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.