Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Thoughts on Missing the Deadline (Part II)

For those who haven't seen it already, the list is now up over at Edward Copeland's site, and what a treat it is. As I've said countless times, I wish I had participated in this project. Seeing the titles and the various comments on them, I am both frustrated and relieved that I did not partake in the voting. Judging by the fact that I've only seen about 25 percent of the represented films, I've got a lot of catching up to do. Nevertheless, it's a great list; one that captures the pulse of contemporary film lovers and critics' sensibilities regarding international cinema, from which some interested trends emerge.

I'm not surprised to see The Rules of the Game sit atop the list, since the film is regarded in just about the same light as Citizen Kane. I just recently saw it and was riveted. While watching the analyses on the Criterion DVD, I concluded that to fully appreciate this film for all of its details, I must see it several times again. As is the case with most great movies, one is almost overwhelmed with feeling and thought on first viewing that to try to process it all in a comprehensive and intelligible way is both impossible and undesirable. I can often feel on first viewing, but cannot articulate, which is, oddly enough, how it should be.

Despite the Top 10 or 15 being fairly easy to predict (which is not necesarily a bad thing), there were some fairly significant surpises concerning what made the list as well as placement. Three films that appeared much higher than I anticipated are Spirited Away, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and City of God. I suppose their relative newness (all released in the last seven years) may account for it, but I am nonetheless pleasantly surprised to see them feature so prominently because I also hold them in such high esteem. I have seen each of them multiple times and discovered new things about them each time; yet I also have that wonderful feeling watching them that there is still so much to explore in these films, especially Y Tu Mama, Tambien, which I viewed back in January (for a second or third time) and felt like I was seeing it for the first time.

Another welcome surprise was that Run Lola Run appeared so low (or is it high) on the list. I just assumed it would appear at least in the Top 50 due to its strong following among film class 101 students; the same members who voted on The Usual Suspects and The Shawshank Redemption in the Online Film Community Top 100. Although I find the movie very entertaining, it's hardly good enough to appear on any such list. Occupying the 95 slot, I was pleased to see that it didn't get as many votes. It's also nice to see Raise the Red Lantern on the list; a film of such restrained sublimity. I saw it probably eight years ago, and moments of it (many of them, actually) stand out so perfectly in my mind. I keenly remember my fascination with the culture it depicted, my astonishment for the cool blues of the outside snow and the enveloping reds of the interiors, and the pain I felt inside for a character that speaks so little in a world I knew even littler about. For pure atmosphere and feeling (even of the ambiguous sort), very few films can match Zhang Yimou's film. It carves out its own place and time with its sustained sense of ambiance.

I could go on forever describing the various titles on the list, but I promised I would get to a few movies on own list. I must admit that my Top 25 selection includes many of the films on Edward's Top 100. So I don't have a whole lot to add to the list, I suppose. Many of these familiar titles that are frequently discussed in critics circles and film blogs require little more commentary from me. Nevertheless, they deserve mention as they are some of my very favorite films as well. These include (in no particular order):

- The Bicycle Thief directed by Vittorio de Sica
- 8 1/2 directed by Federico Fellini
- The 400 Blows directed by Francois Truffaut
- La Strada directed by Federico Fellini
- The Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa
- The Seventh Seal directed by Ingmar Bergman
- Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by Werner Herzog
- The Rules of the Game directed by Jean Renoir
- Playtime directed by Jacques Tati

All are wonderful films that I've had the great opportunity to see throughout high school, college, and beyond. Some I've seen more than once, others in various classes only once, but they all represent important staples in my own narrative with cinema as well as for the medium's own narrative and shaping. Plain and simple, cinema would not be the same without these movies, and neither would I. The final word has not been made on any of these movies; if it were, than none of them would be as good as many claim they are. That there still await so many more perpsectives on these works to be voiced, on blogs and on book pages, is what makes cinema so special. The images are the same, but the world around them and the eyes seeing them continue to change.

Since many bloggers and critics have already sounded off on the above titles, I will here briefly discuss some other non-English language films that either didn't make the list (as well as the nomination list) or maybe that did make it, but are often glossed over in favor of the more established masterpieces.

