My apologies for the non-mystery related post, but I am procrastinating the only way I know how. In 11 months or so, I’ll post my favorites of the 1930s and continue sporadically.
So, in no particular order…
The Third Generation (1979) Rainer Werner Fassbinder
There is black comedy and then there’s The Third Generation. Bitter and Caustic, it had to end in delusional happiness for all sides involved. For the bored, bullying, leftist terrorists, there is the chance to play revolutionary, while the manipulative, scheming, capitalist gets to realize his dream of turning death into Deutschmarks. Everybody’s happy. Terrorism is fun, rape is love, and murder is just another purity test on the road to your failed ideology.
Are you laughing yet?
I saw this film at Facets when I was just getting into Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He has other films that could have made my top ten (World on a Wire and In a Year of 13 Moons come to mind), but I’ll never forget the lights coming up while I sat slack-jawed, wondering what the hell had just happened.
Mikey and Nicky (1973-1984ish??) Elaine May
What to say about Elaine May’s masterpiece? I suppose a rambling film deserves a rambling description. Method acting, long into the night soul-searching by two luckless bastards who desperately need each other, constant shifting of audience sympathy, pockets of hilarious levity inside desperate, sweaty tests of loyalty, betrayals that stick in your gut, graveyard eulogies that insult the dead, 2:00 am greasy diner chow, and cigarettes! Oh my God! Do these people strike matches and smoke while they feed off each other’s souls. John Cassavetes and Peter Falk grabbing the scenery and beating each other with it until there are no secrets left and all the cards are on the table and one of them is going to be killed and it’s the other one’s fault. Not a single stable composition and I don’t mean shaky cam, I mean the characters won’t be contained by a planned sequence, they have to move and they have to move now.
You won’t see a better-acted film. You can’t. It doesn’t exist. During a brawl, Cassavetes breaks Falk’s watch. Falk tells him that his father gave him that watch. The winding stem has broken off. As Cassavetes searches the rain-soaked street, he picks up a small piece and asks if it’s the winding stem. In a shattering mixture of anger and despair at losing the only thing he has from his dead father, Falk calmly says that he thinks it’s one of the hands. “I think it’s one of the hands.” — I’ve heard that line in my head (in Falk’s voice) sporadically for the last 25 years.
Finally, reality arrives in the form of the sun. Time’s up. It always comes eventually. Every sin Cassavetes ever committed comes back at once and he begs for his life before being gunned down. Falk has to listen to every word of it from outside his door.
Elaine May’s approach apparently matched the manic performances.
From Wikipedia: The film’s original $1.8 million budget had grown to nearly $4.3 million by the time May turned the film over to Paramount. She shot 1.4 million feet of film, almost three times as much as was shot for Gone with the Wind. By using three cameras that she sometimes left running for hours, May captured spontaneous interaction between Falk and Cassavetes. At one point, Cassavetes and Falk had both left the set and the cameras remained rolling for several minutes. A new camera operator said “Cut!” only to be immediately rebuked by May for usurping what is traditionally a director’s command. He protested that the two actors had left the set. “Yes”, replied May, “but they might come back”
There are tales of May locking herself in the editing suite and holding the negative hostage. She’s been quoted as saying she never finished editing the thing. Fantastic!
This was one of those miraculous discoveries I made at Ken’s World of Video. Ken’s was a crappy little rental place that carried about 10 out-of-print films on VHS. They weren’t there because the owners had deliberately stocked them. They were there to create volume. At one point I tried to buy it and the cashier said she couldn’t.
“Who else rents this film?”
She looked at the computer screen. “Only you. A lot.”
Frenzy (1972) Alfred Hitchcock
Any discussion about Jaws always includes something to the effect of: “Spielberg held the shark back for such a long time that it made a much greater impact when it finally came.” This is undoubtedly true.
Frenzy takes the opposite approach. It shows you the worst at about the thirty-minute mark. After that, Hitchcock doesn’t have to show anything because you already know what it looks like. This technique was done very well in No Country for Old Men when the film started eliding the murders in the second half. How many times can we watch a skull being battered with a captive bolt pistol before we’ve had enough? The answer is 1, by the way.
In Frenzy, We find out the identity of the necktie killer in a scene so brutal that I stopped breathing the first time I saw it. This was Hitchcock’s only R rated movie and it deserved the rating. So horrifying is the scene that it stays in our mind the entire film. Later, the killer is strolling through Covent Garden with a character we really like. She thinks this man is going to help her, but we know better. As they walk to his apartment, the viewer starts to panic.
