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The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The 1950s were a decade of fear and paranoia. Schoolkids learned to duck and cover and at night, dreamed of mushroom clouds. Grownups were spooked by Commies hiding behind every bush and screenplay. They built fallout shelters in their back yards. Congress held hearings and inquisitions. They had lists. Not only were spies giving our secrets to the Rooskies, but comic books were debauching our youth. Armed soldiers accompanied little girls to school, defending them from angry, fearful mobs.

It’s all there to see in our movies. It was a decade of noir, a decade of “psychological” Westerns. But most of all, it was the decade of crummy science fiction. In those films the shadows that frightened us were allowed out of their cages. There be dragons.

Godzilla was really only the most overt of those films, but the message was everywhere. If it wasn’t about nuclear bombs reawakening prehistoric beasts, as in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms or The Giant Behemoth (can there be a small behemoth?), then it was about our fear of Cold War Communists: The subtext of Invaders From Mars — one of the creepiest movies ever — was that aliens could infiltrate our comfortable suburban lives and we wouldn’t even know it. It was a nightmare of true paranoia. It was there in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, too: People weren’t who we thought they were and we couldn’t trust anyone.

Subtext was king.

There were few sci-fi films from the time that didn’t bear this extra freight, from Them! (not us) and its giant ants in the LA sewers to The Thing and its call to “keep watching the skies.”

Certainly the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds carried this Cold War message. We were at risk of invasion from aliens, and whether they were from Mars or the Soviet Union hardly mattered.

The narration made this explicit, describing the course of the 20th century from World War I — “nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days” — through World War II — with “new devices of warfare which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction” — to the next war, “fought with the terrible weapons of superscience, menacing all mankind and every creature on Earth.”

This was a movie about the fears we felt in the 1950s.

And it is why those wretched movies, made on a shoestring with cardboard sets and vacuum-tube control boards, can stick in our memories like some pop tune. There is the power of dream and nightmare underneath the aluminum spray paint and prehistoric iguanas.

Star Wars? Star Snores.

Can’t compare with Devil Girl From Mars. There is a unacknowledged fear of a rising feminism. Same for Cat Women of the Moon or Queen of Outer Space.

Devil Girl from Mars

Devil Girl from Mars

Those of us who grew up on the real thing know that if you want the bona fides, you must find them not in the Technicolor epics, but in the mustier corners of your video store or the back channels of your basic cable.

For the kind of sci-fi that sticks to your frontal lobe for a lifetime, you must look to something a lot less classy than George Lucas’ New Age Wookiee-fest.

You’re talking the 1950s. The decade was to science fiction what the 1930s were to screwball comedies, or the 1940s to war movies.

The production of that single decade is astounding. There are hundreds of them, really cheesy space monster movies, made with the collective budget of a middle-size Levittown, N.Y., household. During Lent.

Those films, from Rocketship X-M in 1950 to Teenagers From Outer Space in 1959, outlined a genre. Even today’s most up-to-the-state-of-the-art FXtravaganza will manage to pay homage to those cheese-athons of yore.

You know the drill: An elderly scientist with a beautiful daughter discovers a new planet or an underground civilization that will destroy the world, or at least dent a small out-of-the-way English coastal village. All the best World War II stock footage of tanks and cannon cannot gun down the menace until our hero invents a new ray or oxygen destroyer that manages to vaporize the menace or at least cause it to doze off, meanwhile winning the daughter, whose name, by the way, is always a transgender name like Chris or Pat. (The hero has to be surprised at the beginning that the elderly scientist’s assistant is a ”girl.”)

And at the end she hugs her man, who is usually dressed in a leather flight jacket, and they stare off into the empty ocean and she asks him if the danger is over, if the flying saucer/interplanetary dinosaur/giant centipede will ever come back, and he looks pensive and says: ”Keep watching the skies.”

How can Star Wars compete with that?

And the acting in these low-budget classics is sometimes mind-blowing. Hollywood didn’t put its Gary Coopers and Cary Grants in cheap genre flicks. No, it drew from the shallow end of the pool of talent that included such luminaries as William Lundigan and Lyle Talbot. Most of them made Al Gore look as animated as Roger Rabbit.

I mean, let’s face it: Mark Hamill may be a lousy actor, but he’s no Sonny Tufts.

What is so surprising about those awful films is just how much affection we feel for them when they show up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 or during a baseball rain delay.

Actually, there are two types of affection we feel for them. For there are two different ways they stand out.

First, there is the movie that is so bad, it is fun to watch.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) is the archetype for this. Director Ed Wood has often been credited with making the worst movie ever. But this is calumny. There is something naively loopy about Plan 9 that makes us cherish its every goofy blunder.

And the dialogue: ”Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

Now, that’s writing!

And: ”Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, and you explode the universe.”

Audiences howl with laughter all the way through the movie. Nobody could have made anything so cheesy on purpose.

But Ed Wood wasn’t alone. There are plenty of bad movies, with plywood sets, paper-plate flying saucers and cardboard acting.

But there is another sort of film that we love, too. In those, a miserable script and lumpy acting are somehow saved by either a director who makes more of it all than you have any right to expect, or by an idea or image that sticks in the mind like a dream.

The Man from Planet X

The Man from Planet X

What alien is more inexpressibly “other” than the glass-helmeted homunculus from The Man From Planet X (1951)? And what planet is more memorably odd than the partly solarized, red-colored landscape from Angry Red Planet (1959)?

And there is a subgenre in this, in which such moviemakers as Ivan Tors tried naively but sincerely to show what space travel or robots would be like. Destination Moon (1950), or Gog (1954), for instance.

The movies are not actually good, but they have good hearts.

The ’50s had its share of larger budget sci-fi, too. Some of them are classics, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). They transcended their genre.

