Saturday, August 24, 2019

#687: Fata Morgana

Directed by: WERNER HERZOG
1971, TSPDT Rank #825

Whenever I see an image of a plane landing or ascending in a film, I always expect to see it explode. So when Fata Morgana began with an image of a plane landing, and then another, and then another... each landing giving off more exhaust, I increasingly expected to see something like this. However, these initial images seem to have no connection with the rest of the film, which is divided into three parts: Creation, Paradise, and The Golden Age. The setting is the Sahara Desert and various surrounding villages. We see surreal images of sand, natural landscapes, impoverished villages, and mirages. All the while esoteric music and even more esoteric narration accompanies the seemingly randomly assembled visuals.

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Everything in the film seems calculated to create such esoteric emotions as the ones I experienced with the images of the plane landing, although nothing that follows is as compelling. There's a lot of irony and a detached hallucinatory quality. But overall, Herzog seems to be creating a vision of his personal hell, which translated to a hellish viewing experience for this viewer. At least it's short and features some good Leonard Cohen music in the second half - although it was used to much better effect in Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

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#686: Akira Kurosawa's Dreams

1990, TSPDT Rank #973

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams begins with a child's forbidden glimpse of a mythical fox wedding procession and ends with an adult man viewing a funeral procession performed as a celebration of life. What comes between is often much darker - dealing with the loss of innocence, the search for beauty, and the suffering of existence.

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The film consists of eight segments - each representing individual dreams that Kurosawa had over the course of his life. As such it also functions as a non-linear autobiography. The first two segments represent Kurosawa's childhood memories: combining otherworldly visuals with various elements of traditional Japanese culture (such as music, religion, mythology, Noh theater, festivals, and imperial culture). As the dreams move in adulthood, they take on a much more harrowing tone. Two deal with memories of war, two others protest against man's pollution of the earth - again employing Japanese folklore and cultural symbolism in the process.

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In some scenes, Kurosawa's tendency to rely too heavily on dialogue takes over, while in others, the urge to create scenes of mesmerizing beauty takes precedence. These scenes (namely the childhood segments and "Crows", which features Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh) are the film's crown jewels. There are masterful instances of characters being superimposed on imaginary backgrounds, or vice versa, such as in the hallucinatory Mt. Fuji nuclear disaster scene, obviously influenced by Ishiro Honda's equally environmentally-conscious Godzilla films (Honda worked as advisor to Kurosawa on this film).

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Collections of short films tend to be a mixed bag, and Dreams is no exception. Still, it's interesting for Kurosawa fans to see how the master's perspective changed in his later years, while also providing an essential glimpse of traditional Japanese culture for Westerners.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

#685: Casque d'or

1952, TSPDT Rank #696

I've been chasing this one for awhile, and it was worth the wait. A torrid story of love in a world of criminals set in 19th-century Paris, Jacques Becker's Casque d'or is as romantic as it is brutally direct - much like a slap to the face between two lovers, the likes of which are seen repeatedly throughout this film. It's a potent work of romantic tragedy - the romance is fragile, the people in it are hopelessly flawed, and the world around them is harsh and unforgiving. Simone Signoret's captivating performance as Marie, the woman who inspires the awe and desire of all the low-class hoods she surrounds herself with, is certainly worthy of recognition, but every performance in this film creates an impression. Of particular note is Serge Reggiani, who plays the ex-con carpenter who Marie falls in love with. His performance is much more stoic and less outwardly heated than Signoret's, but he radiates passion and fatalistic cool in his performance as the doomed Manda.

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In this world of petty corruption, double crosses, and crimes of passion, where criminals escape from the law with ease in horse-drawn cabs and meet their deaths just as easily, where love is summed up in a brief instant by the river and a night in a rustic cottage far away from the town, love takes on a universal meaning and everything surrounding it takes on a note of tragedy. The tragedy is inescapable, but the romance which fueled it was worth the risk. Clearly, the world which Jacques Becker created in Casque d'or is itself a product of a bygone era. These concepts and visions could not be portrayed so directly and beautifully today.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

#684: The Crime of Monsieur Lange

Directed by: JEAN RENOIR
1935, TSPDT Rank #350

Hollywood films of the 1930s are often like sparkling diamonds, while Jean Renoir's early sound films are more like unpolished jewels uncovered from the ash heap of history. But whereas La chienne and La nuit du carrefour could feel somewhat clunky in terms of their storytelling momentum, The Crime of Monsieur Lange is bursting with non-stop energy. Almost all of the action takes place in a cramped cluster of buildings within a single neighborhood - a frenzied beehive of activity where its always hard to get your bearings. There are women, men, and a wicked old publishing magnate who has his way with both of them. The publisher, Batala, is played by Jules Berry in what is much more of a star performance than René Lefèvre's portrayal of the titular everyman. Batala is as smooth and romantic as he is ugly and cruel. Rather than the classic femme fatale character that was seen in many films noir (with Renoir's La chienne as one of the prototypes), Battala is a true homme fatale.

