Author’s Note: These short pieces first appeared in a 2007 book called The Little Black Book: Movies, which was edited by Chris Fujiwara and published by Cassell Illustrated in the UK. I’ve removed one of the original pieces, on Repo Man (1984), because I repurposed part of it for review of the movie Lucky that I wrote for n+1 after Harry Dean Stanton’s death last year. I’ve replaced that piece with a short one on the 1994 Bollywood movie Anjaam, which I wrote for a defunct website in 1998.
Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1916, France)
The fifth episode of the mysterious saga alternates scenes of people returning to consciousness and people losing it. The thief Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), archrival of the Vampires criminal gang, swallows what appears to be a suicide pill. Reporter Philippe Guerande (Édouard Mathé), conked by the Vampires, awakens in a basket tumbling down a long flight of stairs. Most memorably, the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) and Irma Vep (Musidora) disguise themselves as a baron and his niece to host a society ball where they gas dozens of rich people, taking their jewels and fat wallets when they succumb.
Feuillade’s camera dollies past the hands of party guests clawing to escape the sealed room. The Vampires, silhouettes framed in doorways, led by Irma in her skintight black suit, descend on the sleeping guests like the gas or like dreams. This French serial introduced the supervillain and the sexy accomplice who wear disguises and turn the devices of modernity against the people they were invented to help. It made criminal anarchy and terror into entertainment, which Feuillade made into art.
Feuillade filmed his exteriors in Paris locations that the First World War had emptied of people. The idea that places and objects recorded by the movie camera shimmer with life and might be trying to tell us something dates from encounters with Feuillade’s crime serials. “It is in Les Vampires that one must look for the great reality of our century—they are beyond fashion and beyond taste,” wrote the surrealists Aragon and Breton.
Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922, USA)
Flaherty got the idea to make a film of Inuit life while working as an explorer for a railway company in northern Quebec in the 1910s. A fur company set him up with movie equipment, but he rejected his initial efforts as amateurish, and he lost other attempts in a fire. Working slowly in the cold of the “illimitable spaces which top the world,” aided by the Inuit who appeared in his film as versions of themselves, Flaherty finished his work, which he conceived as a story film as much as an ethnographic record, and released it to theaters. It succeeded and made Nanook the Eskimo a household name; the man who played him (Allakariallak) died of starvation “in the actual Arctic” six months after the film came out.
Nanook enters our consciousness from within the white of the frame. He pushes himself out from inside an igloo he has just built. The film ends in a nighttime so real it’s like science fiction. We leave Nanook as he falls asleep.
Almost ninety years after its release, Nanook of the North is still controversial; Flaherty is taken to task for exploiting his cast and for not making a “real” documentary. But it is a harsh writer who would criticize the scene—a remarkable scene about sound in a silent movie—in which a white trader plays a gramophone and Nanook takes off the record and bites it. Who hasn’t loved a record so much they wanted to bite it?
The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg, 1928, USA)
Not a lot is known about Jules Furthman. He was a Chicago newspaperman who got to Hollywood about ten years before Ben Hecht did and wrote screenplays for von Sternberg and Hawks. Leigh Brackett, who wrote scripts with him even though she was thirty years his junior, said he was the kind of writer who didn’t like to write things down. He wrote over a hundred films, the first in 1915, the last in 1959 (Rio Bravo, with Brackett). In his Hawks biography, Todd McCarthy describes Furthman as cantankerous and quotes Hawks as saying only he, von Sternberg, and Victor Fleming would work with him. “He was such a mean guy we thought he was great,” Hawks explained.
Furthman specialized in unclassy tales of redemption in tawdry settings, featuring charming semi-brutal men and glamorous women who were a little ruined, people in trouble who rise to the occasion against their instincts. His women could be Dietrich or Bacall, his men Bogart or John Wayne. In The Docks of New York, George Bancroft’s stoker and Betty Compson’s Mae are more primitive versions, violent, romantic, and drunk. The originals, concocted out of who knows who or what, lived in Furthman’s head. Certain gestures of theirs cross between the films of the directors Furthman worked with, gestures that must be attributable to him. They can be seen in everything Furthman worked on: China Seas (1935), a Clark Gable movie directed by Tay Garnett, plays like knock-off von Sternberg or Hawks wafting over MGM.
1932: Shiro Kido tells Mikio Naruse he doesn’t need another Ozu
Only one of the first sixteen films Mikio Naruse made survives. It’s called Flunky, Work Hard! After ten years at Shochiku, after being passed over for Heinosuke Gosho and Yasujiro Ozu, who’d started in the film industry after him, in 1930 Naruse finally got to direct a film. He had to shoot it non-stop in thirty-six hours. When he finished he collapsed.
According to Audie Bock’s book Japanese Film Directors, in the early 1930s Naruse was making the equivalent of $360 a month as a salaried director at Shochiku and living in a rented room over a sushi place. He got meal tickets from the studio, which he traded for cigarettes, choosing to eat alone in cheap bars. One film he made was shelved because studio boss Shiro Kido thought it was too much like an Ozu movie. Kido kept Naruse on, but in 1932 he took him aside and explained that Shochiku didn’t need two Ozus. While he was at it Kido threw in that Naruse shouldn’t imitate Hiroshi Shimizu, Gosho, or Yasujiro Shimazu, either.
Today it’s hard to believe this happened. Imitations of hit films are exactly what producers want. Kido’s insult forced Naruse to look for stories in the harsh world where he was eating lunch. The name of the film Naruse was working on when he had his conversation with Kido? Be Great! For the next thirty-five years Naruse made films “with the thought that the world we live in betrays us,” poignant films that stand on their own next to the best ones made anywhere.
Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932, USA)
Among other things, Ben Hecht was a Chicago newspaperman, a playwright, author of maybe the funniest American novel, recipient of the call-to-Hollywood telegram from Herman J. Mankiewicz that read “millions to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots,” and screenwriter of the original Scarface.
Hecht arrived in Hollywood at the end of the silent era. He wrote Sternberg’s Underworld, the first gangster picture, then worked on thirteen dozen other movies, often without credit.
He told Scarface producer Howard Hughes he could double the body count of any previous gangster film and write one twice as good, then worked out a payment arrangement designed to add to his image as a hired gun. Hughes had to pay him a thousand dollars in cash every night at 6 until he finished the first draft. He finished in eleven days. He wrote the final draft with Hawks on a train to New York on their way to test Paul Muni for the title part, Tony Camonte.
Hecht defines the writer-producer relationship in a speech Camonte makes to his boss. “There’s only one thing that gets orders and gives orders, and this is it,” Camonte says, indicating his machine gun. “That’s how I got the South Side for you and that’s how I’m gonna get the North Side for you. It’s a little typewriter, right? I’m gonna write my name all over this town with it, in big letters. Get outta my way, I’m gonna spit!” he yells, and starts firing.
It’s a Gift (Norman Z. McLeod, 1934, USA)
There isn’t a better illustration of unsparing W. C. Fields comedy than this portrait of Mr. Muckle, a hostile, uncontrollable blind man. While scrambling to fill an obstreperous customer’s order for “ten pounds of kumquats,” Fields notices that outside a black-clad figure in sunglasses is making a beeline for his store carrying a cane. Fields immediately stops what he’s doing, points, and yells “Open the door for Mr. Muckle!”
Already something has been set in motion that has happened before and is too late to stop. Suddenly Muckle is upon Fields and us and the world. Muckle crashes his cane through the store’s glass door, points out that “you got that door closed again,” and falls into a stack of boxes. To add to the scene’s audacity, Fields tries to placate and console this intractable old man, who is also partially deaf and has to be shouted at through an ear trumpet, by calling him “honey” and “dear.” When he hands Muckle the five-cent pack of gum he came in for, the blind man refuses to “lug that with me” and insists it be delivered.
Here Fields sets up his world, where slow-moving forces of mulish humanity become like the objects (light bulbs, coconuts, ice picks) they use to bedevil him. For Fields, Depression-era America was a combination of The Grapes of Wrath (“Shades of Bacchus!” he exclaims at one point) and L’Age d’or, with all the frustrating sadness and bitter absurdity that coupling implies.
