For All Mankind
Sandra Bullock was clearly tired and emotional when she said, in Gravity, that she hated space. How could you not love space, and how could you not love a documentary about how we—yes, all mankind—made it to the moon and back? Turned out the best thing about the moon was the view of Earth, but it was worth going all that way just to feel better about home. My only complaint is that the film could be three hours—or three days—longer.
In her coverage of the Nuremberg trials, Rebecca West records the reaction of a Czech audience who, during a screening of Brief Encounter, “asked themselves with some emotion whether it could really be true that in England there were no other places than railway buffets where lovers could meet.” Maybe there weren’t, which is why the refreshment room at Milford Junction boils with passion, why Celia Johnson has a voice—and face—like cracked china, and why, when Trevor Howard utters the simple word good-bye, it is as soaked with tragic resignation as a biscuit in tea.
Deeply pervy—and that’s just the decision to cast Art Garfunkel in the lead as a math professor in Vienna! My favorite moment is when the detective—an implausibly wonderful Harvey Keitel—asks Garfunkel to confess to the crime “as a personal favor.” As bonkers as it is beautiful.
David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
The strange thing about Altamont, with all its horrors—brilliantly and intimately documented by the Maysleses and by Stanley Booth in his book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones—is that one still wishes one had been there. (I interviewed Stanley onstage in 2012 after a screening of the film, and he still seemed traumatized by the gig, all these years later.) The film and Booth’s book can both be usefully cross-referenced with Sonny Barger’s autobiography, in which he concedes that while it may have been a big night for the Stones it was just another night for the Angels! One of the great moments in documentary is when we focus on Barger at the edge of the stage, looking at Jagger as though he might still decide to beat the crap out of him, as no one had looked at him since he was a little boy at school in England.
The Thin Red Line
Quoting, from memory, one of the many questions posed by the multiple voice-overs by celebrity Marines who lined up to enlist in Malick’s comeback film as though Pearl Harbor had been attacked just days before: “Why is man pitched against man in eternal struggle?” Because it looks so good on-screen? Something to do with Heidegger? Darned if I know, but happy to watch repeatedly in the hope of finding out.
The Night Porter
“None does offend, none, I say, none!” I’m with King Lear on this score: I never find anything offensive. Except The Night Porter. I include it here on the grounds that it must have something going for it—something utterly prurient—to have earned this unusual place in my tiny pantheon of aversions.
A sense of shredded nerves pervades the whole film, soothed by some of the most beautiful colors ever seen on a cinema screen (the rhyming green of Monica Vitti’s coat chief among them). Remember that weird almost-orgy down by the docks, in some kind of hut? It’s one of those scenes—and one of those films—you watch again and again to see if it’s really as you remember it. Of course it is—and isn’t.
Most commentators stress the heartbreak, delicacy and sympathy, and so on, but Ozu, like Blake, was of the devil’s party without knowing it. Although it is called Tokyo Story, its truth is universal: the only thing worse than having your parents to stay is having your in-laws to stay.
Bill Plympton’s Top 10
Cartoonist, filmmaker, and animator Bill Plympton, whose illustrations have appeared in the pages of the New York Times, the Village Voice, and Vanity Fair, and whose short films became famous on MTV in the eighties, directed the documentary Walt Cur…