There is probably no more critically acclaimed American filmmaker to emerge since the heyday of the ’90s independent scene than Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the few relatively mainstream artists in recent years to genuinely acquire the clout of an auteur. Contrasted with, say, David O. Russell, who also survived the cinematic battleground of 1999, Anderson never once seems to have ceded ground to popular concern, and he remains one of the few “big-name” filmmakers whose wandering mind hasn’t been boxed-off by Hollywood money. All these years later, even when they don’t fully succeed, his films seem like the collective external manifestation of the nether regions of his own mind. His films are infused with the lifeblood of classic cinema but prone to the sort of exuberant misconduct all great directors need to engage with to break new bounds. He’s an out-there sort of dude, but he’s cordoned off his own niche as a pop-art experimentalist, a perfect combination of old school composure and new school anger. Continue reading
Anyone familiar with Jacques Tourneur doesn’t need to read a review for evidence to the claim that Out of the Past is one of the best film noirs ever made. But that doesn’t mean establishing and specifying what is so undeniably great about it isn’t a worthwhile pleasure all the same. Cutting his teeth on Val Lewton’s near poverty-row horror unit for RKO, a team that single-handedly saved American horror in the 1940s by injecting a dose of the European, and a team which counted Tourneur as its most valuable member, Tourneur is one of the unheralded masters of the medium of cinema and one of the most poetic genre directors ever to grace the silver screen. Pairing him to noir like a fine wine to a slab of deliberately indelicate beef is too obvious to be a stroke of genius, but the results are no less marvelous for the “why didn’t they think of this earlier” nature of the film.
Pairing Robert Mitchum – ever the heavy – to a noir, however, was a stroke of genius, precisely because he made indelicate slabs out to be fine wine, making him the perfect bridge for the flavors milling around in Tourneur’s stew. Mitchum was a known face by 1947, but not even close to a star, and seeing his ambiguity flourish in Out of the Past is a tormented, deceptive beauty so perfectly matched to the material it almost approaches non-performance. Mitchum went on to fame as the cinema’s ultimate heel, concocting deliberately vague piles of blunt force that slithered and skulked across the land and directly into the dark hearts of humankind. The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear find him too close and comfortable with pure evil for words. Nothing about him felt like acting, like trying; he conveyed an evil that simply existed, an unexplainable devil that could only be approached by running away. The problem with running away from Mitchum… he constructed figures so impenetrable and unknowable they couldn’t but chill the blood into stagnancy. Continue reading
If 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.
There are precious few films about childhood. Many aim for an audience of children, but most look down upon them in their assumption that they will eat up any and all immature entertainment simply because it is handed to them. It is the rare film that tries to peel back the layers behind childhood and to give us a look at what growing up entails. Because it is difficult to focus on children in film without rendering them types, either immature simpletons who do not understand the world or wise-beyond-their-years precocious types who “know” better than the adults around them, it is rarer that a film succeeds at presenting childhood with a quiet sigh, knowing a certain maturity without ever losing itself in the adult desire to judge and moralize to children. There have been a number of great films about childhood, but none stand taller than Francois Truffaut’s debut film, the work that kicked off perhaps the most important movement in film history, the French New Wave: The 400 Blows. Continue reading
Vantage points for comparison to Blue Ruin abound. The Coen Brothers and their more dark-hearted works like Blood Simple are obvious progenitors, as are the modern space-and-place indies most popularly epitomized by the works of David Gordon Green (and on some level Terrence Malick before him). Older, more expressively masculine works from the likes of Walter Hill also grandfather Blue Ruin’s more visceral critique of modern masculinity. But if Ruin isn’t anything original or particularly adventurous, it is still entirely game for the ride, and director Jeremy Saulnier is so adept at stitching together these disparate parts in uneasy ways (and leaving just enough space between the stitches for the wounds to threaten opening up) that the film never loses its fleshy fascination. Continue reading
Edited and Updated 2016
Yasujiro Ozu is the sort of filmmaker for whom each film is but one slice of the whole. Each work was a quiet prayer for the human existence, but they do not individually begin or end so much as always exist, flowing off the screen and into one another to create a tapestry of past, present, and future. Tokyo Story is usually considered his most enduring film, partially for outside reasons (it was the one historically most available in the West for one), and while the film speaks for itself, it does Ozu a disservice to play the game of superlatives and pass them all Tokyo Story’s way, as so many Western viewers have taken to over the years. He was a quiet, reserved director who let his images do the talking, and each image exists primarily in tandem with those around it, and to those of his entire career. Many of the things that can be said of Tokyo Story, and have been said throughout the decades, apply to his corpus of work; Tokyo Story itself serves a utilitarian purpose to elucidate what made the director’s style so attuned to humanity’s woes, and so able to transcend simple melancholy for perhaps the most warming, comforting filmmaking to ever be given to this world. But if Tokyo Story “defines” Ozu, that is because Ozu so carefully defines Tokyo Story in the way he would define all of his films.
