK
1956, TSPDT Rank #347

At last long last I have ventured once again to the Technicolor dream-world of Douglas Sirk. Written on the Wind is neither as hypnotically beautiful or overpoweringly sentimental as All That Heaven Allows - but it does have its share of sensational moments and visual innuendo. In fact, I watched this film the other day in my Cinema Studies class, and Dorothy Malone's not-so-subtle "hand acting" in the final scene could probably give my professor enough material to fill a two-hour lecture (and probably gave film audiences in the mid-1950s a real shock)!

But I digress. Despite a few ridiculously over-blown moments, Written on the Wind is actually a more pensive and nuanced film than most contemporary reviewers seem to give it credit for. Sirk's films like All That Heaven Allows or Imitation of Life are more immediately accessible, but also more broadly-drawn and obvious in their approach. Written on the Wind is more akin to The Tarnished Angels than the aforementioned Sirk films - there's an element of ambiguity to the film, and the characters have more depth. Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, and Robert Stack all bring a lot to their roles - but the Dorothy Malone character was the one who interested me the most. Malone won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role, which seemed to shock my professor - but I thought it was much deserved. Her character is usually written off - by both reviewers as well as the characters in the film - as a crazy nymphomaniac, but really she's in the same situation as Rock Hudson's character is in the film. They are both in love with someone else - except that Hudson's character deals with the situation in a way that would be seen as "noble", and Malone's approaches it in the opposite way. But regardless of the melodramatic fine points, the character of Marylee Hadley is an interesting example of how women with their own personal agenda were portrayed in Hollywood during this era. She didn't seem like a nymphomaniac to me - more like someone who was just lonely, lost, and desperate.

Nevertheless, this is a film that should be seen by anyone interested in classical Hollywood melodrama. One of the things which has always fascinated me most about this era of film history is how much filmmakers had to rely on visual metaphors and pure sexual tension to convey ideas which could not be explicitly shown or referred to in dialogue. The level of craftsmanship displayed by someone like Douglas Sirk makes the difference between a forgettable film and one which the viewer truly feels and experiences during the process of watching it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

#509: Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

1974, TSPDT Rank #122

This film, situated right in the middle of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's extremely short but equally prolific career, is almost an exact remake of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows - only with the Hollywood varnish stripped off and the plotline's ante upped considerably. Fassbinder transports the story to 1970s West Germany, trades operatic plot turns for harsh, subdued moments of reality, and replaces the attractive leads of Sirk's film with a cast of battered, beaten, and world-weary characters. And while the story still involves the love between an older woman and a younger man, Fassbinder also adds race into the equation - along with several references to Hitler along the way. All of this adds up to create a considerably more uncomfortable film than All That Heaven Allows was, while still playing on the audience's emotions in such an effective and subtle manner that it's no wonder that the film also ranks higher on the TSPDT list than All That Heaven Allows. The story of romance between an elderly German cleaning lady and a much younger Moroccan immigrant could definitely not have been achieved as powerfully by any other director of the time, or any other time for that matter. Fassbinder not only pays homage to his melodramatic influences with this film, but subverts them to create a unique and spellbinding effect - much like Sirk himself did with the Hollywood conventions of his day. A truly impressive film from a legendary figure in cinema history.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

#508: Shadow of a Doubt

1943, TSPDT Rank #492

Shadow of a Doubt was supposedly Alfred Hitchcock's favorite of all the films he directed, and while it might not jump out at you quite like some of his later films such as Psycho or Vertigo, if you read between the lines and pay attention to the small details, you might get some idea of why Hitch was so pleased with this film. It functions very well as a psychological thriller of its time, but there a lot of hidden subtexts hidden under the surface which suggest something more sinister and twisted than just a murderer on the loose in small-town America. The relationship between Joseph Cotten's Uncle Charlie and his niece, Teresa Wright's "young Charlie" is something which has often been brought up in discussions of the film, but which is only vaguely alluded to onscreen as "something more than an ordinary uncle and niece". Certain events early in the film seem to suggest that there is some psychic connection between the two, but this seems less and less true as the film progresses. Uncle Charlie and his niece don't really seem to have a lot in common on the surface, but there does seem to be a strange bond between them. What exactly this bond implies is definitely one of the film's major themes - and I would bet that Hitch had his own perverse, unspoken ideas about it. On a more conventional level, I'm sure that he liked toying with the idea that someone could get away with murder - and even achieve a certain level of comfort and respect after the fact. This concept is usually dealt with much solemnly and resolutely in other films noir or thrillers of the time period, but if there was anyone determined to push the boundaries of film morality in Hollywood, it was Alfred Hitchcock - who always appreciated the dark humor and grey matter inherent in macabre situations, and put these signature preoccupations in prominent display for Shadow of a Doubt. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

