Fists in the Pocket
From the moment Lou Castel literally falls from the sky into the film, one knows that one has signed up for one darn crazy ride. Of all the films in the collection this is the one that spells y-o-u-t-h with the greatest virulence. It captures its never abetted sense of social claustrophobia and, its consequence, its recurrent fantasies of murder and mayhem. For anyone, anywhere, at any time, who uttered, “Families, I hate you!” this film should be the Bible. Nervy, hilarious, and bleaker than bleak, it manages to make you believe the impossible, namely that a filmmaker could take a trip on the Rimbaud side of the street and not come out looking ridiculous. And, as an added bonus, for those who want to understand the sixties beyond the banalities that are ritually uttered about them, every scene of Fists in the Pocket, with the convulsive beauty of its framing and composition, amply proves how much this period was made by people so steeped in classical culture that they fantasized it could be solid beyond its fragility, shaking it to the core and ultimately ushering in a world they could themselves hardly live in.
Young Mr. Lincoln
When asked to name a filmmaker who interested him, John Ford answered, “Renoir.” Pressed to name one film, he growled, “All of it.” Time to return the compliment: “John Ford . . . All of it,” if one wants to tap back into the ethos and the pathos of the republic and understand in the process both that form and content were never separate entities and that figures don’t have to be squarely at the center of the frame for a film to exist—crucial reminders in these times of ours.
One has to love a film that has for its subtitle An Introduction to Anthropology. This hardscrabble tale of two blockheads dedicated to making a yen in the flesh trade is the most congruent homage to Laurel and Hardy one could dream of. Everything falls apart around them, but they keep forging on. The film does, too, ratcheting up craziness along the way: a carp in a fish tank—the reincarnation of a deceased husband—somersaults to show its disapproval of the widow’s sexual antics with her new beau; a depressed middle-aged woman jumps on the windowsill of her hospital room and masturbates, to the great joy of a crowd of workers that seems to have just exited the Lumière factory; a crumpled pornographer indulges in a bit of voyeurism that turns into a lesson in the use of angles in cinema, etc., etc.; and finally an ending in the waters off Osaka’s harbor that leaves one howling with laughter. All of it is filmed with an aggressive, unrelenting elegance that puts the viewer through rigorous ocular gymnastics. If you thought that Ozu was the alpha and the omega of the visual possibilities offered by Japanese home architecture, Imamura’s truculent epic will open your eyes anew.
The Honeymoon Killers
Everything is wondrous about this film: the writing, the casting, the texture of the image, the framing, the rhythm of the editing, the music, the direction as a whole. The title, though, the result of a necessary deal with idiotic distributors who imposed it over the original Dear Martha . . . , is a miss. Inspired by a famous case, the film is the exact opposite of your garden-variety “true crime” potboiler. It is many things at the same time: a sublime love story (Marguerite Duras dixit); a poetic exploration of the suburban landscape (right up there with Robert Frank’s The Americans); a fierce indictment of late-fifties middle-class aspirations (the trick here being that the irredeemable heroes of this epic inspire more empathy in the viewer than their victims); a level-eyed look at the hard business of murder (no romantic choreography here, and a smack on the skull with a hammer will make you recoil in horror); and too many lessons in filmmaking to quote in these few lines. In short, this is one of the great American films of the last forty years. The astonishing (and scandalous) thing is that Leonard Kastle never went on to make another film. See the film, go to the bonus tracks and see Mr. Kastle speak: the intelligence, the humor, the clarity of the craft will leave you gasping. It is so good to hear someone who has the arrogance of his modesty.
This is a terrifying film to watch for any aspiring filmmaker worth his/her salt. One takes a look at it and soon realizes that it spells perfection. Not a reassuring realization when one is trying to enter the trade. The only thing that can mitigate somewhat this feeling is that Bergman himself expressed wonderment at what he had pulled off here, as if he weren’t entirely responsible for it and lady luck had been outrageously on his side. The conventional wisdom when one talks about Bergman is always to list the thematic bases he hits: the fundamental triviality of faith, the traumatic economy of unrequited love, etc. Better go small and more mysterious: this is a textbook of what drama is made of, each scene exploring relentlessly the perilous equilibrium of a situation, what makes it what it is, what will keep it there. Nothing ever comes to a trite conclusion in this film. Everything is suspended, held together by the contradictory forces that vie for the moment to be what they are, and as a consequence everything is resonant. It is so finely tuned that it can be unendurable: nobody has ever explored the savagery of gender relationships as accurately as Bergman, because nobody else has so detailed them as an ineluctable stasis. Yes, Bergman was right to wonder: there is a miracle at work here. It’s a film where the energies and the craft of the principals intersect so splendidly under the guidance of a director: the photographer’s eye (Sven Nykvist, who knows how to match the coldness of these souls with the cold dampness of the landscape outside); the actors’ bodies (Ingrid Thulin, her hands, wrecked by eczema, fussing around abjectly out of unrequited love for her pastor; Gunnar Bjornstrand, with a terminal case of the sniffles and an endless ability to tap into cruelty). Not a first-date movie, but it will do for the third. And, any time, a humbling lesson in film craft.
Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin
In many ways the perfect double bill with Young Mr. Lincoln. Democracy in America, Part II. There is a lot of carbon dating at work in this movie (how an interior, a suit, a gesture spell class—as in middle or working—and the historic moment, 1969, in which these classes function); but this unfurling of specificity is there to give us its metaphysical sense and resonance (the essence of labor, its afferent solitude, the pathos of success). A lot has to do with the amount of space the frame encloses and how resolutely off center it chooses to remain. For all its relentless attention to the matter at hand, Salesman is never a claustrophobic film. It is a film that often goes one (or two or three) better on what a long line of American writers (from Dreiser on) have tried to pin down. Which might explain why Salesman often feels like a valentine to a time in film (and society in general) when work defined character, registering the cusp moment after which it will cease to do so. One can look at Salesman and weep when what rules as “documentary” these days comes to mind; one can—maybe naively—take the film as a perfect illustration of what the genre might still produce; one can celebrate the film as definitively proving the inanity of the dichotomy between fiction and documentary. I tend to go for the latter.
The critics and the public wanted the pathos of M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon oncle. They got Playtime, a comedy entirely devoted to space, in which Tati, as Hulot, hovers at the periphery of his own creation and has the elegance, which very few comedians share, not to put the spotlight on his own mug. The public and the critics turned against Tati. They were of course wrong, and the film is one of those few that get better by the year. It’s a silent film with sound; its color scheme is in a narrow band between gray and blue that aggressively underscores the painterly logic of Tati’s conceit. The film gives itself the luxury to reinvent choreography and as such dazzles with the megalomania of its enterprise and the diabolical precision the filmmaker had to conjure up to pull it off. There is ultimately so much to see, so many discrete pockets of activities in such a large canvas, that Tati has ensured that his film can be revisited time and again and each time seem different and new. It is a monumental film, literally and figuratively, that in its humorous take on modernity retains a form of hope. Alienation, but alienation light, and still the hope that the strategic social planning of architects and designers has cracks and will allow folks to run for daylight for the reassertion of their humanity. And, yes, a detail: the exquisite quality of this transfer is one of the reasons we spend our allowance on votive candles for the altar of Our Little Lady of the Criterion Collection.
And the rest of the films in John Cassavetes: Five Films. Not one film but five, which already takes me over my Ten Best quota. Pick any of these films and meditate on performance, what makes it and what sustains it. If there is a choice to make I would opt for Faces and for The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Godard, who admired the latter, compared it to listening to a piano player tickling a few last chords on the ivories in the wee hours of the morning, when the last patrons have left the nightclub and the waiters are stacking the chairs on the tables . . . Not a bad comparison, all in all). Looking at a Cassavetes movie should persuade any viewer that there are no bad actors but only bad directors, and that acting has more to do with the strategic setting of gestures in space than it has to do with a trip to the flea market of emotions. The miracle of Cassavetes’s craft lies in that he makes the emotion surge, while obstinately refusing to illustrate it. No wonder his actors look always as if they were documented. Look at the bodies of Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, and Peter Falk: they are all avatars of Lillian Gish, the rightful inheritors of that magic moment in Broken Blossoms when with her fingers she creased a smile on her terrified face and invented film acting.
For this one, puff up a bag of popcorn in the microwave, empty your bladder, and expect to be on the edge of your seat from the word go. Pure filmic pleasure, more complex than it appears, because all depends on the intensity with which Becker piles details upon details. It makes the film a perfect “how to burrow through walls when you only have a toothpick for a tool” movie and a kissing cousin of Bresson’s A Man Escaped, minus the grandiosity of patriotism. The he-men that constitute the cast are fresh off the streets, still gloriously incapable of histrionics and so good that more than a few have gone on to honorable acting careers. And to boot, get ready for the most laconic and hands-down greatest last line of any movie. I won’t act as a spoiler.
Mike Allred’s Top 10
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John Lurie’s Top 10
John Lurie, whose band, the Lounge Lizards, was one of the most acclaimed jazz groups of the eighties and nineties, has recorded twenty-two albums and has acted in several films, including Stranger Than Paradise, Down by Law, and The Last Temptation…
James Schamus’s Top 10
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Tracy Letts’s Top 10
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?