Some people consider Forbidden Planet (1956) to be a minor masterpiece.

Robot Monster

Robot Monster

But it is those benighted films such as Robot Monster (1953), with its man in a gorilla suit and a diving helmet, or Killers from Space (1954), with its out-of-shape zombies dressed in spandex with fried eggs for eyes, that truly deserve worship.

Killers from Space

Killers from Space

Unfortunately, with the advent of the 1960s, science fiction took a turn and not for the better. What had been naive attempts at entertainment in the previous decade took on the more ominous tone of exploitation. Producers aimed their films at the teenage market, and the gore level rose. The monsters had faces like used chewing gum and they oozed slime.

And worse, it was all caught on really bad, underlit color film.

The flatly lit black and white film of the ’50s was a signature style. You could tell instantly what you were in for. Flood lamps illuminated the scene evenly and spread twin shadows to the right and left of everything. But the bad lighting of the ’60s couldn’t help the goo-faced monsters. There was a failure of sincerity.

We can recognize that in retrospect, looking back through an age that imitated the loopiness of the earlier films. But it doesn’t matter if you call your film Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity (1987), these made-for-cable cheesers are way too self-conscious.

We can never regain our innocence. And as for our paranoia? Welcome to the post-Sept. 11 world. You can now see the same subtext showing up once more. Not only in the many Middle-Eastern villains in our superhero movies, but in our science fiction once again.

And Steven Spielberg’s new take on War of the Worlds is fairly marinated in it. It oozes everywhere.

The new film has a different shadow villain: “Is it the terrorists?” little Rachel asks when things start blowing up.

Although Spielberg never undercuts the sheer velocity of his thriller with academic discourse, he fills his movie with striking imagery that makes the subtext clear: An airplane crashes into a building, posters stapled to walls with pictures of missing people, debris falling from the sky.

These are the images of our current fears. Older movies reveal our former fears.

The newer subtext is terrorism, which even comes out in the comic relief.

When Tom Cruise is trying to escape the destruction of the aliens with his two children, they ask him about the fearful strikes of lightning that have prefigured the chaos. This wasn’t ordinary lightning, he tells them, “It came from somewhere else.”

“Like Europe?” his teenage son asks.

“No, Robbie, not like Europe,” he replies. And we recognize, someplace non-European, where people have different clothing and different beliefs, somewhere utterly alien to most Americans.

It isn’t that Spielberg’s film is about 9/11, but that some of the emotion and fear we feel watching it is recalled from having seen the real event. It sets up a resonance: You can’t see the one without thinking of the other.

This is subtext speaking.

TOP 10
Cheesy Sci-Fi movies from the 1950s

Cat Women of the Moon

Cat Women of the Moon

10. Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) – Our astronauts, led by Sonny Tufts, reach
the moon only to find a cave full of exotic dancers in black cat suits. There
is also a giant spider. Similar plots show up in Missile to the Moon (1959)
and Fire Maidens From Outer Space (1954), but neither can top the original.
9. Angry Red Planet (1959) – An American space team lands on Mars and is eaten
by giant spiders with rat faces. Only the ”girl” survives. The acting is
rudimentary, but the visuals are unforgettable, even in their cheesiness.
8. The Crawling Eye (1958) – Forrest Tucker acts his heart out in this tale of
giant eyeballs with tentacles that live in frozen radioactive clouds above a
Swiss village and communicate psychically with a young woman.
7. Invaders From Mars (1953) – This is almost a work of genius. Despite
vestigial special effects, no movie has ever portrayed childhood paranoia
better than this. A boy suspects his parents have been made into zombies by
the buried flying saucer. No one believes him.

Kronos

Kronos

6. Kronos (1957) – A giant cube from outer space eats energy and gets bigger.
So, what does the army do? Try to kill it with an A-bomb. ”You Earth people
are stupid! Stupid! Stupid!,” as Eros says in Plan 9. The sight of a
building-size monster moving across the landscape is eerie.
5. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1958) – Sometimes called ”the worst movie ever
made,” Plan 9 nevertheless has a loopy genuineness to it, an almost
soft-hearted pacifist message at its core, as zombies raised from the dead by
aliens are meant to take over the Earth. This movie is a party waiting for you
to invite your friends to.
4. Riders to the Stars (1954) – One of the rare color films from this age of
black and white, Riders is a straightforward, even humorless attempt to
explain the travails of space travel, with lots of centrifuge scenes and a
love triangle. Little excitement, but lots of sincerity.
3. Gog (1954) – This is Ivan Tors at his best, telling a story about how man’s
development of technology can come back to harm him. Gog and its twin, Magog,
are among the best robots ever put on film. They are not humanoid but look
more like what we see in industrial robots today.

Queen of Outer Space

Queen of Outer Space

2. The Queen of Outer Space (1958) – This may have been Zsa Zsa Gabor’s best
role. She plays a kind of Hungarian freedom fighter rebelling against a masked
evil queen of the universe and saving the lives of the American space men.
This is actually a fourth version of Cat Women of the Moon, but it is even
campier. Its silliness unfortunately forecasts the doom of the naive space
movie.

The Man from Planet X

The Man from Planet X

1. The Man From Planet X (1951) – Shot for less than $50,000 in six days by
low-budget genius Edgar G. Ulmer, this film manages to make a virtue of every
budget shortcut he was forced to take. The atmospheric sets, supposedly
English moors, are foggy to hide their phoniness. But the imaginative
spacecraft – a sort of upside down aluminum ice-cream cone – and
pathos-evoking blank-face alien are unforgettable. So is villain William
Schallert, before he became Dobie Gillis’ teacher, Mr. Pomfritt. This film is
a minor classic and shows how you can do a great deal on a shoestring and an
idea. And a scientist with a lovely daughter.

