I’m tired of hearing that we live in a visual culture. The fact is, we are generally very bad at seeing. I am constantly reminded of this by bad signage, bad book design, bad photographs, and bad TV. To say nothing of the horror that is TikTok.
It may be true that we like to use images instead of text whenever we can, but we also tend to treat the images as if they were text: That is, we turn them into the equivalent of hieroglyphs or rebuses. Hence the popularity of emojis.
But seeing a picture of a house and thinking “house,” is really just turning a picture into a word. Yes, no alphabetic letters need be used, but the information conveyed is basically the same. That is not seeing; it is translating.
I am reminded of this because of a frequent problem I find on some back-channel TV stations when they broadcast a program in the wrong aspect ratio. It is a visual goof that bothers me no end, and yet, so many people, when I point it out, simply don’t notice it. Faces can be squeezed thin or stretched fat and the visual-verbal translation isn’t affected, and therefore, not noticed.
Believe me, I’ve been laughed at for fussing over aspect ratio. But how can people not SEE? The visual information is distorted even if the verbal information is left unbothered.
Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of the width of an image compared with its height. A square is the same in both measurements, and hence, its ratio — its aspect ratio — is one-to-one — 1:1.
If a rectangle is twice as wide as it is tall, its aspect ratio is 2:1.
When photographs are made, or films or TV is shot, they are created in a particular aspect ratio. For instance, for decades, the standard aspect ratio for Hollywood films was 1.375:1, which was adopted in 1932 for the entire industry. Before that, silent films were mostly shot in a 1.33:1 ratio, which can also be stated as a 4:3 ratio, which corresponded to four sprocket-holes on standard 35mm film. But when sound was added as an extra track alongside the image on the film, the picture had to be made a wee bit smaller to accommodate, and hence, the 1.375:1 ratio.
That all sounds very technical and who cares? Well, what happens, then, when you display an old film on a new TV, which are now standardize at an aspect ratio of 16:9, a “widescreen” ratio? When done right, you get a “letterboxed” image, with black bars on either side of the picture. When done wrong, the squarer image is stretched out to fill the wider screen and you get a lot of fat people.
This used to be a big problem in the early days of digital television, when many stations heard complaints about those letterboxed images. The response was to crop the movies down to fit the screen, losing a good bit of visual information in the process (a process dubbed “pan and scan”), or — too often — just stretch it all out to fit. To anyone sensitive to visuals, this was a nightmare. But again, many people — especially at the TV stations mutilating the images — just didn’t seem to think it important.
The reverse also happens when a real widescreen movie (some films are made in aspect ratios wider than 16:9, such as the 2.4:1 of the most widely used widescreen movies. Then, shown on a standard TV screen, you get everything squished down.
Many of these widescreen movies were shot with anamorphic lenses, which allowed for a wider image to fit onto a narrower piece of film. In essence, they squeezed the picture thin on purpose, and then when it was projected in a theater, a reverse anamorphic projection lens would spread the image back out to its natural dimensions. Tons of films were made (and are made) this way.
The problem shows up with DVDs, too. Some are produced in a natural aspect ratio, usually 16:9, but others, mostly older ones, were created anamorphically, and so you may need to use your remote to find the proper aspect ratio (or “screen size”) for the disc. If not, you watch squeezed people.
I remember when my college film series showed a version of Bad Day at Black Rock but didn’t correct the anamorphic images. We watched the whole movie distorted into a squished frame. It was nauseating, at least to me. The projectionist, when this was pointed out, said he didn’t see what I was talking about. (The same projectionist showed Birth of a Nation with the music track turned off because “it’s a silent film.” There is no accounting for how these people get in charge of things.)
Most all of us have something like this, which bothers us no end. For some it is bad spelling or incorrect grammar. For others, it is making too much noise when eating soup. Others still cannot bear canned laughter on sitcoms, or the superfluous chyrons streaming across the bottoms of cable newscasts, telling us exactly what the speaker is saying. We can hear them, you know. You don’t need to spell it out.
Anyway, one of those irritations that just drives me nuts is the inability of so many to actually notice when the picture has gone bad on their TV. The wider the original, the squishier the mistake. I remember seeing an early broadcast of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly scrunched into an old cathode-ray TV screen, like a closed accordion, and I thought, “How can poor Clint Eastwood even breathe?”
The aspect ratio problem, though, is really just a symptom of a wider issue: that too many of us are just bad at seeing, of not paying attention to what our eyes are telling us. It is the translation problem: We don’t see to see, we see to extract only so much information as we feel we need. If we can follow the plot with skinny people, then good enough.
But seeing isn’t just about keeping track of the story. It is about being alive in the world, of noticing everything around you, of taking in what existence gifts you with. The green of a tree, the roundness of a tire, the texture of denim. To notice is to be alive; failure to notice is deadening.
Art, and I include even popular art, is there to remind us of, and to interpret, the world we live in and the lives we lead. The best art slaps us awake, the way the slap of the doctor makes the newborn take its first breath. We can see what we had taken for granted, we can reinterpret what had become habitual. Failure to use your eyes is to refuse a gift being offered by existence.
Federico Fellini is unquestionably one of the greatest of all filmmakers. He is on everyone’s list. He won five Oscars, was nominated for a total of 17 of them. Heck, he was nominated twice before he even made his first film (as screenwriter for two Rossellini films). He made two of the movies on my own 10-Best list.
His 1954 film, La Strada, changed my idea of what movies could be. When I was growing up, the movies I saw, mostly on TV, were filled with car chases and gunfights. Movies were an entertainment. But, in my college film series, I saw La Strada and realized, for the first time, that film could be about real things, and that they could leave me weeping. The final scene with the brutish Zampano (Anthony Quinn) on the beach, wailing for what he knew he had lost, left me drained.
And La Strada isn’t even one of the two Fellini films on my 10-Best.
There are only a few film directors who have words added to the dictionary defining their style, but we all know what “Fellini-esque” means: an almost surreal grotesquerie tied to a very personal sense of human psychology. There are other great filmmakers, but there is no “Scorsese-esque,” no “Renoir-esque,” although these directors, too, had a personal style. Only two directors have joined the dictionary, with “Fellini-esque” and “Bergmanesque.” The two directors couldn’t be more different, but their styles are each identifiable, even when another filmmaker uses them.
So, Fellini’s is a distinct and individual voice. Yet, the arc of his career is also distinct, and not toward ever greater or more profound films. It is a career with an upward start, a middle as high as it gets, and then a slacking as he declined. What is interesting is that it is that the cause for both up and down is the same: Fellini being Fellini.
Federico Domenico Marcello Fellini was born in 1920, two years before Mussolini’s rise to power, in the Adriatic city of Rimini. His father was a salesman and hoped his son would rise to be a lawyer. And although he enrolled in law school, Fellini’s biographers says that “there is no record of his ever having attended a class.” Instead, he dropped out to become a cartoonist and caricaturist, and he wrote for several satirical magazines.
He expanded to writing gags for radio shows and managed to avoid the Italian draft during the early years of World War II. He also met his wife and muse, radio actor Giulietta Masina (they remained married from 1943 to his death in 1993).
His work in radio brought him to the attention of Neo-Realist film pioneer Roberto Rossellini, who hired him to work on the script of Rome, Open City (1945) and later, Paisan (1946). Both efforts won him Academy Award nominations.
In 1950, he got to direct his first film, Variety Lights, followed the next year with The White Sheik, two low-budget comedies of middling success and reputation. But then, in 1952, he got to make the first genuine Fellini movie, I Vitelloni (“The Young Bulls”, or, idiomatically, “The Layabouts”), an autobiographical Neo-Realist film about his own teen years in Rimini, which won him a fourth Oscar nomination for screenplay. (The film wasn’t released in America until after the success of La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, — both Oscar winners for Best Foreign Language Film — hence, the later nomination.)
These three early masterpieces — I Vitelloni, La Strada and Nights of Cabiria — all have their roots in Italian Neo-Realism, although with Fellini’s particular stamp of both humor and grotesquerie. There is no confusing them with films by Rossellini, De Sica or Visconti. While each of Fellini’s first great films concern themselves with social conditions, poverty and the Post-War problems, they are really more concerned with individuals. Fellini was never overtly political.
Fellini had, by 1957, been nominated for six Academy Awards and won two. But they could not have foretold what came next. Arguably his greatest film, La Dolce Vita, was also his greatest box office success.
The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us nine days and eight nights in the life of tabloid celebrity journalist Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums.
“Rarely, if ever, has a picture reflected decadence, immorality and sophistication with such depth,” Box Office magazine said when the film was released. Rather than a plot, the film is a collection of episodes as our hero recognizes the emptiness of his life, decides to do something about it, and ultimately, cannot. The final scene with Mastroianni on the beach, shrugging at the girl across the way as a sign of giving up, is one of the most heartbreaking ever shot on film.
Fellini structured the film in a series of climactic nights each followed by a dissolving dawn. In each of the nighttime episodes, Marcello faces one of his demons — although he doesn’t recognize them as such. Each night rises to a crux, a point that might waken Marcello to the aimlessness of his life, and at each sunrise, there comes not a culmination, but a dissipation of the situation — all its air is let out.
La Dolce Vita occupies a pivotal point in the career of Fellini, between the early Neo-Realist films, such as I Vitelloni and La Strada, and his later, sometimes visionary films. In La Dolce Vita, there is a balance between the sense of external reality — Italy’s boom economy in the decade after World War II, and its forgotten underclass — and the purely subjective sense of individual psychological crisis.
In his next film, the crisis becomes personal: Otto e Mezzo or “8½” is about a filmmaker who can’t figure out what to do next. It begins with one of Fellini’s most visionary scenes: The filmmaker (again played by Mastroianni) is stuck in his car and imagines being trapped, then floats away above the car, held only by a kite-string attached to his ankle. As an opening scene, it would be hard to match, let alone beat. Through the rest of the film, he attempts to avoid his responsibility, to his producer, to his wife, to his mistress, to his crew, to his financial backers, to his fans. He imagines committing suicide, and in the end, in one of the most enigmatic and memorable scenes ever, joins a dance to the circus music of Nino Rota. As a concluding scene, it would be hard to match, let alone beat.
What does that scene mean? We all have our own solutions. I tend to see it as the same message that Krishna gave to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, that the end or the meaning isn’t the point. The doing is. Joining in life is the point of life. Or as writer Joseph Campbell once phrased it, “the joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.”
