Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
"Have you ever seen the inside of one of those places?"
The common theme of my two favorite movies is, as Norman Bates says, “we all go a little mad sometimes.” Aside from that, Psycho and A Woman Under the Influence could not be any more different from each other, stylistically and story-wise. Influence is a loud, rawkus free-for-all, whereas Psycho is a closed up, constipated, meticulously crafted movie that is perfect in its deliberate ambiguity.
As Phil touched upon in his Psycho post earlier in the week, seeing the movie for the first time now is drastically different than when audiences saw it when it came out in 1960. Everyone knows the “twist” now. Everyone also knows that Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), our main character is killed in the shower 40-something minutes into the picture. If there are people out there who don’t know these things, I envy them, although the effect these devices had on a 1960 audience is not as powerful now. Psycho changed the landscape of story-telling in mainstream American cinema and it has been frequently imitated but never outdone. Some critics say that it drew the line between modern and post-modern cinema. What it definitely did do was tear classic Hollywood convention asunder, allowing for the “New American Cinema” of the mid ’60s to late 70s to flourish.
I love every frame of this movie (even moreso after reading Raymond Durgnat’s 200-something page commentary A Long, Hard Look at Psycho), but I’ll touch upon a few particular things that come to mind.
Norman Bates/Mother is the “psycho” the title refers to, but Marion Crane acts pretty crazy too. While watching it, this is only subtle, but afterwards it is obvious that Hitchcock was intending a direct parallel. Those voices she is imagining (voices in her head) during her getaway drive after stealing $40,000, and the paranoia she exudes attest to this. As she drives along she smirks as she hears the voice of Cassidy, the man who’s money she stole, say that he’ll replace it in “her fine soft flesh.” This smirk is almost exactly like the smirk that Norman/Mother gives to the camera in the last scene of the movie. Ironically, it is Norman’s/Mother’s knife that gets to her fine soft flesh first.
The sequence after the shower murder is one of my favorite examples of “pure cinema”. When Norman runs down from the big, Gothic house to find Marion’s dead body he covers his mouth, as if to stifle a scream, as opposed to covering his eyes from what he just saw. This covering of the mouth accentuates his wide-eyed horror and brings attention to our own eyes that just witnessed the murder. What follows is 8-9 minutes with no dialogue, I don’t even think any music, just Norman cleaning up any evidence of the atrocity ever occurring. By the time the sequence is over, we have completely switched sides from caring about Marion to this strange motel-keeper.
The scene where the private detective, Arbogast, questions Norman about Marion Crane is brilliant in an opposite way. It is all about the rapid-fire dialogue happening between the two men, the stout, rock-like Arbogast and the stuttering bean-stalk of Norman. Will Arbogast find something out? Do we want him to?
One “weakness” of the movie that some critics refer to is the cop-out “resolution”, with the psychiatrist at the end explaining Norman’s schizophrenia. I actually think it adds even more of a strong punch to the end since it really doesn’t “resolve” anything. We are left with this man wrapped in a blanket, his old woman-like voice speaking in voiceover for him. Then as the extreme close up dissolves into Marion’s car being pulled from the swamp, Hitchcock does something he never did before or afterwards—there is a momentary triple-exposure, in which Mother’s hollowed out skull is super-imposed over Norman’s sneer. It is damn near subliminal, and I never noticed it until I looked for it. Nothing is resolved. If we are able to escape our own madness we will only be hindered by someone elses.
At least once a year I wonder to myself if Psycho is overrated and watch it again. Every time I am reassured that it really is one of the best, if not the best movie ever made. It is unlike any other Hitchcock picture. It marks the time when the old master had done enough pussy-footing around and decided to get downright grim. There is no jolly British quirkiness here. It is a strange thing to say, but if I had to live in the world of a horror story, this is the one I would choose. In a way it isn’t that far from real life. Whether we are a lonely, disturbed motel-keeper or not, we are all each setting our “private traps”.
To conclude I just want to say that I really, genuinely like Norman Bates as a character/person. He is really… nice. Of course his mental issues lead to homicidal episodes, but I’ve had a lot of friends with mental issues that if unchecked could lead to very bad things. It might get kind of weird to hang out with Norman on a regular basis, but, with no irony or sarcasm, I would love to stay at the Bates Motel. As long as I don’t piss off Mother, it should be a pleasant stay.
Phil’s Number One
Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, USA, 1979)
"I admire its purity.”
I recently, jokingly, referred to Alien as “a genre unto itself.” Pretty quickly after saying it, I realized I wasn’t actually joking. I really do consider it a genre unto itself. So much bigger than the sum of its parts as to be something else entirely.
I do not, generally speaking, like Ridley Scott as a director. But in Alien he managed to create an ultimate filmic experience. It’s like he reached up and grabbed Kubrick’s cold calculating eye, Altman’s interest in naturalistic acting and overlapping dialogue and stuck it in a blender with an array of B-movie scare tactics and created an object made of pure art and pure entertainment.
