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!"