A little switch-up, if you will, because I couldn’t watch a 1961 Cannes film at pace, but will get to it soon enough. So 1961 and 1962 have been flipped, after which the order shall return to normal…
Luis Buñuel’s triumphant return to Spain after many years working in Mexico was short-lived but unequivocally rabble-rousing. The lone film he produced was as provocative a film as the world has ever seen. 1961’s Viridiana won the Palme d’Or, was rapturously received by critics, and revolted the Spanish government right from under their noses. The production was, charitably, pure havoc, subject to rigorous and ruthless censorship, and produced with the help of tricks and masquerades on Bu>ñuel’s behalf. It is one of the quintessential works of world cinema, by all means, but it came with a toll. Jagged knives aimed at the Spanish government, it seems, couldn’t but get a little blood on Buñuel’s face. Continue reading
Othello should not exist. Not William Shakespeare’s venerable play, one of the great tone poems to dueling egos and wanton desire filtered not through hero and villain but split personalities tearing each other apart until neither can have what they want. But Orson Welles’ Othello, a work of ramshackle, stitched-together genius if ever humankind has produced one. It isn’t Welles’ greatest film, but it is likely the surest explanation of his unmatched gall, of his unending sweat, and of the limits, or lack thereof, of his genius.
Of course Welles the poster-boy wunderkind of Hollywood splendor, given full control over the powers that be to unleash his vision on the world, could release a masterpiece. Citizen Kane, Welles’ first film, and the first of many to serve as parables of his own brilliance and folly, was practically bred to be a work of unparalleled craft. It was almost an ordained masterpiece from its very inception; Welles had the hounds of Hollywood at his feet. An achievement, sure. But with Othello, he unfolded a masterpiece in piece-meal fashion, without anyone’s help, desperately working to clot the blood of a film barely stapled together with odds and ends over years of stilted, stuttery production. Nothing more could showcase the singular auteurism, the singular genius, and the singular madness of Orson Welles. This film is his ultimate statement of “my way or the highway” determination. Continue reading
Apichtapong Weerasethakul clearly has his own idea of what cinema ought to be, and arguably more than any currently working director, he is ready to shape the medium to his whims to achieve that vision. Who are we to tell him otherwise? Syndromes and a Century, bizarrely commissioned for Vienna’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amandeus Mozart’s birth, has only the most tentative connection of Mozart – indeed, it may not even recollect who Mozart is, largely because it doesn’t seem to exist on an Earth where Mozart himself existed. But it remains Weerasethakul’s masterwork. Continue reading
It is from time to time the case that a deliberately pretentious film snob such as myself may emphatically defend a film for its ambitions, for its aspirations to discuss cinema, or even for its accidents and failures, and casually wash away its alienating disagreeability in doing so. I am not, frankly, sure that Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control applies here, although I am about to emphatically defend it for all of the above. I am not quite sure it says anything about cinema, however, so much as it says something about Jim Jarmusch, and about nothingness. Watching it is an experience in willful alienation, an auteur constructing a film for his own interest more than anyone else’s. It is a peculiar, obtuse curiosity. It is also an important one, although not necessarily for its ambitions.
Largely because, depending upon your view of the film, it may be either the very definition of “ambition” or its very antithesis, which is the central dialectic around which The Limits of Control circles. Jarmusch is just about the most willfully difficult English-language filmmaker working today, and The Limits of Control may be his most distant film. It boasts none of the playful cryptic diabolicalism of something like his masterpiece Dead Man, a disassembly of the Western genre and all fiction at a core structural level. The Western as social theater, it was, and his aesthetically sensuous films have followed suit until then. Decconstructive aesthetic, sure, but aesthetic nonetheless. Continue reading
“Best” Oliver Stone film is a big fat question mark, and it is doomed to stay that way. How does one even judge an Oliver Stone film in 2015? Tightest narrative? Best characters? Highest quantity of subversive edits? Most provocative? That which, pardon my french, stirs the most shit? So much of Stone’s lineage is tied into his public opinion to the point where he may be the only living director (Lars Von Trier excepted) for whom “ability to mess things up” is a genuine metric with which to judge his films, regardless of whether they work when detached from their social impact. So much of Stone’s vision is fundamentally tied into kicking up some dust and maintaining his enfant terrible status that it may be the metric that most accurately captures who he is as a filmmaker. Conventional analysis may be a moot point; his films live and die on their own terms.