The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937, USA)
Near the start of The Awful Truth McCarey cuts to an insert of a toy that Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) shows his dog, Mr. Smith (Asta, of the Thin Man movies). It’s a tennis-size ball in the form of a Chihuahua’s head with poppy eyes. Breaking into a scene that way was unusual in a Hollywood film then, but the ball gets a closeup all its own. Jerry’s wife, Lucy (Irene Dunne) throws it for Mr. Smith, who chases it.
Jerry and Lucy have decided to separate. In the next scene, divorce proceedings are ending, but the matter of who will get custody of Mr. Smith isn’t settled. The judge (Paul Stanton) orders the fox terrier into court. “Custody of the dog will depend on his own desires,” he tells the couple. “Will you each call the dog?”
Jerry and Lucy position Mr. Smith between them, imploring him with here-boys and clapping. Jerry seems to be winning, so Lucy surreptitiously nods the doghead toy at Mr. Smith. He jumps in her lap. Case closed. Now we see why McCarey highlighted the toy earlier.
Jerry and Lucy compete for Mr. Smith’s attention the way Grant and Dunne compete for ours. They are so captivating that without realizing it we willingly put ourselves in the position of a dog choosing between masters. McCarey’s doggie reaction shots aren’t too cute; Mr. Smith doesn’t cock his head or whine. He’s a sober audience conned by a little trick Lucy uses to make him love her more.
Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937, France)
Englishmen in drag singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” is not exactly what you’d expect in a French prisoner-of-war film, but this famous scene from Renoir’s Grand Illusion achieves a resolute toughness that explains its classic status. The film breathes where other prison-camp movies stifle.
The scene begins in full-on goofiness during a prisoners’ variety show. A tuxedoed prisoner named Cartier (Julien Carette), a music-hall comic in civilian life, leads a troupe of English officers dressed as showgirls. Their performance erases the difference between the prisoners and their German guards by reminding them of the world they’ve left behind for the Great War’s mud: the city life of women and music. As Cartier good-naturedly thumbs his nose at a guard, Renoir cuts to French prisoners Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) backstage reading a newspaper. Maréchal takes the stage: “Stop! Stop! We’ve retaken Douamont!”
One of the Englishmen removes his wig and requests that the band play the “Marseillaise.” He begins to sing in his lipstick and off-the-shoulder dress. The camera pans past the musicians, including a trumpet player who rolls his eyes upward like he’s trying to remember the song. Maréchal and Rosenthal, in black sweaters, look down toward the German guards. The camera follows, crossing a pillar to find the audience of prisoners on their feet, singing the anthem sternly but almost placidly. Unstructured, amateurish nonsense coalesces into meaning and beauty. The variety show’s foolishness doesn’t just stand in for the civilization the war leaves behind—it becomes its living proof.
Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939, USA)
In 1939 Shirley Temple, age 11, was tops at the box office. Glamorous stars like Greta Garbo were considered unwholesome. The year before, The Hollywood Reporter had declared her “box office poison.” But Garbo laughed in Ninotchka, and America went through a spell of adulthood that lasted until Gone with the Wind came out—about two months.
We meet Nina Ivanovna Yakushova (Garbo), special envoy from Moscow, on a Paris train platform. She wears a plain suit, a hat with the brim down, and men’s shoes. When a porter (George Davis) explains it’s his business to carry her bags, she tells him, “That’s no business. That’s social injustice.” Three comrades (Felix Bressart, Sig Ruman, and Alexander Granach) take her to her hotel room, passing a fancy hat shop in the lobby. She looks in the window: “What is that?” “A woman’s hat,” answers one of the Russians. “How can such a civilization survive which permits their women to put things like that on their heads? It won’t be long now, comrades,” she says, raising an eyebrow at the doomed frivolity of the capitalist West.
Lubitsch predicts the history of the Soviet Union in the story of this hat. Ninotchka shakes her head at it a second time before we meet it again as she takes it out of a locked drawer to wear on a date with a handsome Frenchman (Melvyn Douglas). This is the cinema’s lightest and sharpest appraisal of communism. Only Lubitsch would have the nonchalance to reject it, by the end of the film, for making an omelet fall.
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942, USA)
In the spring of 1942 when Orson Welles was in South America making It’s All True at RKO’s behest, the studio previewed The Magnificent Ambersons after a showing of The Fleet’s In, a musical comedy. Kids in the audience who had come to see Betty Hutton sing and dance hooted Welles’s bittersweet masterpiece and wrote they didn’t like it on preview cards. An RKO producer sent Welles a mewling telegram right away: “Never in all my experience in the industry have I taken so much punishment or suffered as I did at the Pomona preview.”
RKO removed over fifty minutes of Welles’s cut and threw away the negative. In Welles’s absence the producers demanded that editor Robert Wise and the Mercury unit shoot a couple of new scenes to patch up what was missing and tack them to the end of the film. The studio released The Magnificent Ambersons in July 1942 with a running time of eighty-eight minutes—there’s something insulting about that number, like a full ninety minutes wouldn’t have left enough room for Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost, the movie RKO tied to The Magnificent Ambersons in a double feature before they dumped it into theaters.
The butchering of The Magnificent Ambersons is indefensible, yet Welles critics have been making excuses for it for years. Significantly, it happened during wartime, when hysteria becomes internalized and can leach into anything. “There aren’t any times but new times,” says the automobile inventor Joseph Cotton plays in the film. Editing by preview card is still with us. This was its low point, the most final cut in film history.
The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944, USA)
It’s based on a novel that ends with the protagonist’s suicide, unacceptable to Hollywood in 1944, so Lang contrived to end The Woman in the Window in a dream instead.
Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), a professor of criminal psychology with a wife and two children, has a problem. After Wanley kills a man (Arthur Loft) in the apartment of a woman (Joan Bennett) he barely knows, he’s embroiled in a blackmail scheme from which he can’t escape. Desperate, this middle-class everyman drinks poison, then takes a seat next to a table holding photographs of his family. As he loses consciousness the phone on the table rings—it’s a call exonerating him. He doesn’t answer it. The clock behind him chimes. The camera dollies in for a closeup—Wanley is dead. Then a hand enters the frame and shakes his shoulder: “It’s 10:30, Professor Wanley.”
Wanley wakes up. He’s in his club, not at home. The camera pulls back. Without a cut Lang has changed the set and Wanley’s outfit. The glass in his hand is no longer poison but brandy. Wanley stands, finishes his drink, and exits. The people he meets on his way out—the hatcheck guy, the doorman—are the villains from his dream.
Lang acknowledged “it was only a dream” endings were old hat. Yet this well-executed ending adds something that would not have been there had Wanley killed himself. The dream ending is a negation that moves the film out the door and back into real life.
White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949, USA)
Before White Heat no gangster film had featured anybody like Cody Jarrett (James Cagney). The film is set in the prewar Warner Bros. tradition but takes place in a postwar world still reeling from Hitler and Hiroshima.
Walsh sets the scene quietly for Cody’s possibly epileptic prison breakdown. There is nothing wasteful here. The scene runs exactly three minutes. Three hundred convicts file silently into a mess hall under guard. A whistle blows. Cody sits and notices a new prisoner, a member of a gang that works the same territory he does, and under his breath he passes a question about his mother to him, down the line of cons sitting next to him until it reaches the new guy. The camera dollies across the men and back as they whisper the words “she’s dead” one after another until the news reaches Cody. We know Cody is neurotically dependent on his mother, but we can’t predict his reaction. He slams down his cup, stands on the table, slides himself across it and attacks the guards. They manage to subdue him and carry him out as he makes animal noises, the only sounds we hear as the other prisoners gape silently. Cagney didn’t tell Walsh what he was going to do in this scene, so the extras didn’t know either. Their stunned reaction mimics ours.
Cagney’s performance is not gratuitous. It is structured, formidable. That Cagney decided White Heat was what he should do after twenty years in movies is a testament to his originality.
Los Olvidados (Luis Buñuel, 1950, Mexico)
In 1929, after the Paris theater where it was booked refused to screen it, Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou became a succès de scandale. At showings of 1930’s L’Age d’or, Buñuel’s next film, angry Parisians threw ink at the screen and yelled “Death to the Jews!” at this film by a Catholic from Spain. A friend of Buñuel’s won a lottery, so in 1933, Buñuel made Las Hurdes, a documentary about a backward region of Spain promptly banned by the Spanish government. Buñuel left for Hollywood and New York, where he looked on as his erstwhile partner Dalí became a celebrity who resembled, according to Max Ernst, “those horrid jellies Americans eat for dessert.”
