Bit of a messy pot-pourri today, culled mostly from my commute reading of this months Sight & Sound. It seems that I’ve missed a mind-expanding trick with the new Jodorowski which got a glowing Blu-Ray review, I don’t think this ever got any sort of domestic theatrical release which is a sign of the multiplex times;
In other new release news the great Kim Newman gave this a reasonable pass on the horror hectic front, yes its another zombie apocalypse premise – how interesting – but apparently it does have a fun antipodean spin to its putrid proceedings;
Some sad news is the unexpected demise of The Dissolve, depressing proof it needed that intelligent and insightful movie debate and analysis simply can’t survive in the contemporary stifling internet atmosphere of buzzfeed ‘best-of’ lists, of breathless exultations of ‘STOP THE PRESS – EXCLUSIVE’ regarding the most pointless and uncontextual movie-set photos, of obsessive frame by frame trailer dissections, of long rambling diatribes on the importance of which actress was cast as the new Aunt May in yet another fucking reboot of a fucking comic book fucking movie fucking franchise. I like my good blockbusters just as I like all other strains of cinema as long as they are ‘good’, but when some of the best writers around find themselves suffocated out of existence then there is something very, very wrong.
Just to close this rather scattergun thoughtblurt – I’m writing this on my commute in a sun addled train hurtling uncertainly through the Essex countryside – one little quote from the DVD review section of Sight & Sound concerning Peter Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers is absolutely delicious – ‘Greenaway often looks too singular to produce a genuine inheritor but here Wes Anderson could be his kind hearted nephew’ – that is a brilliant insight and little gems like that make my entire yearly subscription worthwhile, that’s the kind of movie insight and analysis which needs to be preserved….
First day back at work or do you have that dubious honor on Monday? Fighting through gales and freezing rain? Suffering that post festive hangover? Then let me cheer you up with this 1984 Oscar nominated documentary on the distressing lives of street children, not in Bogotá or Mexico City, not in Saigon or Port-au-prince, no this is set in….Seattle;
What can I say? Well, I was turned onto this by a new series of articles in Sight & Sound highlighting overlooked and neglected gems, they usually know what they’re talking about and this is devastating, as much a fascinating snapshot in time as it as a damning indictment of Regan’s economic ‘miracle’…..think of it as pre-grunge The Wire, complete with Tom Waits scored ending…..
As Alan Partridge might say ‘that….was a week’. Memo to self, when in the honeymoon period of a new assignment don’t get delusions of grandeur and volunteer for extra duties in order to show willing, as you might just get awarded duties on two of the most staggeringly and fiendishly complex programmes you’ve ever been involved in, and spend all week furiously writing funding strategies to raise £500,000 squillion quid from a hilarious portfolio of potential stakeholders, diluting argot infected lobbying papers down to 2 page action plans, digest 150+ page twenty year planning manifestos and generally feel as if you’ve bitten of more than even your voracious appetite can chew. In my muddled head I had a plan to continue one of my side projects here this evening and complete a detailed review of a horror classic which is perhaps 60% completed, after crunching through thousands of words this week I simply can’t face it, so tonight’s entertainment will be a chaotic mélange of some stuff I’ve picked up during the week, heck at this point I don’t think I can even stomach seeing Flight tomorrow to tick off another portion of the Oscar© checklist as that would mean I’d have to craft my review before festivities commence again on Monday morning – I’m simply exhausted. But enough of my first world, deeply tedious work challenges, here is a badly scored Excalibur montage;
One of the benefits of my resumed commute is the opportunity to read more, I’ve finally got through January’s Sight & Sound which contained a fantastic ‘deep focus’ article on the past ten years of neo-noir pictures, expertly charting the peaks and canyons of one of my favourite and quietly resilient genres, musing on the changing semiological definitions and murderous movements of those that walk in an urban and spiritual malaise. James elects and explores the most proficient pantheon of the past decade or so including the likes of Mulholland Drive, In The Cut, Brick, Memento, Sin City, A History Of Violence, Tell No One, Drive and many others which cobweb out from his chief suspects to incorporate other lines of inquiry, connecting the lipstick smeared entry wounds with an adroit, trenchcoated and resigned rain-swept glee. Alas the article isn’t available on-line so you’ll just have to go and buy your own dossier, in any case this gives me an excuse to post one of my favourite scenes from Mann’s unappreciated Collateral which also got a damn fine reappraisal;
I guess the big news that I’m hopelessly out of date mentioning is of course Star Wars Episode VII – A New Throat being directed by J.J. ‘don’t call me Jameson’ Abrams. From a corporate perspective he’s the ideal man for the job, a talented purveyor of adrenaline fuelled cinema whom can handle the creatures, the SFX and genre trappings with professional accuracy, unlike many young whippersnappers in the directors chair he’s a prime dimension Metteur en scène, not liable to bring his personal baggage or thematic fascinations to the project, like Michael Curtiz or Anthony Mann he has a grasp of swashbuckling cinema which is neutrally perfect for the task at hand – and hopefully he won’t be distracted by the umbrella impetus to sell intergalactic schooners of product. I’m not being negative, as previously mentioned I don’t have any real rancor in this fight, I like J.J’.s work on a purely excitement driven front and if anyone can revitalise that crippled franchise then he’s the man for the job. The Red Letter Media gang holographed this news a few years ago;