Whatever you decide about the ending, it is clear that these two films, together, are among the highest points of film art, at the same time, clever, funny, moving, heartbreaking, hugely cinematic and visual, and ultimately, wise.
There are grotesque scenes in La Dolce Vita and Otto e Mezzo, but they are just part of the mix. In some of his later films, such as Roma or Fellini Satyricon, the grotesque predominates. But at the midpoint of his career, in his two best films, he balances the real and the freakish like a saint balancing heaven and hell.
Then, Fellini discovered Carl Jung, read the psychiatrist’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, began visiting a psychoanalyst, experimented with LSD, and became fascinated with dreams, archetypes, spirits and the unconscious. He famously defined a movie as “a dream we dreamt with our eyes open.” Jung is a dangerous thing put in the hands of an artist with no governor on his engine.
Fellini made Juliet of the Spirits in 1963, about a repressed housewife (Masina) entering a world of debauchery, visions, memories, and mysticism to find herself. It was Fellini’s first full-length color film, and uses what one critic called “caricatural types and dream situations to represent a psychic landscape.”
As critic Roger Ebert wrote, “The movie is generally considered to mark the beginning of Fellini’s decline.”
And three of the next four of Fellini’s major films are given over to grotesquerie, hallucination and oneiric excess: Fellini Satyricon (1969), Fellini’s Roma (1972), and Fellini’s Casanova (1976). The fact that the director’s name is attached to these three titles should tell you something. There is nothing historical or documentary about them: They are exudations of the filmmaker’s fevered brain.
Satyricon is the best of the three films, and actually captures rather accurately the spirit of Petronius’ First Century tale of Nero’s Rome. Although Fellini invented most of the episodes, they capture the tone of the picaresque original pretty well.
Satyricon, Roma and Casanova all prominently feature parades of caricatural grotesques, people buried under exaggerated make up and hairdos, rather like some of the more peculiar drawings of Leonardo da Vinci.
Even if they don’t succeed as whole works of art, each is stuffed like a cannolo with brilliant imagery, unforgettable moments. It is as if he was more concerned with the moment-by-moment, than the story coherence — the way a dream moves. “Don’t tell me what I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t want to know.”
If La Dolce Vita and 8½ were satires on modern mores, the later films pass beyond satire to a rather personal misanthropy dredged up from his unconscious.
There was one very bright and beautiful exception, though, a final grace note to his career — the 1973 film, Amarcord, which is a comic, forgiving and joyful reminiscence of Fellini’s childhood in Rimini. In 1953, his I Vitelloni explained why the young Fellini desperately wanted to escape his provincial hometown; twenty years later, he felt the need to show what he had lost by leaving. Everything that he was bitterly satirical about in his earlier films becomes the very human qualities of his dramatis personae in Amarcord. It is a gentle, affectionate, humane account of human folly, and the easiest of all of Fellini’s films to love.
He made a handful of films after that, but none catches fire. There was Ginger and Fred (1986) and, more dubiously, City of Women (1980) in which Fellini, as his frequent alter ego Marcello Mastroianni, attempts to deal with his fear of, and lack of understanding of — women.
Fellini made his last film, The Voice of the Moon, in 1990, and died of a heart attack in 1993, a day after his 50th wedding anniversary, and just a few months after receiving his Oscar for lifetime achievement.
As is so often the case, Fellini’s best and worst were manifestations of the same thing — his ability and his need to put himself into his films. As he once said, “Even if I set out to make a film about a fillet of sole, it would be about me.” It gave him the secret of breaking out of the Neo-Realist mold and find his own way, but it also let him wander off into a sometimes almost solipsistic dream world of images and obsessions. When focused, as in La Dolce Vita and 8½, he was one of the three or four greatest filmmakers of all, and even when he was noodling in fevered Fellini-Land, still provided indelible visions and emotions. There was no one like Federico Fellini.
We are not in control of our memories.
One doesn’t own one’s memories.
One is owned by them.
I used to have long discussions with friend and colleague Sal Caputo, who was pop music critic for the newspaper I worked for. Sal — or Salvatore — was as Italian in ancestry as I was Norwegian. And it played out in our conversations. Sal was always intense and expressive, and sometimes prone to anger and moods. He took things personally when I didn’t — I always remembered the line from Renoir’s film, Rules of the Game: “The terrible thing about life is that everyone has their reasons.” I.e., it isn’t personal.
Searching the Internet for Sal, I could only find a couple of mug shots
Anyway, we once had a talk about movies and our varying takes on Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. It wasn’t about which was the better filmmaker, but about how we internalized the films. We both appreciated both directors. But there was a difference.
The difference was almost comic. Consider the ways each director portrayed clowns. In 8½, they play Nino Rota’s music and point the way to salvation for our lost Marcello; in Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel, well, you get the picture.
I loved Fellini’s films and could appreciate both the filmmaking craft that went into them, and also the humanistic concerns of the director. Fellini rates very high on my list of movie directors. Top three or four. But somehow, I always feel as if I’m watching him from the outside. In contrast, when I see a Bergman film, it is in the blood — I know this world from the bones out. It is a world I didn’t just see, but lived.
And for Sal, it was quite the opposite: Fellini felt to him like home, like everything he knew and felt in the fibers of his nervous system.
In Bergman, all the action is internal; his characters are all suffering midnights of the soul. Their torture is self-imposed.
While Fellini’s people have trouble with other people, with society, with Catholicism, with Fascism, with their wives.
Bergman’s people sit silently, brooding. Fellini has hardly a photo of himself without his hands waving in the air, expostulating.
This sense of recognition in the films, different for Sal and for me, has always made me wonder if there is something genetic about national difference. All the Squareheads I know feel Bergmanesque and all the Italians seem to feel Fellini-esque. This may just as easily have grown out of cultural familiarity as from DNA, and I’m not sure its origin makes a difference.
I’m cheating a little with these images — not all German painting is so dour, or Italian so extravagant — but only to make a point. But there are national and regional styles, psychologies, approaches and techniques that show up across the arts. German painting is instantly told apart from Italian painting. French music from Viennese. Russians have their novels; Italians their opera; Iberians their fado and zarzuealas.
You can hear six bars of Elgar, Holst or Vaughn Williams and you know they are English.
This has been recognized for centuries. In Baroque music, national styles were standard descriptions, as Bach’s French Suites or his Italian Concerto, or his Overture in the French Style. And you could never confuse Telemann’s music for Vivaldi’s or either for Couperin’s.
(In deliberately oversimplified terms, German music emphasizes harmony and counterpoint; Italian music emphasizes melody and singing; French music emphasizes timbre and ornament.)
And there does seem to be a generalized North-South axis. If you compare the Gothic cathedrals of northern France with those of Italy, you see a spare austere style, even with all the statuary, and in Italy or Spain, a kind of Plateresque extravagance.
In the European south, expression seems to be extrovert and unrepressed; in the north, introvert and brooded over. It would be wrong to say that Italians are more emotional than Scandinavians. But in the north, the emotions are directed at themselves, whereas in the south, they are almost theatrical.
So far, I’m using European examples, but this national or folk identity is global. Chinese art is instantly identifiable. And except for those examples of conscious imitation, Japanese art is very different. Hindu sculpture on the Indian subcontinent is easily told from Buddhist sculpture in Southeast Asia.
Nor, in Africa, could you confuse a Benin bronze with a Fang mask or a Kota reliquary figure.
These differences are not merely stylistic, but grow from very different world views and historical experience. There is a world of difference between the Tlingit of the rainy Northwest Coast of North America and the Navajo of the desert Southwest.
Many years ago, I was first made aware of this kind of difference when I moved from New Jersey to North Carolina and discovered a culture radically alien to the one I was brought up in. It was agrarian rather than suburban; it held a tremendous grudge from the previous century that had not made a twinkle of a dent in my Northern psyche. It had a sense of history tied to the land, whereas I grew up in a world of second- and third-generation immigrants. These kinds of cultural differences make their way into the art, whether it is the difference between Hemingway and Faulkner, or between Fellini and Bergman.
It may be only a metaphorical expression, but it is profound: It is in the blood.
“There’s no such thing as bad art.” This was a dictum of the late classical music critic Dimitri Drobatschewsky. He explained: “If it’s bad, it’s not art.” But I have to take exception. There are examples of works that are deeply flawed, yet they stick in our psyches in just the same way as a masterpiece.
To take an extreme: Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space is often nominated as the “worst movie ever made,” yet, there are piles of other bad movies that have fallen into justified oblivion. Something about Plan 9 wheedles into our brains and lodges there, despite dialog such as, “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 friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”
The movie is a peculiar kind of classic and draws viewers every time it is screened.
And speaking of tin-eared dialog, the 1933 King Kong is full of stuff such as, “It never fails. Some big hard-boiled egg goes goofy over a pretty face, and bingo! He cracks up and gets sappy.” And the acting is often wooden (Bruce Cabot especially; and even Robert Armstrong can’t make this dialog work) and the story line is racist in a way common to its era, but Kong is as much part of our cultural landscape as George Washington’s cherry tree or the Gettysburg Address.
There is something about these films that buries into our unconscious and lives there like a dream. There is a logic to real life, a cause and effect, but there is an alternate logic to dreams, and that is where Plan 9 or King Kong comes to life. Ordinary rules don’t apply.
There are many better-made movies that are completely forgettable. Shakespeare in Love won an Oscar, but can you remember anything about it? I can’t. But Kong is buried there, in the neurons, permanently, mythically.
Which brings us to one of the greatest movies ever made, or at least one of the most memorable. in a 2012 Sight & Sound poll of critics, Metropolis was voted as the 35th greatest film of all time, tied with Hitchcocks Psycho and just ahead of Truffaut’s 400 Blows. It also ranked 12th in the film magazine Empire’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010 and second in a list of the “100 greatest films of the Silent Era.”
It didn’t achieve such eminence through its plot or acting. The plot is silly and preposterous and the acting is often so over the top as to be laughable.
All built on a silly and sentimental bromide.
The film’s director, Fritz Lang, agreed about the moral, telling Peter Bogdanovich in an interview, “You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that’s a fairy tale — definitely.”
It looks like science fiction, but there’s no science in it. It could be a dystopian future, but it’s not set in any particular time. It is mostly a fever-dream of capitalism, except there are no economics in it.