Angry Red Planet

Angry Red Planet

SCI-FI OF THE ’50s
Angry Red Planet, 1959
The Astounding She-Monster, 1957
The Atomic Man, 1956
Attack From Space, 1959 (Japanese)
Attack of the 50-foot Woman, 1958
Attack of the Puppet People, 1958
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1953
The Blob, 1958

Cat Women of the Moon

Cat Women of the Moon

Cat-Women of the Moon, 1953

Conquest of Space, 1955

The Cosmic Man, 1959
The Cosmic Monsters, 1958
The Crawling Eye, 1958
The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
The Day the World Ended, 1956
The Deadly Mantis, 1957
Destination Moon, 1950
Devil Girl From Mars, 1954
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 1956
Earth vs. the Spider, 1958
The Electronic Monster, 1958
Enemy From Space, 1957
The Evil Brain From Outer Space, 1956
Fiend Without a Face, 1957

Fire Maidens of Outer Space

Fire Maidens of Outer Space

Fire Maidens From Outer Space, 1954
First Man into Space, 1959
Flight to Mars, 1951
The Flying Saucer, 1950
Forbidden Moon, 1956
Forbidden Planet, 1956
The 4-D Man, 1959
From the Earth to the Moon, 1958
The Gamma People, 1956

The Giant Behemoth

The Giant Behemoth

The Giant Behemoth, 1959 (and try to imagine a tiny behemoth)
The Giant Claw, 1957
The Giant Gila Monster, 1959
Godzilla, King of the Monsters, 1956
Gog, 1954
The H-Man, 1958
I Married a Monster From Outer Space, 1958
The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1957
Invaders From Mars, 1953
Invaders From Space, 1959
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956

Invasion of the Saucer Men, 1957
It Came From Beneath the Sea, 1955
It Came From Outer Space, 1953
It Conquered the World, 1956
It! The Terror From Beyond Space, 1958
Killers From Space, 1954
King Dinosaur, 1955
Kronos, 1957
The Lost Missile, 1958
The Lost Planet, 1953
The Magnetic Monster, 1953
Man Beast, 1956
Manhunt in Space, 1956
The Man From Planet X, 1951
Menace From Outer Space, 1956
Mesa of Lost Women, 1953
Meteor Monster, 1957

Missile to the Moon

Missile to the Moon

Missile to the Moon, 1959
The Mole People, 1956
The Monolith Monsters, 1957
Monster From Green Hell, 1957
Monster From the Ocean Floor, 1954
The Monster that Challenged the World, 1957
The Mysterians, 1957
Phantom From Space, 1953
Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1958
Project Moonbase, 1953
Queen of Outer Space, 1958
Radar Men From the Moon, 1952
Riders to the Stars, 1954

The Mole People

The Mole People

Robot Monster, 1953
Rocket Attack, U.S.A., 1958
Rocketship X-M, 1950
Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, 1954-55
Rodan, 1956
Stranger From Venus, 1954
Tarantula, 1955
Target Earth, 1954
Teenagers From Outer Space, 1959
Terror From the Year 5000, 1958
Them!, 1954
The Thing, 1951
This Island Earth, 1954
Tobor the Great, 1954
20 Million Miles to Earth, 1957
The 27th Day, 1957
Untamed Women, 1952
Warning From Space, 1956
War of the Colossal Beast, 1958
War of the Worlds, 1953

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide

When Worlds Collide, 1951
The Wild Women of Wongo, 1958
X The Unknown, 1956
Zombies of the Stratosphere, 1952

Back Bay, Virginia

Back Bay, Virginia

When you are young, it is easy to be in love with art. You may love its artifice, you may love the colors or the rhymes or the great blaring sounds of the music you listen to. Art is vibrant; it seems so alive. But most of all, you are in love with the sense of importance art brings: It seems to validate the belief we all have when we are young that our own lives matter, that we count in the larger scheme of things.

We are all Tristan or Holden Caulfield.

Perhaps that is why the young make so much art. They are not yet unhappy with it, not yet dissatisfied at the lies that art creates, not yet disgusted with the prettiness of it all.

Most of all, the art we make when we are young imitates the art we have come to love: Art most often imitates art, not life. There is so much bad imitation T.S. Eliot written in college, so much abstract painting of no consequence, so much herd-instinct.

I have been as guilty as anyone. In 45 years of photography, the bulk of my work has been imitation Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or Irving Penn. I make my confession: I have photographed a pepper. I was learning to make images that I could recognize as art, because it looked like the art I knew. Big mistake.

Go to any art gallery and you see the same process unfolding. Imitation Monet here, imitation Duchamp there, imitation Robert Longo there. Whatever the current trend in art is, there are acolytes and epigones.

At some point, as you age and if you are lucky, you let all this shed off you, and you no longer care about art. What takes its place is caring about the world, caring about the experience of being alive. It isn’t going to last long, so you begin paying attention: close attention to soak in as much as you can before you die.

And if you are inclined toward art, you give up caring whether you are making “great” art, or whether you are part of the great parade of art history, and you care only about what you see, hear, touch, smell and taste. The world becomes alive and art fades to pathetic simulacrum.

When you reach this point, then you can begin making art. And you make it for yourself, not for posterity. You make it to attempt to capture and hold the world you love, or to understand the world, or to transcend it, when it becomes too difficult to endure or accept.

Art becomes a response to the world, rather than a substitute for it.

Walnut Tree, Greensboro, NC

Walnut Tree, Greensboro, NC

 2.

The first garden I made was a vegetable garden in the front yard of the North Carolina house I was renting in the early 1970s. I grew the usual tomatoes and peppers, beans and spinach. I also ventured into eggplant, which turned into the most successful part of the garden, to my surprise.

But what I really learned from my garden is the difference between the neat, orderly photographs in the seed catalogs and the rampant, weedy, dirt-clod messiness of the real thing. Gardens, I discovered, were not military rows of uniform plants, but a vegetative chaos.