“No. Don’t go. Something will happen. She’ll change her mind. He can’t kill the most likeable character.”
They walk up the stairs, the camera tracking them. He opens the door and she walks inside. He says his line. “You’re my type of woman.” He closes the door. The camera pulls back and tracks down the empty stairs. No sound. Like a well-trained viewer, I stopped breathing again. I don’t mean to single out one sequence of a film that is filled with brilliance, but when a director can terrify me with a shot of an empty stairway, I’m impressed.
Later there’s a neat trick where you find yourself, just for a minute, rooting for the murderer when he has to retrieve a bit of incriminating evidence from a corpse in the back of a potato truck. Total dick move by Hitchcock.
Frenzy is an electrifying display of skill from a 72-year-old man whose time was thought to be over. Vertigo, Marnie, Sabotage, Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window are all better Hitchcock films, but Frenzy is my favorite. It even ends on one of the best closing lines in cinema. “Mr. Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie.”
Cries and Whispers (1973) Ingmar Bergman
A good portion of serious film critics and enthusiasts consider Ingmar Bergman’s work to be filmed theatre and not cinema. Personally, I think this is mostly a reaction to how stuffy and oppressive his work seems rather than his lack of sophisticated mise en scène and montage, but perhaps Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kerr and the like make some good points. I am even willing to go 50/50 on this. Let’s say half of his work consists of a Swedish masochist masturbating to life’s pain for the sake of seeming to be important. Stuff like Through a Glass Darkly, The Devil’s Eye, The Touch, Hour of the Wolf, and more than a few others were overrated and not worth the acolades they received in their day. No problem.
But then I’m left with Persona, Fanny and Alexander, From the Life of the Marionettes, Autumn Sonata, and more than a few others. I’m also left with Cries and Whispers, the most disquieting of films. How to describe it? This film is like boot camp for watching your loved ones die. Two sisters who can’t bring themselves to comfort the third as she experiences a slow agonizing death. They can’t even stand to look at her, let only touch her soon-to-be decaying flesh.
The film often uses fades but when it does, it’s not to the comfort of black. It fades to a burning red. Bergman thought it to be the color of the soul’s membrane. It’s as good of an image for that concept as I can think of.
Cries and Whispers is primarily a story told with images and sounds rather than dialogue: The constant ticking of the clock; The women scurrying through the vast hallways with flickering candles, heading toward the agonizing moans of their sister; The one sister ripping her vagina with a jagged glass shard and then smearing the blood on her smile to avoid sex with her husband; The other humiliating her husband to the point of his attempted suicide and then denying her abuse.
I would be remiss not to consider Bergman’s religious belief and occasional lack of it. The maid is the only religious character in the film. She is seen praying for the soul of her dead baby. She’s the only one who is willing to touch the cancer-ridden body of the third sister. I don’t think it’s necessary to be religious to care for the infirm, (I would hope empathy to be enough) but when life turns to its most gruesome and grotesque, Bergman believes that something more powerful than humanity is the only thing that will carry us through without succumbing to madness.
It ends with a flashback to an earlier, happier time. All three sisters are dressed in white with parasols. You can see it on the poster. They walk through a field on a beautiful spring day. We hear the dead woman narrate.
All my aches and pains were gone. The people I am most fond of in all the world were with me. I could hear their chatting around me. I could feel the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. I wanted to hold the moment fast and thought, “Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.”
New York, New York (1977) Martin Scorsese
When I was eleven, I used to go through the little t.v. guides that came with the newspaper. I would highlight the 3 or 4-star reviews and try to watch as many films as I could throughout the week. The reviews themselves were always simple, one-line descriptions about the plot. Occasionally, there would be an adjective thrown in. Serial was a ‘smart satire’ and The Immigrants was an ‘involving drama’, but no critical analysis was added because there wasn’t enough room. One week, New York, New York was playing on whatever the name of the New York local station was. The review gave it 4 stars, included a few laudatory adjectives and ended with ‘Directed by Martin Scorsese.’
I was intrigued. Why would they mention the director? They’ve never mentioned any other director. Why now?