I have had a long, long history with the movie Alien. I remember holding my parent’s VHS copy of the film and pondering the strange, organic grid under the opening egg. I remember my mom telling me that they had purchased it because they’d seen Aliens in the theaters and hadn’t seen Alien. And then they had watched it and found it too intense. I remember vividly the first time I actually braved a viewing of the film in middle school… I spent most of the film trying to figure out when to cover my eyes. I remember being startled by the revelation that the Alien itself doesn’t appear on screen until the movie is half over with.
I remember vividly a lengthily discussion with a film professor about the first time he saw the movie and how, despite the movie being set in deep space, he left the theater with an extreme case of paranoia. He was convinced every drain held a monster, and every corporate suit was out to impregnate him.
Upon recent re-viewings, I’ve been particular struck by the difference in design sensibilities on display in the film. In one corner, you have Giger’s uncomfortably organic creatures, saturated in bodily fluids and ripe with penetrative ability. They feel disturbingly alive. In the other corner, you have Ron Cobb’s uncomfortably cold technological designs, hard-edged, running the gamut from anti-sceptic to grit covered. And just to add one more dash of awesome to the design mix, you have space suits by Moebius. In the swirl and mix of those visual stylists the film achieves a look and feel unparalleled, to my mind.
No movie has ever elevated a hackneyed genre concept as far as Alien. In less talented hands, in less stringent hands, in less intelligent hands, the film would have been a forgettable, regrettable disaster; another post-Star Wars write-off. But the crew assembled is so rigid, so unwilling to let the film sink into the standard genre muck, that material transcends.
In that sense, it is similar to The Godfather, which in conception is a fairly rote gangster flick. It is the way in which those films manage to take concepts with the broadest appeal and fill them full of deeper meanings that makes them so very special. There has been for a long time a tension between high and low culture; between the pulps and the poets. Movies as an art form are perfectly suited to bridge that gap, and Alien does so with great aplomb.
The mystery and atmosphere of Alien are so thick and strange. It has the profound intelligence to let its exposition play out without any grand statements to the audience. Instead, the film greets us with a world both profoundly odd (the slow creeping awakening sequence) and strangely familiar (friends joke and co-workers argue about payment). So few science-fiction stories are able to capture this imaginative sense of the future; one that isn’t fantasy, but isn’t pure science, instead it rests in an uncanny gorge between the two.
Lately, I have chosen to half-ignore the rest of the franchise. Aliens is a well-made action film, but its core is rather dumb and dim-witted. It replaces the majesty of Alien with guns and explosions; its motherhood concerns not nearly as fascinating as the rape and body horror of Alien. Alien 3 I think is under-rated but still not very good; there are fantastic concepts in it but it fizzles. Alien: Resurrection I’ve never even seen all the way through. AvP and AvP 2 are both tripe, though the second one is better than the first.
It is pure coincidence that Prometheus opens in the US today. I’m going to see it on Sunday. I do not have high hopes as I don’t think Scott has made a truly special movie in almost 30 years and I simply do not think that Alien needs any kind of prequel. Front loading that mythology can only detract from it.
One of my favorite things about the film is the way it does not give us an clear protagonist for almost half of its running time. Certainly the camera knows to watch Ripley, but it does not portray her as any kind of heroine. She’s just one of the crew, the one of the crew who makes it because she is slightly luckier, slightly more clever than the others. She’s a spiny, uncharismatic lead. You could easily make a case that she cares more for the cat than the other crew.
There is so much to say about the film in regards to its themes and subtexts. The class relations of the future, the sexual relations, the rape and body horror thematics, that Ripley become explicitly sexualized before defeating this giant phallus monster (also, Sigourney Weaver wanted to do that scene nude… I can’t even imagine).
And that is the end of my list. Time to sign off, for a bit.
A Woman Under the Influence (dir. John Cassavetes, USA, 1974)
"Oh screw the tea. What’s wrong with you?"
This should actually be tied with the forthcoming “#1”; depending on my mood at any moment they are interchangeable.
This movie has one of the greatest external displays of human emotion ever acted on film; the fact that, aside from the acting, the technical arrangements were left pretty open and free to capture the people on screen adds a lot. A Woman Under the Influence is about madness, but throughout, it is unclear who the “sane” people are.
The first time I watched this I was disinterested until the spaghetti breakfast scene. Once that concluded I was completely hooked. Its free form is similar to most of the scenes in the movie (and most of Cassavetes’ movies), taking you places you never would have imagined you would be going, for however long it takes until suddenly we are on to the next thing.
As Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) and his crew of construction worker buddies come in the front door we feel tense, knowing that his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) slept with another man the night before (who still might even be in the house). Mabel is acting mighty strange in an almost catatonic way, creating an awkwardness between everyone. Once they sit down to eat, things continue to get uncomfortable as she asks each of the men their names. One of them, Billy Tidrow breaks the ice by trying to name his five or six kids and we think things are getting a little more relaxed. Nick goes on some pointless spiel about how there are a lot of babies suddenly around and how there is “something in the air”, making us start wondering where the hell all this is going. One of the men spontaneously belts out an opera verse—every time I see this, even though I know it is coming, it leaves me with goosebumps. It is an ecstatic moment. Everyone at the table is joyous. It gets Mabel all worked up to the point where she is asking Billy Tidrow to dance. Suddenly things are kind of uncomfortable again. Nick screams at Mabel to “sit your ass down!” Now everything is more uncomfortable than it has been in the whole sequence. Silence, then the phone rings. Nick gets up to answer it and has a semi-comic conversation with his mother. His coworkers leave. Nick and Mabel start bickering back and forth; Rowlands’ acting borders on slapstick. Things are kind of funny now. Then they get solemnly serious. In a sequence that is 20-25 minutes long we as an audience go through about a dozen mood changes. It is one of the greatest sequences in the history of cinema.
