5. Kanye West: “We Were Once a Fairytale” [dir. Spike Jonze]
A year ago I might have put this higher, but honestly, after that MTV Awards fiasco, I’m starting to have my misgivings about Kanye’s ongoing self-dramatization of his burdensome ego, whether it amounts to crocodile tears. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that this video is incredible. It’s maybe not as simple and elegantly devastating as “Flashing Lights,” also directed by Jonze, but it pushes his self-critique into a disturbing yet compelling terrain of psychosis. It also works as a riff on Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are – Kanye is Max, disavowing the animal embodiment of his inner child.
Continuing from 2008’s countdown, I’ve carved out time to watch several dozen videos and picked ten that I want to highlight. Without further ado, and minimal commentary – hopefully they speak for themselves:
10. The Dead Weather: “Treat Me Like Your Mother” [dir. Jonathan Glazer]
Takes a simple, wild premise and plays it out in real time, bestowing it with fierce authenticity, synched perfectly to the tune.
Considered the pinnacle of ’30s Austrian cinema, Maskerade embodies much of the best of 30s European filmmaking, in which the camera dances to a distinctly musical rhythm of movements and countermovements. It sits comfortably among the ’30s films of Rene Clair, Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir, as well as Ernst Lubitsch’s work in Hollywood. Compared to most of those films, its topic may seem relatively fluffy: an artist creates a minor scandal by painting a masked nude suspected to be an aristocrat’s fiancee; when he names an innocent girl in an attempted cover-up, it leads to unexpected romantic entanglement. Willi Forst takes a well-worn continental costume milieu as a starting point, doing everything he can to breathe life into it. The camera darts with ease through ballroom scenes, connecting the eyelines of characters as they scope each other’s movements. He laces the film with clever tricks both visual (dialogues filmed in silhouette) and aural (a montage of citizens making animal sounds while reading the gossip pages). Driving everything is a buoyant soundtrack of 19th century waltzes and opera, whose lilting rhythms can be found in the film’s pacing even when the music subsides. The film itself feels like a symphony of varied movements: robust allegros, minuet-like montages, and a climactic rondo that brings everything to full circle. Overall, life is presented as an irresistible society ball, governed by status, gossip and decadent desire.
There’s a strong suggestion of a great movie in Victor Erice’s second feature, made 10 years after his celebrated debut The Spirit of the Beehive. Erice’s breathtaking use of natural light demands comparison to Vermeer, while his ability to evoke a child’s wonder and terror at the mysteries of the world make him an art cinema antecedent to Spielberg. But financing woes halted filming on this story of a girl’s attempt to solve the riddle of her enigmatic father. While Erice edited the footage to what he considers a finished film, it’s clearly lacking a satisfying final act (in which the daughter travels to the father’s hometown carrying clues to his past).
But the narrative is just as compromised by moments that stray from the child’s first-person perspective, Erice’s strong suit. Scenes where the father corresponds to an old flame diffuse the suspense, though they give the film clarity in its truncated form. A running voiceover narration by the girl as an adult reinforces a sense of pastness that further dilutes the primacy of the moments Erice offers us, a number of them visually stunning.
It’s strange that Erice would allow a voiceover to structure a film whose underlying thesis is the futility of words: the father’s anguished letters leading to no good outcome; his awkward conversations with his daughter and virtual non-communication with his wife. Instead, it’s objects, images and gestures that link the characters: an amulet, a drawing of a woman, a joyful communion dance, the incessant pounding of a cane on floorboard. These are also Erice’s best forms of communicating, and what ultimately links this film to his viewers.
For this film I felt less interested in my own thoughts than in those of two of my earliest friends in the world of online cinephilia. Back when I was a regular on the IMDb Classic Film board, Lee Price (Lee-109) and Christianne Benedict (Chris-435) were among the most knowledgeable and engaging peers, especially on the subject of horror films. In fact they were contributors to the anthology Horror 101. (Some of you may also know Christianne from our wonderful video essay on The World According to Garp; and Lee was behind the 100 Directors of Animated Shorts). So I thought to call them up and ask them what they thought of this film. What follows is 25 minutes of awesomeness. You can listen to the .mp3 here or right-click to download. Here’s an index of topics for easy reference:
0:00 – Setting template of Hammer horror and post-’50s horror movies
6:24 – What do Hammer’s Dracula and James Bond have in common?
8:20 – What Christopher Lee brought to Dracula
11:35 – Sex, vmpires and Victorian women
14:15 – Bram Stoker’s paranoia
16:00 – Favorite Dracula films, and why no movie yet has gotten Dracula right
18:00 – What Hammer introduced to the Dracula myth and to the movies
In the second installment of Mark Donskoi’s coming-of-age trilogy, based on Maxim Gorky’s childhood memoirs, teenage Maxim emerges from the ashes of his family’s destitution, as chronicled in The Childhood of Maxim Gorky. Searching for a trade to apply himself, Gorky is repeatedly sabotaged by petty folk entrenched in each establishment he enters. Whereas Childhood held a quietly romanticized view of the masses suffering under the petty tyranny of pre-Revolutionary feudalism, My Apprenticeship shows the underclass exploiting each other.
These films are saddled with a Socialist Realist agenda that threatens to reduce each scene to a civics parable, denying it of the pulsing lyricism of that other landmark childhood film trilogy, Satyajit Ray’s Apu films. But there’s a strong humanist countercurrent that takes the film beyond mere didacticism. At its best moments the film resists the easy Soviet stereotyping of characters into desirable and undesirable social types. The most memorable characters engage with Maxim over books and ruminations about their waylaid ambitions; paradoxically, it is in relaxed conversational stasis, not in reform or production, that this Marxist propaganda film envisions a state of human fulfillment. The way Donskoi deploys music to freeze time and saturate a moment with lyrical pathos anticipates what John Ford would start doing around the same period. The ultimate motif is that of the Volga River, upon which the film stages more than a few knockout moments of wordless beauty. Its gentle, constant flow evokes a grace that transcends the turmoils and conflicts, grand or small, inflicted by humans upon each other throughout time.
Frank Capra abandoned the vibrant American melee upon which he built his reputation to issue this queasy utopian treatise dressed as an exotic adventure fantasy. Shangri-la makes for both a visually and dramatically banal paradise. Proto-Bob Ross matte landscapes and manufactured nature sets alternate with knockoff Frank Lloyd Wright architecture cluttered with curios. It could be fun in a camp/surreal way if Capra wasn’t so insistent that this Neverland was what Depression-era American needed, where fun times involve listening to Sam Jaffee’s wrinkled Lama make longwinded pseudo-Buddhist platitudes bemoaning man’s fate (I’ll take spitfire banter with Claudette Colbert or Jean Arthur anyday). Jane Wyatt is easy on the eyes and Ronald Colman, that paradigm of 30s benevolent colonialism, somehow bestows dignity on his environs through his benevolent colonialist gaze. Thomas Mitchell and Edward Everett Horton bring some down-to-earth Capra back to the proceedings by virtue of their charming petty-mindedness, casting the warm glow of genuine human behavior amidst the lofty artifice.
The restored version of Lost Horizon can be viewed online on Google Reader (see after the break)
I haven’t had much time to pursue the Best of the Decade Derby in the latter half of this year, but it would only be right to give it some kind of closure. So this week I made some time to sort through a long list of films from the past 10 years, and compiled a list of top 50 films of the decade. (One proviso: there were so many good films that I wanted to include, that I decided to restrict the list to one entry per director.)
I’ll post the list before the end of the month on this site – but for now I’m counting them down on my Twitter feed. You can follow @alsolikelife.
For now, here’s a list of films that I had planned to do Best of Decade derby entries on with friends and colleagues. We’ll just have to reflect on what they might have been like…
Battle in Heaven
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Kings and Queen
Punch Drunk Love
Syndromes and a Century
There Will Be Blood
The Wayward Cloud
The Wire – I would have done a roundtable podcast pondering whether it deserved inclusion among the best films of the decade (there are some critics I know who think so)
Douglas Sirk’s penultimate feature, and one of his most personal, brings his entire Hollywood career into stark relief. This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of love in WWII Germany envisions a bombed-out wasteland that couldn’t be further removed from the Technicolor gloss of affluent America seen in his most famous films. There are no vibrant pastels or lush interiors decorated with fine upholstery or shiny bric a brac; here, whether inside or outside, it’s a seemingly monotonous ash gray or dirt brown. Whenever color arrives (usually a tree blossom or sprig of a leaf), it’s a miracle.
This seems to invert the formula established in other Sirk films, where the abundance of attractive surfaces amounts to overcompensation for dissatisfied lives lurking underneath. Here, it’s luxury that makes life worth living: the young lovers Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) bluff their way into a fancy meal in an officer’s club, in a scene that defies gravity. What’s even more fascinating is how that famous Sirkian irony is turned on its ear. In films like All That Heaven Allows or Imitation or Life, Sirk lays ironic subtext into the dialogue or the mise-en-scene, such that it verges on mocking the characters’ myopic pursuits of happiness (while priming hipster camp laughter). Here the script is flipped: cynicism and irony wrought by wartime cruelty are the fashion, a way for soldiers and civilians alike to numb themselves from the inhumanity that engulfs them. It’s against this convention that the lovers fight, hanging on to a flickering sense of hope and earnestness (Gavin, a bit wooden, doesn’t quite carry it off, but Pulver more than compensates – it’s easy to see why Godard was smitten by her in his famous review of the film, as her doe-eyed litheness make her a prototype for Anna Karina).
What Sirk keeps consistent between this film and the American-set melodramas is his fixation with the fragility of what makes life worth living in a world of suffocating convention. Wealth and poverty prove to be equally dehumanizing. What matters are the frail bonds between people, enabled by fleeting moments of fantasy fulfillment. This isn’t tied to any overt political or social agenda. Quite the opposite, there’s a startling, paradoxical acceptance of the status quo as a fundamentally inescapable condition: it’s ground that gives birth to its own acts of defiance – these moments of transcendent beauty – and it’s the ground that smothers them out.
#199 – Written on the Wind (1956)
#203 – Imitation of Life (1959)
#281 – All that Heaven Allows (1955)
#491 – There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)
#556 – The Tarnished Angels (1958)
#994 – A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)