In Victoria, Australia, on Valentine’s Day, in 1900, three female boarding school students and their teacher disappeared. Or so Peter Weir’s 1975 anti-genre classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, adapted from Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same title, shows us. It didn’t actually happen, but that doesn’t matter. It could have happened, and the literal truth of the tale is a red herring contrasted with the emotional truth of the tale. Plus, on the subject of “Western society making play with the world”, few films have spoken more emotional truth than Picnic at Hanging Rock. You might imagine the story on your own: a hard-hitting, grisly dissection of a mystery. A dissection that is very much not what Weir himself had in mind. But then, that’s why we are mere mortals, and Peter Weir is one of the great, underappreciated directors of the modern age. Continue reading
There are precious few directors that know how to wield a single scene quite like Michael Mann. His single greatest moment behind the camera belongs in Heat, a mid-film bank heist that overflows into a stuttery shootout that mashes together the rhythms of an urban jungle, the pageantry of an urban carnival, and a geometric fascination for odd, cutting edits and fascinatingly counter-intuitive visual storytelling. The shootout is one of the most perfect action scenes ever filmed, one of the most perfect scenes of 1990s cinema, and a startling showcase for a director who defines life as a collection of people (usually men) wallowing in their own danger until those men overflow onto each other and bubble till they erupt.
Because when I finished this series on 1995 I totally forgot to review two of the biggest films from that year, and I wanted to fill the gap…
The criminally conservative Braveheart is a tough sell in 2015, although it plainly isn’t so tough for director-star Mel Gibson. For all the damage he has done to both his own reputation and, more importantly, human progress in the ensuing decades, he is a passionate filmmaker, and in all three of his directed features, his love for cinema shows through. Questionable, problematic love that tends to hurt his films as much as it helps them, but a bastardized form of love nonetheless. In Braveheart, you find love in the luminous, misty myth cinematography by John Toll – which captures Scotland as it exists in myth more than reality and does the lion’s share of the work to overcome the film’s relentless problems with historical accuracy. You find love in Gibson’s grossly fetishistic, awestruck joy to observe men in the primal ballet of hacking limbs away from one another. You find love in his bald, open-hearted treatment of the Wars of Scottish Independence through the lens of a grandstanding 1950s Douglas Sirk melodrama, where any and all emotions are excuses to lose oneself to inhibition. Mel Gibson is many things, but he is not a cautious man, nor a cautious director. A Mel Gibson film goes big, or it goes home. Continue reading
It is said that the best horror films traffic in the slithering, slimy replacement of the mundane by the uncanny. True, to some extent, but the best of the best posit something more. Take 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by Tobe Hooper, a work that posits the mundane as the uncanny, locating a world where the mundane regions of American society were the most uncanny. A world where mundane and innocent society never really existed except in the romantic dreams of the American imagination. A world where everyday life is actually an uncanny abyss of demonic activity just waiting to swallow goodness and human life up whole. Continue reading
A Brian De Palma double-feature this week on Midnight Screenings.
Brian De Palma has always fashioned himself a Hitchcock connoisseur, a bravura stylistic showman who cruelly and soullessly played with his actors (especially his actresses) without care or concern. Specifically, he updated Hitch by adding a touch of giallo-era crimson paint and a laxer standard of violence that allowed him to show what Hitch had to imply. A fact that sacrifices some of the naughtier, more suggestive implications of Hitch’s best works, and for his part, De Palma’s morbid fascination with death never reached the caustically challenging heights of Hitch at his best. He was always more of a surface-level lurid showman, a sideshow ringleader interested in puritanically wowing his audiences with sights of lusty blood and enough macabre thematic perversion to scare the devil himself. Continue reading
Amidst the sinew and cartilage of cinema during 1999, so many new cinematic talents emerged from the fray that it can be easy to overlook some of the talents who, charitably speaking, took a while to truly do any emerging. One such force, David O. Russell, spent the better part of the next decade generally hiding from the cameras and doing his damnedest to sour his indie-goodwill, keeling over his once-bright reputation until he was known more as a blistering brute, an angry young discontent of a director behind-the-camera, than as a genuine talent whose skills were readily viewable on-screen. He became an untouchable, in other words, scaring off actors as far as the eye can see and sending them scouring for the new next young upstart director. Continue reading
If 1999 is an important year in cinema history – which most believe it to be – The Iron Giant is arguably the most important single film in the entire year’s canon, beginning as it does a great trend of films both wonderful and abysmal we have not yet escaped from: films based off of Pete Townshend concept albums.