#507: Picnic at Hanging Rock

Directed by: PETER WEIR
1975, TSPDT Rank #515

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of those rare films which does not have any of the typical hallmarks of the horror genre, yet which envelops the viewer in a mood so eerie and relentless that it's hard to avoid classifying it as a horror film. The first line heard in the film is an Edgar Allen Poe quote - "What we see and what we seem are but a dream... A dream within a dream" - and this line seems to capture the feeling that the film conveys. It has an impossibly dreamlike feel that is very ethereal and haunting, and the effect that I got from watching it was just about as implausible as the disappearance of three Australian schoolgirls and a teacher from their Victorian girls' college, which the film is centered around. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about the art of film is how the disparate elements involved in a film's production can combine to create a mood as palpable as life with just the right touch. And Picnic at Hanging Rock has "the touch" in spades. After watching it, I felt overcome by the same strange, unnameable feeling which seemed to haunt those who returned from the excursion to Hanging Rock - and the hazy feeling of unrest didn't shake entirely for a few days afterward. Now as I think back on the film I can feel it flooding back...

With this sort of film, you only need to see it once for it to leave a permanent trace in the back of your memory. It's truly a weird and hypnotic gem - and a great example of a horror film that ventures well away from the beaten path, while retaining an accessibility that will ensnare the imagination of anyone not too unsettled to venture on with it.  "What we see and what we seem are but a dream... A dream within a dream."

Saturday, July 5, 2014

#506: All That Heaven Allows

Directed by: DOUGLAS SIRK
1955, TSPDT Rank #303

All That Heaven Allows is one of the more famous Douglas Sirk and Rock Hudson collaborations - and it is also one of the most extreme, uncompromising melodramas I have ever seen. Many retrospective assessments of Sirk's work have read large amounts of irony into his sweeping Technicolor melodramas, interpreting them as over-the-top criticisms of 1950s society and the type of films that the Hollywood system of that time produced. From what I've read about Sirk, it seems that this is a pretty credible interpretation - especially since it seems that he considered most of the films he directed to be trash. However, All That Heaven Allows is still an extremely effective melodrama with stunningly beautiful and sophisticated visuals. It is impeccably crafted, and what irony Sirk might have intended is concealed discreetly beneath the surface of an immensely powerful love story that is anything but discreet. I knew basically what to expect before the film even started, but by the time it was over, I was overpowered and wrapped up in it to a ridiculous degree. That's the definition of a knockout melodrama.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

#505: Five Easy Pieces

Directed by: BOB RAFELSON
1970, TSPDT Rank #369

Five Easy Pieces is a simple, yet extremely powerful film. It seems that it must have been quite groundbreaking when it was released, being a character study with an open-ended plotline and poetic visuals of bleakly beautiful American landscapes. This was a new kind of film that was emerging in American cinema at the time, so this film and its fascinating leading man (Jack Nicholson) must have made quite an impression on people who happened to go out and see it in 1970. I remember seeing parts of it on TV when I was about 11 or 12, and it definitely made an impression on me. Despite the fact that I didn't really understand what was going on in the film at that age, certain images (the brother in the neck brace, the mute father with the piercing gaze) and scenes (particularly the final shot) were burned in my memory, and flooded into my mind whenever I heard about this film later on. Seeing the film now, I found it just as vivid and haunting - only with the shattering impact of understanding. With a film like this one that has so many powerful moments and well-drawn characters, understanding the context and the "big picture" isn't entirely necessary in many respects, but with the extra layer the experience can be just that much more meaningful and effective. And that was certainly the case for me as I revisited this film from the perspective of experience.

Five Easy Pieces is one of the most potent portraits of restlessness, yearning, and disaffection that I've seen. But these feelings are mainly present in Jack Nicholson's main character, Bobby Dupea. The true brilliance of this film is in the richness of the whole - the structure, the flow, the superbly-acted supporting characters, the cinematography, and most importantly how it shows the effects Bobby's actions have on the people around him. He is a misfit wherever he goes - even in his own home. He tells his estranged father that he moves around to prevent the situations he finds himself in from getting worse. He sabotages nearly every relationship in his life because he can't come to terms with his place in it. This is a rare example of a film in which the effects of the main character's actions toward those around him are as deeply felt as his own "inner feelings", and this results in an experience which evokes many complex emotions yet provokes none. Once you've taken in the details, and sat through the progression of the story, there are still no easy answers. You can feel that the film could continue for countless miles in any direction and still be just as rich and engrossing. It's the type of film that Robert Altman strived to make, and that I feel is the best that narrative cinema has to offer. Not a self-contained storyline, but an open-ended snapshot which adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. While I continue to find endless pleasure in things like horror films and Hollywood melodrama (and think that there is a great deal of artistic potential in that type of material) - it's films like Five Easy Pieces that truly keep my interest and appreciation for film alive and well.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

