All That Jazz
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
The Red Shoes
These are both dance films, and they’re highly theatrical expressions of what it means to be devoted to your art. I love Bob Fosse as a director, and All That Jazz really affected me. My mother was a theater actor, and I grew up in New York City in the ’70s and spent a lot of time backstage, so there is something very familiar about the film. It speaks to me in its portrayal of hard living and the desperate need to create great art.
Fosse’s style is sensational, and I especially appreciate his collaboration with editor Alan Heim, who won an Oscar for the film. Nothing is explained with dialogue. From the opening, we’re in a world where the lensing, music, and editing pattern tell the story. Starting with the famous Alka-Seltzer “wake up” montage through the audition sequence, we feel the routine of Joe Gideon’s reckless lifestyle but also experience how brilliant and caring he is as a choreographer. For all his issues, the character is always an artist first. He’s a rakish rogue (not an abuser), and I root for him. In fact, Fosse elicits a great deal of empathy for him, which I find to be so brave. By the end of the film, you’re transported to another state of mind that makes you reflect on the meaning of your own life.
Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is another film that expresses the desperate drives of the creative soul. The Technicolor palette is just insane, and I love its stylization and theatricality. The fantasy sequence, and the way dance is used to dramatize a psychological breakdown, is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. It takes us inside the mind of Moira Shearer’s character as she’s unraveling, dancing herself into oblivion. I love the choreography and that unforgettable look of possession on her face when she’s losing it.
Billy Wilder is my favorite director, and I love this movie so much—it’s a perfect noir. The storytelling is so economical; there’s nothing in it that isn’t necessary to the story, and yet every moment feels so natural. Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actor because you sense what she’s thinking behind her eyes and feel how she’s adapting her plan as she goes. You never really know what she’s going to do, and the control she has over her physicality and her voice is extraordinary. The artists I admire embrace the flaws of their characters, and Double Indemnity doesn’t shy away from the unabashedly degenerate quality of the protagonists. Wilder never tries to make these people likable.
Once in a while something comes along that changes how you think about your craft and about filmmaking. For me, one of those experiences was discovering Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. The camera is over the shoulder of the main character for almost the whole movie, so you experience the world with her. Arnold creates such a realistic slice of life, but her use of the camera and sound is actually highly subjective and artificial. It’s masterful.
Like a lot of the films that interest me, Fish Tank depicts a young woman’s sexual awakening and her fierce, almost violent nature in the face of awful circumstances. It’s not voyeuristic or misogynistic or fetishizing. She’s empowered. It’s important filmmaking, and it really woke me up. Movies usually come from other movies, but this didn’t feel like it came from another movie—it feels like an artist doing something boldly different.
Bong Joon Ho
Parasite is a perfect movie. It has a beautiful progression of style that just creeps up on you as it goes along. I love the performances, and even though the zaniness escalates throughout the movie, Bong Joon Ho keeps everything so grounded. I’m sure it’s clear from my selections that I’m not someone who is big on realism, and Parasite has an incredibly controlled design to it—from the squalor of the family’s apartment in the beginning to the opulent modern house they take over and its creepy basement. The craft of the filmmaking is so beautiful. That level of high-octane entertainment, combined with the caliber of the artistry, is so exciting.
As a filmmaker who started in New York City in the ’90s, I was enormously influenced by Spike Lee. I love She’s Gotta Have It and Girl 6 and Do the Right Thing, but Malcolm X is his opus and a huge contribution to American history and entertainment. We see the scope of this man’s life, which is really three or four lives in one. There’s the amazing cinematography by Ernest Dickerson and the costumes by Ruth E. Carter. Those zoot suits! The film has the quality of a musical at times, with a strong color palette and choreographed camera. Importantly, it also has a very personal point of view.
Denzel Washington gives one of my all-time favorite performances. He is a true movie star and such a talent. His performance is so layered and covers so many different aspects of Malcolm X’s life. The way that Lee shows the evolution and progression of thought that the character goes through feels so authentic. By the end of the film, you’re left wishing you knew what Malcolm X would have done next had he lived longer.
To Be or Not to Be
Merrily We Go to Hell
Both To Be or Not to Be and Merrily We Go to Hell were written by my grandfather, Edwin Justus Mayer.
