December 2008

948 (90). Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, John Carpenter)

Screened December 31 2008 on Image DVD in New York NY

TSPDT #727 IMDb Wiki

John Carpenter’s second feature is often cited as an object lesson in tight, tense low-budget action filmmaking where not a single frame is wasted in conveying suspense and drama. The irony is that the majority of the scenes run longer than is necessary, lingering on deliberate silences or stage movements; the first half of the film is padded with wordless interludes taking in locations or gazing at people driving to those locations. In interviews Carpenter has admitted to extending shots and scenes in order to fill up a feature running length with a limited budget and fairly simple story, but whether by design or necessity, the laid-back exposition generates an seductive air of fateful, impending doom.

Viewers may not notice the slow editing pace due to Carpenter’s irresistibly cheesy but astoundingly effective synth score that pumps tension through a simple five note melody or a hanging chord. The slowness allows for characterizations both cinematic (police lieutenant Austin Stoker’s eyes taking in his surroundings, conveying an attentiveness that will serve his character well later) and dramatic (death row convict Darwin Joston’s Hawksian, jocular manner of sizing one person up after another with repeated requests for a smoke). Carpenter’s use of expansive ‘Scope frames would seem antithetical to shoestring filming, but they match the horizontal flatness of the Southern California setting, an urban wasteland conveying frontier desolation in which a ragtag police outfit finds itself utterly isolated.  While the near-senseless seige of the police station by a seemingly suicidal army of gangsters is the film’s extended climactic setpiece, the film’s most disturbing moment is an earlier inciting incident, the notorious ice cream truck massacre, a uniquely random act of horrific violence in broad suburban daylight that charges the subsequent nighttime siege with paranoid dread over unlimited possibilites of mayhem.

Unfortunately, the second half feels more conventional, relying on flash editing and walls of noise to provide easy scares in the dark, offset by the pornographic video game pleasure of turkey shooting zombie-like mauraders. Carpenter’s innovation here is an ultraviolent intensification of the George Romero heroes-in-a-tincan setup that itself has been co-opted by any number of claustrophobic action thrillers since. Nonetheless, Carpenter remembers the power of anticipatory quiet in between rounds of bloodbaths, as the dwindling number of defenders regard each other with surprisingly touching gazes, a humanist admiration earned through cold, hard survivalist professionalism.

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947 (89). Judex (1963, Georges Franju)

Screened Thursday December 30 2008 on Something Weird VHS (courtesy of Kim‘s, sniff) in New York, NY

TSPDT rank #  IMDb Wiki

This remake of pioneer cineaste Louis Feuillade’s 1916 action serial featuring cinema’s original caped crusader can function today as a surreal subversion of the modern superhero genre that dominates movie houses the world over. While Judex (played by real life magician Channing Pollack) makes a bold entrance in a tuxedoed bird costume to orchestrate the death of a greedy financier, he, unlike most contemporary superheroes, is mostly ineffectual for the remainder of the film.  He’s upstaged by a slinky, shape-shifting minx (Francine Berge) who changes disguises at every step of a kidnapping plot so haphazard it slips like mercury through the viewer’s grasp. No one character maintains control of the narrative, which operates like a soccer game, bouncing in jagged trajectories with every unexpected death, deception or deus ex machina revelation. But once in a while a stunning moment will materialize to sear itself into the memory: a masked ball of wealthy socialites wearing bird’s heads; Francine Berge’s lightning transformation from a sweet-faced nun to a sleek cat burglar outfit; Edith Scob’s delicate body floating downstream; a boy staring transfixed at the fresh corpse of a woman who’s fallen to her death. Feuillade’s grand vision was of a world whose capacity for imminent, explosive chaos resisted the authoritative logic of 20th century narrative; Franju is clearly sympathetic to Feuillade, but goes further in imposing a new authority, one of the lyrical dream image. If only more summer blockbusters had that sense…

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946 (88). Prima della rivoluzione / Before the Revolution (1964, Bernardo Bertolucci)

