Monday, August 20, 2012
Before proceeding with this post, a quick mea culpa is in order. In spite of declaring my desire to write more for this blog, it has been almost half a year since I last posted anything and I can offer no excuse other than to admit that I've had difficulty finding the motivation. When I was contributing pieces to the blog of my friend Ed Copeland (who, for health reasons, recently decided to take a more solely hands-on approach to managing his site), I had deadlines to help compel me to write something. Anything. When that went away, much of the drive to write went with it. At any rate, for those few individuals who may follow this blog, I apologize. Fortunately, a recent event has incited my passion and enthusiasm for discussing film once more and has provoked me to compose the following piece. Hopefully I can be disciplined enough to maintain a real presence online once again.
Now, to the task at hand. Although there are innumerable top 10 lists out there, any real film-lover knows that the one published every ten years by the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine is considered THE top 10 list. Over a thousand prominent critics and filmmakers are asked to submit their picks for the "greatest films ever made" and the results are always interesting. The most recent list, however, incited some debate and has even sparked a series of articles at The House Next Door wherein writers who did not participate in the official poll have submitted their own personal top 10 lists. Several of my film-blogging friends have contributed and I have enjoyed their lists immensely, although I have also been somewhat envious because, to put it in childish terms, I wanted to "play" too. Then I remembered that I had a blog. So, I have decided to publish my own list here at CINEMEMORIES.
The following titles are arranged chronologically and they come, of course, with the usual disclaimers: it is not necessarily a list of "favorites" (as there are many films I truly love but did not include) nor even a definitive "best" list (as there are some films that I would consider in many senses superior to a few of these, yet I chose not to include those either) and it could change tomorrow blah blah blah. What I can say unashamedly is that each of these films is not only of great significance to me personally, but is also worthwhile for anyone to see... for each title deserves, if nothing else, to at least be part of the dialogue as to what the "greatest films of all time" are.
City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931). There's a scene in Richard Attenborough's serviceable 1992 biopic Chaplin where a frustrated Charlie (flawlessly played by Robert Downey, Jr.) is agonizing over how to communicate visually to an audience that a blind flower girl has mistaken his kindly Tramp character for a wealthy man. Charlie's brother pleads with him to make the film a talkie and have the Tramp simply TELL her that he's rich, but Charlie adamantly refuses knowing that it would "ruin the magic." The solution, arrived at by Charlie as he watches someone get into a vehicle to drive away, is to have the girl hear a car door slam and assume that is the Tramp's automobile thus allowing him to quietly sneak away without her ever knowing the truth. Though the exchange in Attenborough's film was most likely imagined, the filmmaking obstacle it dramatized, as well as Charlie's brilliantly graceful solution, illustrates why Chaplin was such a genius and why City Lights is considered his masterpiece. Chaplin did indeed resist the transition to sound for over a decade (City Lights would be one of his last "silent" pictures) although it meant that he had to work even harder than his colleagues to make audiences laugh and/or cry... and does he ever do both here. Not only is the film delightfully funny but the final scene is one of the most touching ever committed to celluloid, with or without talking.
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). "The remarkable thing about Shakespeare," English poet Robert Graves once wrote about the man considered to be the greatest writer in the English language, "is that he is really very good - in spite of all the people who say he is very good." There is no quote I think that better articulates the phenomenon of Citizen Kane. Since 1962 Orson Welles' magnum opus occupied the #1 spot on Sight & Sound's list (until it was controversially replaced by Hitchcock's Vertigo this year, but more on that later) and was blessed/cursed with the moniker of "greatest film ever made." This characterization kept the film simultaneously revered and reviled for over 50 years, but whether or not it truly deserves its alleged place in film history -- whether it truly is the greatest film ever made, one of the greatest or merely the product of a half a century of propaganda-- is ultimately irrelevant. Citizen Kane is a great film and as long as the conversation about the artistic merits of cinema continues, Kane will always have its place.
La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954). Man, did Giuiletta Marsina have quite a face. So expressive. So beautiful. Her sweet and innocent, though at times sad and lonely, waif of a character is the heart of La Strada (which translates "The Road"), the fourth film made by her husband Federico Fellini. La Strada won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1954 and made Fellini an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. Though it built upon the foundation laid by the Italian neo-realists (of which Fellini was a part) it was also, conversely, a reaction against it. La Strada is essentially a "realistic fable" that relates the melancholy but whimsical tale of a quirky young woman named Gelsomina who is bought by a strong man named Zampano (Anthony Quinn) to assist in his traveling act. Along the way they encounter another circus entertainer (known simply as the "fool") who imparts words of wisdom to Gelsomina but who antagonizes Zampano. This triangle results in a series of tragic events which culminate in one of the most powerful and heartbreaking final scenes in any movie. As the obnoxious guy from Annie Hall, who complains about how indulgent a filmmaker Fellini could be, is forced to admit: "Granted, La Strada is a great film." Indeed it is, sir. You may have been wrong about Marshall McLuhan but you were right about that.
Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). A friend asked me what I thought of Vertigo taking the top spot in the latest Sight & Sound poll. Honestly, I have no problem with it. Just because I didn't place Vertigo in my own personal top 10, does not mean I take issue with its being considered "the greatest film ever made" (at least no more than I do with any other film being called such... well, except perhaps The Waterboy). Vertigo is a masterpiece and I do love it. Nevertheless, I always have been and probably always will be a Psycho guy. From a technical standpoint, Psycho is just as clever, manipulative and cinematic as Vertigo. From a storytelling standpoint, it's just as dark, provocative and emotional as Vertigo and from a thematic standpoint, it's just as deep, rich and tragic as Vertigo. What probably makes the latter seem more sophisticated than the former (and what causes many to select it over Psycho) is pedigree. Being a horror film, Psycho's subject matter is far more lurid, seedy and vulgar than Vertigo. There are no elegant blonde beauties waltzing around in stylishly colorful outfits to the gorgeously delicate strains of Bernard Hermann's bittersweet love theme. What we get instead is a slutty blond girl who steals thousands of dollars and then gets brutally stabbed to death in black-and-white while Hermann's violins shriek at us crudely. Vertigo, like its protagonist Scottie Ferguson, may be disturbed, but there's no denying that Psycho, also like its main character Norman Bates, is sick. That sickness doesn't mean it can't also be high art, but its perversity spawned a whole host of trashy imitators who, quite frankly, aren't even worthy to clean Psycho's shower. Maybe it will always be somewhat devalued by its association with a fairly ignoble genre, but even if we punish the film for the company it keeps forever, Mother still gets the last laugh.
The Wild Child (François Truffaut, 1970). While many cinephiles would probably choose 400 Blows (a film I love by the way) as Truffaut's greatest work, I happen to be irresistibly drawn to The Wild Child. Based on the true account of Victor of Aveyron, a feral boy who was captured and then re-introduced to 17th century French society, Wild Child benefits greatly from the onscreen presence of Truffaut himself. Playing Dr. Itard, the teacher who patiently educates, socializes and ultimately civilizes young Victor, Truffaut's natural warmth and compassion comes through as clearly on camera as it does from behind it. It also presents some of the most powerful and hopeful scenes of a person rediscovering their innate dignity and humanity I've ever seen. There's an incredibly moving sequence where Itard, concerned that he has simply trained a pet rather than awoken the boy's inner sense of morality, makes the difficult decision to punish Victor for actually obeying him and Victor briefly rebels (biting Itard's arm in the process) which the doctor considers a great success. Jean-Pierre Cargol, the young actor who plays the titular child, does a phenomenal job of seeming genuinely savage and animal-like. Similar to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (a story Truffaut wanted to adapt before learning Arthur Penn was already doing so), his gradual overcoming of his natural "handicaps" seems authentic. It's a superb performance, one of the best ever given by a child actor, and it is no surprise given that he was directed by one of the greatest child directors ever. In many ways, Wild Child is just as personal and autobiographical a story for Truffaut as 400 Blows is. Whereas the latter is about Truffaut's youth and falling in love with film, the former is about his adulthood as a filmmaker and the "coaching" he ends up doing of so many little children as a result. It's no coincidence that the film was dedicated to Jean-Pierre Léaud, the boy who worked with Truffaut on 400 Blows and four other films over a period of 20 years.