The stupid thing was that I should have known this going in. All around me trees, vines, shrubs, roadside flowers and Bermuda grass were telling me one single thing, over and over: Profusion is the order of nature. Variety, profligacy, energy, expediency, growth.

Whether it is a kudzu shell over a stand of trees, or the tangle of saplings that close over an abandoned farm field, or the knot of rhizomes that run under the turf, the rule of nature is clutter.

The walnut tree outside the front door was old, and its bark was stratified with moss, lichen, beads of sap, and a highway of ants running up and down. From a distance, it was just a tree, but up close, it was a city.

When I was a boy, there was an abandoned farm beside our property. An old, unpainted barn and farmhouse stood in the center of a field of grass and weeds. When I was maybe 8 years old, those buildings burnt down one night, in a glory of flame.

In the years that followed, the course of plant succession took over. I learned my lessons from the Boy Scout merit badges I earned, but even there, the story of succession seemed much more orderly than what I saw out my window. Plant succession wasn’t a clear progression from annuals to perennials to shrubs and through a clearly delineated march of one kind of tree into another till we reached climax growth. It was instead a tangle of saplings through which it was nearly impossible to walk. There was not a “baby forest” that we saw, but an overpopulated struggle for sunlight, every plant elbowing its neighbor for survival. In a forest, the trees stand a certain distance apart, their crowns touching to make a roof. But this young version was more like a thick head of hair; there was no distance between the shoots.

Everything in nature told me the same thing: busyness, struggle and chaos. It was all exhilarating, and I loved the tangle of it all, the textures, the smells, loam and rot, the mud and dew.

And yet, that isn’t what I saw when I looked at art about nature, whether it was glossy calendar photos or Arizona Highways’ covers on the low end, or whether it was Raphael and Delacroix on the high end.

The nature I saw in most art was tame as a housecat. And the art wasn’t really about nature at all, but about order. It wasn’t made to see the world we saunter through, but to see how our minds organize and codify it.

Whether it was 18th century paintings or Ansel Adams’ photographs, the art was all about order. In fact, you could say that the point of the art wasn’t to make us see nature, but to understand order.

I was unsatisfied with it and with my own art. I wanted to make an art that would look at the natural world and make images that spoke to me about what I was really seeing and feeling.

Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris

 3.

I recognized something of what I wanted in the arts of the Gothic, Baroque and Romantic periods, eras in art that glorified the energy and visual confusion of the world. They are arts that responded to the profuse variety of experience. They were also arts that were devalued by the mainstream art world of the 20th century. Eliot deprecated Milton; Stravinsky insulted Berlioz; Mies van der Rohe is the anti-Gothic architect.

Yet, I loved Shelley, Schumann, Chartres. And I wanted to find a way to make that art over in our new century, in a new way, and reattach art to the world around me. It had been untethered too long; too long it had been its own reason for being. Art for art’s sake? Not any more.

It can be hard — it is probably impossible — to make art completely divorced from one’s time. The visual universe is too persuasive. We cannot even know how deeply we are affected by the stylistic twitches of our own age, and I am not saying my own work is sui generis. It certainly is not.

The light that knocked me off my horse on my own way to Damascus was a single book of photographs — still a fairly obscure book — by Lee Friedlander, titled  Flowers and Trees, from 1981. It was spiral bound, printed in a matte finish, and had virtually no text. Inside, I found a mirror of the nature I knew and felt. Nothing was framed neatly, nothing was glorified by the light poured on it, nothing was reified into monumentality. Instead, there was the profusion, confusion and organicism that I recognized from my own experience.

And I realized that I had been working in that same direction for years, but had buried those photographs among the more conventional mountainscapes and detail photographs where I had imitated my betters. I had several series of images that were my own immediate response to nature and they were all photographs I had made in the gardens of friends. I gathered them together and looked. The conventional photographs seemed to have no value whatsoever and these others, almost random, usually confused, and always ad hoc, seemed to breathe the life I had been looking for.

Since that time, and with the advent of digital photography, I have been liberated. I take my camera with me, point it at something I want to feed it, and let it do the chewing. I never look through the viewfinder anymore, but instead look at the larger shapes, darks and lights, that show in the digital screen on the back of my camera. I see how I see, and click the shutter.

Over the years, I have made many of these sets of photographs, usually 15 to 35 pictures in a group, and printed together to be seen as a “book,” that is, a print cabinet, where my audience can spend as much or as little time as they wish and shuffle to the next.

And the unit of my work is the book, not the individual photo. You can’t see a forest by looking at a single tree.

Baldwin County, Alabama

Baldwin County, Alabama

4.

If I have succeeded, I have also failed.

For in the end, my attempt to wrestle with the world has turned into an art that is also about order, about how the mind engages with the things around it. I have wound up doing exactly what my predecessors have done.

It isn’t surprising. After all, when I turn on my elders and find their efforts insufficient, I am doing nothing different from what they did when they turned on their elders. It is how art grows. Wordsworth rebels against Pope, Eliot rebels against Wordsworth, Ginsburg rebels against Eliot. One generation finds its parents lacking and tries its on its own to finally express the truth.

And I can only be happy when a generation after mine points its own finger backward and wiggles it in reproach at me.

It seems we never get closer to what we are all after. Value is all in the trying.

Reno, Nevada

Reno, Nevada

children of paradise lede

I used to tell people my top-10 list had 40 movies on it. It’s a common problem. We all like to make lists, but there’s never enough room.

(Of course, the ranking of any artform is a pathetic and meaningless exercise. We are stipulating that at the outset. But lists are not only fun, they are the current American venue for intellectual debate — see below: The 50 Greatest Lists of All Time — https://richardnilsen.com/2012/11/30/greatest-lists-of-all-time).