Frustrated, in 1945 Buñuel moved to Mexico. The reputations of his three films grew, but as far as anyone knew he was out of filmmaking. In Mexico he made a couple of low-budget genre films. One flopped, but one did okay and in 1950 Buñuel made Los Olvidados, a story of Mexico City street kids that synthesized Val Lewton horror and neorealism—it put the realism back in surrealism, mixing poverty and nightmares. One of the kids in it tosses a raw egg into the camera lens.
Buñuel had stayed true to his vision through bad jobs, short funds, and seventeen years of projects that never got off the ground. While Los Olvidados was met with protest in Mexico, it won two prizes at Cannes and allowed him to make twenty-six films over the next twenty-six years.
In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950, USA)
In a typical case of tone-deafness, studio publicity described the ending of In a Lonely Place when it came out as a “stunning surprise climax.” Only in Hollywood could somebody’s innocence be touted as shock. But if what they meant was that the climax was emotionally devastating, and that emotional devastation was unexpected in a studio film, they had a point. Inner conflict structures every scene in this film. By its end, everything, even the way Humphrey Bogart puts down a telephone receiver to make two black holes in the frame, adds to its heartache.
“Can’t you relax for a second?” Gloria Grahame’s Laurel asks Bogart’s Dixon Steele. He can’t. Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter, exists in the tension between creative work and real life. His fear of being misunderstood and punished for being right plagues him, makes him lash out, and poisons his relationships. We see it happen in wrenching closeups of Laurel’s face as she looks at him. In the film’s last scene, Ray keeps subtly emptying the frame until Dix and Laurel break up and disappear, he through an arch that leads to the street, she behind a door she closes.
It’s not just the end, but the film’s whole last half hour that wrecks you. Ray couples anger to tenderness. Dix beats up a guy, then deliver’s the film’s (maybe any film’s) most romantic lines. He describes a “good love scene” to the woman he loves even as she realizes she has to leave him.
1951: The first issue of Cahiers du cinéma
When book reviewers read in Colin McCabe’s biography of Jean-Luc Godard that Cahiers du cinéma was “the most significant cultural journal of the 20th century” they couldn’t wait to jump on him for laying it on so thick. What do they know? There is film criticism before Cahiers du cinéma and film criticism after it. Because of the tremendous impact of the Nouvelle vague, which sprang from its pages, there is visual culture (and the analysis of visual culture) before and after Cahiers du cinéma, too.
The magazine’s presiding figure was André Bazin, a tireless worker in the postwar French ciné-club movement who contributed to the Revue du cinéma and other journals. When the Revue’s editor died, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Bazin found financing and in April 1951 began publishing Cahiers in Paris. The magazine hired young writers from ciné-club newsletters, the habitués of the Cinémathèque Française who later formed the nucleus of the French New Wave—Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Luc Godard. They favored Rossellini and Hollywood genre movies over the “quality” films they saw stultifying French cinema.
Unlike film critics today, these writers did not complain that they were powerless. They defended the movies they loved and excoriated the ones they hated. For them film criticism was a confrontation, its goal to change how films were viewed and how they were made. The magazine’s polarizing “auteur theory” was attacked with the vehemence that heralds artistic breakthrough. By the decade’s end the group’s first films came out.
The Big Knife (Robert Aldrich, 1955, USA)
Rod Steiger, as magnetic as fellow Method-actor Marlon Brando, wasn’t handsome like Brando. In the 1950s he didn’t get leads in prestige pictures like Brando did. Bitter or not, in The Big Knife Steiger unleashed all the contempt he could muster for “profession: movie star.” As studio head Stanley Hoff he slides like an anaconda into the Bel-Air pad of star actor Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) and squeezes him to death.
Steiger, who was 31 when Aldrich filmed this Clifford Odets adaptation, plays an older man. He’s hardened with a Mabuse-like armor: sunglasses, hearing aid, black suit, white crew cut. The air fills with Hoff disparagement before he shows up. We’re told he’s crass, that he’s not one of the producers who make movies with “guts and meaning” like Stanley Kramer. By the time he arrives to blackmail Charlie into renewing his contract, talk like that has paradoxically won him our sympathy. Steiger’s great philistine totally dominates his two long scenes. Even cowering like a turtle before Charlie’s manliness he turns himself into an X that blots out everything. Then he explodes like a neutron bomb, leaving the set standing but obliterating the people.
“Who are you?” he howls at Charlie. “Some kind of special aristocracy because the female public wants to make love with you? I built the studio! I ripped it out of the world with my brains and my hands and who—are—you?” He exits exulting in himself like he’s holding a shell to his ear to catch echoes of his greatness.
Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959, USA)
The characters in Ride Lonesome cross the desert toward a dead tree that’s ghostlike, the destination of a bounty hunter named Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott). Brigade insists he’s taking the killer he has in custody to a town called Santa Cruz, then the tree appears. Boone (Pernell Roberts), an outlaw competing with Brigade for his captive, knows this tree, a “hang tree” with a “jury limb,” and so does Brigade. Night falls (an indigo day-for-night) and the men make camp near the tree with Mrs. Lane (Karen Steele), a young widow they’ve saved from marauding Apaches.
If Ride Lonesome is the best of the seven westerns Boetticher made with Scott, it has a lot to do with this night scene, a dark idyll before the film’s showdown. The tree looms in the background as the woman they’ve rescued crosses between the two men. While Boone stares at her, Brigade’s gaze is fixed on the dead tree, which Boetticher contrasts with the blonde’s shapely form. For Boone Mrs. Lane represents the possibility of a new life. For Brigade she embodies a past he’s come to avenge. And for both men the tree is a death they may not escape.
Nothing is wasted in the stripped-down clarity of Ride Lonesome’s eighty minutes. This is the apotheosis of the classical western, which ends with Boetticher. The hang tree burns in the film’s last shot, taking the genre with it.
Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960, France)
Images of trees define Franju’s black-and-white horror film, which is saying a lot considering a young woman’s face is surgically removed in it. Lit by the headlights of a car, trees emerge from the inky night like bioluminescent coral. During the day they are silhouettes against the cloudless late-autumn sky.
White trees are the first things we see in the film, and the last. A dead woman’s white legs remind us of them; they stick out from behind the shiny black raincoat of the woman (Alida Valli) dumping the corpse in the Seine. Cinematographer Eugen Shüfftan is careful to get the reflections of trees on the hood of the surgeon’s (Pierre Brasseur’s) sedan whenever he pulls up—black on black. At a funeral bare trees point above the crosses stuck in the ground. The surgeon and his assistant lure a young woman (Juliette Mayniel) to his suburban clinic by mentioning trees: “You’ll love it there, it’s surrounded by trees.” The film is matter-of-fact about everything, but the word starts to sound ominous: “I’ll show you your room, it looks out over . . . the trees.”
Franju and Shüfftan denature these trees. Without leaves they are skeletal, bodies without flesh. The sounds of nonmigratory birds and chained dogs barking dot the soundtrack like the trees line the picture. In Eyes Without a Face, the natural doesn’t exist anymore, but it hasn’t been replaced by anything.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Blake Edwards, 1961, USA)
The party in Holly Golightly’s (Audrey Hepburn’s) one-bedroom Manhattan apartment starts out slowly with Holly’s agent (Martin Balsam) telling stories about her to her new neighbor, Paul (George Peppard). Is she a fake phony or a real phony? It’s better to be a real phony. She’s a real phony, they decide. The place begins to get crowded. Somebody’s hat catches fire. Mag Wildwood (Dorothy Whitney), a loud model, shows up with a couple of rich guys (José Luis de Villalonga and Stanley Adams). Mag gets trashed and collapses. Nobody cares. When the booze runs out a delivery boy brings more. Oh yeah, lots of smoking. The mambo music is loud and the upstairs neighbor (Mickey Rooney, in an infamous performance) calls to complain. The phone is hard to get to—it’s in a closed suitcase. The place is wall-to-wall people, well dressed but not stiffs. You can’t move. People are making out in the shower. This is what people move to New York for and what they want out of a party once they’re there: proximity!
