Tag Archives: Film Favorites

Film Favorites: The Thin Red Line

Edited January 2016

A word on Terrence Malick, and not a terribly original word at that: the crux of the Malick state of mind, for at least its pre-Tree of Life existence, is fundamentally cinematic poetry, with any presumption of an artistically unmediated reality shot-through with an oneiric potency that nonetheless conjures Malick’s unique fascination with the vibrations of human being better than any more obviously “realistic” film could convey. Malick was introduced to the world through a high-minded treatise on the idea of an American New Wave film, releasing his debut, 1973’s Badlands, in a thick-on-the-ground decade of American grit and what many directors would call “realism”. The late ’60s and early ’70s had their Bonnies and their Clydes, their Bunches that were Wild, and even their Streets of indefatigable Meannness, and the consensus around those films was that they gallantly and brutally brought some fighting words for the Old Hollywood ways of geniality and safety. The general consensus is, in other words, that America got nasty in the ’70s, and specifically, that their films brought the “hard-won realism” in a way America never had before.

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Film Favorites: Walkabout

walkabout_704_5Update 2018 with Roeg’s passing: Slightly less taken with Walkabout’s politics this time out. As a critique of settler colonialism, it’s both vaguer and less eloquently abstract than Peter Weir’s wonderful Picnic at Hanging Rock, a truly poignant and critical take on a cloistered community corseted by their own haze of superiority and indifferent curiosity about other ways of life.

But I’m possibly more enamored this time of Walkabout’s metaphysical vision of sensory experience.  Its vision of the conviction of colonial consciousness shuddering apart, of transfixed youths suddenly spellbound by the limits of their own minds, is problematic, but also intoxicating food for thought. And Roeg uses it to divine a film of internal ruptures and wanderings into the unknown,  exploring the irregularity of human experience and the non-totality of any individual culture with frighteningly fractious editing and cinematography that veers from the acrid to the oneiric.  Above all, he dares us to touch the jagged poetry of the world in disarray. It’s a flawed experience, and perhaps too nihilistic, but it boasts its own truly singular poetry, an elegiac and tragic meeting of minds that explores the fallout of cultural connection and clash.

Original Review:

Nicolas Roeg was not an Australian director, nor did he have much to do with Australia for the rest of his career. But, when he wished to explore the elusive mystery of human distance and find the frightful regions of human history and modernity in what would seem to be majestic from a distance, it is no surprise that he looked to Australia as his canvas. The always damaged mystery of the location is unspooled across the unforgiven lateral extension of a landscape leftover from history, stretching on forever into the regions of madness. Not knowing the history of the region, the fading crimson of the sun staring at the fleshy human form instills its own sweat and sickly grime on the viewer. The unforgiving chill of the forlorn landscape dotted with an abject tree or two every now and again gives off a wafting aroma of decay and empty space, selling the history of this location as an abstract space of eternal rupture, the kind ever-primed to refract social fissures and psychological shattering. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Blade Runner

blade-runner-1982If we are being honest, Ridley Scott is not a director worthy of his reputation. His 1970s were certainly pretty sterling; he entered the world with a very good, if inessential, period-piece parable in the under-seen The Duellists, and then down-tuned sci-fi to elemental levels of fear with the masterful Alien, one of the greatest genre films ever made. Not wanting to be type-cast at the turn of the ’80s, he upped himself through transposing his native science fiction into another genre, not quite as openly horrific, but with no less to say about humanity’s fears: the noir. The resulting film, Blade Runner, is his masterpiece. The ensuing three decades and more have seen him shoot sloppily back and forth between chasing former glories unsuccessfully and entering the bold, exciting new territory of … stripping the cinematic magic whole cloth from the period piece and turning the genre into a drab excuse for materialist rationalism. Again. And again. And again.

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Film Favorites: Johnny Guitar

Is there any way to announce a consideration of Johnny Guitar other than the now famous Jean-Luc Godard quote about Nicholas Ray being “cinema”? Famously, the director expressed that Ray was among the first, if not the first, American auteurs to do with cinema as only cinema could, taking up the poetry of dialogue and the untarnished, painterly quality of art and the distant timelessness of theater and encircling them with the vulture of film, engorging itself on the carcasses of other mediums and ensuring they lived on, in altered, transmuted form, inside cinema.