Yet, the film has a power that many arguably better films simply can’t muster. Scene after scene in Metropolis bores deep into the subconscious.
Right from the opening scene, when the factory shift changes and one phalanx of exhausted workers exit the giant elevators, shuffling at half-speed, while the fresh phalanx marches, in step in the opposite direction at full speed. It is a striking bit of choreography, worthy of Pina Bausch, and a clue to how the rest of the movie will unfold.
In the next segment, we find our hero, Freder, cavorting with a bevy of nymphs in the “Eternal Gardens,” in a set that is actually unnerving.
Scene after scene is unreal but unforgettable.
While the plot is tangled and confused, the set-up is simple. The city is divided into an upper part, where the rich live in luxury, and an underground inhabited by the workers and the machines that keep the city running. A Romeo and Juliet story intervenes and so does a mad scientist, who makes a robot in the image of our Juliet. Chaos ensues.
Don’t look for it to make any sense. It doesn’t.
The film was conceived by director Lang when visiting New York City in 1924. “I looked into the streets — the glaring lights and the tall buildings — and there I conceived Metropolis,” he told an interviewer. He said that “the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize.”
At the time, Lang was married to novelist Thea von Harbou (who already had published more than 40 books) and they worked out a story, which she turned into a novel. Later, Lang and Harbou translated the book into a script.
Thea von Harbou and first edition hardcover (l.) and paperback (r.)
(I’ve just read the original novel and it is terrible, grossly overwritten and both silly and sentimental. And it used enough exclamation points to fill an oil tanker. Here is a sample: “Ah! The intoxication of the lights. Ecstasy of Brightness! — Ah! Thousand-limbed city, built up of blocks of light. Towers of Brilliance! Steep mountains of splendour! From the velvety sky above you showers golden rain, inexhaustibly, as into the open lap of the Danae. Ah — Metropolis! Metropolis!”)
Lang and Harbou working on script
Lang began filming Metropolis in 1926 at the Ufa studios in Berlin. It took 17 months to film, with 310 shooting days and 60 shooting nights and went over budget by 310 percent, costing 5.3 Reichsmarks (something like $23 million in today’s money) and nearly sent the studio into bankruptcy.
Brigitte Helm, who played the lead, and the robot Maria, said “the night shots lasted three weeks, and even if they did lead to the greatest dramatic moments — even if we did follow Fritz Lang’s directions as though in a trance, enthusiastic and enraptured at the same time — I can’t forget the incredible strain that they put us under. The work wasn’t easy, and the authenticity in the portrayal ended up testing our nerves now and then. For instance, it wasn’t fun at all when Grot drags me by the hair, to have me burned at the stake. Once I even fainted: during the transformation scene, Maria, as the android, is clamped in a kind of wooden armament, and because the shot took so long, I didn’t get enough air.”
Lang brought in 500 children from the poorest districts of Berlin to play the Workers’ children and had them in ice-cold water for two weeks, as the Workers’ City was flooded.
The film was a financial failure on its initial release, but has become one of the great classics of all time. Its afterlife, though, was inauspicious. The movie was first released at a length of two and a half hours. The studio then cut it down to about two hours, and in the U.S., it was hacked down further, and in 1936, Nazi objections to its supposed Communist subtext, it was reduced to 90 minutes. Since its rediscovery in the 1960s, there have been many restoration attempts, but even today, with 95 percent of the film rediscovered and re-edited, it is still short of the director’s cut.
And speaking of Nazis, Lang and Harbou divorced as her Nazi leanings became clear (she became a party member in 1933 and worked for the studio under Nazi rule during the war), and as for Lang, it was his bad luck that Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler both liked the film and offered Lang the job as boss of all Nazi film production. Lang took the hint and fled Germany (by his own account, the very next day).
(An early scene in the movie shows a race in the Club of Sons in which the stadium architecture is astonishingly prescient of Albert Speer’s fascist architecture.)
So, why is this movie, with all its faults, such a memorable film? Unlike most, it doesn’t count on story to carry us through, and certainly not the acting. Rather, it burrows into our unconscious like a dream, with image after image that cannot be forgotten. One after the other, they pile on, right from that opening bit with the workers’ choreography.
The city is the kind of future the past used to project, with its biplanes circling the buildings and the elevated roadways around skyscrapers so tall, we cannot see their tops. In the center is the giant tower called the “New Babylon
Then, there is the Workers’ City, hidden below ground, with its Soviet-style faceless apartment buildings. The social structure of Lang’s Metropolis is a parody of the rich-poor division manifesting itself in the between-wars Weimar Republic — and echoed today. Between the upper and lower levels is the Machine Level, where the workers put in their toilsome hours.
Our hero, Freder, wanders into this level, where he sees the great machine overheat and explode, scalding and killing scores of workers. He is horrified and hallucinates the machine turning into “Moloch,” devouring its human sacrifices.
He comes across Worker 11811, working a mysterious machine, who collapses from overwork and Freder takes his place. The scene recalls the famous Leonardo drawing of the “Vitruvian Man.”
The whole underworld is a purgatory, and below the Workers’ City there are the catacombs, where the virtuous Maria lectures the workers about justice — and the importance of waiting for a “mediator.”
This is not a movie about people, but about archetypes. There is father, son, city, death, all presented almost naked, with little attempt to disguise them as anything real.
The world is divided, in Nordic and Wagnerian style into an underworld, a middle world and an upper world. The catacombs are deep caves, and the home of religion and myth.
The Workers’ City and their machines are in the middle.
And the privileged world of the elite rides above it all, and depends on all that resides — like a subconscious — below, normally unseen and unthought of.
The architecture is a strange mix of the Moderne (Art Deco and German Expressionist); the dull efficiency of a Socialist utilitarian greyness; and relics of the Gothic; and prehistoric caverns.
The main characters are the father, Joh Fredersen, who is master of the city; his son, Freder; the mad scientist Rotwang; and, most central of all, the woman, Maria.
Fredersen (looking suitably Napoleonic); Freder; Rotwang; Maria
Maria, played by Brigitte Helm, is the central and most interesting character. She is really two characters, and the embodiment of two archetypes: virgin and whore. Rotwang creates a robot in the form of Maria and programs her to undo everything the good Maria has done. Helm differentiates the two personae in a way that they cannot be confused.
The two Marias separate in the very Frankentsteinian laboratory of Rotwang, in one of the most hypnotic sections of the movie, with rings of light rising and falling around the body of the robot,
until it takes on the visage of the good Maria.
This Bad Maria, or False Maria, is sent to the workers to foment rebellion (why is never really made clear — it doesn’t make any sense, economically, to destroy the whole city), and she turns up in a nightmare hallucination of Freder as the Whore of Babylon, dancing at the Yoshiwara cabaret, doing a provocative dance.
And morphing into a Medieval vision of Die Grosse Babylon — the Great Babylon, from a verse in the biblical Apocalypse.
Which drives the men at the cabaret crazy with desire.
When the film was released in the U.S., Variety magazine’s reviewer commented: “Some sex stuff here and there, and a cooch dancer! Yes, sir, a coocher, in the revigorated mechanical figure, and a pretty good coocher, too, but not so thick around the hips as German coochers generally are. But then you must remember that this young lady was made to order.”
This False Maria persuades the workers to destroy the machines, which automatically floods the Workers’ City (don’t ask why), threatening all the children, and the workers, horrified, burn the False Maria at the stake, where, of course, she turns back into the robot.
Not to worry, Freder and the Good Maria save the children.
The film is shot through with biblical references, not for theological reasons — there is no actual religion in the movie — but as cultural markers, symbols that will resonate with an audience familiar with the Bible.
In the catacombs, the Good Maria teaches a lesson about the Tower of Babel, and how the conceivers of the tower failed to teach the workers who made the tower why they should do so, and a rebellion ensues and the tower is destroyed.
In Freder’s fever-hallucinations, the figures of the Seven Deadly Sins, from the cathedral, step down from their pedestals and the figure of Death comes to life.
And Death approaches Freder with his scythe.
There’s Freder’s vision of the exploding machine as the biblical Moloch
And the movie comes to its climax when Rotwang abducts the Good Maria and chases her to the top of the cathedral, among the gargoyles.
And drags her to the very rooftop, where he fights it out with Freder.
While his father (remember him?) falls to his knees in fear among the crowds in the parvis.
But Rotwang falls to his death and Freder saves the Good Maria, leading to the point where Maria gets the heart (Freder) to mediate (shake hands) between the hands (the worker) and the head (Joh Fredersen) and therefore satisfying the prediction of the opening epigram of the movie.
It’s rather a sappy ending for so visionary a movie. But then, the plot has never been the point.
Which is something novelist H.G. Wells didn’t seem to understand when he reviewed the film on its release in 1927. In his piece for The New York Times, he wrote, “I have recently seen the silliest film. I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.”
His beef was that the film didn’t realistically portray the future.
How can it, when Rotwang’s Medieval house in the middle of the city is, like the Tardis, bigger on the inside than on the outside?
Its economics didn’t make sense, Wells wrote. “The machines make wealth. How, is not stated. … One is asked to believe that these machines are engaged quite furiously in the mass production of nothing that is ever used, and that [Fredersen] grows richer and richer in the process. This is the essential nonsense of it all.”
Where are the suburbs? Wells asks. Why, in the future, do all the cars look like the Model T? Where in the catacombs under the city are all the gas mains, sewer conduits and electrical infrastructure? His literal-mindedness is comic.
How can you be literal when the clocks in the film cannot even agree on how to measure time — Salvador Dali must have been their clocksmith.
Wells goes on and on, completely missing the point. Obviously, Metropolis was never intended to be realistic. It is not even meant to be the future. It exists in no time, according to both Lang and Harbou. It is a fever dream, an oneiric fantasy, and the glories of the film are all to be found in its visuals, not in its story.
You can watch the film on YouTube in decent resolution, and it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is one of the great films of all times, and one of the most memorable.
Lang went on to make such great films as Woman in the Moon, also with Helm; M, with Peter Lorre; The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, with Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Rotwang from Metropolis); then, in Hollywood: Fury, with Spencer Tracy; Rancho Notorious, with Marlene Dietrich; and Clash by Night with Barbara Stanwyck. And many other great films. But none burrows into the brain in quite the same way as Metropolis.
We were watching Turner Classic Movies, as we so often do during the Covid in-house stay-at-home and the next movie up was Casablanca.
