Canadian filmmaker and writer Guy Maddin’s Brand upon the Brain!, featuring Isabella Rossellini as the narrator, was released on DVD from the Criterion Collection in 2008. Maddin also contributed essays on Kirk Douglas for our release of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and Josef von Sternberg’s silents.
1. For me, the most devastating childhood remembrance film—if that’s what it is. The story is too remarkable and strange to be fiction. Six-year-old Brigitte Fossey—trying to make sense of her just-witnessed parents’ deaths by urgently assembling a beautiful little animal graveyard—might just nudge out Dean Stockwell as my all-time favorite child star, and she makes me cry a lot more! Comedy mixed in with such sadness, sadness, sadness!!! This is early childhood distilled and put in a very dangerous bottle!
2. Best Lutheran melodrama I’ve ever seen! Fantastically restrained love triangle involving a pastor, his young bride, and his son. Throw in cauldrons full of witchcraft and a mother more sexually suspicious than Mrs. Bates, and you’ve got perfection. The costumes and the performers inhabiting them are more rigid and austere than an unbuttered slice of Danish toast. Uneasily funny, chilling, and timeless.
3. Another emotional bludgeoning from De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, this one belonging—along with The Last Laugh—to that small genre concerning aged men playing out their hopeless, last, lonely days. It must have been something, back in 1952, when this film went head-to-head with Forbidden Games for the honor of most tearful ending! Right from the shank of titan De Sica’s neorealist years! I love being destroyed by masters!
4. The documentarians David and Albert Maysles found some real-life Tennessee Williams characters in Edith and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, mother and daughter eccentrics holed up for years in a sagging, cat-and-raccoon-infested mansion in otherwise grand East Hampton. The ladies’ kinship with cousin Jackie Bouvier Kennedy explains their old-money sense of entitlement, but nothing can explain why two people would want to hammer away at each other for decades on end the way these two trapped souls do. Except that maybe you’d do the same thing under the same circumstances. I’d like to think I would, anyway.
5. The zenith for both Pabst and star Louise Brooks—the latter has become almost solely emblematic of the flapper age because of this film! Adapted from playwright Franz Wedekind’s story of Lulu, a preternaturally powerful beauty blithely strolling through the mating marshlands of the world, where nature is savagely cruel to both the pursuers and the pursued. Watch this film at different stages of your romantic life span and behold your sympathies shifting all over the place! Ouch! Gorgeous! Ouch, again!
6. This has got to be the most wonderful film about that transitional period that groups of close friends in young adulthood must go through as they accept more and more the responsibilities of maturity. There is so much spontaneous camaraderie, natural humor, truth, and, finally, Chekhovian sadness in this gentle masterpiece. Plus, those Italian slackers sure know how to dress!
7. A great collaboration—more like a mystical fusion—of Eisenstein and composer Sergei Prokofiev. Music takes the most direct route to the heart, but rarely does it have such an insanely rich profusion of imagery hitching a ride to the same destination!! This mad history of Russia’s first czar just gets more ridiculously fascinating and baroque as the minutes mount—and there are lots of absorbing minutes in this pair of films, though not enough for my liking! Eisenstein boldly steps further and further out of his closet—not an easy thing to do in Stalinist times—as he brazenly unfurls, right before old Uncle Joe, ever more strange and massive tapestries. Part III had only just been begun when a fatal heart attack, or something, stayed Sergei’s perfumed hand.
8. A bunch of nuns move into a wind-addled old pleasure dome in the Himalayas and have trouble remembering their vows. The air is set aquivering by the most innocuous male approach to their world—even Sabu seems to shake their virginal resolve. And even I have trouble keeping my priest’s collar straight as the unspoken pressures build up to boiler-breaking levels. Technicolor at its most eye-popping!
9. Sirk’s assembled team of actors and craftspeople has never been better! Frank Skinner’s underrated score really carries this hurtling narrative from its first insane notes, dialing up the Euripidean melodramatics to levels worthy of the luridly saturated Technicolors lensed by Russell Metty. Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Lauren Bacall (of that certain age long before any other Sirk heroine), and the impossible-to-carbon-date Dorothy Malone, in a helmet of dead hair, whirl around each other like a mobile in a gale, all the while perfectly delivering dialogue as confected as Alexander Golitzen’s decors. Hard to believe Rock’s muse, Ross Hunter, didn’t produce this one!
10. Strange little silent history of witchcraft out of Denmark, fashioned sort of in the Intolerance shape, featuring incredibly chiaroscuroed mise-en-scène, with plenty of pornish coven action. Being evil never looked so sumptuous. I like the alternate version, Witchcraft Through the Ages, narrated by William S. Burroughs—his voice seems to have been created to discuss any matters supernatural. You can’t tell for sure how much he believes in it, yet still he manages to be equal parts hilarious and menacing!