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). I find that great art often transcends its subject matter and in the case of great films, that includes its genre. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness) is ostensibly a war movie but in the hands of director Coppola, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor Walter Murch, it becomes much more. The story begins relatively straightforwardly (Martin Sheen's special ops captain Ben Willard is ordered to proceed downriver and assassinate Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz who has apparently lost his mind and is running his own rogue military command, composed primarily of natives, in the heart of Cambodia) but as the film goes on and Sheen gets deeper and deeper into the heart of the jungle, it becomes more of an abstract experience: imagery becomes symbolic, colors become impressionistic and dialogue becomes philosophical. The finale is a like a hallucinogenic nightmare from which Willard, though he completes his assignment, can never wake up. The mission is essentially a journey into the darker recesses of his own soul and what he finds shocks and horrifies him. Many consider Apocalypse Now pretentious and indulgent but most films that plumb the depths of human nature tend to be. It is also criticized for having very little connection to historical reality, but again I think this misses the point (the film is basically an allegory). For me, it is a quintessential example of what I call "meditative" cinema and it is, quite honestly, astonishing it turned out as well as it did given the immense obstacles Coppola was forced to overcome to create it (and which were chronicled in the documentary Hearts of Darkness: a Filmmaker's Apocalypse). Years later, Coppola revisited his film with the extended Apocalypse Now Redux and although it does have one or two interesting additional sequences, I prefer the original. You can have too much of a good thing.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989). In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky wrote that if God doesn't exist, "everything is permissable." Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (an obvious variation on the title of another Dostoyevsky tome Crime and Punishment, only notice that Allen does away with the "punishment") is an exploration of that very idea. It tells two parallel stories (one of a man, played by Martin Landau, who has his former mistress murdered and the other of an unlucky filmmaker, Allen himself, whose marriage is falling apart and who is becoming attracted to another woman). In the film's final scene, the two stories converge in a conversation where the difference between fantasy (as it's usually depicted in movies) and reality (as Allen perceives it) is articulated. In the vein of Allen's idol Ingmar Bergman, Crimes and Misdemeanors is about the absurdity of guilt, the indifference of the cold and unfeeling universe and the ways in which we human beings cope in the face of such hard, bleak concepts (Allen would later revisit some of these themes in Matchpoint). Much of the imagery throughout powerfully illustrates this (Landau's character is an opthamologist and his rabbi friend Sam Waterston is going blind, which indicating he doesn't "see" the truth about God's non-existence). Woody Allen, a known atheist and pessimist, is one of my favorite filmmakers (my most beloved of his films being Manhattan and Purple Rose of Cairo, both of which it was very hard to exclude from this list) and it seems strange to me sometimes that his work should resonate so much with me given that I am neither an atheist nor a pessimist. Nonetheless, there is a lot of insight in his work (Allen is particularly good, for example, at dramatizing the sentiments of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes: "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity") and it keeps me coming back to them. In many ways he has, if you'll pardon the expression, "eyes to see."
Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). Whenever someone decides to make a "top 10," "top 20," "top 50" or "top 100 greatest films ever" list, my first tendency is to scan the entire thing looking for this title. If I don't find it, my respect for the list immediately drops a point (Note: I actually had just such an experience recently when I discovered that not a single person voted for Schindler's List in the most recent Sight & Sound poll). Acclaimed and criticized in its initial release, Steven Spielberg's three hour-plus docudrama is a landmark film in the history of cinema as well as a major turning point in the career of its director. A filmmaker known primarily for technically flawless and unapologetically juvenile escapist fare, Spielberg's restrained, dignified and honest treatment of the true story of a German industrialist who risked his reputation, fortune and life to save 1,100 Jews from extermination during WWII was as surprising as it was inspiring. It is also, if I can get a bit more personal for a moment, a seminal film in my own development (both as a cinephile and as a human being). It may not be the greatest "Holocaust film" ever made -- many seem to prefer Alan Resnais' harrowing 1955 documentary Night and Fog -- but I would argue that, due its immense recognition and the way it brought the topic into the mainstream cultural dialogue more than any other film had before or since, it is the most important. Furthermore, like Apocalypse Now, Schindler's List transcends its subject. It becomes a rumination on pure ideals: good, evil, courage, fear, love, hate, etc. Very few films reach as high and dig as deep. Very few films juxtapose humanity's frightening capacity for sheer wickedness with its incredible potential for goodness more clearly or more gracefully. It may very well be, as I have not infrequently called it, the best film I've ever seen or will see (although the final film on this list comes close) and should it ever occupy the #1 spot in Sight & Sound's poll, you will not hear me complaining.
The Red Violin (François Girard, 1998). In Jr. High I remember reading a short story about a coin which traveled all over the world, was owned by many different people, was used for both good and evil purposes and which "lived" far longer than any of individuals who possessed it. I remember being fascinated by that idea and the prospect of asking any object (assuming it could magically speak) about its adventures. What sort of stories would it tell? Well, The Red Violin dramatizes that very scenario. The object in question is a violin known for the eminence of its creator as well as for its distinctive red-colored varnish and the film chronicles, in five different stories which span four centuries and several continents, a remarkable journey from its origin in 17th century Italy to the hands of an appraiser (played by Samuel L. Jackson) in modern-day Montreal. The Red Violin is legendary because it is no ordinary instrument and the film The Red Violin is brilliant because it is no ordinary film. It is dark, mysterious, hypnotic, unsettling, lush, romantic, ambitious, soulful... it is everything that a movie can and should be. It also has, thanks to composer John Corigliano, one of the most hauntingly beautiful scores ever written for a motion picture.
The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011). Once in a blue moon, we see a movie that reminds us of why we watch movies in the first place, what we are seeking when we venture into that dark room to gaze at light flickering on a screen. We see a film that produces the kind of effect in us (an intense emotional, spiritual, intellectual and existential experience) that only films can stimulate. It is awe-inspiring and ambitious while simultaneously personal and intimate. The Tree of Life was that movie for me. Though it may seem strange to include a film that was released just last year in a list of the ten greatest films ever made, I believe that Tree of Life deserves it. Praised and condemned in equal measure since its 2011 Cannes premiere, Terence Malick's glorious two-and-a-half-hour tone poem takes its audience on a grand odyssey from the beginning of the universe to the troubles of an ordinary family in 1950's Texas to the end of all creation and finally to an enigmatic "no man's land" where time, space and identity seem to merge into one. In terms of style, scope and themes, it has been aptly compared to Kubrick's 2001, but (and I realize this is probably cinematic heresy), I think Tree of Life is better. When I first saw it in the theater, I was dumbstruck. I wasn't exactly sure what I had seen, but I knew I had just seen something extraordinary. It took several more viewings, not to mention reading a whole host of pieces on it (both positive and negative), for me to clarify my thinking and form a precise opinion on the film... and it is this: though it may sound hyperbolic, Tree of Life is not only a pure manifestation of the power and potential of cinema, it is the universal human journey expressed beautifully in a stunning marriage of words, images and music. It is sublime. It is magnificent. It is virtually a religious experience and it is, quite simply, one of the best films I've ever been seen. If movies can do that, they can do anything.
Runners-Up: Singin' in the Rain, The Seventh Seal, Unforgiven, The Grapes of Wrath, E.T., The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, The Shawshank Redemption, Blade Runner, The Mission, The Bicycle Thief, Lawrence of Arabia, Double Indemnity, The Godfather, Amadeus, Die Hard, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Strangelove, JFK, Aguirre: the Wrath of God
Saturday, March 10, 2012
The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 40th anniversary of the release of What's Up, Doc?
I remember working in the video store one day when a regular customer came in to check out a few titles. He glanced at the enormous flat screen we had behind the counter, saw Barbra Streisand belting out some catchy show tune and uttered a question I got asked a lot in those days. "What are you watching?" he said. "Hello, Dolly!" I answered. He smiled, shook his head and exclaimed, "See, now, here's where I break with the stereotype. I'm a gay guy who doesn't like Barbra Streisand." I just laughed and replied, "That's OK. I'm a straight guy who does."
And it's true. Although she is by no means my favorite actress (nor would I ever see a film simply because she's in it), I happen to enjoy watching her onscreen. Funny Girl, Meet the Fockers and the aforementioned Hello, Dolly! are all films I love, but my favorite movie of hers would have to be the hilarious What's Up, Doc? which celebrates its 40th anniversary today. Nowhere is Babs' gift for comedy and sheer charisma on display better than in this film. They even find an excuse to show off her incredible voice once or twice: namely, in the film's opening and ending credits where she sings Cole Porter's "You're The Top" as well as the scene at the piano when she croons a few lines of "As Time Goes By."
It also doesn't hurt that What's Up, Doc? happens to be a really great movie. Hot off of his success with The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich originally conceived it as a remake of Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby, but wisely decided (much as Lawrence Kasdan would do later with his film noir tribute Body Heat) to use Hawks' film merely as an inspiration rather than a template and to give What's Up, Doc? its own identity. As a result, it comes off more as a love letter to screwball comedies in general as well as to iconic Warner Bros. feature films (such as Casablanca) and classic animated shorts. Hence, when Barbra's character, Judy Maxwell, is introduced first to Ryan O'Neal's nerdy Howard Bannister, she's seen munching on a carrot a la Bugs Bunny and/or Clark Gable from It Happened One Night. With her brash, fast-talking, trouble-making personality and his stiff, bespectacled, long-suffering demeanor, the two leads clearly are based on Baby's Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. (Interestingly, Streisand shared a best actress Oscar with Ms. Hepburn only four years earlier in one of the Academy's rare ties. Streisand won for her film debut in Funny Girl while Hepburn earned her third best actress trophy for The Lion in Winter. Hepburn's prize was her second consecutive win in the category having taken the 1967 Oscar for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.) Aside from Judy constantly getting Howard into trouble and a reminiscent coat-tearing gag, the similarities between Doc and Baby essentially end there.