Godard’s quote is a touch too heated (I’ll take to my grave the thought that Nicholas Ray is among the most underrated auteurs Hollywood ever produced, but that he was the first true advocate of “cinema” is a much more difficult proposition). Certainly, however, Ray’s films always felt more alive with pulsation, even in their embalmed detachment, than those of many other auteurs. And Godard naturally felt the love due to Ray’s unparalleled work in genre as a means of classifying social incoherence and expressing differing views of humanity’s own artifice. If he wasn’t the first true cinematic visionary, he was up there with the greats of his or any other time.  Continue reading

Film Favorites: All About Eve

Everybody’s been talking about it lately, but the Academy is on a nervous show-biz kick recently, with The Artist, Argo, and most recently Birdman winning Best Picture awards in a new glut of the much vaunted “films about films” genre (even if, in Birdman, as it is in many other works, film is only ever sub-textual). Shockingly, you really have to go back sixty five years for another film about the art of stagecraft to win a Best Picture award, and since nearly every review of Birdman has compared it to a certain self-hating implosion from Joseph L. Mankiewicz, I figured Birdman’s award last Sunday is as deserving a reason as any to actually edit and post the review of All About Eve I wrote sometime around like last August (I was busy in the ensuing half year, it turns out). Enjoy!

When it comes to performances, it really doesn’t get any better than Bette Davis’ Margo Channing. She captures every conflicting facet of a marvelously convoluted character: bitter anger, a desperate joy in bringing harm to others, brittle loneliness, an existential masquerade locked under a thick, tetanus-infested mesh of coiled barbs and white-hot superiority, a sadness about a world that has spit her up and thrown her out. When All About Eve is discussed, the conversation naturally shifts to Davis, and certainly, she deserves it; she draws eyes like the fires of hell target moths. But what’s lost in this conversation around Davis is no less substantial: the vicious, all-fangs screenplay surrounding her, and the tight, snug filmmaking that crawls around it and locks it into a vise that squeezes every ounce of spiritedly, tirelessly mean complication and viciousness out of one of the greatest screenplays ever written for cinema and lays it barren right on the screen. 1950 was Hollywood’s self-hating year, and no filmic attack dog bore greater, more lustful fangs than Joseph Mankiewicz’s absolutely undying All About Eve.

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Film Favorites: 3 Women

Update 2018:  How I do love this movie. If Altman’s oneiric fluctuations and clouded, evasive truths are as wonderfully resistant to crystallization as always at the beginning of 3 Women, they eventually sour into full-on psychotropic nightmare by the conclusion. By the film’s end, Altman holds life in a Janus-faced state of simultaneous free-fall and resting haunt. It won’t be for everyone, but catching this film’s wave-length is uniquely rewarding precisely because it is so slippery, its mind so hauntingly unquiet, ever-still but always subtly shifting with a frightening lack of clarification.

What’s so fascinating about 3 Women is that it retains so much of Altman’s typical sensibility, from his evocative sense of place to his shaggy, non-committal attitude toward the forward push of narrative, but it twists those features into an entirely different, slantwise milieu. To wit, 3 Women elastically mobilizes Altman’s typically wide, expansive canvas, for instance, not to conjure a community-spanning horizontal weave, as in Nashville, but to probe the psychological lonelines of two women locked into a particularly demented pas de deux of self and other.

Compared to Altman’s typically wistful realism, then, 3 Women is a more mannered vision, a West that doesn’t shuttle us into the chaotic instability of the social world so much as stage a difficult, near-unfathomable tableau for us to parse, one where the fractured, contorted intimacy of two women is more than enough to disorient our conception of selfhood. Like several of Altman’s earlier films, this is still a vision of a dilapidated West. And this “West” is no less a canvas for the self, no less a place where people go to find themselves, even more than 75 years after the “death” of the “real” Wild West. But in Altman’s wonderfully misshapen variation, the West, and Western fiction, is also where identities blur and bleed, where spectral figures wander across the land and seem to diffuse into space itself, where one’s sense of self is tested not against the might of an unforgiving landscape but against the soul of another. Call it McCabe & Ms. Ullmann (and Andersson). 

Original Review:

Robert Altman is not about to be forgotten. The man directed a proper handful of esteemed classics in the early ’70s and surged back into the limelight in the early ’90s with a pair of brusquely bitter late-period highlights. For good or ill, however, the greater film community tends to look sideways whenever a good portion of his lengthy, dense filmography is on trial. Say, for instance, anything between 1976 and 1991, a period in which the director made almost a baker’s dozen of fresh films for dissection, many of them rightfully moved past but quite a number truly audacious, brash, deeply personal, and worthy of analysis in their own way. It’s strange to call Robert Altman “underrated”, but the man made a lot of films, and sometimes it seems as if those who love him think time got lost between the early ’70s and its twenty-year later counterpart, the early ’90s.
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Film Favorites: The Wind

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