A Woman Under the Influence is a tricky title for this movie. I think most viewers take this at face value, as Mabel is the one singled out as drinking excessively and admits to taking “uppers, downers, inners, outers”… But I don’t think the title is referring exclusively to substances. She is a very fragile, impressionable person. She is just as much under the influence of her general surroundings, particularly her temper-prone husband, as she is alcohol or drugs.
Mabel may be the one who is sent to an institution for part of the movie, but she is by no means the (only) crazy one. Her husband is nuts! I think any man is in need of some serious counseling if he hits his wife and screams, “I’ll kill you and those son-of-a-bitchin’ kids!” Not to mention other instances of surface bi-polarity like his, we-are-at-the-beach-everyone-is-having-fun attitude, when everyone obviously isn’t including himself. Did I mention that Peter Falk is amazing in this picture?
Nick appears to take after his mother who also has an unhealthy temper. That being said, Mabel’s father, who only appears in one sequence, makes himself out to be a tad unstable when he suddenly has an outburst about how he can’t eat spaghetti. He might as well just go home because he just doesn’t do it.
The movie ends on at least a calm and “sane”, if not happy note. I think what it showed us in the meantime is that madness is a very fluid, relative, even infectious thing and that we all go a little mad sometimes.
Phil’s Number Two
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (dir. Tobe Hooper, USA, 1974)
"What’s that stench?"
And now for something utterly unlike Barry Lyndon.
This movie is such a primal scream of violence, rage and madness, that its hard to even judge by normal movie standards. It’s filthy, steamy, seedy and wretched. It feels like it wasn’t made by any sane human beings. Instead it feels almost like it burst out of long forgotten insane asylum, or came stumbling out of an abandoned charnel house in the middle of summer. Raving mad and looking to ease that madness through violence and pain.
In the same way that I regard Barry Lyndon as pure cinema, I also regard TCM as pure cinema. The effect of this movie could not be achieved through any other art form. It uses- No, it abuses film style, making a downright mockery of the polish and poise of the golden era of movie making.
The story structure of it is so simple and so crazy. I cannot conceive of writing a script the third act of which is primarily concerned with our heroine tied down at at table full of cannibals, who leer and aggress upon her until finally dragging a mummy-like patriarch down the stares to try to brain her. It’s crazy in concept and crazy in execution.
I watch that sequence and nearly every time my jaw almost drops. It is such aggressive filmmaking; it is shot to put the viewer in that chair, to make them feel legitimately in danger. This is not the cinema of stalk and slash movies with their naughty vicarious sense of voyeurism. This is filmmaking by people who want to hurt you.
It feels like a movie that is against life, that is against America, that is against everything. It feels like a movie that wants you to walk out of the movie theater and say to yourself “everything I see right now is but a thin mask underneath which is only madness and death.” This life you have right now, it’s really part of a nightmare and all that keeps your from that nightmare is luck.
Much has been made of the films “documentary style” but honestly, I find that a bunch of hooey. I have no idea what is documentary-like about this film. To me it feels much more in the tradition of the surrealists; it is a nightmare of flesh and landscape. A horrible dream ripped from the underbelly of American culture. There’s nothing documentary about it, except maybe that it starts out pretending to be true and the camera is often handheld. The rest of it is pure, hideous fantasmagoria.
That Tobe Hooper has never managed to make anything near as good as this film is not surprising. I simply don’t know how he could have.
There is a shot midway through the film, where Leatherface looks out of the window, licking his lips and pondering what he sees. The camera pulls in to his profile and just sits there, watching this picture of madness, inviting the audience to wonder what the logic of this creature is. It’s so beautiful and so strange and so amazing.
I’ll end this with a link to the film’s final moments. Because I really think they’re beyond words, they’re madness given shape.
Buffalo ‘66 (dir. Vincent Gallo, USA, 1998)
"I’m used to luxury cars, have you ever heard of a luxury car, you know what luxury means? Have you ever heard of Cadillac? Cadillac El Dorado? That’s what I drive. I drive cars that shift themselves. My cars shift themselves, they’re luxury cars, they shift themselves."
This is the most romantic movie of all time. Maybe. Or at least my favorite romantic movie, mainly because it acts like some other kind of a movie until it has no more tricks to pull, much like the main character.
I suppose Buffalo ‘66 is all about acting. Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) gets out of jail for a crime he didn’t commit (but had to act like he did to appease some gangsters) and kidnaps a young woman (Christina Ricci) who has to act like his wife to impress his parents. His parents act like parents, when they really only care about football and act like they care about his wife, who they know isn’t really his wife. She goes along with Billy’s menacing kidnapper bit, but obviously sees right through him. It isn’t until they are left to deal with each other as people that Billy’s facade begins to painfully come down. But this is the only way there can be a happy ending.