Screened December 28, 2008 on New Yorker VHS in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT #988 IMDb

We have Bernardo Bertolucci’s second feature to thank for serving a vivid analogy to the flaws of communism: like sleeping with your hot aunt, it’s a utopian fantasy that, once achieved, goes downhill in a hurry.  This semi-autobiographical account of a doomed love affair between a young bourgeois leftist (Francesco Barilli) dallying and diddling with his disaffected aunt (Bertolucci’s then-wife, the delectable Adriana Asti) is filmed with genuine emotional conviction towards its ideological confusion, trying its damnedest to articulate its ambivalence through a barrage of stylistic conceits openly borrowed from New Wave contemporaries (even Asti is a mash-up of Anna Karina kitten-cute and Vitti-Moreau-nioni neurosis). The jump cuts, poetic monologues and musical interludes are alternately impressive in their omnivorous ambitions and overbearing in their bombast (especially when Ennio Morricone’s music swells to overkill levels). The most memorable stylistic elements are those that would become the touchstones for Bertolucci’s career: a camera that moves like a dancer through time and space, wishing to brush its gaze against everything in sight; and a darkly sensuous knack for depicting forbidden sex as a form of self-knowledge, an inescapable vortex at the heart of existence. Few filmmakers have been able to channel the cinema to evoke their all-consuming libido; the catch is that the leftist sentiments depicted in this film (which, upon its spring ’68 release in Paris, helped incite the May Riots) amount to just another dalliance for this quintessentially bourgeois superconsumer of life experience.  It amounts to an international arthouse version of The Graduate [TSPDT #215], as clever as that film in fashionably tweaking middle-class boredom with cougar sex and hip filmmaking to compensate for a muddled, reactionary critique of society.  As far as movies depicting scandalous intercourse leading to social revolutions go, Harold and Maude [TSPDT #493] reads like Das Kapital compared to this defeatist tract.

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945 (87). Il Sorpasso / The Easy Life (1962, Dino Risi)

screened December 28 2008 on VHS in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #828 IMDb Wiki

Dino Risi, who passed away this June to little fanfare, helmed nearly 80 features over a career spanning seven decades, the most celebrated of them being this road comedy, one of the early influencers of the genre.  A mild-mannered student (Jean-Louis Trintignant, more buttoned-up than usual) has his eyes opened to the excitements and vices of booming 60s Italy when he’s taken for a ride by a braggadocio businessman (Vittorio Gassman, whose last name fits his character in terms of his talking and driving).  The garrulous script is co-written by Ettore Scola (We All Loved Each Other So Much, A Special Day), and it shows in the story’s reliance on broad social types who require a full story arc to acquire dimension and pathos. Trintignant never overcomes the flat naivete of his character, basically a prop for Gassman’s blowhard hedonism, which borders on belligerence (not surprisingly, Risi also wrote and directed the original version of Scent of a Woman).  But when Gassman points out a family secret to his protege’s unbelieving eyes, he gains credibility as a social critic who’s not so much an asshole as too smart for his own good, earning the film a rib-jabbing cynicism worthy of Billy Wilder.  The sudden, tragic ending feels as arbitrary as the one in Easy Rider [TSPDT #331], a film it allegedly inspired, while other sardonic moments are undercut by the film’s essential ambivalence towards its own social critique: a fete full of gum-chewing teenyboppers eager to lose their virginity brims with leering undertones of adult envy; a sun-baked beach party exceeds tourist ad levels of brain-fried fun. The Easy Life‘s ambivalent worldview may lack the singular formal curiosity of Antonioni (whose L’Eclisse is the target of the film’s biggest punch lines) or the carnivalesque lyricism of Fellini, but the way it mixes equal parts hipper-than-thou wisecracks, mainstream morality and tasty dollops of la dolce vita may account for its mass appeal.