Sweet baby Jesus on a moped and his clan on skateboards this post is a mess isn’t it? That’s what twelve-hour days do for you after ten months of unemployed bliss, just the whole interacting with other professional people has taken on a grim and resigned effort – why can’t I be project managing nonsense like this? That sounds like fun, and with no significant purpose to its empty efforts. Now you’re probably querying the Boorman references ‘up-post’, right? Well, the good news is that during April and May the BFI are hosting a full retrospective of his work, and to keep the chaos flowing I am drawing my plans together for a trio of reviews, Excalibur is a must but what else should I see on the epic screen? Answers on a rust encrusted, sorely underused blade of destiny please. Finally, for a little decompression, here is an elegiac video essay which I should really save for a Malick prologue given that To The Wonder opens here in London three weeks today, however this is simply too beautiful to suppress;
Put the kettle on, it’s going to be a long and bumpy night. Given that I’ve got a lot of time on my hands at the moment and film lists seem to be all the rage of 2012 – Sight & Sound have finally uploaded the full list of 851 critics and They Shoot Pictures Don’t They have updated their exhausting greatest 1,000 movies of all time list – well, I thought I’d throw my proverbial hat into the ring and introduce my own little tradition, the Menagerie Greatest Films Of All Time List which starts in the unholy year of 2012. It has been fascinating to peruse Sight & Sound’s intensive champions, for example Zizek’s collection is absolutely hilarious (Dune? fucking Hitman?) and as a corollary it has been fun to guess the age of some of the contributors, I’d bet my Blu-Ray collections that this and this critic were both born within five years of my incept date, whilst my favourite critics David Denby and Kim Newman all provide concrete choices with a few surprises nestled away amongst the obvious classics I was sad to see that both Hannah McGill and John Patterson omitted from the legacy, so it goes. The directors list is worthy of its own separate blog post so I’ll just bring to your attention some of the more alluring and illuminating choices, Michael Mann’s election of Avatar has had cobalt jaws hitting CGI floors, and overall the monocled and riding crop wielding brigade do seem more likely to opt for some more recent fare with the likes of Tree Of Life and There Will Be Blood cropping up on a few selections, I welcome this revelation as it awards these crucial activities a much more organic and contemporary pantheon which must and should be welcomed. Whilst we’re on the subject of critics my professional colleagues at Sound On Sight list can be viewed here, a reasonably eclectic collection which I feel blessed to have included my meandering opinions, although I don’t always agree there is some fine material immortalised on their final selection.
When it comes to my modest list it is excruciatingly painful for me to omit A Matter Of Life & Death, Night Of The Hunter, The Godfather Part II, Ugetsu Monogatari, The Graduate, Paris Texas, Mishima, It’s A Wonderful Life, Sunset Boulevard, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, The Third Man, Affliction and well….I could go on and on ad nauseam. Initially I thought I’d be a bit cheeky with this post and just publish the next ten, my favourite films ranked 11 to 20, an interesting proposition for me as it’s not really something I’ve ever mentally constructed before, and as Tim Lucas adroitly observed ‘it’s people’s top 11-20 choices that often yield the most interesting pictures’ thus I’ve given it some thought and realised what’s the point in doing things by halves? So here then is the inaugural top twenty films of the Menagerie which I might just look to update every decade as well, as everyone’s got to have some pointless and worthless goals, right? Just to be clear these are my personal favourites, the films that have had the most profound impact on me, the films I can effortlessly revisit every year and in many cases always do, the artworks that have made me the obsessive cinematic pictographic monsignor that I am today, either terribly right or wreckingly wrong. Apart from No. 1 these nominations are not in any specific ranking order other than some sort of vaguely descending order of merit, the current choices will no doubt be maneuvering around the list as I age and wilt as new possibilities emerge to challenge the current victors, but as a snapshot of 2012 here we are;
20. Tree Of Life (Malick, 2011) – A fragile election for this position, how do you arrange this ugly and neutered, yet perfectly structured corporate world around you? This is the Malick that occupies an exalted position until I watch The New World or Days Of Heaven or The Thin Red Line again – (as Scorsese said ‘You can come into the middle of it, you can watch it, it’s almost like an endless picture, it has no beginning and no end), when they will no doubt usurp this position as a revolving door for one of the most remarkable careers in cinema. One of the criticisms that the S&S list attracted was the lack of more recent films, specifically those bursting into the imagination over the past ten or twenty years, I do think that there should be some sort of ‘cooling off’ period to see if a work can transcend its contemporary production and remain timeless or mature and benefit with age, but having watched this three or four times now it is astonishing as it is deeply and profoundly moving, and I’m positive that this is a film that will grow stronger with age, as Ebert sums it up nicely with his comments. Now, do you want the good news? Over the next six months to two years we will be privileged to no less than three new Malick movies, one which debuted at Venice, one which is in post-production, and a third which was shooting when last I heard but this was a couple of months ago, so maybe that’s in the can as well. This is astonishing, can you imagine three new Kubrick film being released in the space of two years, or a trio of Bergman’s or Bresson’s? It doesn’t bear thinking about, and this late surge of creativity from the J.D Salinger of the movies make me happy to be alive.