Also, What's Up, Doc? lacks a leopard. Instead the chaos revolves around four identical carrying cases containing such varied items as clothes, rocks, jewels and classified government documents. When moviegoers first see the quartet of cases at the start of Doc, it's the filmmakers signaling audiences that much confusion and hilarity awaits. At this point I have to confess that, although I've seen the film at least a dozen times, I cannot to this day follow which case is which throughout the course of the film. Every time I sit down to watch, I swear I'm going to keep track of the cases, but I always give up about 20 minutes into it. I take some comfort, however, from the fact that even the great Buck Henry, in the process of re-writing the screenplay, reportedly phoned Bogdanovich to say, "I've lost one of the suitcases. It's in the hotel somewhere, but I don't know where I put it."
The gags come fast and furious in What's Up, Doc? More than a decade before Bruce Willis and Bogdanovich's ex-girlfriend Cybill Shepherd resurrected rapid-fire banter on TV's Moonlighting, Streisand and O'Neal fire a barrage of zingers at each other so quickly that you're almost afraid to laugh for fear you'll miss the next one. The behind-the-scenes team also populates the What's Up, Doc? universe with a whole host of kooky characters, each bringing his or her unique comic flair to those roles. There isn't a single boring person in What's Up, Doc? Everyone (right down to the painter who drops his cigar into the bucket) amuses. At the top of the heap resides the great Madeline Kahn in her feature film debut as Howard's frumpy fiancée Eunice Burns. Two years before she joined Mel Brooks' cinematic comedy troupe, she proved to the world her status as one of the funniest women ever to grace the silver screen. Another Mel Brooks' regular, Kenneth Mars, plays Hugh Simon, providing yet one more strangely accented flamboyant nutball to his immense repertoire. A very young Randy Quaid, a brief M. Emmett Walsh and a very annoyed John Hillerman also show up in hilarious bit parts.
All of this anarchy culminates in a spectacular car chase through the streets of San Francisco that actually rivals the one from Bullitt. Apparently it took four weeks to shoot, cost $1 million (¼ of the film's budget) and even managed to get the filmmakers in trouble with the city for destroying some of its property without permission. Nevertheless, Bogdanovich pulls out all the stops in creating this over-the-top action/slapstick set piece that overflows with both thrills and laughs. When watching it, one can't help but be reminded that physical comedy on this grand of a scale doesn't even get attempted anymore. One wishes another director would resurrect the kind of awesome stunt-comedy on display here and in The Pink Panther series.
The film's dénouement takes place in a courtroom where an embittered, elderly judge (the brilliant Liam Dunn) hears the arguments of everyone involved and tries to make sense of it all. Howard's attempt to explain only serves to frustrate and confuse the judge further and results in this gem of an exchange that owes more than a little bit to Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First?":
HOWARD: First, there was this trouble between me and Hugh.
JUDGE: You and me?
HOWARD: No, not you. Hugh.
HUGH: I am Hugh.
JUDGE: You are me?
HUGH: No, I am Hugh.
JUDGE: Stop saying that. (to bailiff) Make him stop saying that!
HUGH: Don't touch me, I'm a doctor.
JUDGE: Of what?
JUDGE: Can you fix a hi-fi?
HUGH: No, sir.
JUDGE: Then shut up!
The tag line for What's Up, Doc? read: "A screwball comedy. Remember them?" Well, whether people remembered screwball comedy or simply discovered it for the first time, they certainly embraced the film as it was an enormous success upon its release. It took in $66 million in North America alone and became the third-highest grossing film of the year. Since The Last Picture Show was released in late '71 and Doc came out in early '72, Bogdanovich had two hugely successful films playing in theaters at the same time. Unfortunately, his career, which had just started to rise, also had neared its peak. Although he would follow Doc with Paper Moon his directing career would only see sporadic critical successes after that such as Saint Jack and Mask. He even filmed Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show, but he'd never again see the kind of commercial or critical success he had achieved in the early 1970s. Bogdanovich would eventually end up working in television, often as an actor such as his long recurring role as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, psychiatrist to Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) on The Sopranos. The most recent feature film he directed was 2001's fairly well-received The Cat's Meow starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies and Edward Herrmann as William Randolph Hearst. Based on a play of the same name, The Cat's Meow concerned a real-life mystery in 1924 Hollywood involving the shooting death of writer/producer/director Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) on Hearst's yacht.