As far as I and the rest of the public knows, Vincent Gallo is an asshole. I can’t really think of anyone who really thinks he’s a cool guy. He’s a devout teetotaling Republican who put his sperm on sale for $250,000. He sticks his neck out for nobody. Everyone has their random reason for not liking the guy. Not me. Or maybe I like him because he is such a devout asshole. Or maybe I kind of have a man-crush on him. Or maybe I am just super appreciative that he created this amazing movie.
Usually when a second-tier actor/model/celebrity/etc puts up over a million dollars to write, direct, edit, star, etc in a movie, it turns out to be a piece of garbage. The thing about Buffalo ‘66 is that it is actually a super original, well-made movie. If someone can refer me to another movie like this, please do so.
Of course he has his influences, but they aren’t imitated to a degree of obviousness. There is a lot of John Cassavetes in this picture. This is most obvious with the casting of Ben Gazzara, one of Cassavetes’ main men, as Billy’s father. In addition to that the whole Scott Wood’s Solid Gold sub-plot can probably be traced back to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Also, Gallo’s tendency to repeat lines (sometimes to the point of hilarity) is right out of the Cassavetes acting book.
In addition, Gallo pays a super unexpected homage to Yasujiro Ozu during the family dinner sequence. The cameras somewhat-confusingly arranged not as POVs, but wide parallel and perpendicular angles on each side of the table is something he takes from the Japanese master. I can’t say that it completely acts like an Ozu sequence because of this, but the effort is still there.
Aside from all this talk about Gallo, let’s talk about Christina Ricci for a moment. This is her best role, and I’m afraid it will remain that way. I wish she stayed as voluptuous as she was when she was the 18 or 19 year-old who played the girl, Layla. She was perfect for the role and also has never been more beautiful since. Too bad surrendering to industry actress standards (or a fast adult metabolism, to be on the posi side) extremely hindered her career. I love her character in Buffalo ‘66 when I originally saw it when I was 16 and I still love her now.
One last thing I want to say is that completely funding your own movie allows you to do insane things that would never happen otherwise. This is why I wish I had 1.5 million dollars laying around. For example, Gallo decided to have the movie shot on reversal film. That is pretty crazy. There is no negative with this type of film. It means that if any accident, whether it be a scratch or the whole film lighting on fire happens, it is permanent. The only ways to ensure against this damage is to get it all optically printed immediately (super expensive and still risky) or digitize it immediately all for editing (still risky). Not to mention you better hire a very talented cinematographer, as reversal film only has about half the contrast-latitude as negative film does. Apparently Lance Acord is a very talented DP then, as Buffalo ‘66 looks beautiful from first shot to end.
Phil’s Number Three
Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1975)
"It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now."
I fell utterly in love with Barry Lyndon during its final duel sequence, wherein Barry duels his step-son. It is a tense and exquisitely orchestrated scene. Probably the best use of vomit I will ever see on the screen. I would put it tied for number one in a list of my film favorite scenes of all time. The way the film has built up to it, the way it shows, in terms both subtle and extreme, just who Redmond Barry has become as a character, are distinctive and compelling. And beyond that it ripples with a tension that has been building for almost two full hours at that point. It’s magnificent.
But then again, so is everything else in the film. I don’t know quite how to get across just how powerful I find the story of Barry Lyndon.
I love the sense the film has, that it is a life as told through a series of duels. Redmond fights maybe four duels through the course of the film, and each one gives us a view into who he is at that moment. It’s great. Barry Lyndon is, in that sense, almost a kind of Spaghetti Western. Just one not set in the American west, and not made by an Italian. It’s like an opulent Georgian American Western. most opulent
In Redmond Barry I see the ultimate filmic character arc. It is complicated, subtle but accurate. I can’t think of any film character who feels more alive, more vivaciously drawn, than Redmond. His is a life told without the modern day film short-hand of character development, but instead a character with a sense of real depth, of real pain, and of real movement. The viewer, I think, is encouraged in many ways, both subtle and not, to see their own life in Barry’s. To ponder the consequences of decisions and to look at the long game of a life, with its meanings, vicissitudes and ultimate historical insignificance.
The narrator device in the film is starkly brilliant. It tells us what is going to happen before it happens but not in anyway that might give it away, instead in a manner that both brings suspense to the story AND deepens our understanding of it. Unlike the narrative tricks used in The Killing (say), this is a narrative structure I’ve not seen used since.
The acting is staid and precise. The lighting is gorgeous. The costumes and sets are painterly in the extreme. Barry Lyndon feels unlike any movie I’ve ever seen before.
In many senses, this more than any other feels like the ultimate Kubrick movie to me. In that it is about culture and the individual and the flow of history, in the way it avoids sentimentality or judgement. In the way it casts a cold and calculating eye on to hotly emotional moments. In its interest in both high and low culture, and the melding of the two. In the manner in which it is both supremely novelistic but also purely filmic.
It makes me very sad that in some sense it is forgotten, or at least not considered as important or watchable as his more famous films. It is every bit as good as the three films that proceeded (better, in my opinion) and certainly better than anything he made after.
The movie is excruciatingly good. It rewards the patient viewer in ways that almost no other movie ever has, or likely ever will. There are so many moments in it, so many wonderful moments.
Pandora’s Box (dir. G.W. Pabst, Germany, 1929)
Similar to how The Passion of Joan of Arc is the only silent film I can think of that doesn’t feel like a “silent film”, Louise Brooks’ performance in Pandora’s Box is the only acting performance in a silent film that doesn’t feel like a “silent film acting performance”. Maria Falconetti’s performance in Joan of Arc transcends silent/talkie because of her defiantly effective stoicism. Brooks’ performance as Lulu in Pandora hardly even seems like acting. It is just perfect movement and facial expression and wafting eroticism to portray what needs to come across. When compared to her acting in other movies it becomes apparent that she isn’t just “playing herself” in every role though.
As Lulu, Louise solidified a position as one of the greatest screen actresses of all time. Unfortunately, industry politics ruined her because of this. Within a year of Pandora’s Box, motion pictures started talking. No American studios wanted to have anything to do with her by then, as they felt betrayed by her decision to make a movie in Germany. She didn’t speak any other languages, so her career was sunk. Diary of a Lost Girl, the Pabst/Brooks follow up is an okay movie, but it was with Pandora’s Box that both director and actress froze themselves at one of the highest points in cinema history.
The movie is about a woman who is independent, strong and passionate yet somehow ends up dooming everyone around her and herself by the end. The theme I take away from it is something like, “you might as well live your life how you want and to its fullest because the worst that can happen is that everything will still go wrong anyways.” She destroys every man who comes in her path, even the ones she loves. that is, until the end when a Jack the Ripper style fellow catches up to her. It isn’t %100 that he murders her, but there was never a sequel, so…
And it isn’t just men Lulu ruins, but also Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) who commits murder to make sure Lulu escapes enslavement. I am totally into the lesbian undertones in this picture, which is supposedly the first major movie to have a lesbian character. As a matter of fact, there aren’t even any undertones, just overtones. It’s obvious.
More than anything else, the main reason Pandora’s Box is #4 is because I am infatuated with Louise Brooks. I’m not going to take up any more of your time blabbing on about this movie. Of all silver screen stars of yester-year she is the one who gets the most of my necrophilial desires. I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has seen Pandora’s Box would think any other way.
Phil’s Number Four
Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
"Well, a son is a poor substitute for a lover."
There are so many notable and distinct things about Psycho.
But I’m going to start by focusing particularly on the way in which the movie murders its protagonist at its half-way point and, in so doing, leaves the audience to root for Norman Bates, her murderer. It is so simple the way Psycho pulls this trick. So simple and so brutal. But even now, 52 years later, it is still a startling act of narrative structure violence. I cannot think of any film since that pulls the same quite the same shenanigans, with quite the same aplomb.
I cannot imagine the effect this had on audiences in the early ’60s. It is hard to go into Psycho now and see just how radical the tricks contained therein really are; it is common cultural knowledge that Janet Leigh is murdered in the shower, common cultural knowledge that Norman Bates did it.
But at the time, surely this was not the case. And attempting to watch the movie with innocent eyes is a great lesson in how to construct a deceptively simple film narrative. (a similar, though less productive experiment, is trying to watch Predator with the same set of innocent eyes… unaware there is an alien in it until it finally shows itself).
Psycho appears so high on my list because I very often find myself judging other movies by the standard it set. And not just thrillers, or horror films, but comedies and dramas as well. The Psycho test ultimately involves pondering a film’s construction with an eye for where it could be tighter, for where it could be more gripping, for where it chooses to surprise us when it shouldn’t, and where it goes for suspense when it should surprise.
In Psycho you can watch a movie where every sequence is constructed to serve its twin surprises; you can feel the ship aiming for the shower moment and then aiming for its final reveal. All parts are working like a well-oiled, sadistic, narrative machine.
Psycho is also notable for being such a contained movie. It has but a few sets, but a few ideas, but a few characters, and it plays them all to the hilt. Psycho feels much like the culmination of a lot of Hitchock’s great experiments in style and suspense. You can feel a bit of Rope in it, you get the sense of Vertigo’s narrative trickery, there is even the whiff of the surrealist experiments of Spellbound, the foreboding Gothicness of Rebecca.
It has some of the most amazing, upsetting, and poetic death imagery ever put on screen. The sad dark swirl of Marion’s blood disappearing down the drain. The soggy finality of her car being sunk in the bog. The savagery of Arbogasts demise. The simple madness of the single bare bulb spinning over Mrs. Bates’ body.
Every time I watch the movie I’m startled by it again. Simple in concept, sharply intelligent in construction, but profound and rich in narrative, theme and meaning.
Phil’s Number Five
Rosemary’s Baby (dir. Roman Polanski, USA, 1968)
"Witches… All of them witches!"
My top five films are rife with paranoia, discomfort about a person’s place in the world, conspiracy, and just a whole lot of bad feelings in general.