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944 (86). The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, Billy Wilder)

Screened December 25, 2008 on MGM DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #796  IMDb Wiki

A mellow apotheosis from Hollywood’s most celebrated cynic. This gently naughty poke at Sherlock Holmes’ emotional life and sexual proclivities reveals an inner desolation in its title character (Robert Stephens) that amounts to the most touchingly humanistic portrait of a human being in all of Billy Wilder’s work. The trademark acerbic comic banter of Wilder and longtime co-writer I.A.L. Diamond is evident, but toned to a quaint Victorian repartee between Holmes and Watson as leisurely as a picnic game of badminton. Shot in warm, soft-focus with a loving attention to 19th-century detail, individual frames pop vibrantly like panels from a graphic novel, a visual splendor unmatched by anything in Wilder’s career. This unprecdented meticulousness to mise-en-scene mirrors Holmes’ fastidious attention to his environs, which the film posits as a byproduct to a yearning for love displaced by an abiding love-hate mistrust in fellow humans, whether his bumbing sidekick Dr. Watson (Colin Blakely, excellent) or in the beguiling charms of a woman in distress (Genevieve Page).

This feast for the eyes and ears was intended to be a 165 minute roadshow presentation consisting of four stories with an intermission, but was cut in half by MGM. The missing episodes, partly reconstructed from existing materials on the MGM DVD, touch pointedly on Holmes’ relationship with Watson, his cocaine addiction, and his pained romantic past, adding significant layers to the release version. In all likelihood, this director’s version was as destined for commercial failure as the original release, hopelessly out of sync with the openly liberal culture of the 1970s.  Today its encapsulation of its own time, space and values speaks vividly for itself.

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943 (85). Murder by Contract (1958, Irving Lerner)

Screened Wednesday December 16 2008 on VHS in New York NY

TSPDT rank #726 IMDb

Irving Lerner hard-sells an implausible premise of Claude, a novice contract killer (Vince Edwards, an outwardly tougher but equally brittle Montgomery Clift type. ) working his way at record speed to a major league hit, much in the way Claude sells himself to his client: memorable tough-talking one-liners offset by gestural terseness. Claude’s preparation and execution of his new trade is a series of lizard-cool rituals shot and edited with the exactitude of a metronome, actions alternating with shots of clocks and scribbled notes adding dollar figures for each mission accomplished, as mesmerizing as a video game in its lockstep rhythm of rounds and rewards.

For his big hit, Lerner introduces two Abbot and Costello sidekicks who ostensibly support and monitor Claude, but practically serve as on-screen audience surrogates analyzing the film noir hero standing in their midst. Flabbergasted by Claude’s super-cool reluctance to execute the hit, the sidekicks engage in an extended comic give-and-take, a brilliant device that co-opts the audience’s fragile suspension of disbelief by giving voice to it, while building up near-impossible expectations of Claude’s hitman abilities. It’s when Claude discovers late in the game that his target is a woman that his game plan starts to crumble, leading to a succumbing of linear rationalism to crazed impulse worthy of Kubrick. In terms of scale, Murder by Contract is a modest chamber piece compared to The Killing‘s multi-character symphony, but it cuts deeper into the same heart of male self-destructiveness underlying its most outrageous aspirations.

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Harold Pinter, RIP

One of my favorite courses in college was on Beckett and Pinter. I actually enjoyed Pinter’s plays more than Beckett’s – at least they infiltrated my experience of life, as I started to read volumes into the intonations, rhythms and word selection in everyday conversations (not the wisest thing to do in college, when most people are still struggling to be articulate). So the news of Pinter’s death is a great loss.  I’m glad he was recognized by the Nobel folks just a few years ago – it’s hard to think of another playwright whose understanding of language – its predilections towards politics and power, its unplanned prevarications towards the past – applies not just to his own native tongue, but to everyone’s.