“I don’t want to watch it. I’ve seen it,” she said. She has this reaction frequently. Once she has seen a film, she says, she knows how it ends, and so why sit through it again?
I, of course, was non-plussed. “Do you listen to a song only once and never again, because you know how it goes?,” I asked. No, you listen over and over and get pleasure from it each time. It’s a familiar tune. And so it is, for me, with something like Casablanca. Or The Seventh Seal, or — the tune I’ve heard most often in my life — King Kong. It’s a familiar and favorite song and I can watch over and over.
Certainly, not every movie is worth multiple viewings. The vast majority of them come and go with the urgency of mud. In fact, for many, the first time is one too many. But there are classics and while I don’t necessarily wish to see them over and over in the space of a single week, when I’m channel surfing and one of my favorites pops up, I will usually stay to the end.
Each of us has our own list of which movies hit that button, but a favorite film has the same appeal as a favorite song — the pleasure is in hearing yet again. It has nothing to do with plot, or “how it ends.” It’s not like a TV mystery and when we come to the end and find out who dun it, we don’t need to see it over again. The air has been let out of the reason for watching in the first place.
But a movie such as The Rules of the Game or Seven Samurai bear repeated watchings. There is such pleasure in revisiting these old friends.
Beyond that, however, there is the issue of getting older and accruing experience — understanding things you didn’t when you were a callow youth.
This is most near to me in rewatching Marcel Carné’s 1945 classic Les Enfants du Paradis (“Children of Paradise”). It is a long film, at 3 hours and 10 minutes, and I don’t watch it all that often (just as I don’t listen to Beethoven’s Ninth too often, so as not to diminish its special potency), and I have found that the movie itself has changed dramatically over the 50 years since I first watched it.
Set in Paris in the 1840s, it tells the complicated story of four main characters —
Baptiste Deburau, a mime at the low-rent pantomime theater;
Frédérick Le Maître, an aspiring tragedian of indifferent morals;
a petty criminal, Pierre-François Lacenaire;
and the ambiguous Garance, with whom they all become involved. As the movie progresses, Garance’s allegiance shifts with the winds. Her motto: “Love is simple.”
The films is one of the most highly regarded in cinema history, making almost all top 100 lists, and many Top Tens. “I would give up all my films to have directed Les Enfants du Paradis,”said French New Wave film director François Truffaut. Marlon Brando called it “maybe the best movie ever made.” And a 1995 vote by 600 French critics and professionals lent it the plain tag “Best Film Ever.” It can be an overwhelming experience — if you are not simply watching for “what happens next.”
Each of the characters embodies a distinct idea and world view. Baptiste is an idealist; Le Maître is a practical realist; Lacenaire is a cynic; Garance is a survivor. (There are other characters, too, and they each have distinct world-views that direct their actions. One thinks of Dostoevsky and his ability to embody ideas in distinct personalities.)
And so, the first time I saw Les Enfants, I was in college and as naively idealistic as Baptiste, and so I saw the film through his eyes and the tragedy of the film as his.
In my 30s, and disabused of the simple understanding, I was drawn instead to Le Maître as a realist, taking the world as it is and making the most of it. By then Baptiste seemed embarrassingly sentimental. The worldly and world-wise tragedian seemed the anchor for the swirl of relationships that fill the movie.
It is very hard to avoid becoming cynical, however, by the events of the world, and of the vicissitudes of life, and so, later viewings of the film made me feel quite sympathetic with Lacenaire, who has no illusions about his chosen profession (although he is rife with illusions — and vanity — about himself). It is hard to view Lacenaire’s story as tragedy, but rather as farce. He says so himself.
But now I am old. And my entree into the movie are the two main women. When Garance abandons Baptiste, he ends up marrying his childhood sweetheart, Nathalie. And the film seems now to me to hover between the twin poles of Garance and Nathalie, both of whom seem so much more real than any of the men, who are all caught up in their own ideas of themselves. The women are the true realists. And both disappointed as the movie closes. They both know love is not simple.
And so, watching Les Enfants du Paradis over five decades has been the experience of watching several completely different movies.
The fact that the film is rich enough to offer such different readings is reason to continue to re-watch some of our favorite movies.
The Seventh Seal has been different films at different times: Do you identify with the soul-searching knight, the cynical squire — or perhaps with the character of Death himself. Different viewings give you various reactions. On last viewing (only last month and perhaps the 30th time I’ve seen the film) it was the itinerant showpeople Joff and Mia that seemed the point of it all.
In such a way, re-watching a movie is the same as rereading a book. The best books can take many re-readings. Both so that we may learn different lessons from them, but also so we can re-hear the words that make up the “tune” of the book. I re-read Moby Dick just for the language.
Perhaps my inclination to rewatch movies came from my childhood, when the New York TV Channel Nine presented the “Million Dollar Movie” several times a day for a week, offering the same film perhaps a dozen times in a week. I saw many movies over and over.
And the champion — the movie I have seen more than any other, and by a huge margin, is the 1933 King Kong. When I first saw it on TV, I was maybe five years old and am told I watched it from behind a chair, peeking out gingerly during the “scary” stuff. My brother, then age 2 or so, sat in the big chair just happily giggling at the moving images on the screen.
Since then, I believe I have seen King Kong as many as a hundred times, either in full or in part, picking up another showing on Turner mid-film and holding on to the end. It is neither a well-written or well-acted movie. Indeed some of the acting is among the most leaden in film history. But it has a mythic hold on my imagination, with its Gustave Doré inspired landscapes and mist-shrouded jungle and its tooth-and-claw dinosaurs.
If anything is a familiar and favorite “tune,” it is King Kong. I have no illusions about its quality, but I cannot gainsay its effect. And yes, I know how it ends, but that makes no difference at all.
What other tunes rattle round my head? The Big Sleep; Jules and Jim; Nosferatu; Orphée; The Third Man. Many so-called “art films.” There are probably a score, maybe up to 50 movies I re-watch with pleasure and with most of them, I learn something new each time, usually something new about myself.
Sometimes I forget just how stodgy I am. What an old pedant. Just how deeply embedded in a certain class of art and culture.
And it is good to be given a peek at a different way of seeing things, a different esthetic judgment.
It happens about once a year when my son, Lars, comes to visit his mother and me in Asheville, and brings along a trove of his favorite movies for us to watch.
Lars is head programmer for the Austin Film Society in Texas, an organization founded by film director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Bernie, Waking Life, Boyhood). Lars visits the big film festivals to view potential movies for the AFS theaters, but he got his start hosting the “Weird Wednesday” genre film series at Austin’s Alamo Draft House, that featured the kind of movies that used to run in drive-in theaters in the 1970s. Lars has seen more movies than anyone else I know, and I’ve known a number of professional film critics — at least one of whom burnt out watching too many movies per week. Not Lars, at least, not yet.
That Weird Wednesday series spawned the American Genre Film Archive, which now collects neglected 35mm prints abandoned in old drive-ins and warehouses, restores them and digitizes them. It now owns some 6,000 movie prints, including such timeless masterpieces as Ninja Zombies, Bloodsuckers from Outer Space, and The Return of Superfly — to say nothing of Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971, Thomas Casey, director). Lars is on AGFA’s board of directors, and he’s written a new book, Warped & Faded (Mondo Books, 415pp.), that chronicles the birth and growth of AGFA, and highlights many of the films in the archive.
In the book, he makes it clear he is not writing about movies “so bad they’re good.” He hates that formulation. No, he finds something in each of these films he genuinely appreciates for its filmmaking, its storytelling, its mythic resonance or its acting. He finds what he believes are moments in them that deserve recognition. These films, he wrote in the book are “worthwhile and deserving of serious consideration.”
When he comes to visit ma and pa, he brings a trove of titles for us to see, and he seems to take great glee in finding things he knows dear old dad would never, on his own, choose to watch. (I should mention that Lars doesn’t only watch exploitation films — he has a great background in the classics of world cinema, also, and can discuss the films of Vittorio De Sica or Yasujiro Ozu as well as the giallo genre of lesbian vampire films. His erudition is both wide and deep.)
During this past visit, which lasted three days, we watched 10 movies. Lars’ enthusiasm for them was infectious and we talked about the films late into the early hours of the following day, with me scratching my head over some of them, and Lars making the case for them, as well as any lawyer arguing a case. He didn’t always persuade me, but I am glad I got to see all of them.
In the end, I found several of these films to be real treasures, a few I still ponder over, and at least one that originally struck me as utter trash, I cannot now get out of my head and have to admit — long after Lars has gone home to Austin — that he was right and I was wrong.
We started the first night with an easy one: Hi Diddle Diddle (1941, Andrew Stone, director). Barely an hour long, and light as the foam on a latte, it starred Adolphe Menjou as an amiable con man married to an opera star (Pola Negri, in her last role). His son, home on leave from the military, has 48 hours in which to marry his fiancee (Martha Scott), but complications ensue. Also starring Billie Burke and June Havoc, there is not much more substance than a TV sitcom, but good actors can make a meal of even an undistinguished script, and my particular epiphany watching it was just how good an actor Menjou was — especially in those moments when he is not talking and only reacting.
After that, we plunged into the deep end with Blood (1975, Andy Milligan). Milligan was an angry man, making his cheapie films on Staten Island in a home-made way, badly photographed with lots of scratches on the film. Sometimes he’d frame a shot so the top of the head was included, but the bottom half cut off. It was a kind of grand guignol horror flick, with a vampire and an lycanthrope and a mad scientist trying to save his dying wife — who, by the way, kills people. It was a complete mess. Sort of fun in its own way — a la Ed Wood — but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a badly made movie. Perhaps the oddest thing about it is that Milligan also designed and sewed all the lavish period costumes. They were gorgeous. The film was set in the 1880s and the dresses the women wore in the film would have been not out of place if they had been made by Edith Head.
Then came the first masterpiece: Election (2006, Johnnie To). In previous visits Lars had introduced me to the films of Hong Kong director To. I had always thought of Hong Kong movies like bad Kung Fu films, with garish colors, bad acting and stupid plots. But Lars first showed me To’s The Mission (1999) several visits back and I was blown away. It was incredibly beautifully photographed and intelligently plotted and acted. Who knew? Well, Lars knew. On a later visit, we watched A Hero Never Dies (1998), and it was also a revelation.