When the American Film Institute decided to list the hundred greatest films, they restricted it to American films — or at least they say they did. Somehow, a few English films made the list. But no foreign language films did.

And that leaves us a whole universe of movies not eligible, including some of the best ever made.

So, in response, we are providing the list of 100 best foreign films.

What constitutes a “foreign” film is always a little iffy. The Oscars have had trouble with that for years: Do you count the language of the dialog? The country where the movie was made? The country where the movie was financed?

Most of these films are established classics, and if you worry that the list has too many of the “usual suspects,” I hope I have included enough eccentric personal choices to give everyone something to talk about. That, after all, is the purpose of such a list.

And you will notice a francophile bias. I cannot disavow that. Most of my favorite films are in French. I’ve seen hundreds, maybe thousands of them, and I’ve become acculturated.

The movies on this list were chosen for several reasons. Some are among the greatest artistic creations of our civilization. Others are on the list because of their enormous influence on other film makers. Still others are just such fun to watch.

Which reminds me, if you think all foreign films are dreary and boring, you haven’t been watching the right ones. Admittedly, French or German films are more likely to investigate the outer reaches of alienation and philosophy than Hollywood films, but you will never find better battle scenes than in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. You will be hard pressed to find more suspense than in the last half hour of Georges-Henri Clouzot’s Les  Diaboliques. And if it’s blowing things up you are after, check out Clouzot’s Wages of Fear, in which Yves Montand and a bunch of toughs drive a truck full of nitroglycerine 300 miles over unpaved South American roads.

wages

Yet, I don’t want to gloss over the difference between American and foreign films.

I have always made the distinction between what I call “Hollywood films” and “real movies.”

The real movie is about being human, about relationships, character, moral issues and historical and philosophical meaning. Hollywood movies are about blowing things up.

Now, there are foreign-made Hollywood movies by my definition, and Hollywood-made real movies: One thinks of spaghetti Westerns on one hand, and of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation or John Ford’s The Searchers on the other.

At least one film manages to play both sides of the field: AFI’s No. 1 film, Citizen Kane manages like nothing else I know, to join seamlessly the slick Hollywood side  with the depth and character development of a “real movie.”

As critic Pauline Kael has said, it is one of the few great movies that is also great fun.

But by and large, foreign filmmakers play out their creativity in a larger world, with more possibilities and fewer hidebound cinematic conventions.

After all, Hollywood earned its reputation as the manufacturer of the shallow happy ending.

My list of the 100-best foreign films is a very personal list, drawn from a lifetime of watching movies. I expect you have your own films to nominate. But these are the ones I came up with.

children of paradise

First on my list is Children of Paradise, which is more like a full-length novel than any other film I know. It has a rich cast of characters and follows them over many years. And as in Brothers Karamazov, each character also embodies a different philosophy. It is a very full movie.

Set in the Paris of the 1840s, it tells the tale of Baptiste Debureau and the theatrical world in which he lived. It is also about love, art and social class.

If Kane manages to mix high and low successfully, so does Children of Paradise, in its own way. It has something of the sweep of Gone with the Wind, the passion of From Here to Eternity and the wit of Ninotchka.

And it is a film you can grow with rather than out of. When I was fresh out of college, I identified with the idealistic Baptiste; after a few marriages, I took the practical Frederick Lemaitre’s attitude toward relationships; nowadays, I uncomfortably find myself more in the cynical Pierre-Francois Lacenaire.

rules of the game

Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game might just as well claim the top spot. No other film is as deft at showing the disjunction between what our impulses are and what society demands of us.

Cocteau’s Orphee is also a great deal of fun, playing with all the tricks of cinema to create visual magic. What you see is likely to remain in your memory forever.

Fellini’s La Dolce Vita may be the saddest film ever put on celluloid. It is long and slow, but every detail is life itself, and it makes me weep for the world.

Potemkin is one of those seminal films that invent the language of cinema. What is all the more astonishing is that this Soviet propaganda film actually plays down the more sensational aspects of the historical affair it is based on. If it had been truer to history, it would have felt more simply propagandistic.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is not the most consistently good film. It has stretches of languors, but when the camera is on the face of Maria Falconetti, in the only film she ever made, the intensity is literally unbearable. It is the face of human suffering.

Kurosawa’s Ran is a Japanese retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and shows the director at the absolute peak of his powers, with the best battle sequences ever filmed.

Marlene Dietrich sings Falling in Love Again in The Blue Angel, which makes Cabaret look like “Gidget Goes to the Weimar Republic.” Steamy, smoky, atmospheric, its director, Josef von Sternberg — an American — never did anything so good again.

It takes a serious commitment of time and attention to sit through Andre Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, but you will know you have experienced something worth your effort, as the director takes us through a brutal vision of life and the place in it for both art and faith.

andrei rublev

Admittedly, almost any of the next 25 or 30 could legitimately make it to the top 10, but I’ll stand with the ones I have chosen.

Some, like Jules and Jim or Amarcord are pure pleasure to watch. Others, such as Rashomon or Wild Strawberries have at their core a moral vision. And still others, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis are simply visionary.

You will find intensity, passion, intellect, visuals, acting and directing the equal or better of anything from Hollywood. What you will not find are giant lizards and serial car wrecks. (Although, the original, Japanese version of Godzilla is a horrifying metaphor for the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and a great movie, ruined by Hollywood’s re-edit — see the version in Japanese and weep.)

gozillacity

A few, such as Henry V and The Mahabharata are unabashedly theatrical, using their staginess as a style.

There are few British films on my list: AFI threw me a curve and included several on their list. So, Third Man, Dr. Strangelove and Lawrence of Arabia are not here, although they would have been.

