Monday, December 28, 2015

#571: Teorema

1968, TSPDT Rank #527

Teorema means "theorem" in English, and in the context of the film, this seemingly represents an allegory for the potential breakdown of the bourgeoisie - which Pier Paolo Pasolini, as a fervent Marxist, clearly viewed as more of a social disease than a mere class distinction. The film's narrative concerns a respectable middle-class Italian family being visited by a mysterious young man, who proceeds to seduce each member of the family, before leaving them abruptly. Each individual seduction seems to reveal some hidden truth to each family member regarding the emptiness of their existence, and after the man's departure, each of them desperately attempt to break free in their own individual ways. Apart from this, many of the details of the exact sociopolitical message that Pasolini intended to convey remain ambiguous - particularly concerning what the mysterious visitor is supposed to represent. This is largely due to the complete lack of exposition in the film's narrative (a common trait of Pasolini's films), with each character's seduction and subsequent identity crisis being portrayed instead as a series of tableaux. The result is an intriguing but often beguiling film, which nevertheless operates within a straightforward and effective poetic structure, in the interest of a fairly decipherable political agenda.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

#570: Blue

Directed by: DEREK JARMAN
1993, TSPDT Rank #783

It's ironic, really, that the only Derek Jarman film on the TSPDT 1,000 Greatest Films list is his final film - made while he was dying of AIDS and losing his sight. Because of this, the film's visuals consist solely of a constantly blue screen, while Jarman reads a narration detailing his thoughts and feelings at the end of his life in painfully vivid detail. While the blue screen in the film is unchanging, maybe what continues to draw people to this film is its ability to create an engrossing atmosphere with nothing but a densely-layered soundtrack (which features a score by frequent Jarman collaborator Simon Fisher-Turner, along with instrumental contributions from Brian Eno and others) and the contemplative tone established by the screen's blue grow. It is a fascinating film even just from a strictly formal standpoint, but Jarman's narration makes it one of the most personal and important films about the AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s, as well as a poetic and dreamlike meditation on mortality.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

#569: Apur Sansar (The Apu Trilogy)

Directed by: SATYAJIT RAY
1959, TSPDT Rank #249

Apur Sansar (also known as The World of Apu) is the third and final film in Satyajit Ray's monumental Apu Trilogy - newly released in a stunning restoration by the Criterion Collection. I had seen the first two films (Pather Panchali and Aparajito) about four years ago, but since I realized that I hadn't written a blog post for either of those films (even though they were included in my running count for the list), I decided to expand my post on Apur Sansar to cover the trilogy as a whole. The trilogy follows its main character, Apu, from his birth in a small Bengali village to his early adulthood in Calcutta - which is the subject of Apur Sansar. At first, the lightly comic tone of the final installment in the trilogy reminded me of Francois Truffaut's films about Antoine Doinel's early adulthood, but before long there is a notable shift in tone, and what follows is an attempt to convey the most sublime heights of life, as well as the most tragic depths - all in less than two hours. And while Pather Panchali and Aparajito both feature their fair share of tragic moments - with Apu experiencing the deaths of all his immediate family members before the age of 20 - Apur Sansar goes one step further by constructing a highly concentrated emotional journey through uncertainty, hope, confusion, fulfillment, absolute loss, and eventual reconciliation. However, despite the short running time, the series of events never feels contrived or predictable. Like the two previous films, this film is deeply felt and imbued with a sincere humanism that is rare throughout the history of cinema. In fact, the simple beauty and sincerity of these films is so consuming and profound that in retrospect it seems amazing the three films have a combined running time of less than 6 hours. Nevertheless, the trilogy manages to capture a diverse array of universally identifiable life moments without ever once falling back on saccharine sentimentality. These films certainly deserve their place among the greatest ever made - a place which will only be cemented and enriched with the release of Criterion's beautiful new restorations.

#568: Two-Lane Blacktop

1971, TSPDT Rank #482

Two-Lane Blacktop is widely considered one of the best road movies of all time, however, those expecting a lot of car-chases and non-stop action will likely be disappointed. Nevertheless, as a timely portrait of early 1970s malaise and disillusionment, this film is highly effective and even enjoyable - with top performances by musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson, as well as the always great Warren Oates and a brief but memorable appearance by the one and only Harry Dean Stanton. Then there's the sound of roaring motors, the characters' stoic desperation, and the poetic utilization of the open road as a grand metaphor. It plays like a cross between Monte Hellman's existential westerns of the 1960s and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider - another quintessential road movie that captured the mood of America at the end of that decade. Kris Kristofferson's song "Me and Bobby McGee", which features in a pivotal scene in the film, sums it up best: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose..."

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

#567: Stardust Memories

Directed by: WOODY ALLEN
1980, TSPDT Rank #932

Sometimes it's hard to take a Woody Allen film at face value when many of his films seem more like variations on a theme than individual works. I'm so used to films like Annie Hall and Manhattan that initially it was difficult to separate my thoughts about this film from them. And while Stardust Memories focuses on many of the same themes as those films, I eventually came to see it as a culmination of a certain phase of Allen's career. Annie Hall had been released three years before this film, signaling a major change of pace from the madcap absurdist comedy of Allen's early films to a more neurotic self-reflexivity. It was succeeded by the austere Bergman tribute Interiors, which was seen by many as Allen's bid to be recognized as a "serious" filmmaker, and Manhattan, a continuation of the pensive romantic themes addressed in Annie Hall, dressed up as a tribute to New York City and filmed in black-and-white. However, with Stardust Memories, Allen made a film which functions as both a parody of Fellini's 8 1/2 and a summary of his career to that point. At the time, Allen's career had probably seemed to have taken such a sharp left turn in the late '70s (there are various references throughout the film to Allen's "early, funny" films) that many considered this film to be little more than another self-indulgent exercise in narcissism, but now it seems more apparent that Stardust Memories was really the grand finale of the first phase of Allen's career - a nine-film run which started with Take the Money and Run in 1969 and continued through to this film. Following the disastrous reception to which Stardust Memories was released, Allen moved on to a new phase of his career, making films which varied widely in terms of content and quality and tended to feature himself much less often as the lead actor.