19. On Dangerous Ground (Ray, 1952) – A real personal treat although I was pleasantly shocked to see this on Zizek’s list as well. What’s the appeal? Well it’s difficult to articulate but its one of those rare films made before my birth that can generate an emotional connection, there is such a tender core beating away under the noir trappings which cheerfully violates some of the established rules of the genre – its wilderness setting, no femme fatale – and I guess the fairly trite notion that true love can save you and beauty might emanate from your soul rather than your physical strengths or defects is universally appealing, I guess I’m just a corny sucker sometimes. Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino are among my favourite actors and actresses of the period and Nicholas Ray invests the picture with much of his trademark psychological complexity given the period, it’s a film which deepens and matures like a fine wine, a high watermark of the studio system.
18. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966) – Yes, that’s right, it’s a French film about a donkey. I first saw this on a double bill with Mouchette on a summer Sunday at the Curzon Mayfair around a decade ago, and my god that was possibly the most depressing four hours at the cinema I’ve ever witnessed, replete with deep suffering and sacrifice of both the mortal and animal variety. It’s just such a moving film which even a jaded atheist like yours truly feels tugging at the soul, with a rare emphasis on the rural and spiritual which provides such an antidote to my usual fare, with Bresson’s uniquely detached and distanced ears and eyes marking this is a unique beatific experience.
17. Mirror (Tarkovsky, 1975) – Last week the Renoir over by Russell Square got their mittens on an extremely rare 35mm print of Mirror, one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films made toward the end of his remarkable career, and it was quite an experience to absorb this poetry on the big screen. The film might be the closest that cinema has come to realising the ethereal notion of memory, of how perception and reminiscence can became fractured and distorted by time, in this most autobiographical of his films. Mirror almost resists formal synopsis as it operates under its own internal logic and semiotics, with a shifting utilisation of film stocks – sepia tones, black & white, vivid colour – coupled with the Soviets screen scion’s fascination with elemental symbols and iconography, the blazing & warming flames, the wind dancing over the reeds and grasses, water as a constant source of nourishment and symbol of the immutable presence of time, the eternal Earth our mortal bedrock upon which all is built. All this is inflected through a remarkable use (or indeed lack) of music and Brueglian compositions, a film which urges the viewer to imprint their own translations and understandings onto the screen as the poetry unfurls, holding a reflecting face back unto the beholder as its simple yet infinite title suggests. As Bergman said ‘Tarkovsky for me is the greatest [director], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.’
16. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954) – One of the most influential films of all time, and certainly the greatest ‘men on a mission’ action film ever made. Just imagine a world without The Magnificent Seven, or the Spaghetti Westerns as we know them today, or The Dirty Dozen or Where Eagles Dare, the more modern likes of Oceans Eleven or dare I say it Star Wars as although it’s widely acknowledged that Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress was a huge influence on that film Seven Samurai was the film which really cemented his foreign success and influence. Although it is subtitled and in black & white the film is ultra modern, with the standard templates of how a small, elite crew is brought together to defeat a common purpose, in this case to defend a group of poverty-stricken villagers from the ravaging plunders of a group of bandits, facing overwhelming odds they must utilise unique tactics and bravery to overcome their foes. Each of the seven has their own specialism and purpose, it’s quite simply edge of the seat action cinema, with great characters, and a real sense of noble sacrifice, social responsibility and mournful loss. Make sure you aim for the full, 207 minute ultimate Criterion release.
15. Rumble Fish (Coppola, 1983) – It’s all about family with Coppola, and this tale of brotherly idolisation cleaved a little closer to my life than either of the Godfathers I’m happy to say. Quite apart from the beautiful monochrome photography and Stewart Copeland’s percussive score this film holds fragments of that elusive personal resonance, and a wonderful evocation of silent cinema which highlighted these wonders to my then immature grasp of cinema and its deep and rich tapestry, which Coppola would further revisit in his adaptation of Dracula a decade later. Now how many summers have I got left?
14. Heat (Mann, 1995) – Having rewatched both Heat and Thief in the past six months the former just pips the later to the post, as a more refined iteration of this favourite directors particular themes and obsessions. I love crime movies and I specifically love Michael Mann’s perfectionist, uncompromising male avatars, those state of the at technicians of the peak of their respective professions, on both sides of the law. Heat is epic and it earns the sobriquet which so many pretenders fail to achieve, both the screen personas of Pacino and De Niro clashing against the diamond studded backdrop of the City of Angels, and it’s proof that for visceral action pyrotechnics less is sometimes more, you don’t need to extinguish half a metropolis to generate the desired, pulse pounding thrills. It’s also the perfect example of how you use side characters to drive the characters central drives and motivations forward, as they impact and steer the neurosis and actions of your cool and icy protagonists. Great, evocative soundtrack as well and De Niro’s last great performance.