You will discover that a handful of directors made the majority of these films. I cannot apologize for that. I made the list without considering authorship. As it turns out, Ingmar Bergman shows up a dozen times; Kurosawa, 10. Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini follow up with seven and five films.

Prety much anything by them, or by Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Erich Rohmer, Agnes Varda or Krzysztof Kieslowski is worth watching, multiple times.

But, if Bergman is on this list more than others, does this mean Bergman is the greatest director? No. He has made many great films, but he is more prone to self-parody than any other important director and when he is bad — as in the miserable Elliot Gould film, The Touch, he comes close to rivaling Ed Wood.

In art, there is no best. There is only overwhelming.

The TOP 100 FOREIGN FILMS

1. Children of Paradise (1945) Marcel Carne — The French “Gone With the Wind.” Everyone after the same woman.

2. Rules of the Game (1939) Jean Renoir — Infidelity in pre-war France. Everyone after the same woman.

orphee

3. Orphee (1949) Jean Cocteau — French surrealist retells myth with magical camera tricks.

4. La Dolce Vita (1960) Fellini — Unforgetable images. We have met the anomie and he is us.

5. Seven Samurai (1954) Akira Kurosawa — The perfect samurai movie.

6. Battleship Potemkin (1925) Sergei Eisenstein — 1905 Odessa uprising and mutiny in Tsarist Russia.

7. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Carl Theodore Dreyer — The story of the French saint told in intense close-ups.

8. Ran (1985) Kurosawa — Japanese “King Lear.”

Ran

9. The Blue Angel (1930) Josef von Sternberg — Obsession, degradation, sex in pre-Hitler Germany.

10. Andrei Rublev (1966) Andre Tarkovsky — Cryptic and beautiful film about art and faith in a brutal world.

11. Rashomon (1950) Kurosawa — He-said, she-said in medieval Japan, looks at nature of truth.

12. Grand Illusion (1937) Renoir — Prison bust in WWI.

13. Amarcord (1974) Fellini — A nostalgic film memoir.

14. La Strada (1954) Fellini — Italian circus strong-man Anthony Quinn takes wife, loses same.

15. Seventh Seal (1957) Ingmar Bergman — Death checkmates the Swedish knight during the Plague Years.

seventh seal

16. Wild Strawberries (1957) Bergman — Old Swedish doctor takes a road trip through the past to examine his life.

17. Jules and Jim (1961) Francois Truffaut — Two guys, one girl. You do the math. The delights of French bohemia.

18. Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) Abel Gance — The great film biography, currently unavailable, blame Francis Ford Coppola.

19. Ikiru (1952) Kurosawa — Dying old man finds purpose to his life by beating the bureaucracy.

20. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) Robert Wiene — Expressionist ur-horror tale is a silent classic.

21. Blue, White and Red (1993-94) Krzysztof Kieslowski — Three great films, but one overarching theme, that explodes in the denouement that ties them together.

22. The Bicycle Thief (1949) Vittorio de Sica — Neo-Realist classic about bike messenger who loses his wheels.

23. 400 Blows (1959) Truffaut — French borstal boy.

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24. Fanny and Alexander (1983) Bergman — Theater family readjusts to life with strict preacher step-father.

25. Breathless (1959) Jean-Luc Godard — New Wave punk on the lam, with Jean Seberg. Godard is one of the true geniuses of cinema, with astounding and inventive scenes, who nevertheless seldom made a completely satisfying movie. A genius of bits and pieces.

26. L’Avventura (1960) Michelangelo Antonioni — Existential mystery about a woman who disappears on an island.

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27. Le Doulos (1962) Jean-Pierre Melville’s hardboiled policier full of dark twists and turns. One of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films.

28. Day for Night (1973) Truffaut — Sweet-natured film about shenanigans on the set of a “B” movie.

29. Cries and Whispers (1972) Bergman — Who loves the dying woman? The sisters or the nurse?

30. Alexander Nevsky (1938) Eisenstein — Medieval battle on the ice.

31. Persona (1966) Bergman — Burning psychological study of mute actress and her nurse.

32. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) Kenji Mizoguchi — Two brothers and ambition in medieval Japan.

33. Wings of Desire (1988) Wim Wenders — Angel hears poetry of life and is seduced.

wings

34. Metropolis (1926) Fritz Lang — The future choreographed as machinery.

35. Nosferatu (1922) F.W. Murnau — The original “Dracula.”

36. Le Jour se Leve (1939) Carne — Jean Gabin as a murderer waiting for the police to come.

37. The Last Laugh (1924) Murnau — Devastating, brilliant silent film with no title cards about age and humiliation.

38. Solaris (1972) Tarkovsky — Russian director’s answer to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

39. Dr. Mabuse, Gambler (1922) Lang — Two-part allegory of Nazi evil with Rudolf Klein-Rogge.

40. Viridiana (1970) Luis Bunuel — Innocence corrupted, with the beggars’ “Last Supper.”

Silvia Pinal inÊLuis Bu–uel'sÊVIRIDIANA. ÊCredit: Janus Films. Ê

41. Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) A pop star waits two hours for results of her biopsy; Agnes Varda’s signature film, but one of only several worth knowing by heart.

42. The Sorrow and the Pity (1970) Marcel Ophuls — Are the Nazi collaborators telling the truth? Documentary.

43. La Bete Humaine (1938) Renoir — Jean Gabin is a train engineer who witnesses a murder.

44. Andalusian Dog (1928) Bunuel — Surrealism’s flagship film.

45. Diabolique (1955) Henri-Georges Clouzot — Is the murder victim dead? Forget Sharon Stone; rent this.

46. A Nous la Liberte (1931) Rene Clair — “Modern Times” in French.

47. M (1931) Lang — Criminals convict a child molester.

48. Ivan the Terrible Parts 1&2 (1943-1946) Eisenstein — Once-banned pageant, too close to home for Stalin.

49. Le Boucher (1970) Claude Boucher was the most prolific of the New Wave French directors. This is probably his most characteristic film.

le boucher

50. Woman in the Dunes (1964) Hiroshi Teshigahara — Japanese vacationer gets caught in sand trap of life.

51. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) Jacques Tati — Comic seaside vacation. Tati’s best film.

52. Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)  Alain Resnais — Interracial love and angst in post-war Japan, told stream-of-consciousness.

53. Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) Werner Herzog — Klaus Kinski as a Spaniard, leading doomed expedition down Amazon.

54. Last Tango in Paris (1973) Bertolucci — Brando laments dead wife, has nameless affair with young woman.

55. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) Bergman — Drawing-room comedy matches the lovers with correct mates.

smiles of summer night

56. Wild Child (1969) Truffaut — Science vs. Parenthood.

57. Farewell My Concubine (1993)  Chen Kaige — Chinese opera vs. Maoism. A film with broad sweep.

58. Olympia (1936) Leni Riefenstahl — Athletics as heroism. It settles into tedium, but the montage is breathtaking.

59. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966) Pier Paolo Pasolini — Sober replay of Bible story, told absolutely straight.

60. Hara Kiri (1962) Masaki Kobayashi — Harrowing samurai revenge epic.

61. The Mahabharata (1989) Peter Brook — Theatrical film tells history of the world, Vedic-style.

62. Shop on Main Street (1965) Jan Kadar — Subverting Nazis in Czechoslovakia.

63. My Night at Maud’s (1969) Eric Rohmer — One of Erich Rohmer’s “Six Moral Tales.” Is it infidelity if you don’t have sex with her and you aren’t yet married yet?

64. The Wages of Fear (1952) Clouzot — Explosive road movie.

65. Le Roman d’un Tricheur (the Cheat) (1936) Great French comedian Sacha Guitry speaks virtually all the parts in voice-over narration.

sacha guitry

66. Fellini Satyricon (1970) Fellini — If you thought the Classics were dull, you’ve underestimated Fellini.

67. The Virgin Spring (1959) Bergman — Medieval folk tale.

68. Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) Bunuel — Let’s do lunch, in hell. Recast of Tantalus myth.

69. Scenes from a Marriage (1973) Bergman — Very civilized divorce. Very definition of “internalization.”

70. The Passenger (1975) Antonioni — Jack Nicholson in Italian art film, changes identities, risks life.

71. Beauty and the Beast (1946) Cocteau — Magical retelling of fairy tale. Puts Disney to shame.

beautyandbeast

72. Last Year at Marienbad (1961) Resnais — Classic puzzle picture. Don’t believe anything you see.

73. The Baker’s Wife (1938) Marcel Pagnol — She ran away, but the town still needs bread.

74. Nibelungenlied Parts 1&2: Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Revenge. (1924) Lang — German saga brilliantly remounted.

75. Knife in the Water (1962) Roman Polanski — Thriller. Don’t pick up hitchhikers.

76. Small Change (1976) Truffaut — One of the few films about childhood that isn’t sappy.

77. The Hidden Fortress (1958) Kurosawa — C-3PO and R2D2 help princess in Medieval Japan.

78. The Magician (1958) Bergman — Science vs. Religion.

79. The Mystery of Picasso (1956) Clouzot — Documentary of great painter at work. Utter magic.

80. The Earrings of Madame … (1953) The master of the moving camera, Max Ophuls tells an ironic and moving story of the La Belle Epoque.

81. Mouchette (1967) Any Robert Bresson film might — and should — be on this list. Mouchette is a good place to start, the story of a young girl whose life is nasty, brutal and short.

mouchette

82. Le Fabuleux Destin de Amelie Poulain (2001) Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s vision of Paris, in deep greens and blues, miraculous and warm.

83. Stolen Kisses (1968) Truffaut — Antoine Doinel, from “400 Blows,” grows up, sort of.

84. Los Olvidados (1950) Bunuel — Street life in Mexico.

85. Black Orpheus (1959) Marcel Camus — Myth retold in Brazil, with song and samba.

86. Autumn Sonata (1978) Bergman — Quintessential mother-daughter film, complete with icy stares.

87. Decalogue (1989) Ten short films by Kieslowski, each with an idiosyncratic take on one of the Ten Commandments. Harrowing at best.

88. Throne of Blood (1957) Kurosawa — Japanese “Macbeth.”

89. Yojimbo (1961) Kurosawa — Samurai “Fistful of Dollars.”

90. Sanjuro (1962) Kurosawa — Another “Teriyaki Western.”

91. Pather Panchali (1955) Satyajit Ray — Poor family raises son in poverty-stricken Bengal.

Arabian Nights

92. Arabian Nights (1974) Pasolini — Scheherezade in the nude. Simple filmmaking, complex storytelling.

93. The Story of Adele H. (1975) Truffaut — Touching portrait of obsessive love. With Isabelle Adjani.

94. Du Rififi Chez les Hommes (1955) Jules Dassin’s iconic caper movie, with its long, silent, heart-pumping theft sequence. The granddaddy of them all.

95. The Devil’s Eye (1960) Bergman — Don Juan comes back from hell to seduce preacher’s daughter.

96. Forbidden Quest (1995) Peter Delpeut — Visionary Antarctic pseudo-documentary.

97. Bye-bye Brazil (1980) Carlos Diegues — Roaming Brazil’s back country with traveling magic show.

98. The Passion of Anna (1969) Bergman — Isolation and love on a Swedish island. In color, though hard to tell.

99. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) Kurosawa — Uneven anthology, but the best episodes are visionary.

100. Marat/Sade (1966) Brook — The persecution and assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum at Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade. In English.