But Stardust Memories, by comparison, clearly seems cut from the same cloth as the films that came before it - with traces of each of Allen's previous eight films crammed into its 88-minute running time. Along with its unveiled and playful homage to 8 1/2, which serves to tie all of the material together, the film shares a similar narrative framework with Annie Hall. However, the film also references and revives the madcap humor of Allen's earlier films, along with the non-linear, episodic structure which also defined much of his previous work. Along with the romantic musings that defined Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manahattan, the film also brings Allen's preoccupation with death and existentialism back to the forefront - recalling their prominence in 1975's Love and Death. All of this varied material is tackled with a enthusiastic irreverance that is quintessential Woody Allen - with the nature of celebrity, film critics, and the value of a filmmaker's work being brought into question repeatedly. Most contemporary critics took issue with what they saw as Allen's self-important portrayal of himself, which he claimed was a caricature of a celebrity filmmaker (intentionally similar to the character Marcello Mastrioianni plays in 8 1/2), and was not intended to be a direct representation of himself. Nevertheless, the self-referential nature of the film and the prominence of many of Allen's common themes make it impossible not to look at the film as a self-portrait of sorts. In later films about themes of celebrity featuring similar characters, Allen tellingly chose to cast other actors instead of himself, which hasn't really fooled anyone (critics often use terms like "Woody Allen stand-ins" to describe these roles), but has arguably succeeded in making Stardust Memories remain Allen's most personal film to date. He wouldn't attempt to assess himself and his work quite so blatantly after this, which effectively makes Stardust Memories seem like the end of an era. The films that he made from the end of the '60s to the end of the '70s were of a particularly high quality, and Stardust Memories is no exception. Its biggest flaw is most likely its attempt to fit such an exhaustive array of material into such a brief film - which, although the film generally hits its mark, makes for a somewhat scattershot viewing experience at times. But while it doesn't have the poignant simplicity of a film like Annie Hall, it represents what it most likely the apex of Woody Allen's range as a filmmaker, and often goes is unfairly excluded from the ranks of his best and most interesting films.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

#566: Arabian Nights

1974, TSPDT Rank #861

Although it was made as the final film in Pasolini's Trilogy of Life (following The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales), Arabian Nights carries a much different tone, with the overt crudeness and bawdiness of the previous two films replaced by a more contemplative and poetic atmosphere. The film follows a loose framework through which a few selected stories from The One Thousand and One Nights are interspersed at a leisurely, flowing pace. All of the stories that Pasolini selected for the film have a defined erotic bent, but similar to Pasolini's approach in the other two films in the trilogy, sex is not particularly sensationalized or eroticized. Instead, it is treated as a part of life which was once more natural and innocent - although the mood of this particular film is less celebratory than the others (particularly The Decameron), and most of the tales end on a note of tragedy. In a different sense, this film shows Pasolini celebrating Africa and the Middle East as the birthplace of humanity - with the beautiful cinematography often lingering on visuals of characters within hypnotic landscapes, which at times seem to bear the full weight of the trials experienced by the characters. As usual, Pasolini employed non-professional actors for this production, and their performances in the film are suitably simple and naturalistic. The film carries a distinctive air of quiet timelessness not present in the trilogy's previous two installments, and overall it comes off the most meaningful and effective of the three films - even if it veers considerably from the intentions that Pasolini originally had for the trilogy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

#565: Marnie

1964, TSPDT Rank #338

After the release of his 1963 film, The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock's reputation as a filmmaker quickly went downhill and never completely returned until years after his death - although Francois Truffaut's 1967 book detailing a series of interviews with the master helped to spark the beginnings of countless critical reappraisals. Nevertheless, Marnie was not well received by audiences or critics at the time, and seemed to signal to the world that Hitchcock was finally losing his touch. Today, public and critical opinion regarding Marnie is generally the complete opposite, with the film now being considered a crucial part of Hitchcock's pantheon of masterpieces - despite being a notch below well-established classics like Psycho or Vertigo. Tippi Hedren's portrayal of an icy and disturbed, yet strikingly beautiful, woman is perfectly offset by Sean Connery's unbridled performance as her suave yet primally frustrated husband. Promoted as an erotic thriller at the time, the way that Hitchcock portrays sex in this film is blunt and uninviting - nowhere near as erotic as earlier films like North By Northwest or Vertigo, despite its heightened boldness. In fact, this might be one of the first major thrillers to incorporate psychoanalytic themes, even if the script's approach to these themes may seem somewhat dated and inaccurate to today's audiences. In any case, audiences in the 1960s were not receptive to Hitchcock's attempts at probing the human psyche, or the many ingenious set pieces and striking use of colors (particularly red) employed in this film. Marnie, however, turned out to be just as influential on the thriller genre as any of Hitchcock's earlier classics, and has justly earned its current reputation as a masterful psychosexual thriller.