Ernest and Celestine
Ernest and Celestline is a children’s film, and damn proud of it. Light, frothy, and bolstered by the elegant simplicity of a storybook brought to life by watercolor and sketchbook, it has absolutely no airs, and yet it exists with its head in the clouds. The story is note-perfect in its simplicity: a bear, Ernest, and a mouse, Celestine, are both outcasts – Ernest a poor loner who lives on the outskirts of his society and Celestine a young, seemingly orphaned dreamer who dares to interpret bears through a lens of whimsy rather than fear. The two meet up and form a friendship, become a furry, feral Bonnie and Clyde, and discover a home in the process. Continue reading
Update late 2018:
Upon another re-watch, I remain enamored of Black Narcissus, not only the truly sublime potency of its art but its more silent intimations of unknown forces and mysterious evocations beyond the mental capacity of its protagonists, and possibly us, to register. With Black Narcissus, Powell and Pressburger, with an irrevocable assist from cinematographer Jack Cardiff, conjure the transcendent powers of terrifying, exhausting melodrama. Not melodrama as it is usually understand, as a beacon of deceit, but melodrama as the possible reality which we repress from considerations of the rational, the moments and suggestions and sensations which fluctuate and flutter outside the bounds and demarcations of European rationalism’s vision of realism and reality.
Insofar as the narrative is essentially the push-pull of colonial forces colonizing the boundaries of the sensible, to cop from Ranciere, the most telling intimations in Black Narcissus are not the ones which seemingly corrupt the missionaries at the heart of the tale but the ones which intoxicate and haunt the film’s periphery, the ghosts of other realities and mysteries which are not assimilable to that colonizing vision of what kinds of images can and should be “sensible”. It is the alluring mystery of Black Narcissus that the film transcends the “sensible” reality the protagonists would wish to impart upon it. Not so we can transcend to a higher reality inaccessible to them, but so the film can evoke the unknown intrinsic to any state of being. And, unforgettably, to revoke the supposed ability of British empire to truly colonize that unknown.
Michael Powell, especially when paired with his long-time partner in crime Emeric Pressburger, was a director cripplingly ahead of his time (although they shared credits, Pressburger favored writing and Powell handled most of the behind-the-camera work). Literally crippling, in fact, for his provocative, lurid, deeply confrontational 1960 horror Peeping Tom, at that point perhaps the most daring and subversive commentary on filmmaking and film-watching ever released, essentially killed his career. Dark-hearted in a way even Hitch’s fellow 1960 release, Psycho, never approached, Peeping Tom grabbed a world not ready for it and shoved itself right up into humanity’s soul with voyeuristic, directly implicating POV filmmaking and sickly green hues to induce malaise and shock. It was an atomic final gasp on one of the all-time directorial careers. Continue reading
Roman Polanski blew down the doors by galvanizing psycho-sexual fervor with heated religious fire-and-brimstone when he asked us to pray for Rosemary’s Baby, but his three earlier films carve out a cavern of their own in the film world. They each build on one another, gnawing and preying into Polanski’s particular and peculiar form of bellowing salacious night-sweats. His debut, Knife in the Water, is a casual work that reveals itself a formalist’s dream, a monomaniacal machination of Deep Focus emptiness and harsh angle-populated mise-en-scene that finds in its very visual bones the piercing acuteness of his class parable. His follow-up, Cul-de-sac, maintains this carefully delineated limbo-like location-work and adds its own doses of jangled nerves, introducing a particularly controversial and transgressive dose of blackened humor to Polanski’s already darkly playful attitude toward human sexuality. Continue reading
Edited April 2016
Right as Abbas Kiarostami seemed to leave the once-proud Iranian cinematic world behind for international super-stardom, Asghar Farhadi surges forth like a bullet into the international cinematic hierarchy and tells everyone to look Iran’s way for some of the most daring narrative cinema being produced today. A Separation is as close to a perfect film as I’ve seen in years, exasperatingly constructed with the heft and storytelling grit of a classic drama out of the ’60s European New Wave. Harsh and impenetrable yet warm and inviting, it unfolds with the punctilious craft of a process-driven film that captures human flesh as it struggles to be at one with the cold, angular world around it. Particular in both visual symmetry and human understanding, it marries look, sound, and feel to a scrupulous whole that just demands to be seen. Continue reading