Election is about a disputed succession among Hong Kong crime bosses — one cold-blooded and strategic (like Michael in Godfather), and his rival hot-blooded and impulsive (like Sonny). But the film is not simply about plot. To develops his characters and gives them extra dimensions. It was a gem of a movie.
So much for the first night. On the second, we opened with From Beyond the Grave (1973, Kevin Connor), an anthology horror film from Amicus Productions — a rival British company to Hammer Films. It tells four separate tales with a bookend story enclosing them all — like Scheherazade or Chaucer’s pilgrims. It features a pile of popular English actors, each in for a few days work to add up to a 97-minute movie. Look for Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, Diana Dors, David Warner, Ian Carmichael, Ian Bannen, Lesley-Anne Down, Margaret Leighton and Nyree Dawn Porter (from the 1967 BBC and PBS series The Forsyte Saga).
Then we did Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949, Burgess Meredith) from the Georges Simenon novel, with Charles Laughton as the famous detective Maigret. The film only exists in a poor-quality print on faded Ansco Color stock, which leaves the colors shifted to the reddish-orange, and somewhat bleached out. Simenon’s book, La Tête d’un homme, is not one of his most distinguished, and the plot boils along, with Franchot Tone playing a too-clever villain, teasing the detective to find the evidence for the crimes everyone knows he has committed.
The four-film night ended with the first big revelation of the visit: Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974). It is a film I had always meant to see, but hadn’t yet. It was brilliant, funny, spooky, clever and spectacularly cinematic. I’m not much into rock music, but it worked perfectly in this updated version of the Gaston Leroux classic, Phantom of the Opera.
There are many films — and many more books — that one lifetime isn’t long enough to get to. I could name a dozen off the cuff that I haven’t yet managed to see — a bunch of Ozu, the later films of Satyajit Ray, just the tip of the iceberg — and I know that at 73, I don’t have enough time to see them all. I was grateful that Lars brought me Phantom. It was worth the wait.
The fourth film from the second night was the crux, the fulcrum of the visit, and a tough go for me on first encounter. I could not, for the life of me, figure out why Switchblade Sisters (1975, Jack Hill) should figure on Lars’ list of his four favorite films of all time. It is a cheapie girl-gang film, and I have to admit that my prejudice kept me from appreciating it. To any standard criteria, it is an awful film, full of cliche fights and stilted dialog. I hated it.
I was wrong. Lars made his best case for it, saying it was amazing considering the budget. “It is a film better than it needs to be,” Lars said. Hill does great work, he argued, considering the script and the merely-adequate actors, and the schedule he had to work with. I wasn’t sure that making something out of straw and sawdust elevates the film to more than drive-in fodder, but Lars persisted.
Here’s what Lars wrote about it in Warped & Faded: “It’s hard to imagine a more perfect girl-gang movie. All the elements — tone, pacing, performances — are dead-on. The revenge and betrayal-filled plot brings to mind the nastier Elizabethan dramas that were so popular with working-class audiences of 400 years ago, who crammed into disreputable theaters to watch the blood-drenched intrigues of kings and thieves. Some things never change. Hill combines the complicated plot effortlessly with the crisp, classical gangster movie tone of the old Warner Brothers James Cagney films and the directness and intensity of ’70s drive-in cinema. The result is a perfect storm of red-hot teenage bad girls, flashing knives, and social commentary.”
So, the film, for all its gore and vengeance, is really just a modern version of Elizabethan revenge plays. I could see that, but, beyond Shakespeare, most Elizabethan theater is dreadful. And even Shakespeare has a hard time salvaging Titus Andronicus. (It took Julie Taymor to do that). And it was clear, the bare bones of Othello run under the movie. But my reaction was extreme. I hated, hated, hated Switchblade Sisters. The problem was, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. One of my old definitions of great art is “what you might not understand but can’t get out of your mind.” And here I was faced with something very close to that.
There are any number of things — books, music, theater — that on first encounter, I found difficult to appreciate, like Bruckner symphonies, which took me years to understand, but later, after time to digest, I came around to seeing their very estimable value. There is something in Switchblade Sisters that sticks to the ribs, and I cannot gainsay its effect. I’m not putting it on my four-favorites-of-all-times list, but I have to admit, a week or so after seeing it, that Lars was right and I was wrong.
The third night’s viewing was a coda and conclusion. We opened with one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen: Nothing Lasts Forever (1984, Tom Schiller) — A surrealist comedy with tons of names in the cast, including Bill Murray, Imogene Coca, Sam Jaffe, Eddie Fisher, Mort Sahl, Zach Gilligan and Dan Aykroyd. Shot in mock-studio style, like an old Joan Crawford film, it features a plot to get retirees to travel by bus to the moon to shop at an out-of-this-world mall. A film no studio or distribution company admits owning the rights to, and therefore never released commercially. Warner has the film, but won’t admit it. (Really.) Lars had to lobby two corporations and a half dozen lawyers to get his hands on a print to show in Austin.
Then, we watched Housekeeping (1987, Bill Forsyth), a small, quiet coming-of-age film about two sisters living in the Northwest mountains. When their mother commits suicide, eventually their aunt (Christine Lahti) comes to take over. She is either a free spirit or not quite right in the head. The movie never makes up its mind about that. One sister rejects the aunt, the other embraces her, and her idiosyncratic ways.
Forsyth made the earlier Local Hero (1983), which is also as deeply felt as Housekeeping. The visit with Lars underlined the different esthetics we have. He is much more interested in the filmmaking itself — as so many of his generation are. It is a meta world they inhabit. He likes genre films, with lesbian vampires, girl prisons, ninja warriors and car chases. (Again, I remind you that he also loves the great art films, he is not one-note).
But, for me, art — including cinema — is a humanistic concern, and I am more focused on content than style (I have a healthy appreciation of style, also; it’s a matter of priorities). I most enjoy films that address human concerns, the inner feelings of people, the choices, moral and otherwise, that they make, the tragedy that the universe thrusts on us.
I understand the other argument, too. When I listen to a Haydn symphony or quartet, there is emotion and melody, yes, but most of his power is in establishing a formal expectation and then subverting it, giving the listener a pleasant surprise and pleasure in the recognition of it. It is the 18th century definition of “wit.” And Lars’ knowledge of film and filmmaking instills in him the norms that his favorite films play with and the best ones transcend.
Still, I want my art to be more than clever. The final film we watched on his visit was Over the Edge (1979, Jonathan Kaplan), another teen gang movie, but one more sociological and realistic, with a nihilistic group of teens in the sterile Denver suburbs with nothing to fill their lives but boredom and mischief. Petty vandalism and low-grade burglary occupy their time, until one of them steals a gun. The emptiness of their lives is soul destroying. One thinks of the anomie of Larry Clark’s Tulsa.
The fact that the parents of these kids have lives no more fulfilling only makes the movie more depressing. The apocalypse at the end feels like the only worthwhile thing in the lives of both parents and kids.
And so, 10 movies in three days. My parameters have been stretched, which is only a good thing. When my head is buried too deeply in Ovid or Tolstoy, I need once in a while to look up, out of the page, and into the rest of the world, and Lars’ films at least briefly give me a glimpse into another way of aiming my sensibility. Whether it takes or not is up in the air. Ovid is awfully good.
At the end of the 1951 classic sci-fi film, The Thing, the newspaperman, Scotty, warns the world, over the radio, to “Keep looking up. Keep watching the skies.” It was a fictional response to the “flying saucer” that brought the scary vegetable man to Earth. But it was also —- in retrospect — a kind of metaphorical reaction to the fear of Soviet bombers or missiles that might drop death out of the skies. A whole class of cheapie Hollywood science fiction film depended on mythologizing our Cold War fears.
It’s one of the things Hollywood does. So the current fad for zombie movies, with the undead traipsing across the landscape, is an obvious metaphor for our xenophobia and fear of immigration. As for what the twinkly vegetarian vampires are about — your guess is as good as mine.
But that Cold War fear certainly that played into the rise, from 1947 on, when the first modern flying saucer sighting was reported, of extraterrestrial possibilities that became ever more numerous. Like the division of aliens into whites, grays and lizards, there developed three general camps in response to the sightings.
The first are the true believers, those who think — yea, they know — that these sightings are visitations from alien species brought across the cosmos from outer space. For this group, there is no doubt. And further, they are sure the government — a generic term that may refer to the civilian authorities, the military, the CIA, or some trans-national shadow group — is hiding from us the “truth.” They may all have different versions of what this truth is, but they know it is being withheld.
The second group are the scoffers, the unbelievers, the rationalists, who believe — yea, they know — that all the sightings can be dismissed as hoaxes, hallucinations, or the rantings of cranks. The number of cranks and charlatans that come out of the woodwork only provides evidence for the unbelievers. So many of the true-believers seem to be poorly educated and so many of the sightings and abductions seem to take place in back-woods Arkansas or Arizona.
A friend has a nephew, a chubby adolescent whose mother worked in a massage parlor, and who was fascinated with the phenomenon, told us one day, with not a whit of irony, that something had been “positively identified as a UFO.” What can you do but laugh?
Then, of course, there is the namby-pamby middle group that says, these are probably not little green men in space ships, but surely there is something behind all the reports. Perhaps, they say, it is some secret military program, or perhaps it is Russian spy missions.
Let me confess out the outset that I am pretty well ensconced in the non-believer faction, although I will certainly allow that UFOs exist. That is, that there may be things that are unexplained and even perhaps unexplainable. This, to me, is hardly surprising. There is a great deal that human beings don’t know. But space ships from Mars, or Venus, or Tralfamador, are so unlikely as to be dismissible out of hand. Yes, there is an infinitesimal possibility that they exist, but until we have better evidence, I’m happy to ignore them.
And I say that despite having experienced UFOs, at least twice. At least for a while, each time. Once, in Phoenix (of course, it’s Arizona again), I was driving along Van Buren Avenue, west to east, on a Friday before a big basketball playoff game. And to the south, I saw a large glowing object, almost as large as the moon in the sky, but in the wrong place. And I continued to drive, it moved in ways that mystified me. It seemed to be a long way off, but was moving faster than I could have expected from anything hovering, say, over South Mountain or, further south, the Gila River Indian Reservation.
I continued to keep an eye on the glowing sphere as it moved to the west. It left me with an eerie feeling. Perhaps I had been wrong about UFOs. I could feel a kind of electricity buzzing in my spine at the uncanny vision. But then, as I continued and the UFO began to drift behind me, I finally saw “Geico” blazoned on its side as the sphere elongated into the Goodyear blimp. It was illuminated from the inside as an aerial billboard.