As a tribute, here’s the video essay I did with Dan Callahan earlier this year on The Go-Between. Look at 1:15 for a quintessentially Pinterian moment:

Thoughts (and a Call to Action) on the Latest Update to the 1000 Greatest Films

Bill Georgaris has done it again. The list compiler from down under has collected over 200 more ballots in his ongoing quest to maintain the most qualified list of the top 1,000 movies of all time. The result is 96 titles from last December’s list being replaced with others – not as dramatic as the 139 titles that changed guard due to last year’s update, which left yours truly back 40 spots in his quest to watch all 1000 titles.

This time around, I’m happy to report that the update has set me back only one title.  I reflected this adjustment over my last couple project entries: 942 (83) Mädchen in Uniform and 942 (84) The Art of Vision (the parenthetical numbers indicate which entry the film belongs in my blog coverage of my countdown – in other words, I’ve blogged about 84 of the 942 movies that I’ve seen from the TSPDT 1000).  I feel that I am now in position to complete my blogging of the TSPDT 1000 by the end of next year (barring another substantial update that would set me back).  My plan is to watch a few more titles over the holidays, and then watch on average one entry a week in 2009. And of course, the video essays will continue, with a lineup of distinguished guests, and hopefully will take some more innovative forms as well.

I don’t expect to be the first person to have seen all of the 1000 greatest films. If that was my aim, I would have probably been finished years ago. Rather than rush to the finish, I started this blog to savor the journey and commemorate with each viewing with my own reflections.  I also offer compendium of as many useful and informative links that I could find on the web, for each title; each time I do so reminds me of the stunning wealth of information available for free online for anyone who wishes to educate themselves in the art of cinema, or just about anything else. Through all the links I discover for each film, I’ve stumbled upon new thinkers, new ways of thinking, new histories, new ways of seeing. It’s like being lost during registration week of college and walking into a classroom that isn’t yours, but whose lesson you find so strangely captivating you don’t want to leave. I’ve felt that way most recently in compiling notes on Stan Brakhage’s The Art of Vision, a film so true to its title that it makes me wonder if just watching Brakhage’s oeuvre would be just as if not more beneficial than this current project.  In other words, whereas most list projects work towards completion, this project has been a perpetual process of opening.

I offer these thoughts to remind us what lists like the TSPDT 1000 Greatest Films are good for. The titles and their rankings mean nothing but what significance we bring to them, and watching all the films doesn’t prove a thing except for what we can get out of them. To some who realize this, lists may be a pointless endeavor to begin with. When I last discussed the list with film critic Dave Kehr, he expressed far less concern for the so-called list of 1000 than for the hundreds (if not thousands) of movies from the silent and early talkie period that are known to exist but haven’t been offered by the keepers (typically studios) who own them for rediscovery.  His point being, how can we possibly know what the 1000 greatest films are if we haven’t even seen films that could possibly rank among them? It’s a point well worth keeping in mind as one looks over the TSPDT list.

Another consideration, one that’s dear to me, is the need for increased appreciation of films from outside the U.S. and Europe, as well as experimental cinema, films directed by women, and documentaries. I addressed this concern following last year’s update; one year later, it seems the situation has only gotten worse. Bill himself sent me an email with some disheartening statistics:

900 of the films come from North America (486) & Europe (414). Up 11 films from the 2007 update.

Only 80 from Asia (down 8), 9 from South America (down 4), 6 from Australasia (up 2), and just 5 from Africa (same).

Additionally, there are only 16 films directed by women – I’d might as well list them all:

Jeanne Dielman – Chantal Akerman
Toute une nuit – Chantal Akerman
The Piano – Jane Campion
The Night Porter
– Liliana Cavani
Daisies
– Vera Chytilova
Lost in Translation –
Sofia Coppola
Beau travail – Claire Denis
Meshes of the Afternoon – Maya Deren
India Song
– Marguerite Duras
Sugar Cane Alley
– Euzhan Palcy
Orlando
– Sally Potter
Triumph of the Will- Leni Riefenstahl
Olympia – Leni Riefenstahl
Too Early, Too Late – Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet (there are two other Straub-Huillet films but they only list Straub as director)
Cleo from 5 to 7 - Agnes Varda
Vagabond – Agnes Varda