13. The Thing (Carpenter, 1980) – I first saw The Thing at my mates Stuart’s house on VHS, probably around the age of eleven or twelve – those were the days eh? The most distressing sequence for me was the dog transformation, and I’ll never forget stumbling home, staggering into my kitchen only for my dog to quietly rise up from her slumber, look at me and start emitting a low growl – now there’s a memory that won’t be extinguished. This spot could easily have been stolen by Escape From New York but The Thing has defrosted better that Snake ‘I heard you was dead’ Plissken’s big apple infiltration, it is Carpenters most assured work with horror cinema’s most evocative atmosphere of paranoid apprehension, and a terrific mélange of earned, appropriate gore and bruising histrionics, a great ensemble cast and throbbing soundtrack. Like all great horror movies – one of my particular peccadilloes – it is entrail rich in metaphor and political subtext – filthy alien commies, AID’s, Regan and Thatcher’s horrendous economic assimilation which remains firmly absorbed in the cerebral cortex.
12. The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) – All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy. All work and no play makes Minty a dull boy.
11. The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich, 1971) – Due to my Irish blood I can be a maudlin, wistfully romantic sort at times, and this beautiful paen to times inexorable passing entranced me since an early Moviedrome viewing all those years ago. The beautiful framing and bruising skies, looming over the humdrum lives of the teenagers of a small Texan town stuck a deep chord and I’m still not entirely sure why, it’s Ken Loach fractured through a monochrome romanticism, and wasn’t Cybil Shepherd quite alluring back in the day? Fascinating factoid – Bogdanovich was the first movie ‘celebrity’ that I ever saw in conversation at the BFI when I moved to London back in 2000. You’re welcome.
10. There Will Be Blood (P.T Anderson, 2008) – The other more recent addition to the Menagerie family, I watch this film every December and remain overwhelmed, awed and inspired every time I’ve revisited it over the past few years. There aren’t many filmmakers today who can synthesise the influences and impacts of the old masters in parralel with their own instincts and keep things fresh, a springboard from the past to the future, but P.T. Anderson is the exemplar of respect and adoration, whilst impugning his own specific affectations into his movies which heighten and develop American cinema in a fine and welcome tradition. The maturation of his cinematic style from Altman and Scorsese in the nineties to Kubrick and Huston in the 21st century seems certain, early reports on The Master affirms a definitive evolution, I find this film deeply moving and tragic on its personal, political and functional levels, epic and intelligent, sometimes contemporary cinema can equal past masterpieces, in this charcoal tapestry of America’s decline.
9. Scarlett Street (Lang, 1945) – I love film noir and this is my all time favourite, it’s as bleak and uncompromising as any film made today with Edward G. Robinson’s meek accountant driven to lust filled wrath by the orchestrations of the silver screens most manipulative harpies. It’s another film with a personal dimension, not due to the films events I’m happy to report, it was just one of those golden era films that first convinced me of the potential of films made back in the olden days that weren’t all clunky or boring, staid or ancient, as under its historical trappings lies a universal story of betrayal and passion, nihilstically delivered by the inpregnable Fritz Lang. This was the film that further research led me to the whole movement of German Expressionism and the wider definitions of film noir, and immediately deepened my fascination and history of this most cherished of art forms.
8. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001) – More film as dream, has anyone mined that semiconscious space between cinema and hallucination more proficiently than ‘Jimmy Stewart from Mars?’ This Möbius strip movie is up to 28 in the Sight & Sound poll, an achievement that I predict will incrementally nudge up the pantheon as the years stalk by, as its numerous Russian doll layers are peeled and dissected by the movie intelligentsia. It’s quite the transcendent experience at the cinema, offering numerous translations and interpretations, the most remarkable achievement being that it all weaves together in an utterly beguiling fashion as the ultimate film about film, of bewitching ambitions and furious nightmares. Here is a fantastic article on one of Lynch’s earlier works that seems to be getting quite the reappraisal, another vortex on the enduring power of love and the feminine, and the worlds beyond that are sometimes glimpsed in the phantasmic twilight.
7. Repo Man (Cox, 1984) – I never get tired of this hilarious blend of SF, punk, conspiracy theories and Los Angeles, its such a shame that Alex Cox could never equal his blistering debut. Yes it gets on the list as more of a nostalgia nod rather that surpassing any real quality test but that’s what personal lists are all about, as I spent my adolescence watching this movie with my friends and evey viewing is sure to trigger some warm booze soaked memories. Plus Harry Dean Stanton’s in it of course, in probably his greatest role.
6. Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990) – Cinema stricken with lightning, a delirious blend of murder, movies and mobsters, this is my favourite Scorsese picture as it is fucking impossible to turn it off once it’s up and running. There is something to treasure in every scene and bend of Henry Hill’s coke and crime fuelled life, it’s funny and brutal, moral and mischievous. Like a lot of film fans I’m fascinated by organised crime and the mafia, although I love The Godfather movies this clips that opera as the working class grunt, the presentation of the foot soldiers of this thing of ours, here is that terrific behind the scenes article again. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love it that Scorsese was persuaded to make the film as some sort of riposte to the accelerated tempo of American film-making of the 1980’s, muttering to himself that ‘you want fast movies? I’ll give you a fast movie’ and in one stroke eclipsed the efforts of the Bruckheimer’s of the industry, with a central moral nexus to boot.