I kid. But The Iron Giant is important for what it reveals about the year 1999: the trend of important directorial debuts, either formal “first film” debuts or debuts into the mainstream by independent directors who had directed a film or two before-hand. One does not need to have seen any films from 1999 to understand the importance of the directors that emerged from the thick of the eye of the millennial storm to shape the contours of cinema for the ensuing fifteen years. If some of these films seem wobbly today, they at least signaled the arrival of important cinematic voices for the ensuing decades. Continue reading
Eyes Wide Shut was Stanley Kubrick’s final completed feature film, and fittingly for a director who did more to redefine and test narrative cinema than arguably any other director of the 20th century, it feels like the summation of his decades-long quest to test how Machiavellian cinema could be. It feels like the completion of his life quest, but it also feels pointedly incomplete, like a work that remains alive and growing to this day. A work that refuses to be batted down or defined. A work that always has something to say to us, that invites discontent and disagreement, and a work that shows a talent still learning new tricks right up until his final moments. Kubrick was a director who always seemed both wise beyond his years and too young, too reckless, and too much of a social provocateur to fit in with the supposedly mature, normative adult world of cinema. Eyes Wide Shut, inviting both the age of wither of a great old-school fable and the heedless, impulsive, devil-may-care gravitas of an unformed New Hollywood bad-boy, is the culmination of all the contrasts that made Kubrick himself. Continue reading
Released in the arguable peak year of a particularly turn-of-the-century form of social consumerism undercut by social discontent, Fight Club is uncommonly similar to fellow Class of 99-er The Matrix. Like the era-defining Wachowski sci-fi smorgasbord of high-flying kicks and high-falling ideas, David Fincher’s conniving would-be exercise in cinematic post-modernism is a startling technical showpiece well-versed in genre mechanics that curdles under the weight of its oppressive, over-baked interpretation of social anomie. Except, while The Matrix eventually gave in and realized it was merely an action film putting on airs, Fight Club, adapted by Jim Uhls from the book by Chuck Palahniuk, takes refuge in its pretentious vision of society until the very end. It would seem that the great, unfortunate secret of the cinematic year of 1999 is that a great many of its biggest hits are stunning visual showpieces hiding deeply incompatible or incomprehensible screenplays (it is no surprise then that the year’s best film, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, succeeds primarily because it is entirely about its visuals, rather than an attempt to marry those visuals to a needlessly over-baked narrative). Continue reading
Photographed by canonical cinematographer Conrad Hall near the end of his long and varied career, American Beauty is a luminously, exasperatingly gorgeous motion picture. It also makes you feel a little sick for caring about cinematography at all, especially when it is put to use excusing and gussying up Alan Ball’s amateurish, ruthlessly self-apologetic, largely confused screenplay. Ball is a fully capable writer – his television shows have their place in a society currently convincing itself it is in the midst of a sort of Golden Age of Television. But he has never been particularly suited to the cinematic medium, and his exercises in concision truncate and confuse what is given episodes upon episodes to expand itself on the small screen. In particular, he has a severe difficulty managing tone, shooting from sickeningly sentimental monologues about modern society to cruel and unusual acerbic put-downs of a great majority of its cast, not to mention the paltry, piece-meal questions raised by his simplistic treatment of the modern middle-class. American Beauty is a troublesome, troubled film, and all the beauty in the world can’t make up for a screenplay as hurtful as this. Continue reading