Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
As of this writing, it’s been nearly a year since we lost the talent and spirit of Chantal Akerman. Her 1975 breakthrough feature wowed the international film world after premiering at Cannes to a combination of raves and an audience exodus. Truly a film to return to again and again, Jeanne Dielman expands the possibilities of cinema as an art form. Its durational, physiological impact on the viewer is an absolute revelation. I first saw it on a crappy 16 mm print in college in the late 1980s and didn’t get to see it again on the big screen until the late ’90s—on 35 mm at the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival. Now I like to watch it in segments on Hulu (sort of the opposite of binge-watching) just for the shift in consciousness it induces in me after each twenty-minute chunk. Transcendent.
I first saw two of my favorite personal documentaries in 1985 and 1986. Both greatly influenced me as a filmmaker. Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March offered up a neurotic self-portrait of the filmmaker’s pursuit of Southern women, while in God’s Country, Louis Malle visits with struggling farmers in Glencoe, Minnesota, a town an hour away from the Twin Cities, where I was born and raised. Sherman’s March has enjoyed far greater acclaim and exposure, but God’s Country is ultimately the more sophisticated film. These are both portraits of human pathos. But where McElwee depicts seemingly wacky Southern women with a palpable sense of disrespect for his subjects, Malle interacts with equally extreme characters in the North and manages to express a profound sense of respect and admiration, enabling us to feel sympathy for them and, ultimately, for ourselves. No disrespect to McElwee though: one of my favorite reviews of my film The Royal Road (by Bérénice Reynaud in Senses of Cinema) calls it “a sort of butch reply” to Sherman’s March.
Stranger Than Paradise
I vividly remember first seeing Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and being inspired by the spare craftsmanship of his cinematic style. I love the simplicity of his scenes and his dry sense of humor, but the best thing is the way he brings us in and out of edits. Each scene opens with a little bit of audio from the forthcoming scene while the shot remains black. He cuts to the action in progress, and with a primarily static frame that gives us the impression of a series of tableaux, the scene plays out before cutting—not fading—to black. The restraint of this structure is deceptively simple as it calms and amuses us, pulling us along through the story in an unfolding rhythm that parallels John Lurie’s perfect score. And of course the black-and-white landscapes of New York City are irresistible.
The Times of Harvey Milk
When it comes to documentaries, I am not a fan of current trends of reenactments and celebrities reading the words of unavailable subjects. Skip the elaborately constructed interstitial animations and give me old-school talking heads and archival footage with scripted, voice-of-God narration to help move me where you want me to go. The Times of Harvey Milk is what I’m talking about. Winner of the 1985 Oscar for Best Documentary, Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s powerful account of the assassination of San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official remains one of the most riveting documentaries ever made. It tells the story of San Francisco’s gay community and the fight for gay rights in the late 1970s through dynamic talking-head interviews, gripping archival footage, and devastating narration by Harvey Fierstein. It is also one of the very few gay-themed films to be selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
“It all started on an ordinary day, in the most ordinary place in the world.”—Brief Encounter
David Lean’s depictions of two ordinary women (Celia Johnson’s Laura and Katharine Hepburn’s Jane) restraining their desires for Trevor Howard and Rosanno Brazzi, respectively, are two of my all-time favorite cinematic portrayals of forbidden heterosexual love. Incidentally, both use the writing of gay playwrights as source material: Brief Encounter is based on Noël Coward’s Still Life, and Summertime adapts Arthur Laurents’s The Time of the Cuckoo.
My Dinner with André
Days of Heaven
Since my films consist entirely of 16 mm urban landscapes and voice-over, I have always been fascinated by the many ways that other films utilize voice-over. Generally, I think the use of voice-over in film gets an unjustly bad rap. It is one of the most effective and evocative ways to connect the audience directly to a character. Both of these films incorporate innovative first-person monologue.
While I admire My Dinner with André for its formal ambitiousness, I confess I don’t really enjoy the bulk of the film itself. But I love the opening and closing, especially the simple shots of New York City and Wallace Shawn’s concluding narration: “I treated myself to a taxi. I rode home through the city streets. There wasn’t a street, there wasn’t a building, that wasn’t connected to some memory in my mind. There, I was buying a suit with my father. There, I was having an ice cream soda after school. When I finally came in, Debbie was home from work. And I told her everything about my dinner with André.”
Similarly, the best thing about Days of Heaven is the spectacularly quirky, poignant, complicated, and full-of-life narration by Linda (Linda Manz). Years ago, I had a phone call with the film’s executive producer and second unit director, Jacob Brackman, while I was researching the fabulous 1980 teen runaway adventure Times Square, for which he wrote the screenplay. I don’t recall how we got on the topic of his work on Days of Heaven, but I vividly remember him telling me about how the decision to introduce that voice-over as the primary storytelling vehicle arose out of Brackman and Malick’s realization when watching the dailies that the dramatic dialogue scenes weren’t working. They were in the middle of shooting and had the idea to save the film by sending out a second unit to shoot a ton of natural landscape B-roll and then adding voice-over to the footage. About a year after making Days of Heaven in May 1979, Brackman would go on to complete the screenplay for Times Square, a film that happens to bear an interesting resemblance to Malick’s story of a tough teenage girl with a heavy accent making her way in a hardscrabble environment. Days of Heaven’s Linda claims to be from Chicago, but her at times almost unintelligible accent sounds astoundingly similar to Robin Johnson’s Brooklynese in Times Square.
Sweet Smell of Success
This whirlwind cautionary tale, which explores the dark dynamic between powerful newspaper columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and the obsequious lapdog of a publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), is a cinematic marvel—especially for the jaw-dropping dialogue of the screenplay, which was cowritten by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman and adapted from Lehman’s autobiographical novelette about his early experiences working for a Broadway publicist. With its high-contrast, black-and-white cinematography and jazzy Elmer Bernstein score, the film conveys a certain kind of mythical 1950s New York City more vividly than any other film I can think of. And the on-location street scenes are to die for.
News from Home
The running themes of my top ten list are so perfectly combined in News from Home, which features the most exquisite first-person voice-over and a series of static landscapes of New York City. I had the incredible experience of watching News from Home on the night of October 6, 2015, the day after Chantal Akerman took her own life. I had awoken to this news from Paris on the morning of the sixth. Having spent the day trying to comprehend this incomprehensible fact, I found myself drawn to Hulu that night, choosing to process my grief by watching one of her films. After the first few minutes of News from Home, I realized to my amazement that I had actually never seen it despite thinking that I had (shameful confession: I realize now that it was Hotel Monterey I had seen long ago, and all this time I had somehow mixed up these two titles). Of course, I have seen many of Akerman’s other works and have always considered her a huge influence on my own—especially her formal approach to lengthy shot duration and the static camera and her affection for the mundane. But seeing News from Home, particularly at that moment in time, was such a revelation. It seemed so uncanny that my own cinematic style of mixing static, durational 16 mm urban cityscapes with voice-over would so resemble Akerman’s style in News from Home—and I make this comparison in the humblest way possible. As the final twelve-minute shot of a Manhattan skyline with seagulls unspooled before my bewildered and bleary eyes, I discovered that the conclusion of my new film, The Royal Road, which features a single seagull flying across the San Francisco skyline, pays uncanny homage to Akerman’s film.
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Tracy Letts is an American playwright, screenwriter, and actor. He received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama for August: Osage County and a Tony Award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
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