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There is also a political dimension to the film, with Battala positioned as the "fascist" in whose absence the former employees of his company are able to fashion a working "cooperative" out of the company that once served only the man in charge. However, this angle isn't explored too deeply. What leaves a deeper impression is the ending. An old man in silhouette against a brightly lit window, a wolf in sheep's clothing, a murder in the shadows, and a couple on the run. As this film hasn't been properly restored for DVD yet, the bootleg copy I watched had awful sound and dull picture quality. Yet even so, the final shot is as beautiful as you will see in any film. We can only hope that this film and Renoir's other early works will get their due someday.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

#683: Harlan County, U.S.A.

1976, TSPDT Rank #675

There's a tendency to take the term "documentary" at face value and look at documentary films as "documents" or "records". Most documentaries, however, will show that the line between documentaries and narrative films is not so clearly demarcated. In Harlan County, U.S.A. for example, Barbara Kopple shaped over a year's worth of sporadic documentary footage into a narrative about the long labor strike in a Kentucky coal town, a narrative which makes us feel that we are witnessing the core truth at the center of an extended historical moment. This is what the best documentaries do, although maybe the only major difference between the preparation of narrative films and documentaries is that the latter takes more planning after the footage is shot rather than before, while during the shoot, the main objective is to be in the right place at the right time.

For whatever reason, perhaps to allow us to see what effect the passage of time had on the miners' strike efforts, Kopple often left time gaps of multiple months between strike footage, with the biggest focus being given to the final months of the strike, as we start to see the miners' life become more endangered, while at the same time the miners start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The gaps between footage are occupied by skillfully situated interviews about the history of coal mining labor conditions and past conflicts in Harlan County, along with segments on the corruption within the United Mine Workers of America, whose contract the Harlan County mine workers fought to get their employers to sign. While Kopple put a largely positive spin on the miners' long fight for better pay and more rights, the focus on union corruption suggests that the fight is never over for the American working class.
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In any case, this Oscar-winning film is a great study in the methods that documentary filmmakers use to construct a narrative out of their material. There's a marked difference between a film like Harlan County, U.S.A. and a primetime news report. The careful mix of contemporary interviews, cinema verite footage, stock footage and potent folk music written about inhuman mining conditions and the long struggle for mine workers' rights is the mark of a filmmaker who saw a story that needed telling and spent years crafting it in a way that would resonate with audiences both in the moment and for decades to come. With this in mind, the line between a great documentary and a great narrative film is not all that pronounced after almost 50 years of hindsight. Although the fact that in capturing the miners' story, Kopple and her crew also became involved in their struggle, gives the film an added energy and a feeling of unvarnished reality that only a good documentary can provide.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

#682: Wanda

Directed by: BARBARA LODEN
1970, TSPDT Rank #375

Towards the beginning of Barbara Loden's sole directorial feature, we see the director, writer, and star of this film as a woman in white, walking down a black coal road lined with lush greenery. After an opening sequence which sets up the film's poor Appalachian setting in a series of brief shots in a cramped working-class home with a screaming baby, this image - a long shot as well as a very long take - is at once profound, beautiful and mysterious. Where is this woman going? Is she running away from the squalid home she's been living at? Is she going to take charge of her life and transcend the harsh working-class life she's been born into?

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Wanda initially seems to raise these questions, but its mentality is ultimately not such an obvious feminist rallying cry, as you might expect from an independent film made by a female director in the early 1970s. Instead, it's a very personal meditation on what it means to be a person adrift - with no direction in life and no clear identity. In Wanda, Loden's title character looks for direction and thinks she's found it in a petty criminal whom she refers to as "Mr. Dennis", a cruel, stupid petty criminal who has dreams of robbing a bank but no aptitude for crime whatsoever. Nevertheless, Wanda willingly allows Dennis to control her life - telling her what to do, what to wear, and eventually convincing her to help him in his doomed robbery scheme.