#564: Othello

Directed by: ORSON WELLES
1952, TSPDT Rank #626

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see a new print of Beatrice Welles' 1992 restoration of this film at a local cinema, and decided to go despite having never seen the film before because of my qualms about the restored version - for which Welles had the original score replaced with a re-recording, re-edited numerous scenes, and had much of the original dubbing (which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in a contemporaneous essay about the restoration, is typical of dubbing practices in European films of the 1950s) redone by new voice actors. I went into this screening with an open mind, and despite being blown away by the film's raw power and breathtaking cinematography, it was hard to shake the feeling that the overall feel of the film was just not right. The revisionist work done on the soundtrack was very noticeable and overt, and much of the editing seemed choppy and made little sense. I have been studying "incomplete" Orson Welles films like The Lady of Shanghai and Mr. Arkadin (multiple versions) for years, and even so, I had never seen one that felt this disjointed. I decided to wait to write a post on the film until I was able to see the original version - which was only available briefly on Criterion Laserdisc in the mid-'90s, until Beatrice Welles forced it out of circulation so that her restoration would be the only available version of the film. Now that I've finally seen the original version, I can say with confidence that it flows much better than the "restored" version, and stands as a definite high-water mark alongside Welles' other output of the time period. The original score is truly magnificent, despite the supposedly sub-par recording conditions which caused it to be scrapped for the restoration, and it stands with the score of The Third Man as a work of unique brilliance. However, Welles' powerful artistic vision still shines through in both versions, despite the restoration's numerous shortcomings. 

When audiences saw Orson Welles' Othello in the early '50s, it was immediately doomed to be compared to Lawrence Oliver's Shakespeare adaptations, which were wildly popular at the time as well as much more faithful to the theatrical tradition that Olivier, Welles, and Shakespeare all came from. Orson Welles, on the other hand, had been out of favor with Hollywood ever since the turbulent production of his follow-up to Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and by the time of Othello, he had taken to making films in Europe - away from the influence of the Hollywood system that had mangled The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady of Shanghai. The making of Othello took place over a three-year period, with many interruptions and less than ideal conditions, but the end result was a visionary reimagining of the Shakespeare play that revitalized the source material by skirting a purist approach and instead experimenting with new ways to translate Shakespeare to the screen. First, Welles cut the play down from approximately three hours to just over 90 minutes - in effect boiling the dramatic material down to its essential elements to allow for a taut cinematic narrative. He also employed strikingly moody film-noir cinematography and a dazzling usage of editing to translate much of Shakespeare's theatrical language into the predominantly visual language of cinema. However, as was the case with many of Welles' films, audiences of the time were not receptive to his innovations, and generally found his approach to Shakespeare strange and off-putting. This, along with the noticeably low-budget circumstances of the production and the lack of good distribution for the film, caused Othello to fail at the box-office and suffer in the eyes of audiences and critics alike. The 1992 "restoration" of the film finally made it accessible to audiences again, but for the foreseeable future, it will likely remain difficult for most people to see the film as Welles originally intended.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

#563: Wagon Master

Directed by: JOHN FORD
1950, TSPDT Rank #524

This film was made during a creatively fertile period for John Ford at Argosy Pictures, where he made some of his most personal and beloved work - including the Cavalry Trilogy, The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright, and this film (which was supposedly Ford's favorite of his westerns). After making Rio Grande (the last film of the Cavalry Trilogy) later the same year, he didn't make another western until The Searchers in 1956 - and by that point, there had been a major shift in tone and in his general approach to the genre. Most of Ford's later westerns were darker, melancholic, and morally ambiguous, but none of those characteristics exist in Wagon Master - arguably one of the  most lighthearted and idealistic of his westerns. It tells the story of two wandering horse traders (played by Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.) who lead a wagon train of Mormons on a perilous route through the desert to a new settlement, and having to deal with Navajos and outlaws along the way. Ward Bond (one of many John Ford regulars in the film) plays the Mormons' church elder, a character which gives him a good showcase for a lot of trademark shouting and bellowing, along with a lot of near-cursing which serves to provide the majority of the film's comic relief, as Bond is continually rebuked by one of the other Mormons - "Elder!!!" All of this adds up to a hugely enjoyable and beautifully-made western - with all of the John Ford trademarks present in their purest and most unfettered form, and the lines between good and evil clearly visible. The fact that all of Ford's subsequent westerns were shot in color rather than black-and-white probably shouldn't be taken as mere coincidence.

#562: Some Came Running

1956, TSPDT Rank #551

Speaking of operatic cinema, this mid-'50s melodrama from Vincente Minnelli has to be one of the most prominent examples of Hollywood artificiality being consciously manipulated to produce a film which goes beyond narrative and instead ventures into an entirely manufactured world of pure color and raw emotion. Starring Frank Sinatra, Shirley Maclaine, and Dean Martin, the film uses almost every stereotype in the melodrama textbook - there's an alcoholic novelist, a dangerously clingy and childlike woman, and an intelligent and attractive woman who has repressed her capacity for romantic desire, among others - to fill out a bare-bones plotline which is really nothing more than the traditional love triangle set-up that's been used countless times before. The interesting thing about this movie is that you won't even notice the plot at all unless you consciously look for it. The plot is so basic and predictable that it just melts into the background and becomes almost unrecognizable amongst the film's hysterical tone and elaborate sets - which serve to give the film a very theatrical look and feel. Basically a melodramatic fever dream, this film could easily be either your favorite film or your worst nightmare depending on where your cinematic tastes lie. With the cinematic beauty of Douglas Sirk's infamous 1950s melodramas replaced with garish theatricality, Some Came Running comes off as a very strange film today - truly a relic of a specific time and place in cinematic history.