It moved faster than I had expected because it was closer than I had thought. Once I knew what it was, I laughed at myself for being taken so easily in. Surely a good deal of sightings must be simple misinterpretations.
My second experience was also in Arizona. Please, no snide remarks. We were invited by some friends to their home in Coolidge, about 40 miles south of Phoenix. They had a house in the desert with almost nothing around them but greasewood, cactus and javalinas. It was a lovely evening with a cookout on an outdoor grill, and some pleasant conversation.
But around 9 p.m., when it had become dark out, my host, a writer and photographer I knew, began to tell me about the mysterious lights in the desert just north of his home. He took me out back of the house and pointed them out.
“They seem to be coming from the old General Motors test grounds,” he said. There is an abandoned facility about halfway between Phoenix and Coolidge, where the car company had a test track. “Notice,” he said, “how the lights move from right to left and left to right and then sometimes, they stop altogether and hover.” He wondered what kind of secret project the government was conducting on the old site. “Nothing moves like that,” he said. “Just stopping and starting.”
Indeed, the dots of light did move one way and then the other, and halting altogether. The mood of unworldliness settled in, and he began talking about how the government had supposedly captured an alien spacecraft — I believe he was talking about Roswell, N.M. — and that he believed the government (again a hazy generality) had reconstructed these craft and were testing them out secretly.
I had a grand laugh. “Those are airplanes landing and taking off from Sky Harbor,” I said. The Phoenix airport.
“No, they can’t be,” he said. They are right over the old proving ground.”
I pointed out that Sky Harbor was in a straight line from where we were in Coolidge, over the proving ground. The planes moved from left to right taking off, right to left landing, and “hovered” motionless when they were flying directly toward us. He was not convinced. I didn’t want to press the issue, so I let it drop. But as we drove home later that night, my wife and I watched those fireflies moving in the air in front of us, and continue to remain in front as we passed the old GM facility and stayed in the north until we reached Phoenix and Sky Harbor, where, of course, they landed and took off.
Belief is the kind of thing that doesn’t necessarily depend on evidence or on mere fact. Mysterious lights are a whole lot more satisfying than Southwest Flight 94 coming in from Toledo.
Sight depends on at least two factors: what the eye sees; and what the brain interprets. Uncounted experiments have shown the unreliability of “eye-witness” accounts and the tricks our brains play on our eyes — as in the video of some jugglers tossing Indian clubs back and forth, during which a man in a gorilla suit passes behind them. Almost no viewers of the video ever notice the gorilla. Invisible, partly because it is too far out of context.
This happened to my wife and me while visiting the Washita massacre site in Oklahoma. It is an out-of-the-way site, visited by almost no one. We pulled into the gravel parking lot and saw in front of us, in the grassy dunes, something that looked like a dinosaur — a huge beast, maybe 20 feet tall, judging by the phone pole next to it. It was lurking there, moving slowly in front of us. We both asked each other what it might be, we both were frightened that it might spot us and head our way. When we turned back to look a second time, it shrunken down to be a cow. Ordinary cow. Ordinary size. How had we been so mistaken? Both of us? A mistake in our perception of the distance, the unusual cream color of the beast and its lumbering gait had tricked our brains into interpreting what our eyes saw as a monster.
Eyes and brains, working together. Seeing is believing? Don’t you believe it.
Further, we believe what we want to believe. We can interpret ambiguous data in a way that reinforces what we expect.
One early fall, when my granddaughters were visiting us in Phoenix, Tallulah Rose, then about 12 years old, was into her UFO phase and wanted me to take her to the Dreamy Draw, a spot near North Mountain that had been built up with a 455-foot long flood dam to keep storm wash from cascading down into the Sunny Slope region of town. There is a park there beneath the earthworks and a long slough where, according to urban legend, a spacecraft had crash landed in 1947. Two versions of the story: In one, it skipped like a stone on a pond and then came down a second time in Cave Creek, about 10 mile north of Phoenix; in the more common version, it was left wrecked at the Dreamy Draw and the government — that hazy nefarious entity, covered the site up with the dam to hide the evidence. Of course, the dam wasn’t built until 1973, but perhaps you put that down to government inefficiency.
To me, the draw, sitting beside the freeway over the mountain, was a fairly ordinary gash in the landscape. But to T-Rose, it held much greater significance. “You can see it,” she said. “That’s where it landed. It’s clear as can be.”
I have seen a boatload of movies over the span of my life, some more significant than others. Those few important ones are outweighed by those that are completely unmemorable, even when perfectly enjoyable while sitting through them. That describes most movies and that’s fine. Not every film needs to be Citizen Kane.
This is my list of significant films, listed decade by decade. It is a personal catalog and limited first by including only movies I have actually seen. There are significant films I have not yet been able to view. Further, the list tends to reflect my own tastes, although it is not a list of my favorite films or of the “best” films, but of those that I believe have some significance in the history of cinema. You should make your own list. It would undoubtedly be different from mine.
What makes them significant? Here are my criteria: In order to make my list a movie must hit one or more of these markers: 1. Be of historical importance; 2. Advance film grammar or technique; 3. Be influential on other films and filmmakers; 4. Have something profound to say about existence and humanity; or 5. Simply be so memorable as to be missed if not included. That’s a pretty wide and pretty loose range of qualities. Most films on this list hit more than one of them. And for my esthetic, No. 4 counts above all the others.
Most movies, whether from Hollywood, Bollywood or Cinecittà, seek only to tell a good story and keep our attention. Many of these are truly enjoyable, but their making is merely efficient, using the tried-and-true techniques which remain invisible to the average moviegoer. The vast majority of films created never attempt to do more — nor should we ask them to. The old Hollywood studios were brilliant at this: perfect camera work, lighting, editing, sound recording, etc., but with never a thought to making us see these techniques. If we had noticed them, they would have felt that they had failed at their job. Others, like Citizen Kane, dance and sing their innovations. The significant filmmakers, for me, are those that do something above and beyond the call of duty.
I make this apology: My taste tends toward the more arty. That’s why you should consider making your own list. I own hundreds of DVDs, perhaps more than a thousand. The way some readers read not books, but authors, so some filmgoers watch not individual films, but filmmakers: all of Bergman or all of Almodovar. I could not include all of their films in this list without it becoming more cumbersome than it already is, and so have whittled their works down to a few exemplars. So, for each of the big names, I have included mostly just the first important film they’ve made (a film that defined their style or themes), or when including more than one, when subsequent films meaningfully expanded their work.
Some of these films might lead you to scratch your head. But I can justify any one of them. Or try to.
Among the earliest films are the shorts made by the Lumière brothers in France in the 1890s. They are each under a minute long and show everyday scenes. They astonished their original audiences, but are of mostly historical interest now. The first filmmaker to create something we might still want to see and enjoy was the P.T. Barnum of early filmmakers, Georges Méliès, who used trick photography and surreal plots to draw his ticket-buyers in.
When we get to 1915, we have to take a deep breath and watch Birth of a Nation, which is so blatantly and obscenely racist, I feel dirty even listing it. But it is, apart from its story and acting, so important in the development of cinema and film language, you kinda have to hold your nose and see it.
Film really took off in the 1920s — the first “golden age” of cinema. A language and grammar of filmmaking developed that could tell a story with a minimum of words in intertitles. So many films are lost now, but many of those that remain are classics, including the amazing five-hour Napoleon by French director Abel Gance. It has been difficult to find commercially for years (blame Francis Coppola), but now is available on Region 2 DVD and Region B Blu-ray from the British Film Institute in a magnificent restoration by Kevin Brownlow. It’s worth it to buy a region-free player just to see this film. (You can also find things on Amazon UK that are otherwise not available in the U.S., and Region 2 versions of some films that are cheaper than their American counterparts. A region-free player is a treasure.)
The 1930s were another “golden age,” when the studios ran things and did it right. Even the lowliest of studio B pictures was made with a professionalism that is hard to credit. Everyone was on top of his game.
But Hollywood was interested more in melodrama and comedy than in searching explorations of the human condition. They were really, really good at it. But in Europe, the darker tides of history were leading to more textured work, as in the work of Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol. In the U.S., we had Ernst Lubitsch, who could be more sophisticated than the Hollywood norm, but then, he was born in Berlin.
The one thing America had that no one else seemed able to copy was the “screwball comedy.” I have only one on my list, but there could be dozens. I have My Man Godfrey because I think it is the most perfect one. But I love ’em all. By the war, they couldn’t make them anymore without seeming to be too self-conscious about it. A genre no longer possible.
The Adventures of Robin Hood is a film I have never cared for, but it is on my list for its score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, as exemplifying the great movie music by European emigres.
I have to apologize for Leni Riefenstahl being on this list. Like Birth of a Nation, there is a moral stink to her films, but one should see them anyway for their influential filmmaking. Yell at the screen while you watch if you want — I do — but see them at least once before washing your eyes with lye.
Even the worst eras of filmmaking have their gems. After 1939, the high-water mark for Hollywood films, we hit a lull. The war is certainly one cause — so many actors, technicians and filmmakers joined up and spent the war in Europe or the Pacific. But John Wayne stayed home to fight the enemy on the screen. I watched tons of those films on TV when I was a kid. I can’t say how many times I watched Guadalcanal Diary on the Million Dollar Movie.
I include Maltese Falcon as the closest a film has ever adhered to the book. If you read Hammett’s book, you will think you’re reading a novelization of the film. John Huston did a great job with it. Casablanca is there as proof that a committee can make a masterpiece. Grapes of Wrath is here for its cinematography, which so perfectly catches the tone of the FSA photographs of the Great Depression.
Still, the majority of movies on my list are European. They deal with real things; they had to.
The 1950s were the great age of European art film. When we think of an art film, we are likely to picture The Seventh Seal, Rashomon or Orphée. Hollywood could squeeze out an occasional great film, but mostly it was sinking into the doldrums with flat TV-style lighting, uninspired editing, and a dependence on big-name stars, often miscast. Yet, it managed to make On the Waterfront, Anatomy of a Murder and Some Like It Hot — the closest thing Hollywood ever made to a post-1930s screwball comedy. I wish I had room on the list for more Billy Wilder.
