Oren Moverman, who appears as a visitor to the theater in Vanya on 42nd Street, is the cowriter and director of the 2010 Oscar-nominated The Messenger. He served as a screenwriter on I’m Not There, Married Life, and Jesus’ Son, among other movies. His new film, Rampart, cowritten with novelist James Ellroy, opened on February 10, 2012.
Like any top ten list in any discipline by anyone privileged enough to be asked to catalog his professional indulgences for public viewing, the following list is deeply meaningful and truly meaningless. The films listed below (in no particular order) seemed at one point or another to be more important to me than life, more consequential than anything happening outside the theater, more instructive than any parent. Years later, on second, third, and fourth viewings, these films read to me like romanticized lost and refound treasures, frozen in time flawlessly, inspiring, passionate, betraying renewed enthusiasm with every click of Play, while our own days and months in the “real” world, outside the frame, tick-tock away mercilessly. These films do not keep time, they are laughing at us; they go on, we don’t—how many more screenings do we have left?
Ten seems like an awkward number, stretching from the biblical fairy tale of the commandments to a sadly modern concept of indexing winners and losers. A brave man would reject the number ten; I am not that man, although I did list eleven. I can honestly say that the Criterion Collection contains many of my favorite films, many of the films that opened my eyes to the world at large and the possibilities of filmmaking. I offer only fragments of personal memories; to me, nothing academic is ever at the root of love of movies—it’s all sentiment and, now more than ever, sentimental . . .
The permutations of cinema. The associative editing. The mind of a movie director. Marcello of the 1960s: perfection. Nino Rota round and round. Surrealism as a map to the creative process. The overproduced fog in which the mind goes away and being begins. The great death of consciousness experienced in a world of pure fiction. Artifice as truth, truth as lies, lies as cinema, women as mystery, oneiric filmmaking and artistic onanism. Pure pleasure. Spirits lift, the eye marvels . . .
Those magnificent noir close-ups of total strangers never to be seen again. The seedy days of occupation postwar. The chiaroscuro idealism of saving yourself by killing your friends. Harry Lime asking us to grow up. The sewer system sequence. The zither plucking away, oh, that zither, what a score! Joseph Cotton. Selznick as producer? Thriller is character. Character is plot. Plot is a game. Games matter. Extreme camera angles. Deception is filmmaking; learning to love the deception.
Karina sings. Karina dances. Karina as the non-Karenina. The epic, kaleidoscopic odyssey. Fucking with sound. Fucking with cinema language. Fucking period. Hollywood genre soup via French countryside. Radical widescreen color exploration. Breaking rules, breaking the fourth wall, breathing cinema. Sam Fuller. JLG, the director, is but a former critic, the critics are formally challenged, the challenge is to feel, the feeling is personal. Pop culture lives . . . North London repertory cinema with the woman I love. A washed-out print. Heaven. Discovery. Frustration.
Renoir, the great humanist with Marx Brothers flourishes. Jean Gabin. War as a struggle between ruling classes at the expense of the people; love as the mechanics of survival. “Out there children play at being soldiers, in here soldiers play like children.” A great war movie, anti-war, with the war out of sight, anti-sight, all heart. Von Stroheim is the sight to behold. The use of the offscreen. Man’s desire to escape, the camera’s desire to move. Film seminar, Brooklyn College.
Bleecker Street Cinema, early eighties, I winced at the climax (well, the movie’s climax, not the characters’, which are plentiful). Chekhovian hard-ons as a country marches to war. The end of masculinity. Pornography slowed down to find cinematic expressions for the language of human needs. The egg—make like a chicken! The Japanese theater of sex. The universal power of love—deadly. Decadence. Laughing at the wrong moment of dismemberment. My mind is blown. Is there nothing the screen can’t hold? The goal of art is not to be great but to be daring. Sometimes it’s both.
Robert Altman! Need I say more? Upper East Side theater with the woman I love.
Subversive Americana. Learning to laugh. The writer is the director; the director is the writer; the concept of the Hollywood writer/director is fetishized. Paris theater, Tel Aviv, Saturday afternoon—the Sabbath—double feature while the city naps. Crying when Joel McRea watches his own comedy in jail, learning to get out of my head . . . Barbara Stanwyck is more than one woman, falling for her again and again, Fonda on the ship . . . The snake. Veronica Lake is nameless—just “The Girl” (look it up).
Taking reality to levels of poetry that humble the viewer. Men blindsided by life, breaking your heart. Humanistic zooms. Compassionate handheld camera. The “greatest story ever told” no longer selling, no longer telling. End of an era, end of door-to-door, end of community, end of American dream, end of plot. The beginning of the future of cinema. Again. Working as a PA for the Maysleses, watching every film they made, discovering the cinematographer is sometimes the scene.
The glory of story entertainment. TohoScope. Mifune, a screen god, as a general—the greatest of movie stars! A Japanese Hollywood action film in the best sense of the term. Perspecta sound. Kurosawa’s painter’s eye. Absurdist comedy. The spear fight between Mifune and a rival general. Fierce compositions. Fierce atmosphere. Fierce control of every element but our feelings. All for a princess. Adrenaline. The old Tel Aviv cinematheque in the Lottery building . . .
Go Schpatzeering. Peter Falk. Longing for Chaplin. German romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, other isms. Learning to listen. Pastiche a la Radio Free Europe. Sound layering perfection. Bruno Ganz. Henri Alekan. Color is human, black and white divine. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. “From Her to Eternity.” Solveig Dommartin’s first movie role. Her tragic beauty, now gone. . . Aching to fly. Ponytails from heaven. Emotional overdrive in Berlin, of all places. “When the child was a child.” Central Tel Aviv cinema with the woman I’ll marry and always love.