Lubitsch was a genius, and he’s my favorite screwball director, so I would have chosen To Be or Not to Be even if it wasn’t Eddie’s work. So much has been written about this film, but as Eddie’s granddaughter, I can tell you that he saw entertainment as a political weapon. Sticking it to the Nazis was something he could do through his satire. And the intricate play-within-a-play devices distance the audience from the horrific reality of 1942, the year the film was released. Carole Lombard is stunning and hilarious; she has the best timing. So does Jack Benny: “So they call me Concentration Camp Earhardt?” Out of context, you think, how can that be a comedy? But that’s the genius of Lubistch.
Eddie was very cynical and had a dark worldview, which brings us to Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell. This movie has moments of comedy, but at its heart it’s a raw look at addiction and an uncensored vision of the debauched world of an alcoholic in the 1930s. Everyone is in their gowns and jewels, and Fredric March is passed out like he’s in a drug den. It’s so disturbing—but it’s also amazing what filmmakers were putting on-screen before the Hays Code was enacted and stopped them.
The idea of Arzner and Eddie working together just gives me so much joy. She spent thirty years as an out lesbian director in Hollywood working alongside the men in the industry. Her career reminds us that, although women have often been put in a box, there have been exceptions. There have been queer people, and there have also been men, like my grandfather, who were never threatened by strong women. I’m sure he was thrilled to be working with her.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Pedro Almodóvar knows how to create a stylized world with achingly real performances. His characters may have larger-than-life personalities, but they’re never fake. They’re vulnerable and human and fierce. I adore his casting and the actors who appear frequently in his work.
I’m also very influenced by his color palette, which I know is inspired by filmmakers he loves, like Douglas Sirk. I stole his signature saturated reds for Party Girl. With Women on the Verge, he revisits the screwball comedy—my favorite genre—so beautifully and makes it his own. He never repeats himself, and yet you’ll always be able to instantly identify a film that’s his.
Paris Is Burning
Harlan County USA
Paris Is Burning was a very influential film for me. Harry Birckmayer, my writing partner on Party Girl, was actually a production assistant on it, and he took me to a ball once. As an outsider, I was honored to be there. The film became a touchstone when we were making Party Girl, because we were also celebrating queer culture in New York, though in a more mainstream way. Jennie Livingston goes deep into what it’s like to be marginalized while still creating your own community and maintaining your humanity, strength, and convictions. It’s a beautiful documentary, and also just a lot of fun.
Harlan County USA is a great introduction to Barbara Kopple’s work about labor movements in the United States. She’s an amazing artist, and everyone should know about her. She has a vérité style that makes you feel you’re right there with her subjects.
Laura Dern gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. She fully embodies Connie, this joyous and beautiful young woman who is experiencing her sexual awakening in such a lovely way—an experience that is undercut by the presence of a predator played by Treat Williams, who gives a subtle but terrifying performance.
For most of the film we are with Connie, but in a moment when we see Williams watching Dern dancing through a window, Chopra exposes the “male gaze” for what it is—stalking. For me, the film provokes questions like: As women, why can’t we dance? Why can’t we be in the world embracing our full, beautiful, sexual selves without the threat of misogynistic culture? However, despite what happens to Dern’s character, I do feel she stands her ground at the end, and I don’t think she’ll be defined by her trauma.
My Brilliant Career
I love Gillian Armstrong. Every film she makes is different. I love her punk-rock musical Starstruck, which was a big influence on Party Girl.
My Brilliant Career is set at the turn of the twentieth century, and Judy Davis, in a career-defining performance, plays an ambitious young writer limited by her gender and her financial situation. But she’s feisty as hell and manages to pick herself up over and over again.
Sam Neill plays her love interest. He’s gorgeous and wealthy and presumably the solution to all her problems. Armstrong subverts the audience’s expectations by having Davis reject him. Admittedly, the romantic in me was a little upset by this, but it’s a strong feminist statement. She has to choose between pursuing her career and becoming a wife—and she knows that she’ll never achieve what she desires if she gets married. The film is majestically shot by Donald McAlpine, and the final frame shows Davis’s silhouette against the most stunning Australian landscape at sunset. It’s an empowering image of a woman who has chosen herself over a man.
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.