So, I had to watch it in order to find out. The film was enjoyable. It was a musical but not in an overbearing way (I’m not a big fan of them), and the performances were nervy and edgy. The two main characters weren’t really likeable and yet I was drawn to them. I found a lot of pleasure in their tumultuous romance.
Then came the scene. In the middle of this long film, they have a scene by the side of the road, next to a forest. As I watched it, I kept thinking how horrible the forest looked. The trees were obviously fake. I thought back to the big band numbers with all the extras and I thought, “This movie had that big scene with all the extras and now this kindergarten set design.” And then I thought, “Wait, that’s not right. They wouldn’t make a mistake like that. Martin…,” I checked the guide, “…Scorsese wouldn’t do that.”
And then it hit me. Someone made the decision to make the trees look fake. At some point in 1977, someone made a conscious decision to do that. It was probably this Scorsese fellow. I had never considered that conscious decisions were being made. I guess I thought films just came out like babies and grew up.
But, why would he do that? Why would someone want a phony looking background?
I thought about it even more, and I realized that these phony movie sets should have had a typical movie romance attached to them. You know, by decent human beings whose insecurities could be covered up by a line or two and they would end up living happily ever after. By the time De Niro strands Minnelli at the hospital with their baby, you know that ain’t where this is headed. I started to like the sets and I started to notice more of them throughout the film. When it ended unhappily, I knew that the things going on in front of the sets were meant to contrast with the artificial beauty of the sets for some reason. I rented the film and watched it a few more times. Bingo. How exciting.
Intrigued, I had to know more. I asked my mom to buy me some books. They were simple movie review and index books, but I pored through them. I memorized the names and the films. I didn’t know how to pronounce Michaelangelo Antonioni, but I could tell you when all his films were released in America. I knew I had to watch the full version of Once Upon a Time in America and not the US version. I also found out that Leonard Maltin was weird.
(Seriously, I think that man was on a lot of drugs. Some of his descriptions in no way match the films that he’s talking about. One example: In A Year of 13 Moons is a hellish portrait of a trans woman who tries to go back to being a man post surgery. It is one of the most nightmarish, deeply personal films about the loss of identity that I’ve ever seen. In one scene, the main character screams about his pain while we see actual cows being slaughtered. Lenny’s review: Great campy fun! What the fuck, Leonard! What drugs were you on?)
Most important of all, I knew I had a lot of films to watch.
I suppose at this time, I have to mention that one of the books I got was Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook. Ebert was not a great film critic, but he was the best gateway a boy could ever have. His passionate writing inspired me to see more films than any other critic. If you want to see the difference between passionate writing and skillful writing, read Ebert’s review of Love Streams and then Dave Kerr’s review of Love Streams. Kerr’s is a far superior analysis. Ebert’s made a young boy ride his bike to Ken’s World of Video to rent the film. (another miraculous find at Ken’s!)
But it all goes back to New York, New York. I haven’t seen the film for a while, but the last time I saw it, I was impressed with its recreations of 1950’s cinema and its elaborate quotations of other films. Though it can be a bit of an academic exercise rather than a living, breathing work of art, I still thoroughly enjoy it. How much of that is nostalgia?
Probably, a lot. I’ll always have a soft spot for New York, New York.
The Brood (1979) David Cronenberg
I know this film is about divorce and its effect on children. The theme is woven very strongly in the film’s structure and details. But, as creepy as it sounds, I identify with the Samantha Eggar character. So…
What does anger look like? Imagine all the times you’ve felt violated, slighted, defiled, ignored, and cheated. Now, give those feelings a shape and hand that shape a mallet–the shape of rage. It’s a great idea for a horror movie. It helps that David Cronenberg directed it. Before he decided to waste his talents on satire, Cronenberg was the best that horror had to offer.
Are you uncomfortable with your body? At some point everyone is. Let’s see just how bad things are going to get. Body horror exists because our bodies are the very things that will do us in.
Norm MacDonald did a really smart bit during a stand-up show. “What are the odds that a terrorist will kill you? Like zero. But what are the odds that you will be attacked and killed by your own heart? Like 100%. The heart’s not good.”
You can treat your body like a temple, but it is rented and, at some point, it will turn on you. It’s not your friend. No one has shown the split between mind and body like Cronenberg. In this film, the body takes the worst ideas of a troubled mind and runs with them.