Even though Platoon, JFK, and Born on the Fourth of July may be Stone’s most cohesive, sharpest productions as far as conventional narrative goes, they lack the verve and madman-alone-in-a-room quality of his most characteristic slices of social anarchy. In what we do we compare his most “perfect” films, that is the ones which most succeed at accomplishing that which they set out to do without flaw, with his most audacious works where “perfection” is an anti-goal and live wire experimentation and sheer quantity of numbing techniques trump perfecting any one technique in and of itself. In the latter camp, no Oliver Stone film shines more brightly, for good or ill, than Natural Born Killers. It represents a director who, having achieved the heights of his popular success, decided to throw himself back at his audience with teeth sharpened and mouth wide open. It is not the best Oliver Stone film, but it is probably the Most Oliver Stone film, and for a director who is notable primarily for the way in which he is himself, that has to count for something. Continue reading
The 1980s were, with all due respect, the worst time in history for cinematic drama. Cinema as a whole trucked along on a surfeit of fantasy and science fiction films that primarily operated on cruise control but could stumble upon a certain breezy ingenuity when need be. But cinematic art – cinema that sought to say something about cinema and/or explore the art form in a way that doubled as a commentary on the society that would use cinema as a tool of creation and destruction – was at an all-time low. It is telling that what many consider the great American drama of the 1980s (Raging Bull is the only film as consistently revered and awarded, and that was really more of a ’70s film that forget to come out in its proper decade anyway) is most famous for the fact that it was almost never released.
Throughout the 1980s, Terry Gilliam was one of the few who stood in defiance of complicity and convention, and Brazil almost killed him for it. A brutal, lengthy production battle saw the film destroyed and cut-down to size to save whatever commercial potential it had, and, watching the finished product, it’s easy to see why: this is a relentlessly weird motion picture, recalling cinematic styles and tones with its own jazz-like sense of improvisation and cavorting between surrealist asides an hoarse reflections on the grim fandangos of the decade in which it was produced. Whatever the waiting game that was cinema in the 1980s signified, the fact that Brazil was a genuine upset for the producers that funded it says all you need to know about its undeniable artistic merit.
Update upon another viewing in 2017:
Is El Topo pointless then? Or rather, is it depoliticized? Or is chaos and ambiguity political and purposeful in an age of order? Simultaneously earthy and beyond the grave, the characters of El Topo do not effuse logic or purpose or even desire, but they do implode with the chaos of uncertainty, of the crushing weight of their totemic status as archetypical figures bounded by unclarifiable laws of desire and need and want they are unable to do anything about. They wander through a mass of centrifugal emptiness, never for or to or from anything; such liberal teloses hold no sway in this anti-rationalist mindspace that reveals, conclusively because of how vague and inconclusive it is, how arbitrary various masculine desires are. Or rather, how a life governed by the compulsion to complete goals is so often defined through the runaway assumptions of capitalist conclusiveness where one finishing line is the starting pace for an even faster act of running in circles. Most Westerns create male spaces of desire, empty and virginal worlds ready to be deflowered by a male character’s conquering, ordering phallic motion through space linking the edits and giving reason to this world. A contrapuntal riposte, there’s nothing to fill up in El Topo, nothing to complete, no oasis of purpose to stretch thinly across the randomness of the world in hopes of masquerading. In this sense, if the film dodges conventional meaning or any normative point, it also explodes the oppressive certainty of a social order which bounds and demarcates meaning to that which can be conventionally construed through only that order’s logic.
Writing about Mulholland Dr. recently, I began with an explication on the film’s wonderful arbitrariness, its cluster of contrarian images and sounds which existed for no reason other than to bemuse and titillate, to enrage and befuddle, and to please David Lynch. I then spent most of the review coming to terms with the fact that my opening paragraph, all praise for Lynch’s film existing for the sake of itself, wasn’t really fair: the director’s 2001 anti-film does nothing simply for the sake of itself, for it had more to say about film as an object of corporate culture and voyeuristic gaze than any film of its decade. It is not an arbitrary film; it is replete with intentional, textured meaning, and it is a masterpiece of commentary on film as object of invention and sociology.