Rosemary’s Baby kicks that top five with a contained tale about one woman who is convinced that her struggling actor husband has sold her out to a bunch of upper middle class, upper middle age, occultists. Somewhere in this film is, I think, a profound guide to the way hippie era gave way to the rampant paranoia and bad bad mojo of the ’70s.
The one thing Roman Polanski does better than anyone else, is keep things off screen but make you feel them anyway. He’s been doing it since his short film, but Rosemary’s Baby, the very first of what I’d call his “mature” work, does it so well it’s almost painful. The cinematography of the film is infamous for the use of shots that do not properly contain any subject as such. The subject of the shots is “you cannot see what’s going on here as much as you may try.” A doorway leads into a room in which there is a key conversation occurring, we cannot hear it and all we know if it is that a puff of cigarette smoke floats through the open doorway.
The atmosphere of the film is dense, its mood of creeping dread, of cancerous paranoia pervasive. The Dakota house feels both opulent and mysterious, the noises behind its walls could be any thing.
This is the second of three movies in which Polanski would explore the horror of apartment dwelling. But of course, that horror runs much deeper than just apartments. It is really the horror of being in proximity to other people which is the horror of having to participate in a group culture. It is one of the central horrors of being alive; one cannot simply be alone. It is a theme he would return to again even some 40 years later, in movies like The Pianist and Carnage.
I love to think of Rosemary’s Baby as a conspiracy film, though it is not often written of as such. But to me it is one of the ultimate conspiracy films, presenting, as it does, a conspiracy not against any famous political figure, but rather a conspiracy against a lone, waif-ish woman. And the conspiracy itself is to create a life. That is, of course, if the conspiracy even exists. Like Repulsion before it, the film revels in an ominous level of ambiguity, a sense that anything our main character is thinking or feeling might only be a thin veneer, under which lies the uncomfortable meaninglessness of madness.
The film has a great trickster’s take on the occult. That is to say, it is all treated as some kind of malevolent joke. That is, I think, the best way to treat the occult as both dangerous and absurd.
I don’t exactly know what to else to say about Rosemary’s Baby except that it is to me a near unparalleled classic of intelligent horror and sublime filmmaking.
Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1979)
(First of all, look at this crazy poster /\ .)
"Dilettantes of war."
I’m not a fan of war movies. I am privy to movies about the aftermath of war, like Fassbinder’s Maria Braun for example. Even The Deer Hunter, which does have some harrowing war scenes, is mostly about the before and after parts. Apocalypse Now is the only movie I can think of in which the story plops itself down in the middle of a war but isn’t really about a war at all.
Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that takes the conveniently relevant Vietnam War as a cloak of sorts. It is about a “civilized” white man traveling further into the uncertain, scary unknown to track down an individual who embodied the picture of civilized whiteness until something went horribly wrong. How did Colonel Kurtz become the darkest thing in the Cambodian rain forests? I love this plot set up.
Of course the movie isn’t just pure abstraction about the dark sides of human thought and interaction. It actually begins as a pretty straightforward “war movie”. Robert Duval is obnoxiously unforgettable as Lt Kilgore. We are given a chance to get to know Captain Willard’s crew and this is why the movie works. They’re all likeable characters. It isn’t until Philips says, “that’s coming from where we’re going,” that the entire mood becomes more introverted. Once we get to Dennis Hopper as the mad photographer, the curiously menacing natives and ultimately Kurtz, it is like the beginning of the movie had never existed. From here on in this is not in any way a war movie, just some tense, incomprehensible madness.
I have to admit that Apocalypse Now wouldn’t be so high on this list if I didn’t know the story of the movie getting made. In a way, Eleanor Coppola and the footage she shot for the documentary Hearts of Darkness deserves this spot on the list too. Here are some things that stand out on the making of Apocalypse Now: they borrowed a bunch of helicopters from the Philippines’ military to use, but had to give them back whenever they were needed to really blow things up. Martin Sheen had a heart attack during filming and almost died. Marlon Brando got paid a few million dollars and had no idea what the movie was about when he arrived on set. A large amount of the ending was improvised. Apocalypse Now is the epitome of the “beauty of the mistake” At the same time it is the kind of movie that can literally kill a director, especially if he put millions of his own dollars into it.
I also have to admit that I like the Redux more, not because it is better, per se, but just because I like being enveloped in this world of the movie. The most obvious commentary on the war is during an impromptu dinner with the ghostly French people/militia they come upon in the middle of the jungle. The fact that Coppola and Murch thought this sequence was expendable for the original release says a lot about where their story-telling priorities were.
Robocop (dir. Paul Verhoeven, USA, 1987)
Robocop is Verhoeven’s brazenly gory, harshly satiric, painfully thrilling, utterly brilliant Jesus story. At this point, I feel like it’s a bit common knowledge that Verhoeven chose to infuse the story with Jesus imagery… crucifixion, re-birth, walking on water. That his Jesus never delivers a sermon on the mount but instead jabs a data needle into a dude’s neck is probably a consequence of Verhoeven choosing to make a very American Jesus.
Robocop appears so high on my list because the way it manages to produce an excess of depth, meaning, and emotion out of its patently b-movie concept. Even its title is notoriously corny. But despite that, Verhoeven, Neumaier and the whole crew, manage to create a film thousands of times richer and more powerful than its concept.