Battle of Algiers3

But, how can you make such a list and leave off The Battle of Algiers? Cheez! That’s on my Top 10 List, too.

 

 

 

 

This is the Information Age, a century choked with facts and factoids, bites and gigabites. Yet, for all the blizzard of data, it has been a century of drought for Truth.

As the century has progressed, we have become increasingly suspicious of the very idea of Truth, to the point that many younger people simply no longer believe there is such a thing.

I ran into this attitude in a university art seminar I was asked to address. The brightest and most talented student in the class took exception to my exhortation that they use their art to discover truth.

Art, of course, often pretends to address “universal truths.”

“There is nothing universal,” she said, giving words to the common belief, which in itself is a sweepingly universal statement. “It’s all just personal preference.”

I asked her if she didn’t think that her art had validity for her viewers.

“No, it’s just my version. I don’t expect anyone else to believe it,” she said.

Why, then, I wondered, did she bother to make art? What was the point, beyond self-gratification?

It was, as I saw it, utter capitulation.

Yet, I still understood why she might think that way. It was a previous “universal truth” held by everyone from Aristotle to Southern Baptist Convention that prevented women from making art in the past — or at least kept them from being taken seriously. Universal truths held people back, subjected them, disenfranchised them, enslaved them, justified the status quo and glorified local circumstances — that is all she cared about the subject.

The century has had its belly full of horror perpetrated in the name of “universal truths.” Cambodia cleared out its cities and slaughtered its citizens in the name of a great truth. The Soviet Union starved its provinces and imprisoned its best in the name of a “historical truth.” Germany’s big truth was a big lie and ended in genocide.

And in the centuries before ours, truth had a nasty habit of justifying colonialism, war, racism, the subjugation of women and the worst aspects of jingoistic nationalism. Just read any 19th Century justification of slavery. Is it any wonder that we have become nervous and twitchy about anyone claiming a franchise on Truth?

Even in our own time, those who profess to know the Truth habitually kill those who don’t agree. It doesn’t matter if they are Christian or Muslim, Tamil or Sikh. Truth is too often just a good excuse to blow each other to kingdom come. The nightly news carries new proof of this every day.

Yet, the loss of a sense of universal truth is in some ways just as bad.

We have no core beliefs to unify our culture; it fragments into interest groups and the groups fragment into individuals, each with his own desires and directions. The groups quarrel and soon, like Tutsis and Hutus, they are at each others throats.

Seven billion screaming ids. Either way, people wind up dead.

It used to be one of the functions of art and literature that it tested the veracity of purported truths, taking exception to ideas that had become outworn and making provisional stabs at creating substitutes. Art was the attempt to find universal truths that could stand up to the sulfuric acid used to separate the gold from metals more base.

As D.H. Lawrence said about the novel, meretricious ideas are easier to spot in fiction than in everyday life.

But the problem now is that it isn’t just that we no longer know which truth to believe, but that we simply don’t believe there is any truth.

We have reached an uncomfortable impasse. We need belief to make life meaningful, yet we cannot allow ourselves to believe in anything. Every faith, institution, political faction and ideal has proved at some level to be a tissue of hypocrisy. We decry our own cynicism, but recognize that at some level, it is merely realism.

Some retreat into conventional orthodoxies; others free float, aimless in an increasingly valueless society.

But there is another alternative: starting from scratch to see if we may discover for ourselves something like universal truth and build the whole thing all over again.

If we could only find a starting point, a single truth that everyone can agree is universal.

I suggest there is one such truth: We all die.

Death, if nothing else, is common to all 7 billion people on this planet. It is common to all living things, and metaphorically, common to all inorganic things, too. Perhaps if we recognize the universality of death, we can allow the possibility of other universals, even if we tread such territory gingerly.

If there is one truth, perhaps there are others. At the very least, it puts the lie to the canard that “it is all just personal preference.” At least one thing isn’t.

Death may seem a grisly place to start, but it doesn’t have to be.

The raw fact of death, when we are willing to be aware of it, also brightens and colors the gray ordinariness of daily life. It is what philosopher Martin Heidegger meant by the term, “authenticity.”

In simple terms: Death makes life more immediate.

If we ignore the fact of death, we can become bored with small things. But if we keep our death in mind, even mud becomes magic.

Perhaps just as important, it isn’t our own death that we feel most poignantly. We may not experience our own deaths at all — at least we have no reliable reports from after the fact — but we do feel the deaths of those around us in a profound sense of loss.

A sense of loss may be our second universal truth: It is certainly at the root of much mythology, from the expulsion from the Garden of Eden to the current New Age belief that Native American culture is somehow “in harmony with nature” and that our own culture is somehow cut off from it.

This loss is not merely generated by our awakened sense of our own mortality — in the face of loss, our own deaths often become insignificant — but of the recognition that we extend beyond our egos: We love.

Love — this opening up beyond self-interest — is perhaps a third truth, for whatever cultural inflection it picks up — and make no mistake: despite the rumblings of the Republican right, love is manifested in a million forms — the basic truth is that we all manage to break out of our blind egos and forge connections with others.

From love, we can begin to build a sense of morality. By breaking from our own egos, by imagining what it is to be other than ourselves, we begin to understand how our behavior affects those around us.

Young artists often deal with death in a symbolic fashion: skulls and blood. It is the mainstay of prison art, tattoos, heavy metal music and adolescent — primarily male adolescent — fantasies. Yet such doodling has as little to do with death as with art.

Such things are mere conceit.

It isn’t until we are older and come face-to-face with loss, that we begin to understand the meaning of death and the hundreds of emotional consequences that follow.

Beginning with one uncomfortable truth and wind up with a complex web of things, including that which makes us happiest.

I recommend to artists, not that they get all morbid, — quite the opposite — but that, starting with the universality of death, they may begin to build once more a fabric of belief that will sustain the human spirit.