Oh, and Godzilla is here, not as the kiddie monster movie that it was turned into with Raymond Burr added on, but as its original Japanese parable of the atomic bomb and Hiroshima. If properly seen, Godzilla is a heartbreaking film.
The French New Wave hits full force in the Sixties, taking up the slack from Hollywood, which, in the first two-thirds of the decade was practically moribund, making dreck like Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Cleopatra. Oy veyzmir.
Things brightened up in the last years of the decade as the studios threw up their hands and let the young turks in to update the artform. (Don’t feel sorry for the studios, they have come back with a vengeance with superheroes and CGI, but for the time being, they were playing dead. Never count out Capitalism, while there is still money to be made.)
The one great studio film of the era is Lawrence of Arabia. I had not counted it much until I saw it on the giant screen (the 70-foot screen of the old Cine Capri in Phoenix, Ariz., in a 70mm print in 1989.) It was a wonder. I weep for the kids watching movies on their iPhones.
What started in the Sixties continued for the next decade, but the warnings were there to be seen. Young turks grew in style and technique, but the worm in the apple had jaws, then it had Star Wars. Filmmaking mega-corporations saw where the big bucks could be had.
Before le déluge, though, a cadre of brilliant auteurs were given money to make Chinatown, Nashville and Taxi Driver. And the crazed, driven Werner Herzog broke through consciousness with Aguirre. And who else, really, was der Zorn gottes?
Filmmakers who first popped their heads above ground in the 1970s went on to be the grandmasters of the next several decades.
A new generation of auteurs arose in the 1980s to again refresh the cinematic cosmos. Some had made earlier films, but they all hit their stride in the Reagan years: Terry Gilliam, Brian De Palma, the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, John Sayles, Errol Morris.
There was coming problem, though: film schools. In the old days, directors learned their craft on the job. Increasingly, they learned it all in school and became ever so glib at the three-act script and the POV, the Final Cut Pro. They knew their B roll and their axial cut, their Dutch angle, their key light and post production color timing. Result: filmmakers more interested in technique than in content. But the full misery of all that happens after the ’80s, when these well-trained technicians were given the reins of a $200 million CGI and green-screen superhero epic, where they functioned more as field generals than as artists.
The film-school esthetic was also the natural result of the rising Postmodernism: the knowingness that made the process of filmmaking its own subject, along with the expectation that the audience knew what you were doing and could nod their heads knowingly. The story became its own MacGuffin.
For me, the ’90s is the Kieslowski decade. The Polish filmmaker had been working since the ’60s, but didn’t break out into international note until The Double Life of Veronique in 1991, following that with his masterpiece trilogy, Colors (Blue, White, and Red). His 10 shorter TV films, Dekalog, had come out at the end of the previous decade, but together, all his later work makes a case for film as art in the same manner as the films of Bergman and Fellini in the 1950s. They are one of the high-water marks of film as literature.
New names appeared and stuck: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Richard Linklater, Baz Luhrmann, Darren Aronofsky, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Wachowskis. They all continued to make interesting films of lasting power. Pedro Almodovar finally won international fame after decades of making idiosyncratic films in Spain. And Martin Scorsese continued to up his game, becoming the de facto “greatest living film director.” (Not that there is such a thing, but if there has to be someone named, most agree Scorsese wears the badge.)
It’s hard to believe, but Peter Jackson made the first Lord of the Rings movie 20 years ago. With those films, and with King Kong, Jackson became the field general commanding the largest forces and a budget rivaling that of the invasion of Normandy. That the films were as good as they were proves Jackson could overcome the disadvantage of so much money. Not everyone given such a purse could. The major movies of the decade were also blockbusters, a form that took over the studios, leaving behind small budget indie films to the do-it-yourself crowd. Lucky for all, digital cameras and editing made it possible to make meaningful films with almost no budget at all. The bifurcation of the film industry was nearly complete.
Outside Hollywood, however, worthwhile films continued to be made by directors who actually had something to say. Increasingly, they said it in Spanish. Since the shift in the millennium, four of the putative top 10 movie auteurs are either Mexican or Spanish (Cuarón, del Torro, Iñarritu and Almodovar). We’ve come a long way from those cheesy old El Santo movies.
Among the others are two very peculiar directors: Lars von Trier and Guy Maddin, both acquired tastes that I have acquired. I had to narrow it down to a film apiece for this list, but I would love to have included Maddin’s My Winnipeg.
I’m afraid that when I retired in 2012, my moviegoing dropped precipitously. So, my list for the past decade is incomplete. I leave it to younger eyes to see the future.
So, that’s my list. If I had made it tomorrow or next week, it would likely be entirely different. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some I wish I had included, and I might change my mind about some of those I listed. If I had made the list when I was 20, or 30, or 40, it would have reflected a very different — and unfinished — sensibility. Now, at 73, I’ve pretty well rounded off my sense of taste and esthetic.
The list is mine and no one else should be blamed for it. And your list would undoubtedly head off in some other direction. Vaya con los dioses.
I came late to film, but early to movies. Even before school age, I watched hundreds of movies on TV. At that age, there is no critical sense. They were just movies and I didn’t have any sense that one might be better than another. They wiggled on the screen and that was sufficient. I watched it all like drinking water from a tap.
As I grew up, I decided I liked some kinds of movies better than others. First, from before I entered kindergarten, there were the Westerns from the 1930s and ’40s that ran in the afternoons. I loved Buck Jones and Hoot Gibson. When I became older, there were the science fiction movies from the 1950s. I gobbled them all up: The Crawling Eye, Gog, Rodan.
And because so many of those I watched were on TV’s Million Dollar Movie, I also absorbed a surprising number of “kitchen sink” movies from England, made during the “Angry Young Man” phase of British cinema: The L-Shaped Room, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Did I know what they were about? No, they were just a fact of life. TV life. “A bit of a plodder, myself,” said Michael Redgrave. (“What’s a ‘plodder,’ ” I wondered, the word not yet in my vocabulary at the age of 7). Later, in my early awkward pubescent years, I became obsessed with classic monster movies, a period in my life that the less said, the better. But at one point, I could name you every actor who ever played the Frankenstein monster — including Glenn Strange.
Not that I understood these movies, mind you, but they were what was on. I may have been five or six and watching The Boy With Green Hair on the Million Dollar Movie, with neither an understanding of what the movie was about, nor the sense that I should understand what the movie was about. I was unaware of taste or choice; I just watched what was offered.
My earliest memory of a movie is of watching King Kong from behind a chair when I was perhaps in first grade; I was terrified. I would peek out to see what was happening when I dared. My baby brother watched, too, but he just sat there, three years younger than me and I’m sure just happy to see things wiggling on the screen. (He later made a career teaching animation and filmmaking.)
Nothing like a film education came my way until I entered college. I was young; I was ignorant.
British film critic Mark Kermode talked on YouTube about the moment he first became fascinated by movies. It was when he was a kid and saw Krakatoa: East of Java, a 1968 disaster film (the volcano Krakatoa is actually west of Java, but you know: the movies). It was shot in Cinerama and starred Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Brian Keith, Sal Mineo and Rossano Brazzi.
It was 1968, a significant year in film, balanced uncomfortably between Cleopatra and M*A*S*H. It was the moment the big studios were dinosaurs and young Turks were meteors waiting to descend. Doris Day and Rock Hudson were leaving the building by the back exit while Dustin Hoffman and Gena Rowlands were breaking down the front door. The studios could still believe that making a Western with Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot was a good idea, but in the wings were Francis Coppola, John Cassavetes, Brian De Palma, George Romero and Peter Bogdanovich.
I’m grossly oversimplifying, or course. Hollywood continued to pump out high-budget pap in the following years — as it continues to do today in the age of Michael Bay and comic-book superheroes — but by the late ’60s, the studio apparatus was becoming increasingly irrelevant in an era of Easy Rider, Medium Cool, and Alice’s Restaurant (all just a year after Krakatoa). Although, to be fair, in the insurgent camp, there were plenty of well-meaning indie films that have been lost in the passing of their trendiness. Neither all good nor all bad.
But in the midst of it, there, at age of five or six, was Kermode, blown away by the cheesy explosion of the volcano in Krakatoa. He says that it was then he knew he wanted to spend his life with movies. A single burst of “Eureka.” Kermode admits that he knows others, unlike him, came to movies more gradually. That was me he was talking about.
(If you don’t know Kermode, he is movie critic for The Observer, the British Sunday newspaper, and counts as probably as close an English equivalent as you can find to Roger Ebert as “national movie critic.” Kermode is in print, on radio and on the tube. It was on the British TV’s The Culture Show in 2006, that filmmaker Werner Herzog was shot, while being interviewed by Kermode; Herzog continued the interview anyway, saying, “It was not a significant bullet.” Ah, Werner. The last time anyone did something like that was when in 1912 Teddy Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee, only to shrug it off — “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose” and went on to give a campaign speech for 90 minutes.)
And so, although Kermode knew at an early age that movies would be his life, I only gradually come to an appreciation of the art form. The thought that there was a film grammar, or that there was a crew of professionals assembled to construct the movie, or that there was a financial aspect to the business — the thought never entered my tiny little head.
Then I entered college and all that changed for me with the film series offered. Unlike nowadays, when college film programs are chosen by students, and tend toward things such as Caddyshack and Animal House (yes, classics of a sort), the series I was given was curated by school faculty and featured Kurosawa, Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. It is where I first saw The Andalusian Dog with its eye-slice, and Birth of a Nation, with its unbearable racism.
It slowly dawned on me that movies could be as serious an art as poetry, opera or architecture. I had been slapped awake.
It was also the year (1967) that Antonioni’s Blow Up opened in town, which I watched with my crazy college girlfriend in the commercial theater. Now that was art cinema. We came out into the sunlight considerably more pompous and intellectual than when we went in. I spent years analyzing and decoding the symbolism — that being the defining vice of the young and clever.
But from then on, film became a significant part of my intellectual life. I haunted the local Janus theater that specialized in art films, and I saw so many: Ikiru, Virgin Spring, La Strada, L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad — I mean, can I get any artier? These were movies to be seen, yes, but then, more importantly, to be talked about. O the symbolism — O the humanity. O Woman in the Dunes.
I developed an unhealthy snobbery about cinema and dismissed pretty much anything that came out of Hollywood. I wuz a idiot. But, hey, I was a college student, which is pretty much the same thing.