#504: The Thing

1982, TSPDT Rank #424

This might be another film that has been built up too much for me over the years, but having finally seen this remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks film, The Thing from Another World, I am very underwhelmed. I was particularly excited about seeing John Carpenter's remake - partially because it had been recommended to me in response to a claim I made that David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly was one of the few examples of a horror remake which expanded and improved upon the original, and also because I hadn't seen any of Carpenter's work besides Halloween (another famous horror film I'm not that crazy about). However, the original was much more effective as far as I'm concerned. The special effects work here is impressive, but impressive special effects never make or break a movie for me. In fact, I think that the effects were too over-the-top, and prevented the film from building the momentum it needed. The elements of paranoia which are often mentioned as one of the film's main attritubutes are present, but are moreso overstated rather than deeply felt - such as in a film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even the original Thing from Another World. Overall, the film seemed dull and lacking in tension what it had in gruesome special effects, pyrotechnics, and overt paranoia. My favorite aspect of the film was how it seemed that the Americans were dealing with the Thing in almost exactly the same fashion as the Norwegians did at their camp, judging from the remains of the Norwegian camp shown at the beginning of the film. This early scene is very telling of the apocalyptic destruction to come, and probably made more of an impact for me than any other single moment in the film. But I can't think of much else that really interested me - although I will give full disclosure that I would probably be considered a horror snob by most people. Still, I feel that The Thing most likely deserves its reputation as a horror classic even if it didn't make much of an impact on me personally. There are better horror films out there in a similar vein, but The Thing does have a certain blunt impact and visually striking quality which have certainly made an impression on many since its release, and will most likely continue to do so for years to come.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

#503: The Tarnished Angels

Directed by: DOUGLAS SIRK
1957, TSPDT Rank #951

Jean-Luc Godard famously proposed that "all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun". Substitute an airplane in place of a gun and you've got The Tarnished Angels. My one and only previous encounter with the king of classic Hollywood melodrama, Douglas Sirk, was his 1959 remake of Imitation of Life featuring Lana Turner - which I saw a few years ago along with the original. The Tarnished Angels is the first of Sirk's famous collaborations with Rock Hudson that I've seen - although it was the last to be made. It's an adaptation of the William Faulkner novel, Pylon, and Faulkner was known to have held this film in higher regard than any other screen adaptation of his work. The plot is quintessential melodrama, with high-strung emotions and characters with troubled, off-key relationships - along with a slight Southern gothic feel, being set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. A highlight is a passionate, drunken kiss between Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone being abruptly interrupted by a raucous group of revelers led by a man wearing a skull mask and laughing insanely. The film is taut and engrossing for the most part - although it veers toward the saccharine near the end, it is anchored by a few strong closing scenes, including a potent and impassioned speech by Rock Hudson which sums up the plotline's strange emotional impact. Overall, a unique and artfully-rendered execution of material that might seem run-of-the-mill and dull in another director's hands.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

#502: Edward Scissorhands

Directed by: TIM BURTON
1990, TSPDT Rank #718

I've been catching up on a lot of Tim Burton's films recently, mainly because they have been largely absent from my radar over the years that I have been an active film buff. I've tended to like digging further into the past, often searching for forgotten gems and obscure curiosities instead of paying attention to the widely available works of more popular and revered modern directors such as Tim Burton. There's definitely some worthwhile material in Burton's filmography, but overall it's hard to ignore how many of his films are remakes (i.e. Batman, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, etc.) - cultural artifacts from his childhood, "reimagined" with his trademark fairy-tale visual style and playfully macabre sense of humor. The best of his work (which includes this film, along with other truly great films such as Beetlejuice and Ed Wood) creates new legends from fairy-tale versions of modern life, and Edward Scissorhands is a great example of this. It might be Burton's most successful and enduring film overall, plus it features a classic Johnny Depp performance, as well as an endearing role for Winona Ryder, one of my favorite modern actresses - not to mention Vincent Price playing himself.... or an eccentric inventor, depending on how you look at it. This film has already earned the status of a modern classic, which is well deserved, and I'm guessing that it won't become obsolete anytime soon.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

#501: The Last Temptation of Christ

1988, TSPDT Rank #764

Lo and behold, it has been about three weeks since my last post. If you're following my progress at all, it is probably becoming clear that I tend to go in spurts with this project. For example, I'll watch a bucket load of films from the list in a week's time and then go close to a month without seeing a single one. This doesn't really have anything to do with my film viewing habits - even with a busy college schedule, I watch films at a fairly steady pace all of the time - but whether the films I watch are on the TSPDT list or not is somewhat unpredictable. I've actually watched a lot of films since Histoire(s) du cinéma, but they've tended to be genre movies, cult obscurities, or lesser-known Altman films rather than selections from the 1,000 Greatest Films. I like it this way - it keeps me from falling into a rut, or watching movies solely for the purpose of adding a new post to the blog, which is not my idea of how this should go.