When Bogdanovich was good, he was great and What's Up, Doc? is, in my opinion, the jewel in his crown. It made a once-forgotten genre popular again, it jump-started a lot of comic careers and it reminded us all that love meaning never having to say we're sorry is the dumbest thing we've ever heard.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012
At some time or another all movie-lovers have encountered the notorious "desert island" question. You know what I'm talking about: the one that goes "If you could only have X number of movies with you while you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life, which ones would they be?" It's a question, I've noticed, not dissimilar from the one posed at the end of George Pal's 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine wherein Alan Young notices that Rod Taylor has returned to the post-apocalyptic future bringing only three books along with which to re-start civilization and he asks his friend's housekeeper, "What three books would you have taken?"
Although the likelihood of finding ourselves in such a situation is small indeed, answering such a unique query is an immensely fun and, quite frankly, challenging task because it forces one to consider what films one could absolutely not live without. The resulting list would not necessarily be a list of "favorites" or even of "greatest films ever seen" (although it could certainly include either) but rather a list of "personal essentials," the movies that one could watch over and over again for the rest of one's life and never get tired of.
Well, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz has addressed this question (and has inspired other critics, such as Jim Emerson, to do the same). Matt's parameters for the exercise involve "10 feature films, one short and a single, self-contained season of a TV series... NO CHEATING. Every slot on the list must be claimed by a self-contained unit of media." He elaborates, for example, that the Godfather series (and the Lord of the Rings trilogy I presume) would not count as "one long film."
So, with all this in mind, here are my answers to the "desert island" question. First, my picks for the short and the series and then my ten movie choices (in no particular order).
VINCENT - For my short film, I had a hard time thinking of anything that wasn't animated. I considered a number of Warner Bros. shorts including "The Rabbit of Seville," "What's Opera, Doc?" (which Matt chose), "Duck Amuck" (which Jim chose), as well as the Roger Rabbit shorts, some Pixar shorts and one of the Fleischer Superman or Popeye cartoons. In the end, though, I decided on a quirky, lesser-known stop-motion-animated black-and-white short from the fertile imagination of a young Disney animator named Tim Burton (and since I had to ultimately remove The Nightmare Before Christmas from my top ten, this seemed fitting). Vincent tells the tale of a relatively normal-looking but eccentric young boy named Vincent Malloy who lives with his mother, younger sister and dog Abercrombie. Secretly Vincent is obsessed with Gothic literature, horror stories and other strange subject matter. His primary wish is to be Vincent Price (who, appropriately, narrates this story) and as he pretends to engage in such quintessentially "Price-like" activities as burying his wife alive, running a wax museum and experimenting on his dog, Vincent tragically succumbs to his fantasies and gets sucked into the abyss of his own mind out of which his soul will be lifted "nevermore." Like all of Burton's stuff, it's odd and dark but also very funny. It's no accident, I think, that the character of Vincent resembles Burton himself and that in this early piece of work we see his affection for the grotesque and bizarre combined with a self-awareness that if he's not careful to keep himself grounded in reality, his own weirdness will eventually prove his undoing. Since I can often have a somewhat twisted sensibility myself, this is a good lesson to remember.
THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES - One of the limitations imposed by this exercise is that we are not permitted any other type of media on this island. No music, no paintings, no literature, etc. That being the case, I would be forced to leave my cherished hard-bound copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes behind. However, in its stead — and taking the place of my pick for a television series — I would settle for the second season of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes starring the great Jeremy Brett (who is, in my mind, the definitive Holmes). Some may wonder why I chose Return rather than the preceding Adventures or subsequent Casebook and Memoirs. My reasons are threefold. First, the latter two seasons, due to such unfortunate circumstances as Brett's rapidly declining health and the show acquiring new producers who departed drastically from the source material, are vastly inferior to the first two. Second, although I love and enjoy David Burke's Watson from the first season, the late Edward Hardwicke, who was introduced after Burke declined, is my all-time personal favorite Watson. Finally, Adventures ends with "The Final Problem" where Holmes presumably perishes in a fight to the death with his nemesis Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. Even though I know that Holmes actually survives and would eventually return, the program itself gives no hint of such a thing and I would rather spend the rest of my life watching Holmes' triumphant return rather than apparent death.
MANHATTAN - While there is a handful of Woody Allen movies that I consider the cream of his crop (including Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors and The Purple Rose of Cairo) Manhattan is the one that I find myself continually coming back to. Perhaps because it is by far his most gorgeous-looking movie (with stunning black-and-white cinematography by that genius know as Gordon Willis). Perhaps it is that luscious score of timeless Gershwin melodies. Perhaps it is the story's delicate balance between hilariously funny comedy and surprisingly moving drama. Perhaps it is the perfect cast of actors (featuring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Wallace Shawn and Meryl Streep). Perhaps it is the collection of iconic sequences such as the wonderful montage of New York images cut to "Rhapsody in Blue" and featuring the opening lines of Woody's book, Woody and Diane discussing relationships as they wander among the cosmos, Woody's listing of things that make life worth living, Woody's running across town to reach Tracy, etc. I don't know. Whatever it is, it all works for me. I never tire of this lovely little gem of a movie.