The party scene is slapstick relief after a lot of talking and setting up, which is what a party’s supposed to be. Edwards doesn’t cut it into pieces. It’s all easy, loping group shots following people from place to place. Before this scene, Paul was a writer-schnook-gigolo. Now he starts to seem decent. Not so Holly, who exits on the arm of a fat, giggling millionaire and directs the cops upstairs to her own apartment to shut the party down.
Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963, France)
Earlier in Contempt Fritz Lang (playing himself) asks translator Francesca Vanini (Giorgia Moll) the Italian word for “strange.” The word lingers over unhappy husband and wife Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) as they arrive at a movie theater where Paul, a writer, is meeting Lang and an American film producer (Jack Palance) to discuss their screen adaptation of The Odyssey.
They enter under a poster for Rome Adventure and leave under a marquee announcing Voyage in Italy. This is the transition scene between their stay at Cinecittà and their departure for Capri. Auditioning a girl singer to play a role in The Odyssey provides an excuse for the movie-theater setting. Italian pop blares as they take their seats across the aisle from each other, Camille next to Lang, Paul next to the producer. Francesca, translating their conversation, and a photographer taking flash pictures divide the space between them. The camera dollies back and forth as the singer dances across the stage mouthing the song’s lyrics out of sync in front of the movie screen. As the foursome talk the camera dollies across the aisle, too, but Godard cuts out the music so we can hear them speaking. It’s simple, but jarring in the way it’s “wrong.”
This veiled criticism of dubbed sound in Italian movies, along with Lang’s explanation of unity in Homer, mirrors the couple’s break. Everything is separation: between image and sound in dubbed movies, between mankind today and in The Odyssey, between wholeness and Godardian fragmentation, between integrity and corruption, between lovers drifting apart.
The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964, USA)
When Siegel made this adaptation-remake of Hemingway’s short story, Lee Marvin was starring on TV, but in movies he specialized in playing violent, sarcastic men for directors who valued his ability to smash people in the mouth. His understated acting style and silver-gray hair conferred intelligence and authority on the rash, amoral hoods he played. These contradictory impulses came together in Charlie Strom, a middle-aged hit man looking to answer a question, then cash out.
We first see Strom reflected in his associate hit man’s (Clu Gulager’s) sunglasses as the two men, both in shades and tailored suits, march into a school for the blind. The poised, angular Strom listens with his head up but cocked, an arched eyebrow, slit-like eyes. He looks like he’s staring with his lower teeth.
Small signals he makes control the film, directing the other characters so he doesn’t have to raise his voice. Seating himself across from Sheila (Angie Dickinson), an untrustworthy mob wife, he crosses his legs, removes his hat, shoots his cuffs and crosses his arms. “What do you want?” she asks. “The money,” he answers, giving the definitive interpretation of those two words but sounding like he’s ordering lunch.
We leave Strom clutching a briefcase, bleeding on a suburban lawn. Lee Marvin is the un-McQueen. Not handsome, unconcerned with the audience and therefore compelling, he is distant and takes things personally. He’s too smart to be monumental like other movie stars, but when he falls it’s like a world got killed.
The Patsy (Jerry Lewis, 1964, USA)
In the last half of The Patsy a team of showbiz handlers teaches a bellboy named Stanley (Jerry Lewis) a simple joke to tell onstage. The joke concerns a dog chasing a car who catches and buries it. Stanley rushes it backwards, yelling “I got a car that chases dogs!” “Slower!” instruct the handlers. He tries it slower: “I . . . got . . . a dog . . . that . . . ”
Later, at a try-out, Stanley offers, “Like, my dog chased a car a lot.” The handlers record another appearance at the nightclub and listen to the tape later. “Remember about my dog who was always chasing cars?” Stanley asks. “He finally caught one, a Mustang. And he buried it in the backyard.” No matter what, it doesn’t work. Stanley can’t grasp the rudiments of stand-up.
Why does the movie harp on this lame joke? The handlers train Stanley to replace a famous comedian who died as the film began. The dead comic, a version of Jerry Lewis, is like the car in the joke Stanley can’t tell: the handlers can’t bury the comedian any more than Stanley can get the dog to bury the car. Nor can Stanley lip-sync in the record act Lewis resurrects from earlier in his career. In the movies Lewis directed he struggled not to conform to playback, and his comedy is so exasperating it makes people watching it break things, the way his handlers drop cups and overturn bottles watching him in disbelief at his one-of-a-kind incompetence.
Masculine-Feminine (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966, France)
What untold depths will Miss 19 reveal to us now? Winner of a teen-magazine beauty contest, Elsa Leroy stands before Godard’s camera with her back to the light like her hands are nailed to the windowsill and answers offscreen questions about socialism and birth control in an unbroken take six-and-a-half minutes long. Often regarded as an indictment of plasticity or misogynist cruelty, Godard’s “interview with a Consumer Product” is one of the things that stops Masculine-Feminine from being the yé-yé movie some music buffs would prefer.
Miss 19 is nice to Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud), “a pollster for the IFOP.” She seems a little nervous but not defensive, and aware she’s being punked. She admits she doesn’t know much about politics. When she expresses admiration for American women, Paul cuts her off: “Does the word reactionary mean anything to you?” When he sees his questions about love are going nowhere he asks her if she can name a place where a war is going on. “No,” she laughs. “But I don’t care.”
We sense Paul asks Miss 19 questions he wishes he could ask Madeleine (Chantal Goya), the girl he loves. Earlier in the film he shouted “I want to live with you!” into a recording he never gave Madeleine. Over shots of Paris street life, Paul reflects on his work: “Polls quickly veer from their true goal, the observation of behavior, and instead insidiously go for value judgments.” His exposé of Miss 19 was as much about him as her.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966, Italy)
Tuco (Eli Wallach) and the man he calls Blondie (Clint Eastwood) pursue gold across the Texas desert in a stolen Confederate coach. Disguised in the gray uniforms of dead Rebels, they know the blue-clad Union Army is chasing a Confederate regiment across the same terrain. Tuco rouses the napping Blondie to tell him he’s spotted a cavalry platoon moving in their direction. “Blue or gray?” Blondie asks.
Tuco lifts the eye patch he’s wearing to get a better look. “They’re gray like us!” he shouts. “Hurrah for the Confederacy! God is with us because he hates the Yanks too!”
Blondie pushes back his hat and squints. “God’s not on our side because he hates idiots also,” he informs Tuco as the soldiers approach covered in the desert’s gray dust. They watch as the officer leading the troops beats the dust off his jacket with a pair of gloves, revealing his blue uniform underneath. By yelling about which side God was on, Tuco invalidated the special protection granted men who pursue their own goals during wartime. Cut to Blondie and Tuco chained in a prison camp.
The film insists there are two kinds of people in the world. Leone’s penchant for contrasting two kinds of shots, close-ups and long shots, finds its corollary in the gray or blue of the two kinds of soldiers who move toward Blondie and Tuco from afar. Leone turns gray soldiers blue in the simplest way possible. Movies were invented for ideas like that.
Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966, UK)
A simple idea motivates Truffaut’s credits sequence: reading is banned in the world of Fahrenheit 451, so the titles are spoken, not printed. We listen to the credits the way characters in the film receive the programs they watch on TV, and we see a series of photos like the picture-comics they look at instead of reading newspapers.
Truffaut brought more cinematic acumen to this minute-long sequence than many filmmakers deploy in an entire feature. Washed-out pastels overlay seventeen black-and-white stills of TV antennas as the camera zooms in on each. Offscreen, Alex Scott (who also plays one of the “book people”) announces the film’s title and the principals’ names in the clipped tones of British radio, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s ethereal score.
Truffaut turns the spoken credits from Sacha Guitry’s Story of a Cheat or The Magnificent Ambersons or Contempt into a kind of Hitchcockian intro reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, science-fiction dealing in memory. The sequence follows the film’s path: The first thirteen shots show suburban roofs cut off from nature, the last four set the houses among the trees; the film’s protagonist flees suburban emptiness by escaping to the wintry forest of the book people. Even before the credits, Herrmann’s music imparts a mystery and romance denied the turning globe of the Universal Studios logo-snipe in other Universal films. This is music of the spheres broadcast through a swirling aurora into homes only dimly aware of the cosmos.
Zontar the Thing from Venus (Larry Buchanan, 1966, USA)
Zontar, which endures as a thing of ridicule, started life as a remake of Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1956). AIP needed filler to complete a TV sales package and contracted Buchanan, a Texas filmmaker known for ambitious if substandard exploitation fare, to quickly remake several of its ’50s sci-fi monster movies in color and 16mm for about $30,000 each. Shown on late-night TV for years, the films are remembered by insomniacs as cheesy and boring. They’re also so much less than that.
If, as Godard said, “the definition of the human condition should be in the mise en scène itself,” then Zontar, which plays like an industrial documentary on Dallas living rooms and shopping centers, puts it there in negative. A dead-watch-battery miasma pervades the film, a three in the afternoon of the soul.
Much of the film consists of an embittered scientist (Anthony Houston) speaking into a radio wall-unit he’s installed behind a checkered sliding door in a closet in his den. That’s how he communicates with Zontar, a Venusian invader hiding in a nearby cave. We don’t hear Zontar respond, though, just static and a low hum. “Yes, it’s true,” the scientist says to Zontar with his back to the camera. “I am your only friend.” Whrr bzzz, replies Zontar.
The inadequacy of the film’s world seems normal and accurate, snapshots of the time as it was. In the end it’s a valid document of a place that did survive some kind of attack, but kept on going the same dull way, learning nothing.
The Rise of Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini, 1966, France)
Rossellini ends his examination of the Sun King’s rise with a three-minute shot following Louis (Jean-Marie Patte) through his bedroom as he removes the trappings of his power. The camera pans with the king as he crosses to a table in highwater pantaloons, black stockings, and gold shoes. He removes his black gloves, hat, wig, medallion, sash, and frilly jacket. By convincing the aristocracy to dress in this finery he has diverted its attention from the matters of state he now controls. By inventing a fashion he’s instituted a reign of what Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher calls “totalitarianism via consumerism.”
Alone in his room, he reads aloud from La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims: “There is a loftiness that does not depend on fortune. It is a certain air of superiority that seems to destine one for great things . . . This quality enables us to usurp other men’s deference and places us further above them than birth, rank, and merit itself.” He sits behind his desk and continues: “Neither the sun nor death can be faced steadily.” He puts the book down and repeats the last line. Fade to black.
The scene has a melancholy, even morbid finality; the quotation is an epitaph; the book is like a mirror. Louis has made himself like the sun and like death. He can’t be faced or challenged. Yet the scene isn’t exactly heavy. Rossellini’s moving camera keeps it lively even as he criticizes the kind of spectacle Louis uses to rule, the kind movies make of history.
Kill, Baby . . . Kill! (Mario Bava, 1966, Italy)
This gothic horror is genuinely forbidding. Bava’s vivid camerawork, with its emphatic zooms and vivid ’60s color, creates a shut-off atmosphere suited to the movie’s Carpathian town, a blighted place dominated by a ruined villa. The story spirals around the ghost of a little girl whose appearance, announced by a bouncing white ball, predicts the deaths of those who see her. The little girl is a manipulable symbol the villa’s baroness, her mother, uses to instill fear in the villagers who caused her daughter’s death.
Bava analyzes the way fear breeds violence. When the villagers see the little girl they become so afraid they commit suicide. Science enters this world in the form of a coroner (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) sent to perform an autopsy. His self-assured, enlightened attitude only increases the death toll. Lured into the villa, his psyche begins to crumble like everything around him.
Responding to a woman calling his name from offscreen, the coroner bursts into a room where a painting of the villa covers one wall. He runs through the room to another door and bursts through that one—back into the same room. He continues this circuit eight times, getting closer to himself with each pass, until he grabs the shoulder of a figure running ahead of him and spins him around to find he’s staring himself in the face. Bava does this through editing and pace, with two actors dressed alike. It’s utterly convincing, a reminder that cinema had all the tools it needed before computers.
Just for the Hell of It (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1968, USA)
Just for the Hell of It is a juvenile-delinquent shocker the director of Blood Feast slapped together in Florida the same year he made four other films. It is unconcerned with quality, but within its context of indifference its destructiveness is triumphant. The film is a blur of flailing. Long, desultory group fights filmed indifferently through a dirty lens alternate with scenes of absurd rampage where the cast puts a baby in a trash can or tears up magazines in a waiting room.
The violence begins before the credits. A prank at a house party triggers a dozen post-teenagers to break mirrors, rip up sofas with knives, smash tables and lamps, and chop a piano to bits. They smear the walls with red paint in this pseudo-happening that would shame an Action artist, and which predates the Manson murders by a year. The scene plays without music; Lewis fades out on it coldly.
Herschell Gordon Lewis was a literature professor who switched to advertising before making nudie and gore movies. Currently he’s a big shot in direct marketing who has said his fondest wish is to conduct a symphony orchestra. No filmmaker has insisted he is not an artist and that film is not an art like Lewis has. He says it in every interview; his films shout it in the streets, from Ozark mountaintops and from the top of Florida motel signs. Just for the Hell of It is cheap and ugly, but if it isn’t art, nothing is. Which is exactly Lewis’s point.
Les Biches (Claude Chabrol, 1968, France)
Scenes of people listening to records have a special quality. Maybe it’s because the black disc spins like a film reel. (Bowling is like that, too.) In Les Biches Chabrol makes that quality unnerving. The characters may want to hear the record they’re playing, but instead of enjoying it with them we watch and listen like the only person not drinking at their party.
By the time they ask the curiously named Why (Jacqueline Sassard) to put on a record, it’s already clear Frédérique (Stéphane Audran) and Paul (Jean-Louis Trintignant) have made her their servant. They ask her for things all the time: Get me a beer, Why, bring me the butter, pour me some cognac. The music she puts on is what they already have on their turntable, easy listening music for rich perverts, a cross between Poulenc and Les Baxter featuring a high-pitched, wordless vocal. As the three of them drink and fondle each other, the record gets stuck in a groove, and they ask Why to get up and fix it. The music follows them as they stagger to Frédérique’s bedroom, where Frédérique shuts the door on Why, who loved Paul first.
Les Biches, a clearing of the decks for Chabrol, ushered in six years of great filmmaking. Chabrol used it to push himself past the Nouvelle vague. Its ménage is Jules and Jim gone sour in 1968. In Les Biches, those who have are given more, while what little the homeless street artist Why has is taken away.
L’Amour fou (Jacques Rivette, 1969, France)
Rivette made three films in the 1960s, fewer than other major figures of the French New Wave. The third, L’Amour fou, came out in 1969 and can stand as an end-of-the-decade summation of the Nouvelle vague aesthetic in a time of confusion and change. It’s also the film in which Rivette’s previously murky aspirations as a filmmaker coalesced, revealing his true direction.
The film is recognizably New Wave, but in a broken way. Shot in black-and-white in 1967 and ’68, it takes place in Parisian cafés and apartments that belong to the mid-’60s more than the post-’68 world of Rivette’s later films. It seems to balance on the exact point between two eras, and serves as a record of the transition between them.
In L’Amour fou the relationship between a theater director, Sébastien (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), and his girlfriend, Claire (Bulle Ogier), disintegrates during rehearsals for his production of Racine’s Andromache, which are being recorded by a documentary film crew. The boundaries between life and art and film and theater are not the only ones broken down. In one amazing scene Sébastien and Claire prove you can spend the whole day in bed and methodically destroy your apartment at the same time.
A stark shot of two folding chairs on the play’s white stage goes out of focus and then back in, breaking this four-and-a-quarter hour film in half. Somehow the film is anchored by these two empty chairs, which represent Sébastien and Claire and seem lost and otherworldly in their absence.
Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood) (Mario Bava, 1971, Italy)
American slasher movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th imitated this bloody thriller set around a bay, the first film of its kind. Bava’s European original includes youthful characters killed in the woods, but its interest lies elsewhere, and its multiple victims come from several classes and age groups. Two of them, Renata (Claudine Auger) and Albert (Luigi Pistilli), tow their young children (Renato Cestiè and Nicoletta Elmi) to the bay in pursuit of an inheritance.