But anyway, with it being Easter time this past weekend, I decided to finally watch Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ - one of many films I have been meaning to watch for a long time. Given what I'd heard about it, along with my knowledge of Scorsese's deep Catholic background, I was expecting something both provocative and reverent - and I was not disappointed. This is a very interesting film, and one which is nearly impossible to watch passively - especially for someone who was brought up in a Catholic family and spent a lot of time around the Gospels throughout childhood. Taking their cues from Nikos Kazantzakis' 1953 novel of the same name, Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader seem devoted to reimagining the story of Jesus Christ from a modern, humanist perspective. An intertitle at the beginning makes it explicit that the film is not meant to be an adaptation of any of the Gospels, and although there are numerous scenes in the film which correspond to certain sections of the Gospels (particularly the Sermon on the Mount and a number of Jesus' miracles), the dialogue is modified enough so that no passages are exactly replicated, and these scenes are presented in such a way that they feel like part of the whole rather than separate episodes. However, despite the measures taken to distinguish the film as a separate entity from the Gospels, the film still ended up evoking a huge amount of controversy - which is understandable, given the long-standing emotional and cultural connections to the subject matter for a lot of people. Of course, controversy is never bad for the box-office, but it seems to me that the outrage which the film provoked probably overshadowed its merits - causing it to go down in history as a sensational work of blasphemy, rather than the serious, artistic accomplishment that it is. Many people simply refused to see Jesus portrayed as a tortured, sinful human instead of an infallibly divine deity - but this portrayal serves to put a fresh spin on the story and unearth the complex spiritual conflict which lies at its roots.

The fact that Jesus and his disciples are played by recognizable actors and speak in language and tones which are less removed from our own lives makes the difficult struggle at hand something we can readily relate to as human beings. If I had my guess, I'd say that was basically what Scorsese was going for with this film - to get the modern viewer to imagine what it would have really been like to be in Jesus' shoes. Not just the physical carnage leading up to the crucifixion - but the doubt, the temptation, the anguish that someone in Jesus' position might reasonably experience. In this respect, The Last Temptation of Christ is a highly original and ambitious film, although it is not without its flaws - and most would be forgiven for suggesting that Scorsese is guilty of turning Jesus into not much more than a crazy neurotic. I guess in the end it's hard to know what to think of this film - although no film which has the potential to engage the viewer this intently and actively for close to three hours should be underestimated. This is a genuinely powerful film which is guaranteed to elicit a different mix of reactions depending on the viewer. In any case, it's a crucial entry in Martin Scorsese's filmography, and definitely something that everyone should see at least once, especially if you're only familiar with Scorsese's more popular films.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

#500: Histoire(s) du cinéma

Directed by: JEAN-LUC GODARD
1998, TSPDT Rank #112

As I have now (finally!) reached the halfway point of my quest, I thought it would be a good time to watch Jean-Luc Godard's eight-part exploration and deconstruction of cinema's history. I bought a Region 2 DVD release of this work (on the Artificial Eye label) some time ago, watched the first two parts, and then forgot about the DVD and never finished it. Recently I remembered that I had that DVD, and it occurred to me that this might make a good candidate for my 500th film from the 1,000 Greatest Films list. I am glad that I had this notion, because Histoire(s) du cinéma did nothing but reinforce my fascination with the art of film. In fact, this seems to be the main motive behind the work as a whole - to look at cinematic history as a whole and attempt to appreciate all of the implications and meanings that go along with it. But by no means is this a cohesive, chronological history of cinema. It is a very personal work, in which Godard faces his feelings about the history of film, as well as his own place within it, head-on for the first time - after a career in which he has touched upon these feelings to varying degrees in almost every one of his films. Taken as a whole, Histoire(s) du cinéma is a complex, wide-ranging, and grandiose labor of love - and I don't think it would be out of place to call it Godard's magnum opus.

However, some of the parts can work just as well as standalone pieces. For example, the second part, "Une histoire seule" (aka "Chapter 1b") could have worked perfectly as a supplement on the (now out-of-print) Criterion edition of Contempt, especially since it prominently mentions the film and features footage from it as well. But I'm sure that licensing issues present major conflicts with these types of usages - in fact, it's surprising to me that Histoire(s) du cinéma was ever cleared for DVD release at all. It's a great thing to own on DVD though - the dense layering of both visual and auditory information throughout each part will probably lend itself extremely well to repeat viewings, and certain parts in particular will be works which I am sure I will revisit multiple times in the future. Some day I will probably watch the entire work as a whole again, but most likely not any time soon. Watching Histoire(s) du cinéma takes more energy and focus than most films do, but if you space the parts out over a few nights, it can be a very rich and rewarding viewing experience. It also helps to have at least basic knowledge of the French language and an appreciation for Godard's work before going into it - as without these traits I am sure this could be an extremely tedious and frustrating 4+ hours to sit through. But as someone who has soft spot for films which test the boundaries of the cinematic medium, I have an obvious affinity for what Godard has tried to accomplish with his films throughout the years - and his personality and idiosyncratic relationship with the cinema particularly resonated with me while watching Histoire(s) du cinéma.