Experimental cinema fares little better – My rough count is 19 titles that I would categorize as experimental:

L’Age d’or
The Art of Vision
The Blood of a Poet
Un Chant d’amour
Chelsea Girls
Un Chien andalou
Flaming Creatures
The Hart of London
La Jetee
Koyaanisqatsi
Lucifer Rising
Meshes of the Afternoon
La Region centrale

Rose Hobart
Scenes from Under Childhood
Scorpio Rising
Tom, Tom, The Piper’s Son
Wavelength
Zorn’s Lemna

You would assume that the number of documentaries, a genre that has thrived especially of late, would be significantly higher, but I count roughly 33 documentaries on the TSPDT 1000 (and that’s using a fairly generous definition of the genre):

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City
Caro diario
Chronicle of a Summer
Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach
Close-Up
A Diary for Timothy
F for Fake
Fellini’s Roma
Fires Were Started
Gimme Shelter
Grey Gardens
Histoire(s) du cinema
Hitler: A Film from Germany
Hotel Terminus
The Hour of the Furnaces
Land of Silence and Darkness
Land Without Bread
Lessons of Darkness
Les Maitres fous
Man of Aran
Moana
A Moment of Innocence
Nanook of the North
Night and Fog
Olympia
Salesman
Sans Soleil
Shoah
Song of Ceylon
Too Early, Too Late
The Thin Blue Line
Triumph of the Will

[It's worth noting that Kazuo Hara's documentary The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On is the film that fell from the most spots off the list - from 454 to nowhere. How is that even possible?]

The degree to which the list mis-represents the “best” of cinema along lines of geography, genre and gender are enough to wonder if Dave Kehr is right all along – why place importance on a list at all? But rather than call for a dismissal of the list (which would be particularly heart-breaking for me, given the years of attention I’ve invested into it), I want to fall back upon the description I gave above, that this list isn’t something set in stone, but an opening for discovery and dialogue. So I want to take what I perceive as deep flaws in the list as an opportunity to call upon the community of cinephiles around the world to help address those shortcomings.

I am calling for “critics, filmmakers, reviewers, scholars and other likely film types” who have a particular interest in any of the following types of movies to submit their lists of greatest films to me:

- cinemas outside of the U.S. or Europe
- cinema by women
- experimental cinema
- documentary

I attempted to collect lists that give due attention to these cinemas after last December’s update, with Bill Georgaris’ blessing.  I only collected a handful last time – this time around I am making a much needed stronger effort. If you are such a person, or if you know someone, a professor, filmmaker or informed enthusias, who has a passion for any of those cinemas, I want lists that will go into the overall rankings and hopefully take the list beyond it’s current lamentable state of 90% Hollywood/U.S./European narrative features, and something truly representative of the beautiful variety that the art of cinema has to offer.

Please submit your list to alsolikelife [at] gmail [dot] com, and I will forward to Bill for the next update.

—–

Getting back to the current update, I am happy to see a number of films added (or in some cases re-added) to the list, especially Rose Hobart, one of my favorite films, as well as Fort Apache, Angel Face, An American in Paris, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and Vive L’amour, which marks the TSPDT 1000 debut of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. I’m glad that Quadrophenia is back, as it makes my original entry on the film relevant again. The same goes double for the three video essays for movies that were taken off the list a year ago but are happily back: Evil Dead II, The Heiress, and Unfaithfully Yours.

I am less happy about the inclusion of Lost in Translation, Trainspotting, and The Matrix. Less said on that the better, though it upsets me that they were added at the expense of films like Awaara, one of my all-time favorites, and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, the first Naruse film I saw, which in addition to being a masterpiece has special personal significance to me.

Sadly, there are several films for which I produced video essays (some of which rank among the work I’m proudest of) that are no longer on the list.  If you have a moment, please watch these clips – though they are no longer on the list, the films (and videos) are still worthy of your attention.