DIE HARD - Sometimes you just want to watch the hero overcome all odds to be victorious and see the bad guys get theirs. To that end, you can't do much better than Die Hard (although it was extremely difficult to not include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars or one of my favorite Bond movies). The film has watch-like precision in its construction of environment, character, suspense, emotion and, of course, action. Bruce Willis is the smart, resourceful and incredibly vulnerable cop who matches wits with the equally intelligent, classy and deadly Alan Rickman in the claustrophobic confines of a Los Angeles skyscraper. It's the closest an action film can get to being "high art," not to mention it's a tremendous amount of fun. I already watch it every Christmas. Can't break with tradition.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN - Being alone and isolated on a desert island, one would obviously have to be able to laugh at their situation to keep from losing one's mind. Consequently, an uproarious comedy would be an essential part of one's limited DVD stash. There are a number of comedies I would love to take with me (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie, Ghostbusters, Dr. Strangelove, Groundhog Day, etc), but Mel Brooks' 1972 spoof Young Frankenstein seems to make me laugh out loud the hardest and the most. I can barely recall certain classic lines ("I was gonna make espresso.") or comic moments (Gene Wilder's and Peter Boyle's "Puttin' on the Ritz" dance number) without at least cracking a smile. Having such an uplifting film in my possession should, at the very least, help me to accept my circumstances with "quiet dignity and grace."
SCHINDLER'S LIST - Besides being Spielberg's greatest achievement as a filmmaker, Schindler's List was a seminal film in my development as a cinephile. In fact, I have often referred to it as the greatest film I personally have ever seen or probably ever will see (although I was pleasantly surprised at how affected I was by Terence Malick's magnificent Tree of Life, proving once again that one should never assume they won't find something better than what they've already seen because you just never know). By now everyone is familiar with the inspiring story of the German war profiteer who risked his life, his fortune and his reputation to save the lives of 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. A harsh, unflinching but essentially restrained and dignified depiction of man's inhumanity toward his fellow man, Schindler's List reaches higher and digs deeper than just about any other film out there. It seems strange to refer to such a brutal cinematic experience as one's "favorite" film, but it is mine. Not because it makes me feel good, but because it makes me want to be good (How many films can you say that about?). It is also a rich, nuanced work of art that yields more depth and truth with each subsequent viewing. I've often thought that if I had to be stranded on a desert island with just ONE movie, this would be it. Naturally it had to make my top ten.
JAWS - Anyone who knows me fairly well knows that Steven Spielberg is my favorite director. Combined with the fact that he is an amazingly versatile artist, it is only appropriate that I bring more than one of his films to the island with me (having already chosen Schindler's List). Picking a second one, however, is a virtually impossible task. Since I already jettisoned Raiders of the Lost Ark in favor of Die Hard, that leaves only two of my "Spielberg essentials:" E.T. or Jaws (Don't get me wrong; I also adore Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Close Encounters, Minority Report and Empire of the Sun, but they just don't quite make the cut). In choosing between the remaining two, it really just comes down to what emotion I feel is lacking from my collection. I already have a couple films to make me cry, but I don't have one to scare me (since the catharsis of fear that comes from watching a horror movie is an important element of dealing with fear in real life ). Since I was forced to leave off my favorite Hitchcock film as well (Psycho) Jaws should serve that function nicely. The truth is, I love the film so much I already watch the it at least once a year (usually in the summer), so I know I'll never tire of it. It should also keep me from going swimming in the waters surrounding my island.
THE SECRET OF NIMH - Like Matt, I also figured I should include an animated feature on my list. Pinocchio, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Prince of Egypt, The Incredibles or Wall-E were all candidates for this honor, but in the end I found myself leaning toward a lesser-known, almost forgotten, chapter in the history of cinematic animation: former Disney animator Don Bluth's 1982 The Secret of NIMH. Bluth's debut feature didn't garner quite the commercial success as some of his later efforts did (An American Tail, Land Before Time or Anastasia), but over the years it has gained quite a cult following who respond very favorably to its emotional, beautifully animated tale of a widowed mouse courageously fighting for the survival of her children in the face of some pretty overwhelming obstacles. It's a dark, haunting and surprisingly violent "kid's movie" (I still can't believe it got a G rating) and yet it's also funny, sweet and ultimately joyous. I saw it as a youngster and it still stirs my soul to this day.