I have to single out both Miguel Ferrer’s and Kurtwood Smith’s performances as thoroughly fantastic. Robocop is full of alpha males at war to be top of the pack, but these two stand out gnawing their way through their roles in the best possible way.
One of the things that I find most startling about Robocop is its prescience in terms of the political-economic realities of the day. It’s a movie about a private company taking over public services. With disastrous results. There are painful pre-echoes there of the Iraq war, or Katrina, or any number of smaller, darker occurrences. It’s kind of all there in Robocop for us to see. We all live in OCP’s neighborhood now.
That level of prescience ties into the film’s grounded and utterly believable future world. Robocop, even in the ’80s, felt barely futuristic and that is still how it feels now. It does not present the overwhelming gloom of Blade Runner nor the cosmic vistas of Star Wars… instead it presents a world as comedic as it is tragic, as nuanced and brutal as our own.
I feel like Robocop comes from a sci-fi tradition that has been almost lost in American film these days. District 9 is the closest thing I can think of to it and that pales in comparison to the insights, craft, and ideas on display in Robocop.
I am Cuba (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, Russia/Cuba, 1964)
I borrowed this movie from the public library a few years back having no idea what it was. A few hours later my life was changed. That is what libraries are for.
I am Cuba is the greatest propaganda film of all time. I am not particularly a fan of this “genre”. If the images were basically the same but told a different story, it would be one or two notches higher on this list. It is about a small, island nation, the capitalist American pigs who are draining its resources dry and the coming of Fidel Castro as savior. Most importantly, it may be the most beautiful movie ever photographed.
In the early 60’s a band of wily Russians, headed by the talented Mikhail Kalatozov (see The Cranes are Flying if you haven’t yet) descended on Cuba armed with 9.8mm lenses, infrared filters and some crazy contraptions that apparently allowed them to move a camera wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted, however which way they damn well pleased. 9.8mm’s allowed for an image of extremely wide proportions (admittedly sometimes too wide) that was also able to transform itself into extreme close ups, depending on the proximity of the camera to actor and their movements. The infrared filters created the darkest sunny day I have ever seen. Whatever their secret weapon was gave their camera god-like abilities of movement.
One shot comes to find that occurs after the student riot. It begins as a close up on a fallen comrade being covered by a flag, suddenly elevates itself a few stories into a cigar rolling business, then out another window along with a patriotic Cuban flag and then on and on over a gigantic crowd of people in the street. It is sublime. Mind-blowing. I have no idea how these people were able to get a camera to move in this manner. It tops any digital effect ever created. It makes the opening shot of Touch of Evil look like a student film.
The overall structure of the film is a four-part anthology. I hesitate to mention any specific scenes, as they are all more or less great. We follow the virtuous prostitute Betty as she is tossed about between three American bastards, through swinging bamboo partitions, until she finally breaks free and into a frenetic, tribal dance. An old farmer lights his sugarcane fields and home on fire in a sequence that is like The Grapes of Wrath gone haywire. The cathartic young student Enrique holds up a dead, white dove as he leads a crowd of protesters into strong jets of slow-motion fire hydrant water blasts; the dove cliche is forgiven by the mode of its filming. A group of rebels is captured in the swamp and as all of them say one-by-one, “yo soy Fidel,” I also want to stand in line with them and be Fidel. This is the object of propaganda films, and watching I am Cuba allows viewers to give themselves two and a half hours to join the guerilla resistance.
Videodrome (dir. David Cronenberg, Canada, 1983)
"You know what Freud would say about that red dress."
On the scale of narrative crazy, there’s crazy and then there’s Videodrome. A paranoid freak out of a movie, set in a lo-fi future world where maybe TV waves are a virus that are maybe changing the very fabric of humanity… or maybe Max Renn is just out of his god damn gourd.
Cronenberg often discusses Videodrome as being a movie seen entirely through the subjectivity of Max Renn. I think that’s mostly true, though there is one specific moment where this breaks down and we clearly see something from his partner’s perspective. But regardless of that instance, the movie is dripping wet, hotly mutated, fever dream rotting away the insides of a man who makes his living on the ingestion of extreme images.
What I love about Videodrome is its uncompromising nature, its willingness to jump down rabbit holes, its blatant sexuality, its science-fiction trappings that come more from Ballard and Burroughs than anywhere else. It is one cinemas most perfect blendings of high-brow and low-brow.
The film is ripe with unforgettable images. Renn sprouting a vagina in his stomach and then losing his gun inside of it. Renn’s face pressed to a suddenly malleable television screen, its surface bristling like a heretofore unknown sex organ, the clay walls of the videodrome studio, Dr. O’Blivion suddenly murdered in his chair.
That the story eventually become an assassination narrative is even stranger… what are we to make of any of this? What is the objective truth of Renn’s mad quest? It’s impossible to know, but as with so many of the films on my list, it is the questions that matter.
I don’t like to ascribe prescient status to works of fiction very often, but Videodrome I think earns it. The film feels like a strange template for the world of the advanced strangeness of the world of the internet, where people live and communicate more and more through screens, where facts and objective reality are constantly chewed and mutated by a never ending streams of images and words facilitated by screen after screen.