Today mechanical plot twists and pointless reversals pad the last reels of thrillers long after they’ve meaningfully ended. Bava’s shock ending, however, is an exclamation point that throws the whole film into relief. As the murderous couple Renata and Albert smile and hug, congratulating each other for achieving their goal (“It’s the least I could do for my family,” says Albert), Bava’s camera zooms out and a double-barreled shotgun enters the frame from the right. Blam blam.
Cut to their 8-year-old holding the shotgun, his younger sister beside him. “They’re good at playing dead,” she observes, then the children skip off like they’re in a soap commercial as a happy chorus of yeah-yeahs fills the soundtrack.
“Children should stay with their parents,” Albert told Renata before they left them alone in their camper. A shot of the kids breaking a ceramic head links them to the film’s mayhem, then Bava deserts them, too, and we worry about them. Where are they? Are they in danger? This Weekend–like movie’s harsh ending somehow recalls the sunny domestic horror that finishes Varda’s Le Bonheur. It’s just as radical and surprising.
Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1971, USA)
Always described as Elia Kazan’s wife who played the wild sister in Splendor in the Grass, Barbara Loden should be remembered as the director of Wanda. This bleak film follows a lower-class woman named Wanda Goransky (Loden) through a series of numbing encounters in narrow bars serving quarter beers, downtown hotels where the sink is next to the bed, and all-night restaurants where people eat spaghetti while smoking. The film hurts. Its plodding grimness reduces life to getting money and eating.
Shot by a documentary cameraman in 16mm color in Pennsylvania coalfields and in Waterbury, Connecticut, Wanda has the brute intensity of Harlan County U.S.A. Wanda is disconnected. She loses her family in divorce court and can’t hold a job. After she’s pickpocketed in a movie theater she wanders into a bar during a robbery and leaves with the thief, a Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), who calls her “Hey, stupid” and slaps her in the face.
Subsumed by the broken people they’re playing, Loden and Higgins don’t appear to be acting any more than the non-professionals in the film’s other roles. Wanda tells Mr. Dennis she’s never had anything and never will. “You don’t have anything, you’re nothing,” he explains. “You’re not even a citizen of the United States.” Then he gets on the roof of his car with a bottle of bourbon and swipes at radio-controlled airplanes like King Kong. Loden deglamorizes his bank robbery scheme into a series of pathetic incidents, denying her heroine a movie ending.
The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972, USA)
The restaurant scene opens with a shot of a waiter’s finger tapping a live lobster on a plate, prodding it to show it’s alive before it’s boiled and served. Elaine May does the same thing to the couple about to eat it, Lennie (Charles Grodin) and Lila (Jeannie Berlin), newlyweds from New York honeymooning in Miami Beach. Lila is unaware Lennie wants to dump her for Kelly (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde co-ed from the Midwest he met on the beach while Lila recovered from a sunburn in their hotel room. Lennie is determined to tell Lila their marriage is over, to finish the meal with a piece of the restaurant’s famous “Florida pecan pie” and no hard feelings, and get to Minnesota to claim Kelly.
This may be the only scene in an American comedy that really qualifies as brutally funny; it’s like a punch in the stomach. Lila’s humiliation, as unbearable as it is, is worsened by our perception of her as a slob whose abandonment is inevitable, and by Grodin’s feigned deflective ire at a waiter (Erik Lee Preminger) who tells him the restaurant is out of pie. This is screwball comedy without redemption, an underdog comedy where the underdog is a jerk.
Neil Simon’s screenplay, from a Bruce Jay Friedman story, must be given credit along with May’s direction and the film’s priceless performances, including Eddie Albert’s as Kelly’s father, a man who (in another dinner scene) doesn’t buy Lennie’s talk of beef that doesn’t lie, sincere potatoes, and undeceitful cauliflower.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972, France)
Triggered by minor annoyances, the dreams and memories of civil servants invade the lives of Buñuel’s upper-class characters whenever they sit down to eat. Bloody anecdotes, related by the people who maintain order in their world, animate their unease.
Simone (Delphine Seyrig), her sister Florence (Bulle Ogier), and their friend Alice (Stéphane Audran) go to a café for tea. Florence, annoyed by the presence of a cellist, makes Simone change seats with her so she won’t have to look at him. As Alice notices a soldier (Gerald Robard) staring at them, a waiter (Bernard Musson) arrives with news the café is out of tea. They switch their order to coffee with milk. The soldier joins them. He relates a macabre story, which we see in a flashback: as a child his dead parents appeared to him and convinced him to murder his stepfather with poisoned milk. The waiter returns. The café is also out of coffee—and milk.
Florence, who is single and seems to prefer alcohol to sex, can’t stand to look at a cello. Alice, whom we’ve seen cavorting in the bushes of her estate, is the first to notice the soldier. Simone, off to an assignation, allows him to hold the door for her as she leaves. Yet the soldier’s confession makes less of an impression on them than the café’s lack of tea and coffee. Protected by haute couture and polite smiles, these unflappable women have an uncanny ability to ignore the poetic. Eventually it opens fire.
F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1974, France)
“That’s her real name, you know. Oja. Oja Kodar.” Welles pronounces these syllables like they’re hard facts. Why? We already know his costar’s name. But it isn’t her real name. He doesn’t tell us it’s a name he gave her long before they made F for Fake. Welles uses her name to introduce a confession: Everything he said in the film’s last seventeen minutes was a lie. “My job,” he says, “was to try to make it real.”
“Not that reality had anything to do with it.” He utters these words over a shot of a man we know as Oja’s grandfather. More precisely, over a shot of her grandfather’s legs floating in the air over a grassy field, the rest of his body out of frame. “Reality?” asks Welles. “It’s the toothbrush waiting at home for you in its glass. A bus ticket, a paycheck, and the grave.”
The grandfather winks and nods at Welles on the word “paycheck” as Welles passes his black cloak over the levitating old man like he’s dead. The grandfather, Welles reveals, never existed. He was a fiction, too, an actor. The old man disappears in mid-air; before he’s gone we just glimpse a chicken-wire figure under the sheet where the grandfather was supposed to be.
Did Welles write those marvelous lines about reality himself? He must have. Yet after seeing F for Fake who would be surprised to pick up a book someday and find them there? And would it make any difference?
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976, USA)
If you pay them off you’ll lose some more; if you build it they will come to take it. This lesson, learned at the hands of gangsters, sinks in for strip-club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) as he returns, bleeding, to his cabaret. Why try at all? When Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts), the club’s bedraggled emcee, begins his goodnight version of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” Cassavetes provides an answer.
Instead of violence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie ends with a musical number. Mr. Sophistication throws fake money into an audience that’s shouting “take it off!” at the half-naked De-Lovelies on stage. He snappishly changes the song’s lyrics to reflect petty demands: “Happiness, great success / All the things you always whined for.” As his song grows triumphant, he exclaims “Love, love, love—hot love!”
Then one of the De-Lovelies (Haji) needles him by lighting a novelty explosive on his shoulder. He sighs and heads backstage, where a hand is extended in comfort or congratulation; his singing resumes over the end credits. Sometimes the message of love (hot love!) can come delivered by a pissed-off little fat man in sweaty whiteface. We leave Cosmo bleeding on the sidewalk, hurt but on his feet. His bullet hole rhymes with Mr. Sophistication’s shoulder explosion. In Mr. Sophistication, Meade Roberts, a screenwriter Cassavetes tapped to act, created an unforgettable figure. He is the humiliated professor of The Blue Angel on stage with ex-ultravixens, consigned to awkward grandeur in LA.
On Top of the Whale (Raoul Ruiz, 1982, Netherlands)
The polyglot cast of On Top of the Whale delivers its lines like they learned them phonetically. They speak six European languages and one made-up for the two surviving members of an indigenous Patagonian tribe (Luis Mora and Ernie Navarro). Beginning in a near-future Netherlands Soviet Republic, the film follows an anthropologist (Jean Badin) and his family to a house in Tierra del Fuego (actually Holland), which cinematographer Henri Alekan photographs like a landscape in Murnau. By the end of this “film about survival” it’s unclear whether Ruiz meant the survival of Indians facing extinction or Europeans who betray their own past.
The Indians believe “one is an even number” and speak a language of sixty words whose meanings vary with inflection and change daily. At first the anthropologist is excited to be studying these men, but his enthusiasm wanes as they repeat the same word to him whether they’re shown binoculars or a tape recorder. Isolated in this lonely spot where the Indians bury mirrors, the family loses itself in “metaphoric images” of Lacanian psychoanalysis becoming a religion.