THE HUDSUCKER PROXY - Naturally I just had to include a film by those wacky Coen brothers and although it may not be their best, their highly stylized homage to Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Fritz Lang called The Hudsucker Proxy holds a special place in my heart as it is the film that introduced me to their bizarre, subversive and enormously entertaining world. It was either ignored or despised upon is release (though the Coens' next film Fargo made them filmmaking celebrities), which is a shame as I think it's just as intelligent, rewarding and visually striking (perhaps even more so in case of the latter) as anything else they've ever done. Fortunately, it's gained some popularity over the years... though not quite as much as the hula hoop itself. "You know, for kids!"
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN - I love musicals. Sometimes I wish I lived in one. Often, right in the middle of a fairly menial task, I will launch into a song of some sort and imagine that I am being accompanied by an entire orchestra. That being the case, I have little doubt that I would find myself singing quite a bit on my own little island ("On my own little island in my own little sea, I can be whatever I want to beeeee..." Uh, sorry!) and thus should have a movie musical in my collection. Several recommended themselves to me (such as Top Hat and Fiddler on the Roof) but when it comes down to it, if I had to have just one movie musical to watch over and over again for the rest of my life, it would have to be Singin' in the Rain. No other musical captures the optimistic nature of song and dance in the face of adversity than this one does (particularly in the now immortal sequence featuring Gene Kelly nonchalantly defying the elements). If it ever rains on the island, you can guess what I'll be doing.
UNFORGIVEN - Although westerns are not exactly my favorite genre, I have a small number of them which I happen to love (High Noon, Stagecoach, The Searchers, the remake of True Grit and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). At the top of the heap, though, is Clint Eastwood's 1991 masterpiece Unforgiven. It is probably the best western I've ever seen and it accomplishes that feat by being a sort of "anti-western:" a de-mythologizing melodrama that removes all of the romance, heroism and glory of the genre and replaces it with the gritty ugliness and blind, stupid luck that probably more accurately reflected that period of our history. More than anything, though, Unforgiven is a meditation on the nature of human evil, the possibility of redemption and the dehumanizing effect of violence. It's a phenomenal film that I could watch over and over again.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION - Although I have several films on my list whose function is to help me "escape" and/or make me feel good in my loneliness, I also need films that acknowledge that life can indeed suck (sometimes a lot) and that keeping one's faith in the midst of so much suffering is really the right response to have. Schindler's List fulfills that role as does this one. Frank Darabont's brilliant adaptation of Stephen King's novella is a powerful, life-affirming expression of the courage and tenacity of the human spirit. It confronts the harsh realities of life but does not succumb to despair. In our increasingly bleak and nihilistic society, that is a precious commodity. Or as Tim Robbins says in the film "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." Hope springs eternal.
Incidentally, that final helicopter shot of the beach never fails to make cry. Ever.
Sunday, January 1, 2012
In late 2009 I decided to start CINEMEMORIES with the hope of establishing, after an extended hiatus from blogging, an online presence once again (I announced my intentions in the inaugural post of my new film blog). At the conclusion of my first year here I reflected back, as people tend to do whenever "Big Daddy Earth starts one more trip around the sun," and several things occurred to me.
I noticed that over the course of the year I posted a total of 20 pieces. Not only is that less than an average of two per month, but the majority of them were "cross-posts" of articles I wrote for my friend Ed Copeland's blog (where I contributed a whopping 27 articles). If I intend to take my participation in the online community seriously, that is pretty pathetic. Thus, as a new year begins, I find myself not only wanting to write more pieces for my blog but to make them more substantial and thought-provoking (the truth is, I got a little lazy with some of my posts). Cinema is in a very significant transitional state right now, especially with the death of "film" becoming an ever-present reality, and although there may not be a huge number of readers out there dying to know what I think on various subjects, I should at least have the courage and character to express them.
I also found myself wanting to revamp my site. While I was pleased with the "Being There motif" I had created for the blog, an idea suggested itself to me that I thought could prove fun and perhaps, if I wanted to get myself writing more, even somewhat inspirational. What if I changed the layout of my blog every January? What if this became an annual thing? I liked it. As a new year presents itself, so does a new look for CINEMEMORIES. Once again I have chosen a very specific image which I think goes very well with the dual theme of cinema and memory.*
So, at the dawn of 2012, I look forward to a year of more, and hopefully better, writing about movies (both good and bad) and maybe even some good discussion. Hope you like the new look. Happy New Year, everyone!
*Where I could've gotten the idea to use a shot from this particular movie though, I do not know. It just came to me. I mean, it's not like anyone could've put it there, right? Right?