From what I've seen of it, Mark Cousins' recent documentary series, The Story of Film, is an equally ambitious attempt at examining cinematic history in a more conventional and linear sense. That series might work as an interesting counterpart to Godard's extremely personal and experimental take on the subject. But as it is, Histoire(s) du cinéma is an unprecedented deconstruction of cinema history by one of the 20th century's most interesting and influential directors. Its subjective point-of-view works as one of its strengths, and might urge you to more deeply explore your own feelings about and relations to film, as it did for me.

Monday, March 24, 2014

#499: Alice

1988, TSPDT Rank #878

Jan Svankmajer's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is a new addition to the TSPDT list, but it has been a well-known cult favorite for a long time. It has all of the ingredients that a devotee of weird and unusual films could desire: it's a feature-long adaptation of Lewis Carroll's absurdist fantasy, which consists largely of creepy stop-motion animation and ditches any trace of sugar-coating to make room for plenty of dark surrealism. The stop-motion style will feel familiar to anyone who has seen any of Svankmajer's earlier animated shorts, but the overall concept and effect is much more ambitious. Watching this film really is like falling down the proverbial rabbit hole, and it is very powerful in its singular strangeness. There is a recurring motif of sawdust and stuffing (which I personally found to become disgusting as the film went on), with most of the creatures in the film being some bizarre combination of taxidermy animals and puppets. However, I think the key to film's eventual success is due to Alice being portrayed by a live-action child actor. This makes her immersion into the absurd dream world of the film more effective and entrancing. The film has a powerful cumulative effect as Alice moves along through the various episodes of Carroll's story at a constant pace, which makes it easy to get lost within the film and its world. I think this is probably what Svankmajer was hoping to achieve with this film, and on these terms it is definitely successful. Like many cult films, it takes a certain type of person to enjoy it, but if you are up for a truly original and surprising viewing experience, you won't be disappointed by Alice.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#498: Synecdoche, New York

2008, TSPDT Rank #915

Here is another film which left me totally speechless and dumbfounded in its wake. I can't think of anything remotely like it. The similarly awestruck friend who I watched the film with said afterward, "That's not even a movie!", and the experience certainly transcends anything one would normally expect when sitting down to watch a film. It was Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut, and despite (or likely because of) its wholly original vision and staggering execution of its ambitions, it came and went without much recognition. Many critics dismissed it, calling it pointless, impossible to follow, or suggesting that Kaufman needed a Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry (who respectively directed his screenplays for films such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to help him realize his vision. I couldn't disagree more wholeheartedly with any of those statements. Synecdoche, New York is definitely difficult to process, but it's a movie that really has something to say, and says it with guts and commitment. It both terrified and amazed me, and I feel that it is definitely a better film than any of those which Kaufman had previously written.

As with Short Cuts, I shuddered at the idea of having to put my thoughts about this film into words for a blog post. However, as I was reading through other reactions to the film online, I happened upon Roger Ebert's review of the film from its original release in 2008. His review said everything I could have wished to say about the film and more, and said it so eloquently that I felt I would be doing all of the readers of this blog a better service by posting a link to that review, rather than attempting to sum up similar sentiments in another long-winded ramble of a post. Ebert later named Synecdoche, New York the greatest film of the decade, and I currently feel inclined to agree with him.

Here's Ebert's review:

#497: Short Cuts

Directed by: ROBERT ALTMAN
1993, TSPDT Rank #474

To those familiar with Paul Thomas Anderson's film Magnolia, Short Cuts should seem more than a little bit familiar. Magnolia is a great film in its own right, but it does seem less original in concept and structure after seeing this film - both feature large ensemble casts, a sprawling episodic collection of diverse stories and characters who can all be connected to each other via circumstantial events and relationships, and end with a climactic twist of fate beyond the characters' control, which affects all of them in different ways. However, Short Cuts is much more ambiguous in its implications - in fact the film doesn't really make any clear implications at all. In my experience of Altman's work, this is fairly typical - he makes the narratives in his films feel engaging, entertaining, and organic, but often without a clear motive or argument to push on the viewer. The events and characters in an Altman film never seem to be there to provoke specific reactions from the viewer, and there are a lot of ambiguities all around which produce a myriad of feelings, but remain difficult to pin down or analyze. However, this all comes together in Short Cuts as a sort of free-flowing narrative tapestry. The cast is about as good as it gets for an ensemble film (Tim Robbins, Chris Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Waits, Jack Lemmons, Lily Tomlin, etc.), and the stories play like a lot of interesting bits from life. But even so, Altman's style isn't exactly in the realist vein. Instead, it's more of an experimental approach, mimicking life by presenting overlapping dialogue and events, while being intricately constructed to create a seamless and immersive effect for the viewer. This isn't a haphazard jumble of scenes - it's a meticulously crafted film which focuses on the drama which can be derived from the smallest of details in any given life. For anyone like myself who finds the small details and unexpected changes to be the most interesting things in life, as well as film, this is one hell of an epic, and one of the all-time landmark examples of the ensemble film. On the other hand, those less open to the virtues of this type of film will probably find it to be a rambling, pointless bore - and that will be their loss. Short Cuts is a prime example of a film which was not appreciated upon its release, but has stood the test of time and has eventually gained belated recognition of its genius. This is a fate to which many of Altman's films have been destined, but at least we now have the technology to look back and reassess films like these, which went under the radar on their first time out of the gates and still deserve to have their day in the sun. This film especially deserves all of the praise which has been lavished upon it in recent years, and I hope it continues to grow in stature as more people discover it for the first time in the years to follow.

It has taken me an usually long time to write this post. Short Cuts is a film which made a big impression on me, and I have spent a long time agonizing over what I could possibly say to give this film, and Altman's work in general, the type of appreciation it deserves. I don't know if I've succeeded or not, but if this post convinces just one or two more people to give this film a chance, I feel I will have sufficiently done my job. Thanks for reading, as always.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

#496: Dersu Uzala

1975, TSPDT Rank #378

Dersu Uzala is just the kind of film that I treasure most - sweeping yet understated, genuinely emotional and sincere, simple yet difficult to pin down, and overflowing with images of pure, sublime beauty. It's an odd film in Akira Kurosawa's filmography - made with the Soviet Union during the mid-1970s, and set in the vast wilderness of Russia's Far East region in the first decade of the 20th century. It was made well after most of Kurosawa's popular, established masterpieces, and it was only the second film he shot in color. Despite this, the film contains some of the most mesmerizing and graceful color cinematography of any film I can think of, and is likely my favorite of all the Kurosawa films I have seen so far. The story - depicting the friendship between a Russian military explorer and the titular nomadic hunter - is slight compared to the samurai epics and crime thrillers Kurosawa is mainly remembered for today, and a basic plot description doesn't do justice to the poetic transcendence of the film. Its profound effectiveness is a testament to the unique power of cinema as well as Kurosawa's status as one of the medium's greatest artists. I wouldn't hesitate to call it a masterpiece, and it is a film that I will look forward to revisiting throughout my life. 

#495: Bigger Than Life

Directed by: NICHOLAS RAY
1956, TSPDT Rank #678

It's not hard to see why Nicholas Ray's explosive CinemaScope deconstruction of picture-perfect 1950s America was "ignored" by audiences upon its release. Released right in the midst of the era of the manufactured family values and phony appearances it attempts to undermine, and starring none other than James Mason (one of the most famous film stars of the time), Bigger Than Life is one fearless and subversive film. James Mason plays a loving father, husband, and schoolteacher who becomes addicted to a dangerous experimental drug which is the only thing between him and death, and his family and friends do everything they can to maintain the illusion that everything is okay - when Mason is in fact turning into a malicious and maniacal monster right in front of their eyes. Almost a suburban Technicolor cousin to the gothic nightmare of The Night of the Hunter, this nerve-shattering film has to be seen to be believed - and will cause the jaw of anyone familiar with the era it was produced during to hang open in disbelief for a good 30 minutes after the film has ended. "ABRAHAM!"

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Solaris / Mirror

1972, TSPDT Rank #209

1974, TSPDT Rank #26

This will be a big post. I saw these two landmark Tarkovsky films over the past two days, during which time the new update of the 1,000 Greatest Films was unveiled. As Bill, the man behind the big list, stated in the intro to the new edition, this year's update isn't as monumental as last year's Sight and Sound influenced revision, but as always, some films came and some left - which put my current count just a few points behind what it was before the update. I'm still very close to being halfway - Solaris and Mirror bring my current count to 494 films out of the total 1,000. I decided to combine the two films into one post so that I could compare them with each other and some of Tarkovsky's other work without the risk of overlap.

For quite a long time, the only Tarkovsky films I had seen were Ivan's Childhood and Andrei Rublev. Then this past fall I had the chance to see a screening of the last existing English-subtitled 35mm print of Stalker at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis - which was a singular and indescribable experience. I had previously shyed away from seeing either Mirror or Stalker because I had heard that their DVD releases did not do justice to replicating the films' delicate colors and mesmerizing imagery, and I could tell how this could be the case while viewing the print of Stalker. The imagery was as fragile and nuanced as it was awe-inspiring, and the film felt almost unearthly in a way that was haunting and surreal. But as glad as I was that I had waited to watch the film in a proper presentation, the film had a profound enough effect on me that I knew I would have to seek out the rest of Tarkovsky's work. As I said, I had heard bad things about Kino's transfer of Mirror, but it didn't seem likely that lightning would strike twice - and it didn't seem worth waiting indefinitely for a cinema screening that might never materialize.