5. Assault On Precinct 13 (Carpenter, 1977) – Everyone needs one guilty pleasure, right? Carpenter’s second film, after the hilarious rebuttal to Kubrick’s seriousness achieves pantheon status for one reason only – it is just so much goddamn genre fun with the emphasis on the genre and how movies of a certain strain occupy and master that artistic infrastructure. The characters are brilliant in that cult movie fashion, the soundtrack rocks, and as taut, finessed, working within the most knife-edge of budgets movie making goes this is the amongst the very best. Other movie fans of my generation will elect Raiders or Empire or whatever as the initial film that really turned them on to the movies, this is my equivalent that was also in the background as I lurched into adolescent movie maturity. This is one of the first, if not the first movie I seriously got into when I came of certain age along with Carpenter’s wider work of the period, with a personal affectation that must remain secret. I’m not the worlds biggest Western fan but when transplanted to an urban milieu that basic material finds new legs, I will never forgot my first late night viewing and just how cool Napoleon Wilson seemed back in the day, and crucially it has a real heart, a real sense of the group moving together to survive in that Hawksian fashion which transcends any formally arranged technique – and that bleeds from the screen. Now, I’ve got me a plan, it’s called ‘save ass‘…..
4. Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979) – The greatest adventure movie, possibly the greatest war film ever made, with sweltering, incendiary sequence of scenes as we enter the heart of darkness. Coppola’s exemplary casting strikes gold, with Martin Sheen a worthy screen opponent to the titanic majesty of Brando, it’s a film which is as fascinating for its production as its fictional bends of the river, with an immortal legacy that extends beyond the fall of Saigon to todays insane and brutal conflicts.
3. Blade Runner (Scott, 1982) – That’s enough for me, just those ninety seconds are enough for a perfectly realised cinematic universe. You only need to look at the likes of Total Recall to detect its continuing relevance, yes perhaps to the point of tired irrelevance, but the film has to be one of the most accurately prescient movies of all time – environmental catastrophe, artificial intelligence, third world slave labour and an elite over-class, an increasingly fractured and isolated populace, plus much more besides. As a teenager I’d watch this film at least once a week, being particularly enthralled with the ending confrontation and the chess scene, plus Sean Young may just be my ultimate cinematic crush. It’s flaws and inconsistencies intensify the brilliance if you’re a real Blade Runner obsessive, which brings me neatly to the Nexus 2 of the list;
2. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) – The newly elected greatest film of all time may be the perfect allegory as we cinefans can be an obsessive sort, tracking down obscure prints of little known pictures or deleted scenes, alternate versions of our favourites or the most obscure production anecdote, it’s a hall of mirrors, a labyrinth of meanings and sigils that on numerous levels make Vertigo the ultimate masterpiece to end all masterpieces. What makes it so special for me? Well, everything I guess – the heliographic structure, the doomed performances, the vivid deployment of colour, its arching, infatuating score, the mark of a deeply personal work rendered on-screen as the most mesmerizing romance ever filmed.
1. 2001 – A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) – One of the most ambitious films ever made this towering achievement hangs monolith like over my list, silently and inscrutably observing the inferior pretenders to the throne. Is it a modernist art film of five distinct pieces smuggled into multiplexes which struck a chord with the spaced out youth of 1968? A hymn to the infinite mysteries of our universe? A film more broadly about intelligence and knowledge, and its boundaries and perils? It’s influence on popular culture is unimpeachable – as soon as you hear the lyrical swirls of the Blue Danube or Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra what else leaps to mind – with special effects that transformed the art form and one single genius flourish of editing widely considered as the best example of technique and grammar in the entire art forms history. One of the first films I recall ever seeing it remains eternal, continually fascinating and rewarding, a celestial masterpiece that continues to inspire and evolve.
So there you have it, controversially no Fincher or Leone, no Schrader or Spielberg, but twenty is twenty so this is where we are. As I have recently breached 60K of hits over almost six years of work it is now my turn to ask for a little favour – Gentle Reader I want your best films list here in the comments field. Just your top five, top ten, or even just single favourite ever, if you’ve enjoyed even one article or review I’ve written here for free over the past six years then I’m not wanting to play the guilt card or anything but hey, you at least owe me that, a miniscule non-financial contribution, right? I won’t comment on them, I won’t criticise or affirm the selection, I just want to get the temperature of my readers and induce a little encouragement and feedback which believe me goes a long way in keeping this damned thing going as it’s a lot of work, this howling into that inscrutable and silent darkness of the internet. And what the fuck am I gonna do for my 1,ooo post? I have some ideas but I’d welcome opinions……
The legendary producer David Selznick was a key figure in Alfred Hitchcock’s career. In an era when the producer was king he was one of the greats, the MGM enlisted executive of Gone With The Wind in 1939 after a period reviving the fortunes of the RKO studio he was always on the hunt for potential talent both behind and in front of the camera, and he finally persuaded Hitchcock to decant to Hollywood to direct his first American film Rebecca just as the second world war was gathering momentum. The romantic tragedy earned Selznick a second consecutive Best Picture Oscar (although famously Hitchcock never won a directing Academy Award during his long career) after Gone With The Wind and this prestige heralded a turbulent relationship between the expatriate director and his guiding muse, Selznick often assigning Hitchcock out to rival studios for projects as was the practice at the time for both directors and star talent, with both often being assigned to films they held little or no artistic interest in, yet forced to concur due to the legal frameworks of their lucrative yet aesthetically castrating contracts. After seven years together and ten films under their respective belts the relationship was terminated after the poor box office and critical performance of The Paradine Case, a melodramatic, stage bound courtroom thriller which does not play to Hitchcock’s strengths, although it has its moments within the sexual frisson dancing between its central triangle of leading players, and their growing enchantment leading to a devastating lust and gloomy betrayal.
