A Woman Under the Influence
This includes all of the films in the box set John Cassavetes: Five Films. I’m always a little leery of the routine critical construction “Without X, there would be no Y.” Surely Y would have come along; his or her work might have been a bit different, but he or she would have come along. But in the case of Cassavetes, it is difficult not to think of a whole talkative, financially strapped mob of filmmakers, some brilliant, some not so much, who very well might not have come along if he hadn’t, you know, blazed the path. Still, you don’t watch a Cassavetes film for its historical significance. These films are alive. How very well I remember my first, A Woman Under the Influence. I probably went in because I was a Columbo fan. Not only was I enthralled by a whole new Peter Falk; Gena Rowlands simply blew . . . me . . . away.
It’s been years since I’ve read Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, but if I recall correctly, toward the end of his life, Lang was coming around to the conclusion that M would be the best film he ever made. If so, I certainly wouldn’t argue with the man. If he were making films today, Lang would probably be known as something of a geek. An artsy geek, maybe, but one with, besides a remarkable sense of composition, a penchant for state-of-the-art technology, its possibilities and implications. Which makes the use of silence in his first talkie all the more impressive. The other major asset M’s got, of course, is Peter Lorre.
Why, of all the Godards? Well, in part because we all know already that Breathless is one of the most important debuts in the history of cinema, that Band of Outsiders is one hell of a good time, and so on and so forth. And I might have pled the case for another favorite of mine, Alphaville. But, besides all its widescreen majesty, Contempt offers a unique hook for me. From McGilligan’s Lang biography: “At one point Michel Piccoli’s character remarks to Lang how much he and his wife enjoyed watching Rancho Notorious, with Marlene Dietrich, on the television one night. The director forthrightly replies that he himself prefers M. This was also Godard’s joke on himself. Not only did the Cahiers du cinéma crowd champion his Hollywood films above the Berlin ones, but Godard had actually written that M was ‘the least good film of Lang’s.’ ” . . . The world of cinema will forever be indebted to Godard for this Fritz Lang swan song. One elegiac image—just a few moments really, sans dialogue—speaks volumes: The director is seen lighting up a cigarette after others have exited the scene; the camera tracks beside the elder statesman of film as he walks slowly along a street alone, apparently lost in thought. Godard’s camera watches him contemplatively while, in the background, George Delerue’s eloquent score rises on a gorgeous note.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Yes, there was quite a controversy kicked up last year over the restoration. And while it’s not an uninteresting issue, it doesn’t distract from the gratitude we who hold Fassbinder dear feel when we hold this handsome box in our hands. This is the epic he was racing against destiny to complete; poring over the extras, you can’t help but sense that he knew it too. All of Fassbinder’s period pieces are, of course, about the Germany he lived in, the Germany I would begin visiting regularly just a few years after he’d gone, a Germany at ferocious odds with itself, arguing in the streets and in the papers and in classrooms and over dinner over what sort of country it’d make of itself, even in those later stages of starting all over again—not too long, of course, before starting all over yet again in 1989. An intense love-hate relationship with the German character, with German history and culture, and an ongoing recognition of the inextricability of the personal and the political, for better and for worse, permeate all of Fassbinder’s work; here, all that’s practically on parade. And the fireworks at the end are gruesome and gripping.
If cinema went looking for a Theory of Everything—and found it—it would probably look something like this. All I can add, really, is that I very, very much hope to see A Brighter Summer Day in the not too distant future.
Burden of Dreams
Since Grizzly Man and on through Encounters at the End of the World, festival dispatchers often report that audiences walk out of the theater trying out their Werner Herzog imitations. You do the accent, sure, but that’s only the half of it. The other half is what you say; you have to decry the viciousness of nature, the doomed and dooming insanity of it all. I wonder how many of these amateur impressionists realize that the sensibility they’re mimicking with an odd mix of humor and admiration has been somewhat tempered over the years. Burden of Dreams is an almost frightening portrait of that sensibility when it was manic and raw, no matter how calm Herzog’s exterior may at times appear. And, of course, next to Kinski, he was the sane one! Les Blank’s documentary is also, along with Hearts of Darkness, one of the greatest making-ofs of all time.
Typically, I saw La Jetée, my first Chris Marker, in film school. To this day, I’ll hold that no other film is as great a contemplation of cinema in a way—and this is the important part—that is immediately accessible to anyone and everyone, not just students of semiotics or, for that matter, kids in film school. Sans Soleil is, of course, another matter altogether, which is what makes their Criterion pairing so auspicious.
Still my favorite Cronenberg by far. What can I say? The first time I saw it, it oozed up under my skin, and it has never left.
The Seventh Seal
Oh, there are so many better films I might have chosen; better Bergmans too. But this is the film that sparked my repertory movie theater habit—back in the days, kids, when there was no such thing as home video, much less the DVD. This was the film that opened up a big wide world beyond what’s-playing-this-week to a young teen, the film that convinced me that this world was worth driving an hour or two or more to sample again and again. For that—and, yes, for its much-parodied yet still powerfully iconic imagery—it’ll always have a place on that inner shelf bridging the heart and mind.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Top 10
Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn is the director of the Pusher Trilogy, Fear X, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, and Drive, for which he won the best director prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Michael Atkinson’s Top 10
Michael Atkinson writes film criticism for IFC.com, Sight & Sound, and Moving Image Source. His books include Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood and the novel Hemingway Deadlights.