Years passed, and the veneer of imbecility wore off; I saw thousands of films, from the earliest silents to the most recent offerings at the multiplex. The TV was set by default to Turner Classic Movies. (Just last week, I watched King Kong again, for at least the hundredth time. “How can you watch a movie you’ve already seen?” asked a friend. “How can you listen to your favorite song over and over?” I responded.)
By the early 2000s, I was writing for the Phoenix newspaper and, among other duties, was a backup movie reviewer. The regular critic tended to avoid foreign films, and so he gave many of them to me. Later, in 2006 and 2007, when there was an interregnum between film critics, I served as a temp. I got to see many good films, and many godawful ones, which always gave me the most fun to write: “Earlier this week, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture, so I know one place Love Stinks will not be opening.”
I took shots at art films, too. I really can’t stand the Masterpiece Theater genre of high-toned blather: “Mannequins in rich dresses moving about and pronouncing their words so distinctly that you’d think they were shelling pistachios with their tongues.”
You know, the 500-page classic Victorian novel brought to life (or not) on the screen: “If you’ve ever gotten a shirt back from the laundry with too much starch, you will have some sense of what is wrong with House of Mirth. It creases where it should drape.”
I have over 200 entries in Rotten Tomatoes. When I look it up, I don’t remember seeing some of the films I reviewed. The were not all memorable. But the run as movie critic gave me a chance to become a juror at the Palm Springs Short Film Festival in 2000, and learned what it was like to be followed, like a magnet pulling iron filings, by publicists.
It was fun, but there comes a point when you’ve seen too many movies in a week and they all blur into an Eastmancolor smudge. There is something lost with the deeper awareness of cinema. When I was a wee bairn, all that mattered was the story. With increased knowledge, as any honest movie critic will admit, you notice things like editing and foley work. You are paying double attention, on one hand to the story, and on the other, to how the story is told. You can never unknow how Hitchcock turns time to taffy, or how Godard jump-cuts, or how Marcel Ophuls uses camera motion like a ballet dancer.
With the coming of Postmodernism, almost everyone is now wise to the process. You can’t watch a film by Christopher Nolan or Charlie Kaufman without commenting on it: They foreground the filmmaking and subordinate story. Is this a good thing? I’m not so sure but that films were more immediately pleasurable before we knew that Alejandro Iñárritu filmed Birdman to look like one long, single take.
I remember when I learned that Stanley Kubrick used a special f/0.7 lens to film a scene by candlelight in Barry Lyndon. When the Steadicam was introduced in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory. When CGI bowed in on Flight of the Navigator (rather crudely by modern standards). When the crane shot was rendered obsolete by the invention of the aerial drone. Drone shots are everywhere now, and have become a visual cliche. In the old days, a movie ended with the hero riding off into the sunset; you can hardly end a movie, TV show or commercial now without the drone shot sweeping back away from the final scene into a wide landscape. (So now, establishing shots come at the end?)
By now, I’ve seen my thousand movies. I own hundreds of DVDs, perhaps more than a thousand (I haven’t counted recently). Among them are all the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Pedro Amodovar, Werner Herzog and Woody Allen. (At least I think I have all of Herzog; it is impossible to keep accurate track). And nearly all the films of Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, Erich Rohmer, Francois Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and Agnes Varda. I’ve fallen behind with Quentin Tarantino. I wish I had more of Martin Scorsese, but my DVD purchases have lagged since my retirement (and shrinking of income).
It’s been a lifetime of watching movies, learning from movies and about them, a lifetime learning to take them seriously. Even when they’re not serious.
We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out.
But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale.
No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot?
So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners.
Desert Island book
The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul.
My nominees for Desert Island Book are:
—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book.
—Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again.
—Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me.
—À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty.
—Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship.
And the award goes to:
Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry.
Desert Island Music
This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture.
My nominees for Desert Island Music are:
—Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into.
—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.”
—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle.
—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out.
—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time.
And the winner is:
St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!
Desert Island Film
Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.
My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are:
—Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.
—La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”
—Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen. I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love.
—Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you.
—Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon.
And my choice is:
Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life.
I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play.
An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite:
Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino…
There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year:
The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad.
What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember?
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules.
And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.
Recently on Turner Classics, I caught the 1968 Clint Eastwood film, Hang ’Em High. And in the opening scene where a posse of miscreants attempt to lynch Clint, there were a passel of familiar character actors, including Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, Alan Hale Jr., Ned Romero and Bert Freed. And the oldest of them — the only one to hesitate about hanging a man — was a face that burned familiar and at first, I couldn’t place. Then it hit me, this grizzled old rancher was Bob Steele. The movie suddenly interested me more and I stayed to watch it through.
When I was a wee bairn, in the early 1950s, TV was rife with old Westerns. Television was new and stations were starving for content. Libraries of old movies were packaged and sent to local outlets and afternoon programming included piles of old Westerns, mainly from the Golden Age of the 1930s. As a five-year old, maybe seven, I clearly had my favorite cowboy stars. Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard, Buck Jones. And Bob Steele. All of them stars before the advent of Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.
They each had their shtick. Hoot Gibson tended not to carry a gun; McCoy brought a historic sense of the real West. Maynard was a trick rider. And Steele was the king of the fistfight.
I must have watched hundreds of these Westerns. Later, when half-hour Western series took over the evening, I watched Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid. But it was the movies that really spoke to me.
It wasn’t just that they were cowboy movies — although that was their primary attraction (I had a cowboy hat, a cap pistol, and when I was four years old, an imaginary horse I rode around the living room, which I named Whitey.) It was also my introduction to movies. I am not going to claim any great sophistication in my appreciation. I wasn’t particularly paying attention to the editing or lighting, but I did notice the music and I did notice, even at that tender age, that there were scenes that must have been shot silent, with no dialog and with Foley sound added later, like the coconut clop of horse hooves. The sound and visuals didn’t quite match up, making it clear they were done separately. And I was aware of the various wipes and dissolves. They loved their wipes. In that sense, I had some early appreciation that these were artifacts, creations of a filmmaker.
As an adult, when I occasionally watch an old Western, I am kind of embarrassed that I loved them so much as a boy. On the whole, they were clunky, cheaply made, and ridiculously repetitive. The same plots over and over, this time with Tex Ritter, that time with Bob Livingston, another with Johnny Mack Brown. Every banker and lawyer wore a string bow tie — that’s how we knew who the villain was.
And every one of them had a gang of brutes led by Harry Woods, Charlie King or Roy Barcroft. The string bow ties tried to cut off water to the ranchers, or tried to cheat them out of their land, or schemed to steal the deeds to the gold mine. And they all seemed to end with a mass shootout in the distinctive rock formations of the Alabama Hills of California.
These programmer Westerns went through a clear evolution. Later in life, I began to look at them more closely and saw that change over time. Beginning with the silents, there was Broncho Billy — really Maxwell Aronson, born to an immigrant Jewish family, who became the first cowboy star. He made hundreds of films, mostly one-reelers, all before 1920 and included titles such as Broncho Billy and the Indian Maid (1912), and Broncho Billy and the Land Grabber (1915). There was no attempt at realism. They were pure fantasy.
That changed with William S. Hart, a one-time Shakespearean actor who took his duty to the West seriously in a series of popular melodramas. In almost every one, Hart was a tough hombre redeemed by the love of a good woman. Some of the films stand up, and I’ve watched Hell’s Hinges (1916) only recently and astounded at some of the visuals. Or Tumbleweeds (1925), with the great Oklahoma Land Rush sequence that is still a benchmark in such things.
The other side of the movie Western world was Tom Mix, the fancy-dress cowboy, with crescent-pocket shirts, embroidered boots and Tony, the Wonder Horse. His 1925 Riders of the Purple Sage is one of his less show-bizzy films, based on the Zane Grey novel. I’ve seen it several times.
The two strands of Western continued through the genre’s history. Even recently, you can sense the ghost of Tom Mix in something like Will Smith’s Wild Wild West (1999) and the stern rectitude of Hart in Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). (Or both together in the Coen Brothers anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, with the Mix clone Buster Scruggs in the opening episode, and the heartbreaking Hart-like realism of the penultimate episode, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.”)
The early sound era was, for me, the high water mark for the Western. By the 1940s, the B-Western had worn itself out and by the 1950s, with godawful series like Whip Wilson, they were just embarrassing.
There were, I posit, three types of Western actor. There were those who could actually act (the rarest of the breeds); those who had genuine screen presence even if they were no Oliviers; and finally, the wanna-bes who just went through the motions as if carved from balsa wood.
In the first group were William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy), Harry Carey, Johnny Mack Brown and Bill Elliott. They all had both acting chops and screen magic. In his earliest films John Wayne had all the magic needed, but only later did it ever occur to anyone that he might actually be able to act. When John Ford saw him in Red River, from 1948 (the year I was born), he was impressed and famously said, “I didn’t know the big son of a bitch could act!” He could, although he didn’t always need to.
Others, such as Tex Ritter or Gene Autry had the gleam on the screen, but no one would accuse them of being able to recite dialog and sound like an actual human being at the same time. And at the bottom of the list comes Sunset Carson, possibly the worst actor ever to mount a horse.
There were tons of these guys that I used to love, before I ever developed the critical faculty to judge their thespian talents. Among my favorite Saturday afternoon movies were the Three Mesquiteers films, with shifting casts that included, at different times, John Wayne, Crash Corrigan, Bob Steele, Max Terhune, Bob Livingston, and even, briefly, Duncan Rinaldo. Buster Crabbe left behind Flash Gordon and made a series of pretty good Westerns. But when the name Bob Steele came up in the opening credits, that was the best. Remember, I’m talking about being seven years old here.
Steele had a long career. His first film, as a juvenile, was in 1920. His cowboy heyday came in the ’30s, but he kept working in Hollywood even after hanging up his spurs. Famously as Canino in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). He kept working until 1974, appearing in such films as Rio Bravo, The Longest Day, and even a comic role as Trooper Duffy in F Troop (1965-67).
And so, I’m watching Hang ’Em High and I recognize, hidden in the crowd, that face, now leathery and wrinkled, with a stubbly beard, a flash of 60 years condensed. How could I have recognized it so unconsciously? It’s not as though I had thought of Bob Steele more recently than decades ago. But it tickled something in my memory and I twitched. “That’s Bob Steele.”
In 1968, Steele was more than 10 years younger than I am now, and yet, he looked so old. What does that make me?