The Paradine Case opens in high society London as a mysteriously beautiful and elegant society dame plays the piano with a melancholy grace as her supper is prepared. A knock at the door heralds the arrival of two detectives who arrest Mrs. Paradine (an enigmatic Alida Valli) for the poisoning murder of her blind husband, and she is spirited away to the local jail, defrocked of her expensive garb and jewelry, in a quietly humiliating moment. Assigned to her case is the formidable barrister Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck), along with Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda Hollywood’s then contemporary figure of quiet decency and liturgical grace, happily married to his glowing wife gay (Ann Todd) he is about to have his pleasant life rocked by an all-consuming, implacable lust. Keane soon falls in love with his cryptic client, incrementally forcing a groaning strain on his marriage and his wife’s affections, as he investigates the case and pulls together the pieces of Mr. Paradine’s last fatal and fateful evening. A further triangle of support characters compress the drama, from Mrs. Paradine’s menacing house servant Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan) who evidently has some dark involvement in the death, from the lecherous Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton) who is always a treasure on-screen, to prosecution barrister Lord Joseph (Leo G. Carrell), a Hitchcock favourite supporting player who appeared in six of his movies.
For the Hitchcock completest or connoisseur there are shards of interest here, but it’s really not very exciting for the passing fan and I can see why it was something of a flop upon its initial 1947 release, a disappointment which finally convinced Selznick to terminate their contract. It is however something of a masterclass in Hollywood grammar of the time – judicious use of close-ups during dramatic moments, expressionist zig-zag lighting patterns for the prison interior to frame Mrs. Paradine as a lurking, possibly unknown and malevolent presence which contrasts with the bright, high-key interiors of Keane’s opulent family home radiated by his wife’s decent character and breeding. There is one interesting pan and drift at a crucial moment when Latour enters the courtroom that you can see at 10:15 here, it’s a rare moment of camera dexterity in an otherwise conventionally arranged, rather stilted and flat drama that only really gets going with the third act once the courtroom hearings start proper, and the central mystery begins to gain a nervous illumination. The love triangle is played as melodrama rather than a narrative hook to hang any breathless sense of suspense, with some notions of sexual guilt and feminine inscrutability – Valli is invested with a genuine, uncanny chemistry – bubbling beneath the surface, but it all comes together as Hitchcock needing to fulfil a contract with professionalism and adequate skill, rather than pushing himself as an artist in either the technical, thematic, narrative or psychological fields.
You know there really isn’t much more to say about this picture, I’ve never seen this before and truth be told I knew little of it other than it was a courtroom drama and that Gregory Peck was in it, heck for some reason I thought Ingrid Bergman was the foreign temptress such was my ignorance, and that’s not because I’m confusing this with Spellbound as I’m very conversant with that movie thank you very much. Nevertheless this screening finally marks my completion of all of Hitchcock’s American films, I’ve finally seen ’em all, so that’s one welcome achievement that the season has delivered, now it’s on to those elusive silent spectaculars. This marks the end of the first weeks seasonal activity, an initial burst of enthusiasm that has been compounded by the arrival of the BFI’s September schedule, and I’m pleased to announce that they have managed to secure two very special guests for some terrific sounding screenings and Q&A’s, alongside some digital restorations of some pieces that I’ve already sent in my ticket requests for. Speaking of restorations here is a fascinating article on the process that the talented curators undertake, and I’ve just been granted access to the full archive of Sight & Sounds new digital library once it is published, now that’s going to be a appetising treat;
It started with a kiss, and we all knew it would come to this – finally Orson Welles mosaic movie which heralded his career long fascination with identity and objective truths has been plucked from its precarious perch, and the recriminations, discussions, debates, snark, arguments and dissemination can flow in earnest anger in terms of the exalted ten at the top of the pile – no Keaton or Chaplin? (or indeed any comedies, not even Strangelove in the top 50?) No Bergman or Sjöström? What of the Hollywood classicism of Stanley Donen or Busby Berkeley, DeMille or Ray, long catapulted from the highest pantheon of the greatest yet whose emotional and epic American imaginings seem more pertinent through the prisms of Sundance and the modern blockbuster, whilst Griffith is finally completely expunged from the quinquagenarian tabulation. Where’s Wilder? Can’t we simply laugh and grin anymore, even through his acidic, blackly corrupting teutonic viewfinder? See also Tati, and his predictions of our corporately controlled, antiseptic and surveillance drenched world. Cocteau and Godard are rendered bankrupt, Bresson is sterilised, Antonioni exiled, Jean Vigo in detention and Kurosawa banished to the dōjō, Tarkovsky’s poetics and Eistenstien’s constructivism are glasnost chilled, Lynch, Coppola, Malick and Scorsese’s American dreams and nightmares imperiously displaced by Ford’s romantic horse opera. Bollywood and South America are consistently overlooked among the full fifty and only one female director gets a token gift, and I seriously doubt that many have heard of Chantal Akerman. This is an art form slowly maturing from infancy to adolescence, not yet surpassed by a usurper (TV? Video Games? Not yet) that was forged in the glowing embers of the industrial revolution, and I fully agree with Richard Linklater’s complaint that since cinema has now officially straddled three centuries a figure of only ten seems unfairly restrictive, but they have published a top fifty this time although of course the majority of attention will be heaped on the highest tier, with the inevitable sniffy criticisms that this strain of alleged importance always engenders. Heck, if it gets more people interested in cinema in all its rarefied forms over its varied history then it’s done its job, and for me there wasn’t too many surprises, other than only two films and one documentary installation of the past twenty years getting a nod – In The Mood For Love, Histoire(s) du Cinema and Mulholland Drive – and the likes of Casablanca, The Magnificent Ambersons or Greed completely ejected from the pantheon – now there’s a film which is more relevant today than ever…..