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Michael Higgins, the actor who plays Mr. Dennis, was the only professional actor in the film besides Loden. Combined with the film's low-budget, its grainy 16mm look and hard-luck settings, Wanda has all the makings of a political statement. However, while Loden didn't completely turn a blind eye to the societal conditions that shape people like Wanda, the main focus is on the psychology of her main character. With the low-budget production values and questionable results of many of the amateur performances in the film, Wanda isn't a perfect film by any means, but it's a priceless historical snapshot of its era (particularly in coal country) as well as a strong character piece. In its thematic goals and tone, it has in a lot in common with Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces - only with a woman who never had anything rather than a man who had everything and threw it away.

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The Criterion Collection has just come to the rescue and restored this rare film for release on DVD and Blu-ray! Find it here:

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

#681: A Man For All Seasons

1966, TSPDT Rank #959

Watching all of the Best Picture Oscar winners was my first goal as a movie fan, even though it's one that I still haven't completed. I only watched about half of the films at that time, and although I have since caught up on most of the ones that I missed since then, there are still a few that have slipped through the cracks. This is partly because I've since become very disillusioned with the Oscars since my early days as a film buff. Their focus on glamour, industry self-congratulation and middle-of-the-road films gets harder to swallow with each passing year. Still, maybe in memory of my old goal, I remain interested in each year's Best Picture winner, although I'm usually disappointed or underwhelmed. This year's winner, Green Book, doesn't seem likely to break that tradition, so I decided to take a look back at a Best Picture winner from over 50 years ago that I still hadn't seen.

The film, although just over 50 years old, is set about 500 years ago, during the time of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Sir Thomas More. Thomas More will be known to history students as Henry VIII's one-time friend and chancellor, who became accused of treason when he refused to endorse Henry's divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn - along with Henry's simultaneous break with the Catholic Church and establishment of himself as the head of the Church of England. And A Man For All Seasons is just right for those of us who can't remember very far beyond that synopsis. It positions Thomas More as a lone hero up against the odds, just like Gary Cooper in director Fred Zinnemann's earlier film High Noon - not to mention exactly the type of character that the Oscars love. Furthermore, in keeping with his recognition as a saint in more recent years, it does so without touching upon any of his flaws, including his reportedly vile treatment of heretics.

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But while it might be historically dubious, A Man For All Seasons still paints an entertaining outline of its characters, based on a contemporary play by Robert Bolt (with Paul Scofield reprising his starring role as More from the stage). Zinnemann crafted a riveting story from the play, although not a particularly distinguished one visually, except in its outdoor scenes. In its indoor scenes, the film always seems to evoke a theatrical set more than a historical setting. But above all, A Man For All Seasons is a straightforward film meant to showcase its source material and its performances. Besides Socfield, Robert Shaw shines as a rowdy reimagining of the infamous Henry VIII, Orson Welles looks fittingly near death as the dying Cardinal Woolsey, John Hurt makes one of his first screen appearances as the rat Richard Rich, and Vanessa Redgrave even makes a brief appearance as Anne Boleyn. As for the themes of heresy, dissent, and the tendency of medieval institutions to confuse the two, a later film featuring Vanessa Redgrave, Ken Russell's The Devils provides a much more interesting and uncomfortable take - although you'd never find that film on an Oscar ballet!

Thursday, January 31, 2019

2019 Update: The Quest Continues

It's come earlier than usual this year - the annual update to the TSPDT list! This yearly change is inevitable, but it always requires me to recalculate where I'm at in my quest. I guess it's a case where you can never see exactly how far off in the distance the finish line actually is.

However, this year only brought a mere 31 changes to the list, meaning that 31 films have left the list and 31 films have been added, including the following 13 films which I have yet to see:

Amour (Michael Haneke)
Irréversible (Gaspar Noé)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Fata Morgana (Werner Herzog)
D'Est (Chantal Akerman)
The Last Bolshevik (Chris Marker)
Cría Cuervos (Carlos Saura)
Stroszek (Werner Herzog)
Strangers When We Meet (Richard Quine)
Le deuxieme souffle (Jean-Pierre Melville)
Caro Diario (Nanni Moretti)
Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka)
Diary (David Perlov)

Add these to the films I watched last year, subtract the films (both seen and unseen) that fell off the list this year, and that leaves me with a net gain of exactly 1 film on my previous total. So yes, I am now at 680 films seen of the 1,000. Let the new viewing year begin!

The complete 1,000 Greatest Films list (created by Bill Georgaris at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They) can be viewed at this link:

A list of all films that have left the list (from last year's edition as well as all previous versions) can be seen at this link: