The Bank Dick
Monte Brice, Clyde Bruckman, Edwin Middleton, Leslie Pearce, and Arthur Ripley
W. C. Fields—Six Short Films
I grew up watching The Bank Dick and the collection of six short films on laser disc. As a kid, I immediately intuited that W. C. Fields’s world wasn’t normal slapstick. There is insane stuff in these movies. When Fields falls through a windowpane, it’s done with a certain kind of drab realism, which I guess you could call deadpan. One of the six shorts, The Dentist, is a particularly deranged and sadistic comedy.
The Lady Eve
The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels were both released in 1941. The first is a light comedy that came out earlier in the year. The second was the big winter release from Warner Bros. that year. I love the snake metaphor throughout The Lady Eve. Sturges got the boys over at Merrie Melodies to animate that incredible snake coming out of the apple core at the beginning of the movie.
Sullivan’s Travels plays like a grand thesis statement on Sturges’s whole body of work. He was interested in archetypes and society characters: crooked politicians, pretentious directors, snake experts, card counters, boxcar hobos. After struggling with my own strange and personal movie for a long time, I can appreciate Sullivan’s Travels as a kind of Homeric odyssey about a filmmaker figuring out his life. The great lesson of the movie is no one gives a shit about your arty movie. People want to watch Pluto and Mickey take it out on each other. They just want to laugh.
Billy Liar is free and full of hijinks. It has an emotional through line, but it also gleefully bounces around—and it’s shot in black-and-white CinemaScope! I think Billy Liar broke down the door for movies like Richard Lester’s The Knack . . . and How to Get It because it’s not just another “angry young man” movie, and it helped establish the archetypes used in several crazed, screwy black-and-white British movies that came after it. Billy Liar departs from kitchen-sink drabness and runs toward dreams, fantasy, and romance—things that British New Wave realism railed against. The movie is about this Peter-Pan sort of guy who won’t grow up. Billy is in this vacuum-sealed world between old and new Britain, a place in his mind. It’s a heartbreaking movie about an imaginative guy and the loss of idealism that comes with having to grow up.
Eclipse Series 33: Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr.
Robert Downey Sr. was the missing link that united everything I was into. His movies bridged the gap between low-brow and high-brow cinema—venues dedicated to programming experimental film, like Anthology Film Archives, embraced him. He had a weird, melted brain. He was all about gathering people who inspired him, like Taylor Meade, Larry Wolf, Stan Gottlieb, and the Fantasy Island guy in Greaser’s Palace.
I showed him the short that Andy Lampert and I made called Jazzy for Joe, which is about Joe Franklin, a person Downey Sr. knew about growing up. He ended up programming it at Cinefamily on the final night of a retrospective of his films. Nobody understood why. He said our movie felt like it was made in the spirit of the years when everybody helped each other out to make movies. I was so flattered and touched.
I first saw If…. when I was fourteen. It was the summer of 2006, and I had started working at Anthology Film Archives. They had programmed a Lindsay Anderson series, and after seeing it, I remember dragging my sister and her best friend to it the next day.
They Live by Night
They Live by Night is one of my favorite Nicholas Ray movies, and one of my favorite movies, period. It’s one of the first crime movies from the forties and fifties that I connected to on a deeper emotional level. It’s an art film. Thinking about all of Ray’s movies, you realize he began his career so strong. This is the only movie he made that the studio didn’t end up interfering with.
Both They Live by Night and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (which is also one of my favorite movies) are based on the same Edward Anderson novel. Their approach to the story is very different, but both movies are about teamwork and the weird, sensual quality of those relationships. I also think the movie is a secret code into the work of Peter Bogdanovich, who obviously loved Ray. But there’s something in the way Ray shot the love scenes—the shadowy black and white, the way people look into each other’s eyes, the way Farley Granger seems to glow—that resembles the uncomfortable romantic scenes in The Last Picture Show, like the terrifying moment when Jacy loses her virginity on the pool table.
I feel like all there is to say about Crumb has already been said, but it is worth noting that there is no Robert without Charles Crumb, his older brother and mentor. Robert wasn’t as fucked up as Charles, and he was able to maintain a level of commitment and obsession that allowed him to make a career out of intensely exercising his unconscious on paper. Soon after I saw the film for the first time, a new issue of Zap (#15) came out with this comic by R. Crumb called “Walkin’ the Streets.” It was something he’d been working on and struggling with since Charles’s death in 1992, and he had just finished it. The comic was about Robert’s existential woes in high school, which you get glimpses of in the documentary. It’s a grim portrait of the brothers, who make this artistic pact. It’s the antihero origin story behind the movie.
Ride the Pink Horse
I’d only ever witnessed a fuzzy version taped off TCM before Criterion released this. Robert Montgomery is the director and star, and, like The Treasure of Sierra Madre, it’s a rare shot-on-location Hollywood movie from the forties. It just has a great mood and great character actors. I always return to it.
The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton is a total mystery to me. He was like the Philip Seymour Hoffman of his generation and wore a million masks. He was this weird, mysterious guy, and this was the only film he directed.
“It’s a hard world for little things.”
Wise Blood is John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s southern-gothic novel, which she wrote when she was a teenager and which Huston probably read around the time it was originally published in the early fifties. It’s amazing that he decided to make this independent film at the end of his career. I love the way he plays around with time in this. When Brad Dourif gets off the old train and starts hitchhiking, you can’t tell if the movie is set in the present day or the past. This was Huston’s way of capturing O’Connor’s backward, isolated southern town, which is left in the dust with all its people and figures existing outside of time. There’s a hauntedness to everything. It’s not only a twisted vision of religion in the South and about a character with a Jesus complex, it’s also about people fucked up by the war. Dourif’s character can’t get close to anyone. He just wants to create a church without God, and he is so committed to this dream that he becomes this angry nut whose whole life hinges on this one thing. Not a bad way to live.
D. A. Pennebaker’s Top 10
Filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop, The War Room) and Chris Hegedus (The War Room, Startup.com), creative partners and husband and wife, offer these favorites.
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Top 10
The director of Aquarius and Bacurau shares his favorite Criterion releases, paying special attention to unorthodox studio productions and underappreciated masterpieces.