Do you commit your personal list, the ten greatest films that have meant so much to you in your life? Or do you go with what you consider the ten most important films, that accurately reflect the ultimate strengths of this most hypnotic, temporally arranged yet fleeting formats of expression? Must you register a vote for each of the forms most crucial movements and dizzying historical and technical developments – the silent film or documentary, the German Expressionists, French Poetic Realists, the Soviet Montage or American Westerns? The surreal or dream works, or the melodramas, the musicals, the noirs or fantasies of various stripes that now dominate the big budget discourse? Or, as Edgar Wright rather more succinctly puts it, do you go with your heart or your head? One of the more interesting observations I’ve briefly consumed is just how many of these fifty were genuinely popular, either in the ticket receipt or subsequent cult movie way, so how far is the academic discourse of the art form divorced from genuine screen enjoyment across audiences and ages? All these questions reverberate around these exercises and that’s simply part of the fun, but for now I just want to address the top ten critics poll – a comparison with the directors poll for example is a whole other fascinating beast – so like an Olympic powerlifter let me mentally chalk my throbbing brain for some heavy celluloid lifting.
1. Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) – Emotional and eternal, it’s no surprise to me that this is the temperature of the times. Mainstream entertainment smuggling deeply affecting positions of our psychological place in the world, of love and loss, of dreams and despair. Is Rear Window a more immediate reflection of our times? A more accurate metaphor of cinema as voyeurism and the dangers of seeing? Maybe, but it doesn’t have the immortal legacy of the human condition, of yearning for love, and its emotional core surpasses Kane’s technical and formal brilliance with an equally challenging and perfect structure which merges plot, themes and drama in a hexing brew. The ending of the film is obliterating given all that has come before, it is madness and obsession spiraling down to a narcotic submission, and if this our current legacy then we should be very, very afraid – the greatest horror movie of all time. Chris Markers interpretation of the film is quite astonishing.
2. Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) – Coincidently I’ve just started reading this, a fantastically dense book on Welles career post Kane, highly recommended as Callow isn’t afraid to take the man to task for his enormous ego and some of the less pleasant events in his life and work. This chessboard film is a masterpiece of intricacy and intelligence, but like chess it can be infuriating and infectious, alienating the uninitiated, whilst its craft is unimpeachable and you can find new things to revel in every time you revisit CFK it does lack a genuine emotional punch to many, myself included. Still, Kane is Film Studies 101, of how you use everything in a directors arsenal – acting and performance, photography and light, music and sound, structure and pace, to construct a fiction that still fascinates and agitates over 70 years later.
3. Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953) – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this presents a different facet of Japanese culture and history which normally seems regulated to anime, martial arts and SF inflected pictures, designed and presented through a non Western lens when it comes to framing, acting and compositions. More importantly however are its eternal themes, of family and children, aging and reflecting, and it is these themes that transcend international boundaries and experiences. I’m surprised to see this at No. 1 in the directors poll, I’d have thought those egotistical swine would have opted for the big, sweeping, grandeur immersed movies with thousands of extras, technical prowess and bombastic theatrics, but maybe that’s due to the vagaries of the S&S poll voting system. Anyway another genuine masterpiece, a moving mediation on the smaller, fleeting details of life.
4. La Regle du jeu (Renoir, 1939) – I’ve never quite understood the acclaim that The Rules Of The Game has garnered over the decades, I’ve seen it of course many, many years ago, and even picked up an all region DVD copy when I was in Tokyo some time back, but it has languished on my groaning shelf of things to watch again, so at least this poll has spurned me on to giving this another chance as I’m sure I’m missing something. Actually, truth be told Renoir is something of an Achilles heel in my film knowledge, I’ve seen many of the ‘core’ films but they never really connected with me, but I was a younger, stupider person back then. Nevertheless I’m sure it’s scathing satire of the elite of its time will of course find succor in our current age of political corruption, ineptitude, mistrust and loathing, I’ll need to give it another watch before I can construct any meaningful opinion.