In this moody, hilarious film’s last scene the anthropologist approaches the two Indians in long shot as they back across a gully. They sit opposite each other talking about the future, Ruiz cutting between them in a shot-reverse shot. When the anthropologist gets up to leave, Ruiz cuts back to the long shot and we remember how far apart they are. The strange effect of this simple, unexpected cut reverberates as the scene fades and the film ends.
The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1983, USA)
Pretending he’s scheduled a working weekend, Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an amateur comic desperate for fame, takes Rita (Diahnne Abbott), a girl he knew in high school, to the home of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). The nighttime talk-show host is Rupert’s idol; Rupert is his stalker. Langford has definitely not invited him over.
Rupert’s hostile disregard for other people pours out in this scene, aggravated by joking and wheedling. His refusal to acknowledge the gap between his own life and what he knows from TV humiliates Rita, infuriates Langford, and unnerves Langford’s butler, Jonno (Kim Chan). Rupert makes it worse by using Rita as a shield. When she insists they leave, he begs Langford to correct her: “She’s a girl who works in a bar. Tell her she’s wrong, Jerry, please.”
Langford’s patience reaches its limit when Rupert admits he’s made a mistake. “So did Hitler!” Langford yells back, golf club in hand. Rupert, flinchy and petulant, rears back, making even more of a spectacle of himself. “I’m going to be fifty times more famous than you!” he yells at Langford, confusing talent with fame.
There’s something epic in the confrontation between Robert De Niro and Jerry Lewis. The modern sculptures it takes place around lend it a Greek quality. Langford, dressed in shorts and sneakers, is stoic and regal. Rupert, with his little mustache and two-toned shoes, is a jester heralding a new regime of shamelessness. Rita’s peach chiffon dress and Jonno’s white coat further isolate Rupert in this living room where there’s no TV.
Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984, USA)
Jarmusch’s mournful examination of emptiness renews a longing for emptiness in a world stuffed with crap. Stranger Than Paradise captures what in retrospect turned out to be a last moment of unbranded American reality. It was the end of the non-branded American film, too, and arrived just before Sundance-ification engulfed non-studio filmmaking in the USA. Jarmusch looked at the world and noticed there was nothing instead of something. Today we wonder why there’s everything instead of nothing.
The Lake Erie scene comes near the end of the film’s second third. The shady hipsters Willie (John Lurie) and Eddie (Richard Edson) leave New York to visit Willie’s teenage cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) in dead-of-winter Cleveland. When Eva, newly arrived from Hungary, told Eddie back in New York she’d come to America to move there, he assured her she’d love Cleveland, a beautiful city with a big beautiful lake. “Have you been there?” she asked. “No,” he answered.
The film’s black-and-white Cleveland is a dead-end America of train tracks and old-man bars, the hot dog stand where Eva works, the interior of a movie theater showing a kung-fu flick to practically no one, not much different from the trio’s New York. Eva takes Willie and Eddie to see the big lake. The three of them stand there with their backs to the camera. It holds on these black figures shivering in hats and coats, whipped by the snow and wind. The lake is a white void, a blank, the horizon erased. “It’s not always frozen,” says Eva.
They Live (John Carpenter, 1988, USA)
John Carpenter emerged from the same California milieu in the 1970s as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. He has worked in the same Hollywood as they have, in the same genres, but in many ways he is the anti-Spielberg and the anti-Lucas. They Live is the most extreme example of this. It criticizes not only spectacular entertainment but commercial image-making in general. That it does this in a cheap, blunt sci-fi flick starring a professional wrestler is nothing to sneeze at. Here Carpenter reveals himself as an enemy of what one of this film’s villains calls “our ongoing quest for multi-dimensional expansion.”
They Live addresses what another character in it calls “the annihilation of consciousness.” Carpenter means class consciousness, too. Roddy Piper plays an out-of-work construction worker who finds sunglasses that expose what billboards, magazines, and product labels really say—OBEY; MARRY AND REPRODUCE; CONSUME; WATCH TV—and what the overlords who put them there really look like (they look like metal skulls wearing toupees).
When Piper wears the sunglasses, he sees the OBEY world in black-and-white. Carpenter cuts between two ordinary views, one in color and filled with signs, the other in black-and-white and also filled with signs. He keeps them separate and makes no attempt to optically integrate them. This radical simplicity is meat-and-potatoes semiotics as arresting as anything in Cronenberg. After seeing They Live it will be hard to forget what it says on the black-and-white dollar bill: THIS IS YOUR GOD.
Anjaam (Rahul Rawail, 1994, India)
This Hindi stalker musical proceeds through the usual melodrama and songs, but what it builds toward in its first two hours is the violent, almost unimaginable revenge tragedy of its third. Madhuri Dixit, as Anjaam’s heroine, Shivani, loses the child she’s carrying after she’s beaten by the warden of the prison where she’s incarcerated on false charges. From then on she becomes Charles Bronson trapped in a movie by Mario Bava. Against a backdrop of rain and fire and a relentless song that’s sung onscreen by her cellmate, Shivani sets out to avenge every wrong ever done to her.
Dressed in either all white or all black, she hangs the warden, bites the veins from her brother-in-law’s wrist, kills a rapist cop in a graveyard, and goes after her now-wheelchair-bound stalker (Shah Rukh Khan) with a scythe. When she realizes she can’t bring herself to kill a quadriplegic, she decides to rehabilitate him by bouncing a ball off his head, doing a love dance as he stares on helplessly, and pushing him into a swimming pool, chair and all. I don’t know if any of Rawail’s other movies reach the frenzied pitch of Anjaam. Maybe Dixit’s possessed pulchritude sent him to a frightening, dizzying height he’s never known before and hasn’t since.
La Cérémonie (Claude Chabrol, 1995, France)
Something telling, something vital to the film, happens in La Cérémonie’s first few seconds. But it’s the kind of fleeting moment that doesn’t register, and can’t register, until the film is over. By then it will probably have been forgotten.
A woman (Sandrine Bonnaire), a tiny figure seen in long shot, stops in front of a bar, looks at the door, and turn to ask a passerby for directions. He points across the street. The woman proceeds in that direction and enters a café, where another woman (Jacqueline Bisset) is waiting for her. We’ve been watching this scene from inside the café, from the second woman’s point of view. Our point of view is hers. It’s a viewpoint La Cérémonie will come to indict. But that’s not the telling detail.
The woman in the café is Catherine Lelièvre, a bourgeois housewife and art-gallery owner waiting to interview Sophie Bonhomme for the position of housekeeper. Catherine is friendly, Sophie all business, but the two women, dressed professionally, seem on equal footing. The plot of this thriller hinges on the consequences of Sophie’s illiteracy. She had to ask directions because she couldn’t read the signs: she couldn’t tell the bar from the café.
Chabrol undermines the concept of “the reveal” by getting it out of the way before he does anything else. It’s the first sneaky move in a subtly radical film.
I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron, 1996, USA)
In this compelling portrait of Warhol’s would-be assassin, Lili Taylor plays Valerie Solanas, author of the SCUM Manifesto, like she’s a newsboy from a ’30s movie looking for someone to talk to. With her choppy haircut and black cap, looking sideways and smoking, she hangs around a New York newsstand and hustles “finks.” That’s how she meets her publisher, Maurice Girodias of the Olympia Press (Lothaire Bluteau). “Give me fifteen cents and I’ll give you a dirty word,” she tells him. “What’s the word?” he asks. “Men,” she says. Girodias promptly offers to buy her a drink.
Taylor’s voice prevails over the tragedy of Solanas’s life. Harron wisely allows her to recite passages from the Manifesto in black-and-white monologues meant to evoke Warhol screen tests. No matter how nutty Valerie’s ideas, Taylor’s delivery lends them credence.
Her voice cuts through the complacency of Warhol’s entourage. Her asides are memorable. “An exquisite mosaic!” she remarks to a john showing her the scabs on his chest made by high heels.
After Valerie dolls herself up in a red dress to sign a book contract with Girodias over dinner (the film’s most affecting scene), she begins to unravel. She doubts herself and reverts to the angry student who answered a letter about corsages for her college newspaper by scrawling FUCK YOU on it.
