Zéro de conduite
It is easy to see how this previously banned surrealist/Dadaist masterpiece influenced so many filmmakers to come. Jean Vigo’s use of physical comedy and the slightly provocative nature of the film’s subject matter work together to create a generally outré atmosphere that at times borders on the chaotic. It makes for a mesmerizing watch. Without Zéro de conduite, it’s hard to imagine a 400 Blows or If….
The Scarlet Empress
Josef von Sternberg
I sometimes hear films described as “Lynchian,” which, I take it, means that they deal with a certain space between light and darkness (or perhaps it’s just a more sophisticated way of saying that something is flat-out creepy). The Scarlet Empress is David Lynch for 1934 . . . and by that I mean that the lighting design is crucial. I love the scene where the freaky Grand Duke Peter (whom I recognized as the crotchety book salesman from my childhood favorite—the ever-so-slightly psychedelically tinged—Bedknobs and Broomsticks) emerges from the shadows to meet his new bride, the Princess Sophia Frederica (played by Marlene Dietrich) for the first time.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
In the recent documentary Gerhard Richter Painting, the painter speaks at length about being a young artist emerging in post–World War II Germany. He says that he always considered painting to be nothing more than a trade that one dedicates oneself to day after day. Working is, above all, very respectable. Perhaps this attitude can be attributed to the fact that postwar Germans were faced with the arduous (but perhaps liberating) task of writing a new history for themselves—trying to come to terms with the past while simultaneously looking toward the future and the endless possibilities therein. With such daunting business at hand, a workhorse spirit would be a must for all German artists. Fassbinder most definitely had that spirit, leaving behind forty feature-length films and playing countless other roles over the course of his short career.
Lola alludes to some of these particular pressures and concerns. Lola herself is a woman with a troubled past pressing forward with her life. It is a great, classic story, and a lot can be read into it. But on a purely aesthetic level, Lola is a sumptuous visual journey. So many textures and colors . . . if Zéro de conduite is a Dadaist masterpiece and The Scarlet Empress is expressionism on film, Lola is pure Technicolor pop art, and one of the best late Fassbinder films. Coincidentally, Rainer Werner Fassbinder died the day before I was born.
Simon of the Desert
This is such a markedly wicked satire on the life of a tempted devotee. I can imagine that it was quite scandalous to many people when it debuted in 1965.
I prefer Simon of the Desert’s austere qualities over the more outlandish subject matter and bold palette of later Buñuel. It does, however, have one of the strangest and most bombastic plot twists of all the Buñuels. I guarantee that you won’t see it coming, and it will definitely leave you scratching your head.
Woman in the Dunes
Simon of the Desert utilizes austere staging to create a particular mood and feel, and so, too, does Woman in the Dunes. Except here we have traded in the desert for the dune, and it is even bleaker, as a young man literally climbs into an existential nightmare from which there seems to be no escape.
Just as contrast plays an important role in Japanese kabuki theater and Butoh dance and is used to great effect by photographers like Daido Moriyama and Eikoh Hosoe, postwar Japanese filmmakers seem to have a heightened sensitivity to the power of darkness and light as well. The role of shadow here really helps convey a feeling of claustrophobia and helplessness, which seems to be a key aim of the film.
All of that being said, it is a very beautiful and enigmatic film and well worth an attentive watch.
Jubilee is a really excellent time capsule of a scene, and when I first saw it on VHS in high school, it made a big impression on me. I especially love the scene called “Jordan’s Dance,” which was probably one of the first times I saw such an effective and purposeful combination of beauty and destruction.
Black Moon is a quintessential “surreal” film. What interests me is that so many films that we would label surreal were made in the sixties and seventies, decades (and many art movements) after surrealism’s inception. By the time so many of these surreal films were being made, the prevalent trend in art was toward conceptualism and minimalism, approaches aimed at stripping away the non sequitur . . . which is, in essence, the guiding principle at work in Black Moon.
What is also interesting to me is the tenor of most of these films. While Zéro de conduit captures a certain joie de vivre and sense of humor, which, I feel, is indicative of the early surrealists, the nature of many later surreal films generally seems much darker—more Max Ernst than, say, Magritte.
This is just one of those movies that leaves you feeling queasy all over. Eating Raoul plays on all the stereotypical shock/schlock clichés typical of so-called B culture, which at the time (the early 1980s) was also being probed by Paul Bartel’s fellow Angelenos Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw (and perhaps further up the coast by the Kuchar brothers), who were also fascinated with and inspired by the prudish 1950s.
Is there a moral here? Does there need to be? Why, exactly, is this film in the Criterion Collection? All questions better to put out of your mind when you pop it in.
Matt Dentler’s Top 10
Matt Dentler is the producer of the South by Southwest Film Conference & Festival, in Austin, Texas (sxsw.com), as well as a curator for American distributor Film Movement and Canadian distributor Films We Like. He also hosts the weekly local PBS ser…
Seth’s Top 10
Seth is a cartoonist whose books include It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, George Sprott (1894–1975), and Clyde Fans Book One. As an illustrator and designer, he has worked on a number of high-profile projects, including Fantagraphics Books…
Whit Stillman’s Top 10
“In trying to come up with a ten best list from the Criterion Collection I thought first of Trouble in Paradise and decided to go online to find the rest. But after only seven pages of Criterion’s online list I already had more than enough for te…