5. Sunrise: a Song for Two Humans (Murnau, 1927) – One of the great losses of cinema was Murnau, killed at the height of his powers, a genuine visionary who could be regarded as the Kubrick of the silent age, given his innovations with the camera on the cusp of sound, the developments of technical grammar and a bravery with subject matter and themes – at least for the Twenties. Sunrise is a film I’ve never fully got to grips with, I’ve only seen it once, relatively recently (as in the last five years) and for its era it was obviously revolutionary with its prowling camera, match dissolves and urban versus the rural social metaphors, but I certainly didn’t glean any emotional involvement from its pulsing central romance, but that’s probably due to the difficulties in connecting with its brand of silent acting and a contemporary score. It’s a film worthy of further examination and research though, as is the wider work of Murnau which I’m not fully contingent with, other than Nosferatu of course.
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) – The most recent film honoured in the poll, what more could I possibly say than my mammoth review from a couple of years ago? Well, plenty. The desperate clutches at some sort of British element in the list are perfectly predictable – this was a film shot on British soil with a British crew and a British screenwriter, financed with American funding and an American expatriate director, but the film is universal in many different ways, it strives for and achieves nothing less than our whole species clumsy development with technical achievements that remain unsurpassed, with arguably the most brilliant expression of the art forms editing grammar that is simply genius in execution. It is the format’s equivalent of the Mona Lisa smile, of Beethoven or Michelangelo, for me the greatest film ever made. Well, apart from Assault On Precinct 13 of course.
7. The Searchers (Ford, 1956) – I was mildly shocked to see this back in the pantheon at the expense of say The Seven Samurai or Persona, its a mirror to Kane as a hollow capitalist celebration of an independent spirit poisoned by power and influence, harking back to the ‘movies’ hegemony as an American dominated media form that has traversed and conquered the globe since the rise of Hollywood a century ago. I suppose there is much in that film that reflects the current American experience, the self righteous imperialism tinged with psychological dissent, an impervious ideology in Wayne, that iconic presence of the taming of the West, curdled and destroyed by his quest as he turns and returns to the haunted canyons of Monument Valley. Curious then that The Godfather’s have plummeted in the rankings, maybe those critiques are too on the nose for the current situation.
8. Man with a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, 1929) – How did this elbow its way into this premiere position? This provocative agit-prop film essay is of course contemporarily curious, given the changes in the visual medium of the past decade with the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of a mashed-up, frantic and swiftly edited visual culture, drawing from a myriad of images and surfaces that can produce a bewildering charm upon the viewer, rather than centering on a specific individuals experiences and lives, but that’s globalisation for you. There’s also a DIY sense of possibility, of shooting on the fly in the streets, a shaky-cam veneer that you could replicate this with your phone these days. The only non-fiction film on the list, I guess there had to be one.
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1927) – No joke intended, but it is penitent confession time – this is the only inclusion I’ve never seen. In my defence I’ve had tickets to see it twice at the BFI as I’m fully aware of its enormous influence, I just didn’t want to relegate my viewing of one of the last true classics to the smaller screen (I’m pretty sure its out on Criterion so it’s not a difficult film to source), but alas my last scheduled viewing was back in March when I was unfortunately loitering in Whitechapel hospital. I’m told it’s all in the faces, how humanity is reflected on our grimacing visages, how a single tear sliding down a praying face can be one of the most powerful images ever captured. Confession time – I’ve also never seen Chungking Express, The Sound Of Music or any John Waters film prior to Cry Baby – at least in their entirety. Please forgive me.
10. 8 ½ (Fellini, 1963) – So finally I guess there had to be one film about film-making, if all the worlds a stage, a centrifugal circus then Fellini’s most internalized film was destined to make an appearance somewhere, it has always been a favourite among the intelligentsia which again I can admire if not quite enjoy. Fellini like Godard, De Palma and others I ‘get’, I understand why they are admired and revered, but for the most part their work leaves me cold, it’s just one of those non-subjective, non-cerebral gut feeling reactions that simply does not connect. La Strada on the other hand is incredible and deeply moving…
So that’s that – I’m frickin exhausted. It’s fascinating to compare and contrast the directors results with the wider critical opinion, no surprise to see Stan up there at No.2 as he was always a ‘directors director’, but a joint silver medal was a pleasant surprise for my favourite film of all time.They are screening all the winners at the BFI in September alongside their exhaustive Hitchcock season – more on my plans for that soon – so I’ll hunt down Joan Of Arc amongst the suspense driven thrillers. Who are the directors that I think are the most interesting and important these days? Well, I’ll save that for my upcoming 900th post celebration which is thundering over the horizon, but for now its time to really excavate the results down to the micro level (when all the individual submissions are published over the next few days), to unearth the specific opinions of filmmakers and critics whom you admire and loathe, an exercise which can be deeply amusing and illuminatingly entertaining, it’s that infinite vortex of cinema digestion that can get you drunk on these absinthe shots of cinephilia, and with that final pretentious burst of nonsense I’ll just ask one question – where was Weekend At Bernies?