Category Archives: Picturing the Best

Picturing the Best: The Departed and Million Dollar Baby

the20departed205The Departed

No one ought to be surprised that The Departed, unlike Marty Scorsese’s pantheon of vituperative modern classics, cleaned house at the Oscars in early 2007: the prepossessed nature of the film is such that it is defined almost holistically through its recollection of the Scorsese America knows and loves. This man is the throbbingly cinematic, movie-addled enigma who pitches his best films halfway between a symphony and a back-alley brawl. Scorching at its best, The Departed sometimes capably fills a voluminous shadow, but it never casts its own. Continue reading


Picturing the Best: Titanic

TITANIC 3DA self-actualizing, self-arousing, and ultimately self-validating Herzogian feat (without the psychosis) that is only occasionally self-enervating, Titanic ultimately stands as not only a chronicler but an embodiment of the spirit, and the hubris, of its subject matter. A three-hour aphrodisiac engorged with cinema, you might say, if you were inclined to peruse the halls of the Freudian catalog that heroine Rose so clearly mobilizes when remarking on the prodigious self-congratulatory caliber of the ship that the industrial revolution and its classist girders would almost drown in. Continue reading

Picturing the Best: Forrest Gump

pforrest-gump1__140605215604Political scorn has embarrassed Forrest Gump for two decades now, with the most common source of critique being the film’s glimpse of the rise (or return) of the American right in the mid-’90s, a revolution led by Newt Gingrich, a Southerner like Gump, although a considerably more blustery one at that. The attacks aren’t unfair – for a film that sometimes aggrandizes itself on a second-by-second basis, its social conscious is valid critical fodder, and the film’s exclusionary attitude toward gender and racial unrest proposes an almost oblivious Southern wait-and-see gentility toward civil disobedience. Gump is in fact an almost willfully obedient motion picture, with its then-new-school technology a masquerade for its rigorous cinematic traditionalism. Continue reading

Picturing the Best: Platoon and Ordinary People


In her underutilized essay “Against Interpretation”, Susan Sontag serves up a paean to experiential, perceptual art for its own sake, denouncing the sausage-making fest of cinematic interpretation, and implicitly the governing body of most film theory, in the process. Poison pen in hand, she writes “in most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.” In another life, the films of the Vietnam War might have been her primary target, and they are also in the sights of writer-director Oliver Stone with his 1986 cinematic reckoning act Platoon. Continue reading

Picturing the Best: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Sting

maxresdefaultOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, often considered the apotheosis of mid-’70s social conscience filmmaking, is never less than a successfully biting and acidic hot-box of social discontent measured in a battle-ground of tone that veers within single scenes from malarial ennui to self-righteous anger to social carnival mania. Milos Forman’s film suffers more in relatives than absolutes, however. Successful though it may be, it arrived in a decade of thick-on-the-ground masterpieces of both more vociferous filmic invention and more studied social insight. Even eschewing many of the other “greatest hits” efforts from the decade, Cuckoo’s Next achieves nothing not advanced with more success by a clutch of “deep cuts” – the thorny Jack Nicholson vehicle Five Easy Pieces, the stunning Elaine May grotto Mikey and Nicky, a half-dozen underappreciated Robert Altman films people flip over when championing the merits of MASH. Continue reading

Picturing the Best: In the Heat of the Night

220px-in_the_heat_of_the_night_filmThe passing of ace cinematographer Haskell Wexler earlier in 2016 reminds one that the most notable visuals in a film are not always those which buttress already stellar offerings, but those which almost singlehandedly lift entombed, waxy screenplays up from the dregs in the first place. Case in point, his influential, remarkably punchy, wonderfully filthy work enlivening In the Heat of the Night, where he saves a film from an enervating screenplay precisely by suggesting enervating Southern oppression in the way a parade of declamatory verbiage never could.