#561: Casino

1995, TSPDT Rank #536

After the huge success of his epic gangster biopic Goodfellas in 1990, Martin Scorsese made Cape Fear, a highly experimental and Hitchcock-influenced remake of the 1962 film noir classic, and The Age of Innocence, a period piece featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. However, as the 1990s wore on, Scorsese decided to return to the crime genre, coming up with a film which appears to be an attempt at a bigger and better version of Goodfellas. This broadly-drawn tale of Italian gangsters moving to Las Vegas and making it big is fittingly excessive for a portrait of excess, but ends feeling more like overblown self-parody than anything else. Everything that Scorsese did in Goodfellas is taken to operatic extremes in this film - including ridiculously profane dialogue, constant voiceover narration, gratuitous violence, and a soundtrack crammed so full with Scorsese's 50s and '60s rock, pop, and blues favorites that at times it feels more like watching a three-hour music video rather than a narrative film. For some reason, Scorsese saw fit to include almost an entire album's worth of Rolling Stones songs in this film (rather than just a few like he did in Goodfellas). Not that there's anything wrong with the Stones, or that the film is any less enjoyable for it (at least on the surface), but the overall indiscriminate excess of this film means that nothing really sticks out or makes much of an impact in the final analysis. It mostly just feels like an overblown mess - albeit an entertaining one. See Scorsese's recent film The Wolf of Wall Street, for another similar (and possibly more successful) exercise in this genre/style. Personally, I'm looking forward to The Age of Innocence.

Friday, May 15, 2015

#560: Killer of Sheep

1977, TSPDT Rank #299

Charles Burnett's debut is widely known as a cornerstone of American independent cinema, and as far as its place in African American cinema goes, it's notable for showing us something that blaxploitation was never going to - the lives of a community of black people as they deal with the routine problems that life presents and reckon with the fact that they're never going to be going anywhere. Nothing is sensationalized here and there are no life-and-death decisions to be made, and although crime is always lurking on the sidelines as a sort of ambient constant to be occasionally considered, none of the major characters choose to get involved in it - so there are no tense action sequences or shootouts with the police. The film uses the character of Stan, a disillusioned slaughterhouse worker, as its focal point, but his life is shown as essentially an assortment of dead ends, and he isn't given a chance to heroically conquer his depressing circumstances - in fact, he never does much of anything. The film's style has been compared to neorealism, with its meandering structure and focus on the "in-between moments" which were Italian neorealism's claim to fame. But "Killer of Sheep" arguably does a better job of accomplishing what the neorealists always claimed as their goal - that is, showing life "as it really is". After all, for all of their in-between moments, the classic Italian neo-realist films of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica usually retained a tightly constructed narrative structure, but there is hardly any narrative at all to be found in "Killer of Sheep". Instead, Burnett gives us an unhurried stream of evocative episodes which combine to give the viewer a portrait of the people of the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles and the non-events which make up their day to day existence. We eventually come to feel that these people could be just about anyone, making this film a lot closer to the documentary style that the neorealists were striving for thirty years earlier.

#559: The Battle of Algiers

1966, TSPDT Rank #60

As a portrayal of an oppressed people's revolution against colonial powers, this film provides an interesting contrast to The Hour of the Furnaces. Made by an Italian director, with a primarily Italian crew, and filmed in a very European style, this is clearly a dramatization of a revolution - as opposed to the revolutionary document that practioners of Third Cinema strived for. Also, it focuses primarily on the military tactics employed by both sides in the Algerian revolution rather than on the political motivations behind the revolution itself. The film's attempt at presenting both sides of the revolution objectively has been widely noted - as both a strength and a weakness - although there is still a noticeably anti-colonialist slant on display. Despite the full participation and backing of Algeria in its production, it's still far from being a true example of Third Cinema - but nevertheless, it does an admirable job at turning the events of a revolution into a taut, compelling action thriller, which succeeds overall despite the pretense of suggesting greater authenticity than it possesses.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

#558: The Hour of the Furnaces

1968, TSPDT Rank #354

The Hour of the Furnaces represents one of the most significant examples of "third cinema", a revolutionary movement intended to be completely separate from and in explicit opposition to conventional cinema, along with all of the systematic ideologies and distribution strategies associated with it. This was a concept that radical film theorists of the time, such as the editors of the overhauled Cahiers du Cinema of the late 1960s, thought to be theoretically ideal but virtually impossible to put into practice. However, this film rose to the task, partially due to its authors' strict adherence to the philosophy that the film was intended solely for those who were participating in the revolution against the military government in Argentina and the instutionalized neo-colonialism which marginalized and oppressed the majority of Argentina's population at the time.

The first part of the film provides a detailed history of neo-colonialism in Argentina, occasionally contrasting the pseudo-European aspirations of the ruling classes and bourgeoisie of Buenos Aires with the rampant poverty and marginilization of the Argentine working class throughout the rest of the country. This section of the film gradually builds to a fever pitch, illustrating the extreme class disparity and "ideological warfare" of the ruling classes with a number of climactic sequences featuring rapid-fire editing and extremely dense sound design. While this first part of the film could function as a standalone work, in this case it only serves to establish the proper context for the second and third parts of the film - which deal specifically with the political history of Argentina in the 20 years before the military occupation and the call for revolution against the oppressive powers that existed at the time the film was being made.