I saw The Brood as a young child on cable (it may have even been on Spectrum! We’re talking about still playing with GI Joes.) and it terrified me. It still does, but for very different reasons. It’s a relentless film of desolate despair, set during the bleak Canadian winter. The compositions are direct and uncluttered. It seems singular of purpose. Very few monsters of the cinema can compare to these rage babies.
Very funny story about the notorious ‘birthing’ scene at the end: Samantha Eggar thought it would make sense to lick the baby clean like a bitch licks its pups. For Cronenberg, it made perfect sense — perfect disgusting sense. The Canadian censors were not enamoured and trimmed it. Their result made the scene look like she was eating her baby, which, as Cronenberg noted, was far worse.
Once again the word ‘favourite’ dictates the choice. The Fly is more assured, Dead Ringers is more elegant, Naked Lunch and Videodrome are far more transgressive, and Crash is…well, Crash is just Crash. And if I have to explain that Cronenberg’s car crash porno movie Crash is not Paul Haggis’s Oscar bait Crash, then you can stop reading, cause you ain’t gonna like The Brood.
The Brood is raw. Cronenberg said he wrote the script during his divorce, during which she kidnapped his daughter from her kindergarten. While writing the screenplay, he was up in his unheated attic, completely pissed off and typing with gloves that had the fingertips cut off — the shape of rage indeed. What a vision!
Night Moves (1975) Arthur Penn
I’ve seen Last Year At Marienbad three times. I’m not going to watch it a fourth. I don’t get it, and I don’t like it. It ain’t for me. Sometimes I watch films and simply do not understand them.
But, sometimes I see a film I don’t understand, but I know I like it. Like Night Moves.
My parents had a subscription to a video club in the early 90’s. They would get one (or more) movies a month. Being very generous, they let me choose the movies. We had a pretty good library going after a while. Arthur Penn really interested me because the only film he made that anyone really talked about was Bonnie and Clyde. So, when I looked at the catalogue and saw Night Moves was directed by Arthur Penn, I took a chance and ordered it.
I watched it yet had no idea what happened. If you had asked me what it was about, I couldn’t have told you. I knew Gene Hackman played a private eye named Harry Moseby. I knew that he had a case, but I quickly forgot what the case was. And I couldn’t remember how he ended up in Florida. Or why he went back there. I didn’t know who betrayed him (at any point in the film) or why or who exactly died or who betrayed whom or why anything happened.
I watched it a second time. Same shit.
But I loved the film. None of the scenes transitioned smoothly. They kind of bumped into each other along the way. And then the framing. If you watch this film, look at how everyone is uncomfortably forced into frames. It’s as if someone is constantly telling them to move closer. And the paranoia. Something in my subconscious was telling me nothing was right but the actual events on screen weren’t providing any clues. And Jennifer Warren. Yeah, Jennifer Warren.
We have that phrase: style over substance. The idea is that providing lots of fancy ways of telling the story is not a substitute for the meaning of a story. If your film is empty, you cannot hide that fact by dressing it up. Night Moves was another step in my understanding that style is substance. There wasn’t much I could say about the substance. I didn’t know what it was.
I watched the film again and again, desperate to find its secret. Finally, I took pen and paper and wrote down all the events.
I mapped out the information on the screen and what I came up with is that the mystery is unsolvable. We do find out whodunit, but nothing is much solved. Night Moves is about a detective who finds himself in a mystery that no one can figure out. And if they do manage to figure out, it won’t matter. In a decade that brought us the paranoid glories of The Conversation, Chinatown, All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, and so many others, Night Moves is the one I treasure the most.
Films need to provide visual metaphor. At the end of Night Moves, Harry is left drifting in a boat. Perfection.
Halloween (1978) John Carpenter
Halloween is one of the first films I can remember watching. I even have a memory of explaining the plot to the women who cut my hair at the local salon. I ran around the room, acting out the scenes. I think more stuff happened in my version. From that time until now, Halloween has only gotten better. Every so often, I’ll watch it, expecting the opposite. I’m almost 45 now, and I don’t think it’s going to happen.
I think people react so strongly to the film because the strategy is so simple. There is a threat in the background, an eerily white face that begins appearing in the corners of the frame and then disappearing into the inky black night. Slowly (ever so deliciously) the white face starts to get closer and closer to the characters until it finally enters the frame and begins interacting with them.
It’s perfect in the way that a functioning machine is perfect. You have three teenage girls as the characters? Debra Hill can write their dialogue and they sound age-appropriate and realistic. You don’t have money for special effects? Red is not part of the film’s color palette. No effects-heavy bloodshed is needed. You need a sinister tracking camera? Steadycam had been recently invented. Every effect the film needs to achieve is comfortably within its grasp. This film has bitten off the perfect amount and has no trouble chewing it.
There’s a term that people like to throw around: pure cinema. Its original definition was a cinema that focused on the pure elements of film, like motion, visual composition and rhythm. That’s Halloween.
After the slasher craze began in the early eighties, some accused the film of being immoral. It was said that the viewer was made to identify with the killer. Of course, many of those people were watching the film on television where the sides of the widescreen frame had been cropped. In many shots, the killer was cut out and we indeed became him, spying on potential victims. One viewing of the properly formatted film shows this not to be the case. He’s at the corner of the frame, patiently waiting for that unbelievable score to kick in so he can enter.
Halloween makes one small misstep near the end. There’s a tiny bit of dialogue between Jamie-Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance that spells out some subtext that should be left to the images. However, the film happily fixes it with the final montage of the empty locations. We hear the breathing of the monster with every location and then a bit with the cut to black.. Perhaps he’s returning to the background, waiting to strike again. Of course, we now know he was just waiting for a shitty sequel or seven. Oh, well.
John Carpenter films were a big part of my movie-watching youth. The Thing, Escape From New York, The Fog, and Assault of Precinct 13 were all cinematically literate, smart, and well-made entertainments that look better and better with every passing year.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) Robert Altman
There was a time when I avoided westerns. I would occasionally catch one or two that I really liked. Sam Fuller’s 40 Guns blew me away, and The Searchers and My Darling Clementine were impressive, and everybody likes Johnny Guitar and The Wild Bunch. A few years back, I watched the 5 Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart Westerns and after seeing those, I could call myself a fan of the genre. Out of those five films, The Naked Spur was the greatest and it remains the single best western that I’ve seen.
But I have always loved McCabe & Mrs. Miller because I never thought of it as a western. I think of it as a Robert Altman film. Popeye is not a children’s film, The Long Goodbye is not a detective film, Quintet isn’t sci-fi, and Thieves Like Us isn’t a crime film. They’re all Robert Altman films.
We meet McCabe in the opening scene as the bar patrons are gossiping about him. They all talk at once and we quickly realize the film isn’t going to point us in any specific direction. It’s not going to hold our hand. We’ll pick up what we can and anything we don’t hear…well, it happened anyway. This is what people mean when they say Altman’s films are lifelike. While watching this film, we have the uncanny feeling that its characters are still doing things when they aren’t on screen.
Lifelike is a good word to describe it. It feels true.
Back in 71, Altman was watching 2001 while Kubrick was watching McCabe & Mrs. Miller in an adjacent screening room. They met each other afterwards and Kubrick asked him how he got those zoom shots. They seemed so fortuitous. Imagine the director of 2001 asking someone else how he did it.
At one point a young girl (she looks about 16) is being sold into prostitution. She’s incredibly quiet and doesn’t say much during the film. At one point she speaks and McCabe roughly asks her, “What?” The camera slowly zooms into her face and she says, “I have to go to the pot and I don’t think I can hold it.” It’s haunting.
Haunting is another word. Images from it always stay with you. I’ve never forgotten that girl or Warren Beatty’s sudden realization of the kind of world he’s living in.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a special-looking film. Vilmos Zsigmond famously flashed the film. It was slightly exposed before shooting which created an oil-painting look. This has been done on many other films, but never to such great effect. It’s the most gorgeous color film I know.
Gorgeous, there’s another good word for it.
The Phantom of Liberty (1974) Luis Bunuel
Of course, it is impossible to list the 10th film. There are too many to mention. I’m just putting The Phantom of Liberty here because (1.) I’m quite fond of it and (2.) I wrote a paper about it in college. I remember mentioning how many critics talked about the eating/shitting scene and how amazing it was that Bunuel had forced those critics to do so.
It seems to me there are two types of liberty. The first is liberty from a tyrannical government, and I believe in it 100%. The second is a cosmic sort of liberty. That’s what the film is about. Here, I agree with the film’s title.
He didn’t need to include all the perversion to convince me, but his heart was in the right place.
Okay–the next post will be back to normal. Hope you are doing well.