Now, Wexler’s cinematography doesn’t quite elucidate the stuffy, hotheaded Southern summer the diegesis suggests, but the noirish grotto of the film’s mise-en-scene creates a satisfyingly pungent texture unmoored from the stultifying cleanliness of most earlier ’60s films from the Hollywood machine. In the Heat of the Night’s progenitors are thankfully not the programmatic, squeaky-clean message pictures of old, circa Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement. Wexler borrows instead from the more grisly, cinema verite style that would flower in the early ’70s. It lends the otherwise dreary, preprogrammed screenplay an air of sinewy, Southern dread and pre-’70s malarial ennui that cuts through the message movie politics with vituperative veracity and a scathing instability that mimics black Philadelphia Detective Virgil Tibbs’ (Sidney Poitier) discomfiting unease in the time-warped Southern white cotton fields and the even more pallid, fleshy, pudgy white men who domineer over them. Continue reading

Picturing the Best: Ben-Hur and The Sound of Music


The icy death grip of the classical Hollywood era was not unapparent to the producers of the late 1950s, when worldly art cinema and the more pulpy, vigorous American independents were all the rage and rising like a tide of acid-water ready to wash away the nostalgia and romance of the classical Hollywood way. Much like the inflection point of the late ’70s, when the New Hollywood breathed its last gasps and curdled into the more audience-friendly realms of ’80s entertainment, the producers of the late ’50s and early ’60s reacted the only way they knew how: doubling down on the moment, creating films of sensual pleasures that could bowel over any formal concerns about filmmaking. Continue reading

Picturing the Best: The Bridge on the River Kwai

kwai_publicity_stillIf The Bridge on the River Kwai is an inflection point in the bifurcated career of the most quintessentially British of all directors, David Lean, it is no victim of a split-decision. Emblazoned with both the staunchly intimate character focus of Lean’s earlier inspections of British life and the bellowing grandeur of his boldface later pictures, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a meeting of minds with a sweep that not only contrasts but amalgamates the luxuriant and the domestic. It lacks the fiercely enigmatic streak of Lean’s later Lawrence of Arabia – where delusions of self-immolating grandeur, imperialist mystique, and hot-headed rebellion conspire to denounce the essential vision of prodigious orientalism that sticks to Western cinema like a fly to excrement. But such concerns are valueless amidst Bridge’s vigorous cinematic workout and its scorching exegesis of the essential social codebook of Twentieth Century British life. Continue reading

Picturing the Best: Rebecca and How Green Was My Valley

movie-rebecca-rebecca-1940-10778537-500-375Of all the Alfred Hitchcock films in existence, one shouldn’t feign surprise that it was Rebecca that was lovingly overcast with the radiant glow of the amber Oscar. Frankly, and as is often the case, the reality is that the singular Oscar glory was afforded to one of the more stolid, “respectable” pictures in the canon of a director that thrived when he was barreling away from respect at a hundred miles an hour. By the standards of sub-expressionist horror, mind you, Rebecca is plenty disturbed, with Hitch’s direction sterling and suffocating even if it’s less maverick and personal than it would be later in his career. But watching Rebecca, a ghoulishly charming little bedeviled jewel in bewilderingly trumped-up costume drama airs, it’s painfully obvious that he was playing mega-producer David O. Selznick’s mercenary at this point, and that the film’s Oscar glory is less a statement to any truly revolutionary or thought-provoking aims than to the sheer size of the film’s majesty. While Vertigo, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, and a dozen other Hitch films animate wonderfully contradictory impulses to truly destabilizing ends, the only thing Rebecca animates is Selznick’s production budget. And the only thing it tests is the size of Selznick’s ego, his inimitable capacity to gild and ornament a competent husk of a film with all the production decorum his bottomless pockets could buy. Continue reading

Picturing the Best: It Happened One Night

happened_1749151cIt’s easy to reduce Frank Capra to a series of benighted adjectives of excessive sentimentality, markers of his supposedly clueless optimism in the face of pressing danger. But it’s wilder still to witness the willful disobedience of his early films, to evoke their blithe defiance of the dejected spirit of their times. While other directors were content to apply the “sound” eruption as a buttress to the burgeoning demand for cinematic “realism”, Capra’s spirit was to laugh in the face of crushing reality, to play within the confines of poverty and, in doing so, to trace the contours of not only national desperation but the everyday performers and players who resist it. In 1934, on the eve of his rise to gargantuan fame overnight, this meant upending the laissez-faire classism and degradation of opportunity in society, expelling a spitfire, screw-loose comedy that made mincemeat out of America’s aristocracy and paid homage to the zealous can-do Americana he fell in love with. Continue reading