With a running time of over four hours, and the consistent involvement of the viewer against the ruling imperialist powers, this film fully fits the directors' self-imposed requirements for a film "that the System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs... and explicitly set out to fight the System". While at this time in its history, Argentina was in a period of apparent peace and prosperity, the threat of its military powers were fully mobilized and poised to keep its own people under strict control. A film like The Hour of the Furnaces was able to cause real damage to this facade with ample information about the country's recent history and political unrest, as well as blatant subversion against the prevailing social systems.

The wealth of well-researched facts and information about the recent past which are presented in the film had been suppressed by the government and therefore made the simple act of viewing this film illegal. Or as the directors state in the film's introduction: "here there is no room for spectators or for accomplices of the enemy; here there is room only for the authors and protagonists of the process to which the film attempts to bear witness and to deepen." In their attempt to make a film that was completely disconnected from the system as well as an effective component of a revolution, the directors succeeded by making an impassioned and informed documentary which could not possibly be accepted by the prevailing social order, because it shed light on elements of truth which had the potential to upset the foundations upon which this order was built if they were not suppressed. Despite its length and specific political agenda, The Hour of the Furnaces succeeds in being watchable today largely because of the clear and effective manner in which it presents its information. Especially in view of its clandestine production and non-professional creators, this film represents a staggering achievement, and functions as a fascinating and compelling example of "third cinema" reaching its full potential.

#557: Wavelength

Directed by: MICHAEL SNOW
1967, TSPDT Rank #233

As a devoted fan of experimental (and particularly structural) cinema, I've been meaning to see Wavelength for a long time, but somehow never got around to it until recently. But I finally got the chance to fill this looming gap in my cinematic experience, and I was definitely not disappointed by it - despite high expectations. Watching Wavelength is undoubtedly a singular experience, although it probably wouldn't be pleasurable for most viewers - as it consists of a nearly continuous 45-minute zoom shot of a room with the sound of a sine wave of gradually increasing wavelength (!) blaring incessantly over the soundtrack. So the experience of watching the film gets very tense, with the combined anticipation of the camera eventually closing in on its focal point and the unrelenting nature of the soundtrack. It's also not without some elements of narrative (fellow fans of experimental cinema, watch out for a brief appearance in the frame by Hollis Frampton, in the part of a dying man), but these are just hinted at, and the slight narrative present here is clearly only one part of the film's broader concept. The viewer is forced to examine the room in the shot from the same angle in every way imaginable, and with increasing scrutiny as the film progresses and intensifies. Apart from the brief suggestions of narrative, there are various color filters added to the film, changes in time of day, and tricks of light which can appear to either add or subtract detail from the room - which gets continuously smaller as the camera slowly and deliberately closes in. With all this, what would seem to be a painfully minamalist film at first glance is actually extremely complex and fraught with endless possibilities both within the frame and outside of it. It's not for everyone, but for those who are inclined toward the structural side of experimental cinema, Wavelength is essential - a remarkable and haunting film. But, as with most films of this nature, I would recommend trying to see it in a cinema or dark screening room if you get the chance - I'm sure watching it on a computer or with lights on would complete ruin any possible effect it might have on you.

#556: Tristana

Directed by: LUIS BUNUEL
1970, TSPDT Rank #489

This strange Bunuel film was originally meant to be a return to his native Spain, but ended up being another international co-production intended to follow the enormous success of Belle De Jour with another pairing of Bunuel and Catherine Deneuve. But Bunuel, ever the contrarian, was not out to make another erotic sensation with Tristana. Sex is at the forefront again in this film, but is used primarily to allegorize power dynamics, by telling the story of an innocent young girl who is "adopted" by an aging Spanish aristocrat and subsequently becomes corrupted by his sexual conquest of her. Over the course of the film, we see Viridiana transform from a vibrant youth into a bitter, twisted older woman as she struggles with her relationship with the man who became both her father and her husband. As in Belle De Jour, Bunuel keeps the viewer at a distance from the characters, but in this case, the material is not erotically charged or sensationalized in any way. In many respects, it's actually one of Bunuel's most subdued films, dealing primarily with the fallout of events which occur almost entirely off-screen. So while the viewer does not get any voyeuristic satisfaction from the relationship between the two main characters, Bunuel still treats them objectively, never allowing Tristana to fully gain the viewer's sympathy. Instead, we see the power dynamics between Tristana and the old man slowly shift, so that by the end of the film, Tristana's abuser seems almost as sympathetic as she was at the beginning of the film. This approach makes the experience of watching this film somewhat confusing and uncomfortable, which, knowing Bunuel, may well have been his foremost aspiration in making this film. However, as is also the case with the provocations in Bunuel's films, there's also much more to read into them than merely attempts at shocking or disquieting the audience - although exactly what Bunuel had in mind with Tristana could be argued many different ways. In any case, while probably not one of Bunuel's greatest films, Tristana is still well worth seeing and shouldn't slip through the cracks. It appears that it has finally been released on DVD now, after many years of unavailability, so hopefully that will give more people the chance to see it.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

#555: The King of Comedy

1983, TSPDT Rank #336

After making Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese intended to make The Last Temptation of Christ as a follow-up - with Robert De Niro in the role of Jesus. Instead, De Niro wanted his next collaboration with Scorsese to be a comedy, the result of which was this fantastic satire of celebrity culture, and the lengths to which the fame-obsessed can be driven to, given the circumstances. De Niro's performance as a delusional, obsessive would-be stand-up comedian is a complete turnaround from his intense, brutal performance in Raging Bull, and Jerry Lewis is also impressive as the object of De Niro's obsession, a late-night talk show host suffering under the burden of success and the proliferation of lunatics which it attracts. The film blends comedy, suspense, and social commentary with ease, but its main accomplishment is the way that the first half of the film sets up the action to come - integrating glimpses of De Niro's delusional fantasies into the narrative framework of the film, until the two worlds eventually converge and become one in the film's second half. In this way, The King of Comedy is one of the most unique commentaries on celebrity in America, and certainly one of the most sucessful in showing the insanity that often accompanies it. It also stands as one of the many great Martin Scorsese films that often fly under the radar due to the overwhelming popularity of the crime/gangster films that he is most well known for.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

#554: Way Down East

Directed by: D.W. GRIFFITH
1920, TSPDT Rank #994

D.W. Griffith went all-out on this film - which must have been one of the first epic modern melodramas - making a huge film which did not rely on historical spectacle or grandiose battle scenes to add to its impact. And despite its oddly-timed comic interludes with bumbling caricatures of simple-minded Easterners, this film, like Griffith's other major works, remains quite powerful and compelling today, and Griffith's attempts to continually push the envelope of cinematic technique are plentiful throughout. Never one for subtlety, Griffith crafts an undeniably moving depiction of the shame which women have often endured as a result of their mistreatment by dishonest men, and drives his point home with the support of Lillian Gish's tour-de-force of a performance. The film definitely serves as a window into what gender relations were like in the early 20th century, making the film historically relevant today on a number of different levels, as well as being considerably more watchable than the average film of its era due to Griffith's innovative filmmaking style.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

#553: Man of the West

Directed by: ANTHONY MANN
1958, TSPDT Rank #992

Man of the West was one of the first westerns I can remember truly liking when I was younger, and oddly enough, it's a film that represents of the death of the mythological western outlaw. Made on the heels of a falling out between Anthony Mann and James Stewart, who had made five westerns together earlier in the '50s, Gary Cooper serves as a replacement for what would have been Stewart's character in this film. While watching it for the first time in years, and having now seen all of the Mann-Stewart westerns, I kept trying to imagine Jimmy Stewart in this role and kept coming up short. This seems like a role better suited to Cooper's quiet, mysterious demeanor. It seems difficult to gauge exactly what he's thinking throughout the film (the same kind of ambiguity that made Mann's westerns with Stewart so great), but he always seems to be troubled in some way - torn between loyalty to the deteriorating outlaw who raised him and the honest life he's built for himself since. Eventually it becomes clear that violent death is the only solution to the conflict and tension between the characters - and the aching hopelessness that lurks beneath the film's surface is what makes it one of the strangest and most unique westerns ever made. To me, it feels like a cross between John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Monte Hellman's two 1960s westerns with Jack Nicholson (The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind). It was definitely ahead of its time, and along with many of Mann's other westerns, proved to be a major influence on the many revisionist westerns which followed in subsequent decades.

#552: The Last Picture Show

1971, TSPDT Rank #290

In the documentary The Last Picture Show: A Look Back, included on the supplements for the film in the Criterion box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, director Peter Bogdanovich relates a conversation he had with Orson Welles about Greta Garbo. In response to a comment Bogdanovich made concerning the lack of truly great films in Garbo's filmography, Welles said, "Well, you only need one." In the context of Bogdanovich's career and legacy, The Last Picture Show is definitely his "one great film" (although I've long considered his first film, Targets, to be one of the great masterpieces of the 1960s). His filmmaking career went downhill pretty quickly afterward, which isn't altogether surprising, considering the immense amount of effort and control he exerted over this film - and the overwhelming success that came as a result. It's the type of early peak that's difficult to continue living up to, but in view of Welles' comment, maybe it's not necessary. Bogdanovich might not have made any more masterpieces throughout his career, but he'll always be remembered for this film about the lost and lonely people of a small Texas town in the dawn of the television era - which certainly isn't a bad thing. The film has a strangely plaintive timelessness. It doesn't really fit in with other films of its own era, or of the era in which the film is set. It's certainly an anomaly amongst films by the likes of Bob Rafelson and Dennis Hopper in the Criterion BBS box set. The characters in the film have parallels in many other films and books - but never before had they seemed as rich and human as this. It's a very original and powerful film - a lone, wistful monument that seems destined to stand for posterity as Peter Bogdanovich's most valuable contribution to cinematic history.

Monday, March 23, 2015

#551: Daisies

1966, TSPDT Rank #407

This film plays like a kaleidoscodic mixture of dada and silent comedy, made by a female Jean-Luc Godard in 1960s Czechoslovakia. It follows the misadventures of two young women and their attempts to "be spoiled" in reaction to a "spoiled world" - with flashes of radical feminism and surrounded by a whirlwind of truly inventive, energetic filmmaking. Like its heroines, Daisies is primarily interested in obliterating commonly accepted constructs of order and behavior - destroying meaning rather than creating it. Therefore, while watching it, I suggest just letting go and enjoying the ride. It's probably one of the greatest cinematic visions of anarchy ever attempted.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

#550: The Innocents

Directed by: JACK CLAYTON
1961, TSPDT Rank #405

Here's a film that I've been meaning to see for years, as a big horror enthusiast. It's a very strange and unsettling film based on Henry James' novel "The Turn of the Screw", and featuring masterful usage of black and white cinematography, editing, lighting, and sound design. With a screenplay co-written by Truman Capote, the film is a potent mixture of Henry James' signature examination of peoples' perceptions of others with a lot of twisted psychosexual overtones. A very deceptive and haunting ghost story - highly recommended to fans of understated horror. I won't say anymore about it, so as to preserve the experience of watching it yourself... alone... in the dark...

2015 list update

Well, the new update of the list went up on the TSPDT site some time last month - so you can go check that out at for more details. Definitely some interesting changes this year. For my part, I am up to 550 movies seen with the new update - so it's back to business as usual, along with a pretty decent boost to my previous total. Now I'll proceed with the new post - thanks for reading, as always.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

#528: Strike

1925, TSPDT Rank #510

Sergei Eisenstein is famous for revolutionizing film editing with his concept of using montage to increase the effect a film could have on an audience. Strike, his first film, is not as famous as his next film (Battleship Potemkin) - but it is possibly the best example of his wildly unconventional editing techniques and the explosive element that they brought to the table. It's a much less straightforward film than Battleship Potemkin - although the basic plot is simple (proletarian factory workers go on strike against their factory's oppressive capitalist administration), the film is an all-out barrage of surreal, violent imagery that has no equivalent. It could not be more different than the silent cinema of Hollywood or Western Europe during the same era. And although it's only 73 minutes, Strike is so dense with jarring juxtapositions and scenes of communal unrest that it seems to cover more ground than most films twice its length. It immediately involves the viewer with vivid depictions of the inhuman conditions in the factory and the disgustingly decadent men at the top, and doesn't release the viewer from its assault on the senses until the closing intertitle, "Beware, proletarians..." Battleship Potemkin will always remain an essential part of the film canon because of its taut, uncompromising narrative and legendary set pieces, but it still can't match the raw fury and persuasive propogranda of Strike - which deserves an equal place in film history and serves as the purest example of Eisenstein's ground-breaking cinematic style.

Friday, January 23, 2015

#527: Bad Timing

Directed by: NICOLAS ROEG
1980, TSPDT Rank #911

In the 1970s, Nicolas Roeg made a number of films (Walkabout, Don't Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) which presented fairly simple narratives in a trademark style which combined hypnotic visuals and innovative editing for an end result that was quite unlike that of any other filmmaker. With his first film of the 1980s, Roeg turned to the done-to-death story of a well-respected, unassuming man falling in love with a free-spirited, promiscuous woman, and eventually descending into unmitigated and unending jealousy. I don't think this is one of Roeg's best films, but there are a number of things which set it apart from the myriad of other films which have used this basic plot. First of all, the story of the torrid, rocky romance of the two lovers (played by Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell) is told through a jagged series of flashbacks, which in itself is not unusual; only in this case, the flashbacks are intercut with a framing narrative set after Russell's suicide attempt. Doctors are shown performing graphic operations on her - as she is in a state of advanced coma after arriving at the hospital - and Garfunkel is shown being investigated for his potential role in her suicide. This unsettling structure turns what would otherwise have been a fairly commonplace story into a kind of thriller. Harvey Keitel's vaguely menacing performance as the detective in charge of investigating Garfunkel's character also helps to add a definite sinister atmosphere to the proceedings.

However, once the novelty of its presentation evaporates, much of the film fails to be all that compelling. The settings of Vienna and (briefly) Morocco add a somewhat exotic flavor at times, but the narrative arc of the flashbacks seems nearly identical to that of many other similar films. Toward the end, the film takes some particularily unsavory turns which accentuate certain thematic elements of the story that would normally be glossed over in similar films, but by this point in the film it doesn't seem to make much difference. To me, this seems to be the type of film which relies almost entirely on form over content. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself, but in this case the form seems intended to present some sort of heightened meaning to the viewer - something which I don't think was really achieved. By the end of the film, it just feels cold and vacant. Maybe this is meant to be symbolic, but ultimately it makes for a film which isn't really that interesting or satisfying in any kind of way.

Monday, January 12, 2015

#526: Young Mr. Lincoln

Directed by: JOHN FORD
1939, TSPDT Rank #513

Orson Welles considered John Ford to be a "cinematic poet", and Young Mr. Lincoln is just one of many examples of Ford's sublime poetry. A sequence early in the film showing Lincoln's relationship with his first love, Ann Rutledge, is just about as beautiful (and succinct) as film can get. As for the rest of the film, Ford does his best to evoke early American times and the beginning of Abraham Lincoln's career as a lawyer. He is clearly more concerned with presenting Lincoln as a humble, unassuming legend than recreating history, but the film is all the better for it. The fact that Henry Fonda bears a frightening resemblance to Lincoln in the film only adds to the film's effectiveness. Young Mr. Lincoln is just one of numerous masterpieces which Ford made during this time period of the late '30s and early '40s, and it serves as a prime demonstration of the talents of one of the most singular and distinctive American filmmakers of all time.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

#525: Sullivan's Travels

1941, TSPDT Rank #214

Sullivan's Travels might be Preston Sturges' most multilayered film: managing to function as a rollicking, convoluted comedy, a work of social commentary, and a personal mission statement all in one film. The plot is vintage Sturges - so chock full of twists and turns that it seems to contain a few different films over the course of 90 swift minutes. But basically it concerns the story of a successful Hollywood director who tries to "get in touch with the common man" in order to make a serious film about social issues, but ends up getting in way over his head in more ways than he could have imagined. Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake are perfectly cast in the two leads: they have impeccable chemistry, and this has to be Lake's most successful and iconic role of all time. Her film noir appearances with Alan Ladd throughout the 1940s are also worth seeing, but in this role she is at her most charasmatic and delightful. It's too bad that she didn't make more films with Preston Sturges - or more films in general for that matter. Overall, Sullivan's Travels is definitely an essential Preston Sturges film - even if films like The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek do a better job of exemplifying the type of out-of-control screwball comedies that Sturges is known for.

Monday, January 5, 2015

#524: Amarcord

1973, TSPDT Rank #77

The most famous film of Fellini's later period, Amarcord is a free-flowing stream of nostalgia much like Satyricon is a free-flowing stream of Roman decadence. This film's sense of nostalgia is so potent that the images, events, and characters may feel instantly familiar to the viewer, even to those who have never seen it before. It's a film to be enjoyed and cherished - humorous, earthy, beautiful and permeated with a feeling of a faraway place in time. Fellini presents this remembrance of his childhood in Rimini in the episodic style which had become his trademark by this point in his career: characters float in and out, seasons come and go, situations arise and then pass like visions seen through a fog. The end result is a moving and unprententious film - clearly realized, but hard to pin down. In other words, Amarcord is a shining example of the merits to be found in Fellini's later work.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Interim compendium

And just like that, there has been another lengthy lapse in my blog activity. Funny how time slips away. I didn't mean for the blog to fall by the wayside, but unfortunately school and other time constraints have kept me away. However, since I do still have a backlog of films that I've watched from the list during that time, I've decided to put together a digest post showing the films I've watched over the past few months, along with some brief thoughts.

#511: Night of the Demon
1957, TSPDT Rank #800
-This famous satanic horror film would work a lot better without the disappointing shots of the titular demon inserted at the behest of the film's producer. With these shots in the film, the staunch skepticism displayed by Dana Andrews' paranormal psychologist seem ridiculous, and undermine what could have been a very unsettling and effective horror film.

#512: Point Blank
Directed by: JOHN BOORMAN
1967, TSPDT Rank #507
-A highly stylized and unconventional revenge film, starring Lee Marvin as an escaped convict hell-bent on recovering his share of a heist take from his double-crossing partner. This film is like a double-edged sword - working as both an unflinching study of violence and an electrifying, straight-ahead neo-noir.

#513: Rebel Without a Cause
Directed by: NICHOLAS RAY
1955, TSPDT Rank #536
-James Dean is the quintessential American icon of rebellious youth, and this is the film that cemented his legend. His character in this film is a misunderstood victim of circumstance who has to stand up and prove himself for those he cares about. Another of Nicholas Ray's critiques on American society which rocked 1950s America to the core upon its release.

#514: Seven Chances
Directed by: BUSTER KEATON
1925, TSPDT Rank #734
-Buster Keaton's comic brilliance is once again on display in this film, in which he tries to get a woman (preferably the love of his life) to marry him by 7 p.m., in order to collect a sizable inheritance from his grandfather. 

#515: Gilda
Durected by: CHARLES VIDOR
-This film noir is reknowned mainly for Rita Hayworth's title character, the image of whom became one of the classic pin-ups of post-war America. But the film is anything but a straight-forward film noir. Instead, it's more of a strange, psychosexual melodrama, with many moments that miss the mark. Hayworth's iconic scenes and electrifying screen presence balance out these moments, but the film is still somewhat disappointing given its reputation as a classic.

#516: The Last Detail
Directed by: HAL ASHBY
1973, TSPDT Rank #862
-A rollicking, partially improvisational road movie about two Navy officers escorting a young soldier to military prison for petty theft, eventually deciding to show him a good time along the way. Part of a movement of similar films which Easy Rider was responsible for initiating, it's the kind of film which was unique to the late '60s/early '70s era of American film. Jack Nicholson's performance gives the film an extra spark of rebellion and restless energy.

#517: Odd Man Out
Directed by: CAROL REED
1947, TSPDT Rank #765
-James Mason gives a memorable performance in Carol Reed's supremely atmospheric and suspenseful film noir classic about the wounded leader of an Irish revolutionary group trying to evade police over the course of a rainy and snowy night in Northern Ireland.

#518: Mildred Pierce
1945, TSPDT Rank #876
-Another well-known film noir which entertains, but doesn't fully live up to the towering hype attributed to it. Joan Crawford's performance saves it from being merely ordinary.

#519: Zéro de conduite
Directed by: JEAN VIGO
1933, TSPDT Rank #215
-This absurdist schoolboy rebellion fantasy is like nothing else in cinema history, although people like Francois Truffaut and Lindsay Anderson famously borrowed from its premise and characters. Brief and inexplicable, surreal and beautiful - a crucial component of Jean Vigo's legend.

#520: Day for Night
1973, TSPDT Rank #449
-Francois Truffaut's most famous post-'60s film, for good reason. Its ensemble portrait of the people responsible for the movies we watch is a prime example of life imitating art.

#521: Stolen Kisses
1968, TSPDT Rank #974
-My favorite of the later entries to the Antoine Doinel series. Probably also the lightest and most entertaining of the series as well. Don't miss Antoine as a private detective!

#522: Out of the Past
1947, TSPDT Rank #178
-A quintessential slice of classic film noir, starring Robert Mitchum as an unlucky but perpetually cool private detective. All of the pieces fell into place for this film - which shares a similar premise with films like The Big Sleep, but has a different sort of mood - with a sharp, shifting narrative and steady momentum. An impeccably crafted and extremely entertaining film - rightly deserves its classic status.

#523: Fellini Satyricon
1969, TSPDT Rank #465
-Fellini outdid himself with this film - an impossibly extravagant and surreal depiction of Roman debauchery. I can only imagine how audiences reacted to this film upon its release - it still feels completely insane and unfathomable today. A film which truly could not have been made by anyone else.