I actually watched Solaris first, as it had always been a film I was interested in seeing but had just never gotten around to. I would recommend this film wholeheartedly to anyone. The Criterion transfer is stunning, and the film is monumental and powerful like few films have ever come close to being. Unlike Stalker, it could be more legitmately classified as science-fiction - although it completely transcends the genre and resides in a league all its own. Made in the era of space exploration frenzy, Tarkovsky explores the human urge to conquer and understand areas of life and the universe which are completely removed from the realm of our comprehension. The mind-shattering abyss of the unknown and the human thirst for absolute knowledge casts an unescapable shadow over the characters in the film, and the end result constitutes a haunting gaze into the depths of the human soul which has rarely been portrayed as effectively on film. Like Stalker, it is a film that thrives on mystery, and Tarkovsky's ability to handle this sense of mystery with such grandeur and grace while sidestepping incoherence and heavy-handedness surely has a lot to do with his reputation as one of the world's greatest filmmakers.

Of course, Tarkovsky is also known for his sublime, otherwordly frame compositions - and Mirror is probably his most reknowned film from this aesthetic standpoint. This position is definitely deserved, but unfortunately my experience watching the Kino transfer of the film last night was a clear reminder of just how much of a factor the digital transfer of a film can play into its effectiveness. The picture quality is quite murky and overall pretty dull in the color department - so I could recognize the beauty of the images, but usually only by imagining what they might look like on film, or with a proper digital transfer. That being said, the mediocre transfer quality didn't ruin the film for me. The visual palette seemed to be similar to Stalker in a way (despite the stark differences in setting and atmosphere), which made it possible for me to visualize better versions of the images, but it still frustrated me from time to time when I could clearly recognize that I was watching a sub-par representation of a great film. But picture quality aside, the film itself is another work of cinematic wonder from Tarkovsky. Definitely his most personal film (that I've seen), and possibly his most complex - although it is quite a bit more concise than most of the other films of his that I've seen (i.e. Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Stalker). It's a quintessential example of the possiblities of cinema based around dreams and memories - probably the most viable alternative to narrative filmmaking that has ever been attempted, although mainstream viewers used to being spoon-fed their films still tend to harbor an attitude of intolerance and scorn toward films of this nature. Its structure and themes are enigmatic to say the least, but for my sensibilities, this made the film all the more rich and engrossing. It begins poetically, turning more political towards the middle, and becoming almost hallucinatory at the end - but it retains the smooth, flowing cadence of a dream throughout. I hope to see it again some day in a more suitable presentation - but I still am glad that I watched it, regardless, and look forward to Tarkovsky's two films from the 1980s, which I still have yet to see.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Wild at Heart

Directed by: DAVID LYNCH
1990, TSPDT Rank #868

Seeing as I'm still waiting for the new 1,000 Greatest Films list and an updated count on my progress, I figured I would take the opportunity to write about one of my favorite films - one that was directed by David Lynch, who is probably my all-time favorite filmmaker. I saw this film tonight on 35mm at the Trylon Microcinema, a Minneapolis cinema which shows a lot of repertory films, and is pretty much directly responsible for rekindling my love of film. Shortly after leaving for college last fall, I discovered that Love Streams, one of the few John Cassavetes films I hadn't gotten around to seeing previously, was being shown on 35mm at a local cinema only a few miles away from where I live, and the experience of seeing it had a profound effect on me. It redefined my idea of what watching a movie could be like, and now I go to the Trylon just about once a week or more.

Anyway, this month the Trylon has been showing a series of David Lynch films, which has included Eraserhead, Dune, and Mulholland Dr., and will be followed by Blue Velvet next weekend. I saw Wild at Heart for the first time about a year ago. At the time it was one of the only David Lynch films I hadn't seen yet, and it completely blew me away. It is probably Lynch's most unhinged and unrestrained film - portraying a story of true love in the midst of a hellish maelstrom of chaos. Filmed at the same time as the latter half of Twin Peaks' first season, and featuring many actors who also appeared in the show (Laura Dern, Jack Nance, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, David Patrick Kelly), Wild at Heart almost seems to occupy a parallel universe to the show - maybe signifying the type of crazy American life that the people of serene Twin Peaks hope to escape from. The atmosphere of the film is as overtly rooted in the South as Twin Peaks is in the Northwest. The sweltering heat and dust are palpable, and the film's erotic elements are as strong and intense as its violence. However, while its sordid depiction of insane killers, maniacs, and love on the run recalls countless crime and noir films, what distinguishes it from these other films is its strangely pure side. It contains heavy references to The Wizard of Oz (one of Lynch's favorite films), and its main characters, Sailor  (in a fantastic performance by Nicolas Cage) and Lula, are genuinely in love, and as likable as they are over-the-top. The film is full of insanity, murder, sex, and thrills - but at its core, it's far from cynical, suggesting that love has the ability to triumph over evil and madness. It's a film that could have only been made by David Lynch, and in my opinion, it's one of his most fully realized visions - an immersive, one-of-a-kind masterpiece. I'm very glad that it's on the 1,000 Greatest Films list where it belongs, and I treasure having had the opportunity to see it on the big screen this weekend.