“All I know is I want a piece of the groovy world myself.” She never gets one. “Where do you live?” a cop asks her after her arrest. “Nowhere,” she answers.
Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997, Iran)
A man (Homayoun Ershadi) drives around the slag-heap outskirts of Tehran in a Range Rover propositioning laborers and soldiers. He wants to pay someone to check on him after a suicide attempt to make sure he’s dead, then fill his grave with dirt. The man, Mr. Badii, never divulges his reason but finds someone to accept his offer, a taxidermist (Abdolhossein Bagheri) who understands melancholy and knows that “what you get is a matter of luck. Birds don’t fall into the net to make you happy.”
As Taste of Cherry ends, Badii swallows sleeping pills and lies down in the hole he’s dug to await his death. It is night. Thunder rumbles in the distance. A couple of lightning flashes illuminate Badii in medium close-up, but the screen is otherwise black. We hear rain falling. It appears the film is done.
It isn’t. Kiarostami fades in to video footage of soldiers marching up a hill in long shot, accompanied by a Louis Armstrong recording of “St. James Infirmary” (no vocals). He cuts to scenes of the crew at work, including Ershadi, who smokes and offers Kiarostami a cigarette. This unexpected break in the narrative deepens the film’s ambiguous ending and makes it more powerful. There is no definitive explanation for why it’s there. It is several things at once: a scene of mournful tranquility, contemplation of the happiness of being alive, relief from the film’s tension, rejection of sentimentality, a scene of rebirth, and an invitation to leave the theater.
American Job (Chris Smith, 1997, USA)
Chris Smith made his debut film in the Midwest for $14,000 with writer Randy Russell playing a version of himself, a guy drifting in a perpetual fog of lousy minimum-wage jobs. The gangly, bespectacled Russell looks like Kevin, the nerdy stock clerk from Repo Man, but his performance is self-effacing, not unctuous. American Job was barely released and got little support from critics. Shot in 16mm in the fading colors of a Wisconsin autumn, it’s a real achievement in independent filmmaking, socially conscious, formally daring, and unpretentious.
The film moves steadily among low-paying jobs where conversations with co-workers mostly turn to what you’d do if you won the lottery. Russell starts the film as a lever puller in a factory, ends up as a telemarketer, and in-between tries washing dishes in a chicken joint, housekeeping in a motel, and third-shift warehouse inventory. Private time is almost nil. At one job, Russell’s lunch is a slice of meat wolfed down in a men’s room he’s supposed to be cleaning.
Non-professional actors make up the rest of the cast, picked because they had experience as hourlies or managers in the film’s workplace settings. Uniformly excellent, they help Smith blur the line between shambling indie and vérité documentary, crafting a low-key tragicomedy that’s like a working-class Office Space with less hope and no plot. At the chicken place they hose down the day-old rolls before they throw them out. It’s a fitting image for the forgotten level of American life the film explores.
The Last Big Thing (Dan Zukovic, 1998, USA)
Shot in 1995 but unreleased until 1998, The Last Big Thing follows alienated anti-hipster Simon Geist (Dan Zukovic) as he drives his purposefully damaged car to fake interviews for a nonexistent magazine called The Next Big Thing.
Geist has an agenda. His dedication to exposing the “L.A. fame need” infecting his city attracts the attention of an unhappy trust-funder named Darla (Susan Heimbinder). The two move into a “personality-less, non-individualistic” house near the desert, where they drink beer in their backyard over the Los Angeles Times and plot Geist’s forays into town. In their spare time they bark monosyllables at a nightclub comic or sit in a movie theater glowering at blockbusters. As Geist’s aphoristic confrontations begin to backfire, he becomes increasingly megalomaniacal. Soon a crisis is upon him—he’s asked to direct a music video.
Few satires really blister; this one does. Geist’s clipped, controlled rants, often delivered into a tape recorder as he drives, are incisive monologues filled with unrivaled hatred for the vacuous. Punctuated by fender benders and the whine of car alarms, Geist’s indictment of a “culture finally going down on itself” where “all meaning has been neutered” and “all mediums are pointless” is an analog yawp of despair poised on a digital abyss. Heimbinder’s red-haired Darla, in her olive-drab jumpsuit, drags the pop-culture detritus of a loveless world heroically behind her. The two of them are strangely resilient, and so is the film, a gem from an era of manufactured cult items.
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999, UK)
When it was released its mere existence was an affront to the audience and, therefore, in those days when Americans weren’t supposed to stop cheering the Dow, to the pocketbook of Warner Bros., the studio that paid for it. Bad for business, it was bad, period. Eyes Wide Shut has survived the opprobrium of the bubble era that was a sign of its distinction. It’s a reminder of that dumbed-down audience, eager to congratulate itself for being bored.
It was a knockout in the first round. Kubrick’s fluid camerawork lulled them. The modulated performances of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman seemed to waste the stars of Days of Thunder. The film’s evocation of Christmastime New York as a lonely city of sexual conspirators seemed fake in a world of yet-to-be-indicted CEOs. When Eyes Wide Shut was released on over 2,400 screens in the summer of 1999 it was guaranteed to tank, almost as if a major studio had wanted to prove it could kill the auteur film for good and make it look like a marketing accident. Was it meant as a sacrifice, like the one the drug-addicted girl makes for Bill Harford at the orgy?
LUCKY TO BE ALIVE reads a newspaper headline in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick died four months before it came out.
Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001, USA)
If The Matrix’s “welcome to the desert of the real” ended the 1990s, Tom Cruise’s plunge from a New York skyscraper began the 21st century with a hyperreal splat. Released three months after the Twin Towers fell, Vanilla Sky is both the last pre–September 11 and the first post–September 11 Hollywood movie. It posits a world where the disfigurement of Cruise’s face is a global catastrophe and his coming to consciousness is an act of lifesaving suicide. “Things are very different now,” as tech-support avatar Edmund Ventura (Noah Taylor) tells Cruise’s narcissist publisher David Aames. “Forgive me, I’m blowing your mind.”
Crowe’s baby-boomer fantasy tinkles with notions like a jostled perfume counter. By the film’s end, when Aames ascends in an elevator with Ventura like he’s Lon Chaney starring in The Fountainhead, the viewer is prepared to have his mind blown in the worst way. After a bittersweet parting with Penelope Cruz as love-object Sofia (“wisdom”) Serrano (“mountain”), a woman who lives every moment to the fullest even though she’s dead, Aames jumps from the roof and plummets through the Monet-inspired CGI clouds into the canyon of Manhattan.
While comparison to Wile E. Coyote is as apt as to the victims of September 11, Ventura describes this (everything in Vanilla Sky is described by its characters at least four times) as “a brilliant journey of self-awakening.” A montage of rock-era imagery accompanies Aames as he descends like one of the parade balloons we’d seen pass his apartment window, only this time made of lead.
Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma, 2002, France)
There is a picture book called Movie Stars in Bathtubs, but there aren’t enough movies with movie stars in bathtubs. De Palma’s Femme Fatale, which stars Rebecca Romijn, does much to correct that.
Romijn plays Laure Ash, a jewel thief thrown from a hotel balcony by her accomplices. When the parents of a missing girl named Lily find Laure unconscious on the hotel floor they whisk her home and put her to bed in their daughter’s room. In a typical De Palma touch, Laure is a blonde disguised as a brunette, making her Lily’s double. (Romijn plays her, too.) Laure awakens, sees Lily’s photograph, and realizes she can use her lookalike’s passport to escape the men she’s double-crossed. Before she leaves she decides to take a bath.
Laure’s bath frames at least half the film’s action. Drinking tequila and smoking, Laure drifts off as the tub begins to overflow. Thunder strikes outside, waking her up (again) as Lily returns, loads a gun, and puts it to her head to commit suicide. A fish tank overflows as Lily pulls the trigger. Now Laure can take Lily’s place for good.
De Palma brings a lifetime’s contemplation of cinematic trickery to this, his most abstract and satisfying thriller. When Laure is thrown from a bridge into the Seine she finds herself suddenly without her clothes and awakens in the overflowing bathtub again. Again Lily returns and puts a gun to her head, and for once De Palma denies himself a victim.
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