…And God Created Woman
The Draughtsman’s Contract (featuring commentary by Karina Longworth)
El Cid (featuring commentary by Mike D’Angelo)
Hour of the Star
Light Sleeper (featuring Paul Schrader and Ed Lachmann)
The Saragossa Manuscript
El Topo
(featuring the IFC Center)

942 (84). The Art of Vision (1965, Stan Brakhage)

screened December 22 2008 on 16mm at the MoMA Media Study Center

TSPDT rank #677 IMDb

In some ways, Stan Brakhage’s 4-plus hour magnum opus isn’t so much an epic of experimental cinema as the most intensely comprehensive horror movie that hardly anyone has seen. It’s a horror of metaphysical proportions: its five-part structure takes universal elements of existence and renders them into a symphony of shock visuals inducing a state of alienated perception.  Brakhage’s exhaustive vision summons a bracing repertoire of filming and editing techniques, including whip pans, color tints, lens distortions, and scratched and painted frames. Assaulting and enthralling, this technique calls attention to the celluloid medium existing almost independently of the real world, and impels an ethos of seeing for seeing’s sake.

The Prelude launches a barrage of images of the natural world chopped and decontextualized into a stream of organic gibberish. It’s a ruthless effort to deprogram viewers from their anchoring in narrative and divorce vision from cognition, replacing meaning with the sheer sensory power of image-in-itself.  It’s somewhat puzzling that he follows this brazen opening with Part I, which teases a basic narrative of Brakhage arduously scaling a snowy mountain, suggesting a symbolic struggle of everyday life. Part II returns to a more abstract representation, intercutting shots of an infant with flashes of the world around it: the bewilderment of childhood, naked and exposed to a fearsomely vast universe.

Part III, the most wildly sensual section, can stand on its own as one of the longest and strangest sexual acts ever committed to celluloid. Sex is conveyed not through literal intercourse but through lingering close-ups of skin and hair, lurid orange and blue tinted glimpses of naked flesh writhing in fluid, and nauseating shots of guts being torn apart, conveying both a physical and emotional rending of self in the throes of erotic passion.  It’s charged with both excitement and dread, horrified and inflamed by sex as an act of both love and violence.

Part IV seems to end over and over in a relentless loop, repeatedly showing Brakhage hacking away at a tree with an ax, existence as a restless cycle of debilitation slowly winding down to death, while flashing to distorted shots of body parts, landscapes and scratched and painted celluloid. In the end, there is only the work as a remnant of life’s toil and suffering, whose value amounts to nothing more than fiery embers eagerly consuming its own existence.

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Native Americans 1, Broke girl with dog 0 (Richard Brody on Wendy and Lucy and The Exiles)

Found on the New Yorker blog – The rest of Brody’s take on the film offers a pointed contrast between the Neo-Realist visions of De Sica and Rossellini (with which, like what follows below, I heartily agree)

“Wendy and Lucy” is a work of self-conscious manipulation, in which Reichardt filters out the cinema’s subjectivity and personalism in order to intensify the viewer’s sympathy with a cipher. The ostensible objectivity of Reichardt’s meticulous naturalism is a device that she uses to portray a sliver of physical reality as the whole truth; her rejection of psychology as well as of cultural context plays false and reeks of demagogy.

An example of what’s missing is offered by Kent Mackenzie’s remarkable “The Exiles,” which he made between 1958 and 1961 but had its theatrical première this year. Set in a community of Native Americans in Los Angeles, it, too, focusses on the economic travails of people working bad jobs or not working at all, but it also unfolds their inner life with an astonishing intimacy, through the depiction of a wider and deeper range of the characters’ actions as well as by the use of richly-textured voice-overs, which range from the confessional to the poetic. Mackenzie doesn’t pretend that filmed reality is all the reality there is; his images and his soundtrack suggest inner depths that, far from the pseudo-universal neutrality of Reichardt’s characters, offer ambiguities and complexities that avoid all message-mongering, and endow the film with the enduring mysteries of art.

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