For anyone who's interested, more on the Trylon Microcinema can be found at If you live in the Minneapolis area, I highly recommend checking them out.

Pink Flamingos

Directed by: JOHN WATERS
1972, TSPDT Rank #847

And now I have finally seen the eternally infamous Pink Flamingos. It has to be just about the most gleefully trashy film in the history of trash cinema. For reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has heard about it, it's not exactly the most pleasant film to watch, but I am still very glad to know that there is room for a film like this on the 1,000 Greatest Films. The film's tagline, "An exercise in bad taste", is a very fitting one, because it gives you a very clear and honest idea of the film's intent. It is simply masterful in the measures that it goes to test the viewer's limits and derive humor from the most forbidden of taboos. It is ranked on the TSPDT site as the #2 most disliked film on the 1,000 Greatest Films list (second only to Forrest Gump), something which I'm sure the film's director, John Waters, would be extremely proud of. As a young man and burgeoning filmmaker, he had the vision and determination to make a movie that would shock, disgust, amuse, and piss off the majority of the filmgoing public - and he succeeded in ways few could have predicted possible. While watching it, I got a kick out of imagining people reacting to this unprecedented orgy of filthiness back when it released, decades before our jaded age of the internet. I also loved Waters' ingenuity in co-opting 1950s culture in the name of all things dirty right in the middle of the era of nostalgia and American Graffiti. And although I've probably had my fill of Pink Flamingos' depraved world and the filthy people who inhabit it for the foreseeable future, I still can't help but admire its concept. Film was invented to shake people up, and this film has been doing just that ever since it was released. I recommend it to anyone who's not afraid of a hearty dose of "bad taste" with their low-budget comedy. For best results, watch after midnight.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

3 Women

Directed by: ROBERT ALTMAN
1977, TSPDT Rank #927

Tonight I watched Robert Altman's 3 Women for the first time. I've now seen every other Altman film on the 1,000 Greatest Films list except for Short Cuts - which I am now very anxious to see as soon as possible. Altman is one of those rare directors who can always surprise you, no matter how much you've read about them or how many of their films you've seen. Every Altman film I've seen so far has been totally unique and fascinating (whether I thought it was great or not), while always containing clear glimpses of the trademark Altman style. 3 Women is definitely no exception to this, and it left me absolutely floored. It's a delirious fever dream of a film, reminiscent of a cross between Bergman's Persona and a lurid Southern Gothic story, while still being cut from the same whacked-out California cloth as Altman's earlier film, The Long Goodbye. Comparing these two films is actually very interesting, because while the Phillip Marlowe detective story of The Long Goodbye might appear to be worlds apart from the twisted identity crises of 3 Women on the surface, it appears in retrospect that these films have more in common than initially meets the eye. Elliot Gould's Marlowe is caught up in an unbelievably convoluted network of people who are anything but what they appear to be - to the point where he is nearly swallowed up by them - while the characters of 3 Women float around and around in a whirlpool of confusion and denial that eventually swallows them up and spits them out, resulting in a violent rebirth that mirrors The Long Goodbye's numbing climax. To me, these two films represent some of the best possible qualities of cinema - in that they hold the viewer in their grip and leave them confounded and mystified when the credits start to roll. The best kind of film raises more questions than it answers, and 3 Women is a supreme example of that special brand of film.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Back in the saddle again

In the long hiatus since my last post, I have finished high school and started college, seen quite a few more films, and have generally had quite a few more life experiences. I have done some writing about film sporadically in a few other places, but not anything of much substance. Now I am studying film in some of my college classes, and the abundance of technical terminology and academic perspective has made me long for the simplicity of the blog format. So, with the new update of TSPDT's 1,000 Greatest Films list soon to be released, I decided it would be a great time to restart the blog once again.

I haven't done a complete count of my progress on the list since I stopped writing new posts (which was before the current version of the list was released), but I think I have seen about 493 films from the current version as of now. When the new update is released, I will do a revised count, which will most likely set me back a bit.

I'm not sure what my posts will be like after such a long time away from doing them, but I will try my best to keep things fresh and interesting. Thanks for reading, and I promise more to come in the near future.