Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
My current favorite Fassbinder film. A love story against all odds—the age difference is quite outrageous. Who would make a film like this now, about an older, somewhat stolid woman who finds unexpected happiness, for a time, with a handsome, younger Moroccan immigrant? Fassbinder walks a tightrope—it feels real and unsentimental, and he doesn’t shy away from cruelty, but he truly earns Emmi’s words to Ali: “Together we’re strong.”
I admire the economy of the storytelling. The repetition of scenes (even camera angles)—when Emmi walks into the bar or sits on the stairwell eating her lunch—gives the film a fated quality. And I love the many strange moments when time stands still and everyone just stands there looking!
Belle de jour
Buñuel films have had a huge influence on me, this one perhaps most of all. There was a time when I carried the book of the script around, opening it at random to absorb its perverse, funny tone and stare at the old black-and-white stills. Catherine Deneuve acts like she’s sleepwalking, but her character, Séverine, is wonderfully cool and disdainful as she gives free rein to her erotic fantasies, in dreams and in life.
Kiarostami’s film opened a door wide open to a different kind of filmmaking. It’s playful, humane, deeply respectful and ethical—completely alive. The scene where Sabzian interrupts his own trial, which was re-created for the film, to explain why he did what he did, is extraordinary, and the final freeze-frame is enormously moving. I feel inspired by Kiarostami’s practice. He jumped onto this project in the middle of making another film, and he turns the exigencies of filmmaking to his own poetic advantage (like when the sound drops out during the final motorbike ride).
I had reservations about choosing this film because the women in it are somewhat victimized, but I hugely admire Melville’s work, and this is a new discovery. Le doulos is particularly terse and gloomy in black and white, stripped of any fat whatsoever. There’s a complicated plot that’s almost impossible (for me) to follow, but it all boils down to the question of who can be trusted. The men all pretty much dress alike and come to seem interchangeable. The violence is abrupt and shocking, and the story is full of reversals. Most of all, I love the ending, where Belmondo’s character forces us to reinterpret everything we’ve just seen in a new light.
Do the Right Thing
I saw this again at the twenty-fifth anniversary screening at BAM, and I (still) think it’s a masterpiece. Spike Lee’s day-in-the-life in Bed-Stuy feels more bracing and urgent than ever: angry, sexy, and very funny. It’s exhilarating filmmaking, both hugely entertaining and shocking. The ending is devastating. I always think of that image of three guys sitting in front of a red wall . . . the faces of the cops, driving past in slow motion, looking at them.
I’m choosing Breillat’s film because it pulls me in and disturbs me. I’ll never forget that long push-and-pull seduction scene in the bedroom, which Breillat re-created in 2002’s Sex Is Comedy, or the sense of mounting menace that finally explodes. I don’t know how she does it, but she coaxes her actors into very private, intimate places. I imagine the process is born of deep trust, but it’s tough. As a director, it’s difficult to push people that far.
Take this as a stand-in for many other films directed by women that, for whatever reason, aren’t in this collection: Claire Denis’s Beau travail being the obvious one that comes to mind, though there are many others.
Perhaps an obvious choice, but I’m in awe of this film. I had the privilege of meeting Chris Marker once, and I asked him how he conceived the film. He said it came to him, fully formed, like a dream. I probably made up that “like a dream” part, but I definitely experience the film that way. It compresses more wonder, terror, and love into twenty-seven minutes than most films begin to do at feature length.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Possibly my favorite of the many Cassavetes films I love. Why? Maybe because he found a way to depict the ruthlessness of the Hollywood system, and because of how Cosmo (Ben Gazzara) keeps smiling as he searches for a civil way out of his predicament. It’s very roughly made, which I find touching and refreshing, now that we all seem to fetishize high production values above all else.
The cabaret scenes are authentically seedy, even a little pathetic, and are set in an LA that no longer exists. But there’s real tenderness between Cosmo and his black girlfriend and her mother. The story seems to meander in an alive, curious way, even as it drives to its terrible conclusion.
I’ve watched this film many times to unravel its mysteries and have never succeeded. That’s part of its power. Though willfully irrational, the story is emotionally grounded in the love affair between the two women. This film contains so many others in its DNA (Persona, Rosemary’s Baby, etc.) but never in an obvious way. I admire the freedom of Lynch’s script, which I imagine was the result of a TV pilot script (with multiple subplots and B characters) getting jammed into the straitjacket of a feature, producing this improbable, beautiful hybrid.
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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?