It is not a new or interesting argument to rain down laurels upon silent cinema for its vigorous, transformative sense of cinematic self-exploration. No time in cinema history matches the medium’s earliest years for pure ecstatic inventiveness and unbridled, unhinged storytelling experimentation. No time has seen directors and cinematographers and editors, and even producers for that matter, ever so consistently transfixed by the potential of exposing the cinematic mind by pushing it to its breaking point and moving beyond the grip of narrative storytelling to look for new and exciting ways to freshly portray the limits of fiction on screen. No time has ever been as hungry, or as invested in film for the sake of film itself.
It is also not a new or interesting argument to look to 1928, the last year of silent cinema’s monopolistic dominance in the medium, as the pinnacle of the form’s artistic exploration. Although no one work may equal the heights of what FW Murnau achieved with 1927’s Sunrise, the sheer plethora of major and minor classics, from Dreyer’s luminous The Passion of Joan of Arc to King Vidor’s cityscape tone peom The Crowd, to Josef von Sternberg’s hazy, mystifying The Docks of New York, proves that drama was in fine form as a selection of unarguable masters looked to close out the history of silent cinema on a high note. Of course, they may not have known it was coming, but we auteurists are no less guilty of assuming intent in our individuals than anyone else (we’re perhaps more guilty, if anything). Continue reading →
It’s not a new point to discuss David Gordon Green’s sellout hackwork middle career stage, but his recent “return to his roots” phase is fresher still and only recently of this Earth; thus, it provides a far more welcome object of inquiry. The hackwork phase has been written about on end, and while I happen to think Pineapple Express is a fairly nuanced redirecting of Green’s trademark hush for the purposes of a stoner comedy, there’s nothing more to be said about his duo of 2011 misfires. Far more interesting are his recent efforts, epitomized by his 2013 release Joe. Many have taken to considering it a return to form, and while the film is strong and textured in many exciting ways, I cannot join the train. Owing more to post-Green works like Winter’s Bone, his recent films retain the social realism of his earlier works but run dangerously close to recreating the trees at the expense of the forest. The honest characters and hard-hitting drama mostly follow through, but the poetic post-Malick haze and thoughtful melancholy of Green’s abstracted reflection of everyday human activity has been lost to time. Continue reading →
With Michael Mann’s Blackhat underwhelming critics all around the land, I’ve decided to take a look back at the neon nightscape urban painter’s greatest film, a shockingly underrated work of crime fiction with an impressionist tint. From 1981, Michael Mann’s Thief.
Michael Mann tore down the ’90s with three films of varying qualities that all are nonetheless championed as, at the least, lesser classics of the modern filmic world. The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider vary on the surface, but their strengths are uniform and typically Mann: a poetic variation on hard-edge grit (or a gritty take of impressionism, if you prefer), a focus on problem solving and realist process rather than sentimental characterization, and a deconstruction of masculine identity equal parts grimy American New Wave and the more clinical, cryptic European New Wave. The films vary in quality (I for one have never had much use for the flubby, indulgent Heat), but they capture Mann trading subjects without ever sacrificing his identity. Yet that identity came to fruition much earlier, on a much less famous film, and a work that matches and exceeds any of the three in quality: 1981’s Thief. Released at the very end of the American New Wave where dramas were going out the door in favor of genre exercises, Thief finds the best of both worlds in perfect, jagged harmony. It is a true pity that most of Michael Mann’s adherents haven’t seen it, for it is one of the few American crime films that seems truly interested in coming up with a new filmic language to explore its pet themes. Continue reading →
I Walked with a Zombie was the second film Val Lewton produced once given complete control of RKO’s horror unit, and it was released only a year after Cat People, his most famed horror film. Given this, one might expect a retread, but I Walked with a Zombie is certainly not the film anyone then or now would be expecting. A tension seethes in the air and grasps all, but the film doesn’t demand in the way a work like Cat People is so tersely constructed to fight for our attention. Absent are the soul-deep colors of Cat People which lighted up the screen with black energy. And in place of the rampant diluted German Expressionism of American horror throughout the ’30s and ’40s, all caught up in harsh and angular nightmares, we have something that more closely approximates a hazy dream, a curious cross between an English period drama and a work of French impressionism that centers mournful, elegiac long takes and has room enough for lost secrets deviously begging to get out . It is, above all, wholly distant from anything resembling horror logic, and it is all the more fascinating for it. Continue reading →
Terrence Malick didn’t crash into the film-world – he stumbled into it, but the impression he left wouldn’t convey the truth of it. A philosophy student at Harvard who studied Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, he went on to teach at MIT after a petty disagreement with his advisor while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (although in the world of philosophy, everything and nothing is petty). At some point along the way, he decided he felt like making a movie, and the world was never the same. That film, 1973’s Badlands, is so stunningly like every other kids-on-the-run crime film from the American New Wave from a distance, it’s almost comical. But from up-close (or even medium distance), it’s so glaringly apparent that Badlands is the antithesis of the films it’s often compared to (ahem, Bonnie and Clyde) that the initial comparison seems so superficial as to not even be worth noting. Badlands is unlike any film from the period, and American cinema more genuinely. It is a singular experience, and a towering, titanic one. Continue reading →
It’s easy to reduce Boyhood to its making-of story at the expense of the finished product. Director Richard Linklater has shepherded ambitious projects before – his Before trilogy, with three films each separated by nine years detailing the same distance in the lives’ of a couple, comes to mind. But his Before trilogy treats the past and present as a dialectic, with each individual film very notably focused on the present state of a relationship and the gap between the films emphasizing the past. Boyhood, meanwhile, flips the script as a film very much devoted to the melding of the past and the present, rather than the difference between the two – Linklater treats the passage of time as a fluid construct with the moments of “present-ness”, and indeed our conception of present, tied fundamentally to our memories of the past. Continue reading →
The Tree of Life isn’t easily explained through conventional filmic analysis. I don’t have the resources within me, for instance, to explain why Sean Penn is in this movie, or why director Terrence Malick felt the need to spend thousands of dollars on a CGI-heavy recreation of the forming of the world. But, for every fault to be found in the film, none can replace the eternal face that I fell – positively, undeniably fell – under the director’s spell for just about every minute of the 135 minutes I spent watching this film, in a way I never have in a movie theater before. The human story found here doesn’t recall my own childhood in the slightest, and yet watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel connected to not merely the characters but the world they inhabit in a way I didn’t quite understand at first. I felt something that, if I may, might be the foremost (and perhaps only, but that says more about me than the film) spiritual experience in my life. I wasn’t so much watching a film as accepting it and letting it wash over me. I wasn’t “analyzing” shots or dialogue, as I tend to do in order to stake my claim as a film critic worth his salt. I was just there, and also not there – in some sort of weird limbo where I existed less as a physical body and more as conception of myself. It was an experience, but perhaps, a passive one. I let the film take me and it accepted – part of me is still swimming around in there. Continue reading →