Cronenberg is, of course, no luddite. And this is the other thing I love so much about him and the film. Videodrome is not a warning. The film does not ask us to look back with nostalgia on a simpler, more pleasant time, when evil EVIL! technology wasn’t around. Instead it explores its phenomena almost without judgement, presenting ever more bizarre scenarios and then allowing the audience to make up their own minds.
More and more I find this to be the hallmark of great filmmaking: the ability to get out of the way so that, instead of simply sitting back and letting the film tell them a story, the audience has to engage with the film. For better or worse.
Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese, USA, 1976)
"You’re only as healthy as you feel."
Sometimes I find myself thinking like Travis Bickle. This is not a particularly good thing. Once you live and work in a city, at least in seedier neighborhoods, for a long enough time, whether it be The Big Apple or Providence, RI, things can start to get to you. The aimless anger, open drug dealing, prostitutes on the corner, violence (or at least the threat of), yelling matches echoing in the night, robbery. It isn’t a healthy environment to live in. There have been times when I wished a rain would come down and wash all the filth away, even if I went along with it. Taxi Driver is a rough, strangely beautiful, sometimes shocking cautionary tale. It takes us over the brink and then amazingly back to some kind of normalcy.
All this being said about the city, this movie is really about what is going on in Travis Bickle’s head. How he reacts to what is going on around him. It becomes quite obvious that he is a bit removed from modes of normal human interaction when he takes Betsy on a date to a porno movie. We increasingly find out that he doesn’t know much about current popular movies, music, politics or… anything really. He’s a troubled guy. A military jacket and brief mention of being in the marines implies possible war trauma. I have a good feeling it has something to do with Catholic morals gone awry, although that is never mentioned. Once he shows up to a Palantine speech sporting a mohawk and an arsenal under his clothes it is like he is going on his own solo crusade against… whatever is frustrating him.
It is amazing that Jodie Foster really was only 12 years old when she played Iris, the prostitute. It is a great performance. That sort of thing would never happen in todays movie biz. Taxi Driver is one of the best examples of off-the-chain American 70’s cinema that will probably never be achieved again.
But getting back to Bickle, is he a hero or not? If so, only a forgotten one. The chaos he brought down upon the pimps and lowlifes for about 10 minutes made the world and better for maybe just one person, Iris. Aside from that it is just another example of urban insanity. If I heard that a bloodbath happened next door to me, even if it was a “positive” one, I wouldn’t be all that happy. Either way, its captivating to watch. Taxi Driver came out a couple years after Serpico, an excellent movie about corrupt New York cops. I guess we can be assured by the notion that Bickle went ahead and did some cleaning up of trash that cops would never bother with.
When all is said and done, to enjoy this movie and to live in a rough and tumble city, you need to have a sense of humor. You need to be able to see hellish misery and shake it off. Millions of people do this every day and get by. There are only a some who point guns at themselves in the mirror and even fewer who decide to use “true force”.
Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1979)
"Never get outta the boat."
I definitely do not think this is Coppola’s best movie. It is very much an overheated, overwrought mess of a thing; uneven, ugly, unsure of its meaning, unsure of where it is going and what it wants to do when it gets there. But it is for exactly those reasons that I love it.
For a long time I thought of Apocalypse Now as an almost religious experience. My devotion to it was such that I would only watch it alone. I was completely against the idea that my viewing of it would somehow be muddied or contaminated by another set of eyes. In hindsight, this is of course rather silly, but I bring it up just to make the point: I was way way into this movie.
My love for it has since waned a bit. I no longer find Kurtz’s death as powerful as I did then, no longer find Willard’s lonely journey as affecting, no longer get quite as lost in Michael Herr’s stunning narration. And, of course, I will now watch the movie with other people.
So what is it that i found so affecting about the film? The mood and tone of it, the way it portrays the war as a hot, fevered dream of masculinity and chaos. The simple core story of it: a man must travel a river to commit a murder, appeals very much to me. It is much the same story as Conan the Barbarian (with which it shares John Milius). The way the film teases out black depths of theme and personality; the way it oscillates between subtlety (the look on the face of the CIA spook) and blatancy (the sacrificial ox). The T.S. Eliot. I love that it starts as a fairly straight forward war movie but then gives into itself, becoming something else.
While I know longer adhere quite so fanatically to this statement, I still believe this movie feels like a ritual. It feels like something you enter into with the expectation of experiencing something profound, uncomfortable, transformative.
I remain struck by some of its mysteries. The main and most obvious one, I think, is just what is meant by the title? Is it a warning? A hope? A simple statement of fact?
I firmly believe that this is the film that broke Coppola. It was the last great movie he’ll ever make, a lasting, echoing scream, across the cultural landscape.
I only recently discovered this short bit that they shot for the film but then turned into a strange short/promo piece all its own. It is now one of my favorite short films of all time. “That’s coming from where we’re going,” has now become one of my favorite lines of dialogue of all time.
Apocalypse Now is a movie that I am sure I will re-enter for the rest of my life and I am sure that each time I do so I will take something a little bit different back out from it.