L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983)

Although Robert Bresson's last film did not make the initial cut of Edward's list, it nonetheless remains a profound experience. Bresson's masterwork unfolds in what appears to be a very simple visual style, with a contrast of long shots and close-ups observing a variety of characters whose lives are altered by the most trivial of things. In its depiction of a young man who begins a chain of crime after the simple transaction of counterfeit money, Bresson evokes the existential agency of human beings, who, in their participation in (and deviation from) societal norms inevitably causes them to collide with devasting effects. With L'Argent, Bresson's visuals mirror the thematic convergence of the simplicities and complexities that comprise human behavior and communication.

Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel, 1967)

When I worked at a video store in High School, I remember picking up this film because of the Roger Ebert quote on the cover box claiming the film was "an erotic masterpiece." Alas, the film was erotic, but in an entirely different way. Bunuel's masterpiece is one of the very first non-English language films I've seen, and it's probings of guilt, shame, and pleasure through the life of an upper class wife left an indelible imprint on my mind. What struck me most at the time was how I was unable to get inside this woman's mind and understand why she felt so compelled to rebel against her life of security and meaning. The film never provides an answer, but rather manages to pose many questions about gender roles norms, especially as they pertain to narrative. In particular this film manages to both call into question typical representation of sexless female while also observing that representations of "male" and "female" wield great influence in our own understanding and embodiment of gender, sexuality, and identity. The images of Catherine Deneuve's legs as she struggles to decide to go into the whore house is a perfect expression of the profundity of cinema.

Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988)

What happened to appreciating sentimental moviemaking? For some reason, Cinema Paradiso is scoffed at by more than a few bloggers and critics. I understand that each and every person is entitled to her opinion about a movie, but so much of the negative backlash over this film seems a bit too guarded to be genuine. I have never been afraid to express my enthusiasm for sentimentality in cinema. To me, Guiseppe Tornatore's film is like a gateway into my own nostalgia, of childhood and first love. Maybe I'm presumptious, but I have observed that those who love cinema often hold a lot of unrequited passion; the need to intensely feel, or emote. Part of being a lover of cinema requires the individual to in a sense never really let go of her/his childhood, happy memories, and strong affective states. Because in the cinema, feeling lives forever right there in the marriage of sight and sound. Cinema taps into how we all construct our own narrative narrative, which is rather bittersweet with the realization that much of our own selves is a romanticizing and framing of memory, feeling, pain, and passion. Cinema Paradiso evokes the perfection and the pain of loving cinema, the innocence of childhood, the magic of first love, and the transience of life. It may be sentimental, but much like other great sentimental movies (e.g., E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial), it's outward expressions of emotion are actually much deeper than their "bigness" lets on.

Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)

Remakes have it worse than sequels. In the eyes of many film goers and critics, the very idea of a remake is enough to cause nausea, especially for one of cinema's beloved masterpieces. But as a medium of spatial and temporal relations, sight and sound, and moving images, one must question whether a remake is actually possible on any terms other than plot. Nevertheless, the remake debate might have something to do with what seems to be an overwhelming absence of discussion about Werner Herzog's masterpiece, Nosferatu the Vampyre. While the film exhibits the same narrative elements as F.W. Murnau's historic film, which itself took its narrative cues from Bram Stoker's novel, Herzog's film is mesmerizing in its long, quiet interludes. Imbuing the story with a real sense of dread, Herzog's vampire is far more of a mystery than in many other dracula renditions, and the world around him is equally cold. While Aguirre, the Wrath of God remains Herzog's ultimate mood piece, the atmospheres he achieves in this film are vast, ambiguous, and sensuous.

Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Henri-Georges Clouzot was often refered to as the French Hitchcock. Although such a term is currently understood as a high praise, we must not forget that Hitchcock was not appreciated for his time, despite his amazing popularity. Moreover, Clouzot was reportedly insulted that he was reduced to the french version of an American filmmakers. (I'm sure Hitch would have equally loathed the reverse term, as well.) He was rightfully upset, because although his penchant for suspense was of the same level of Hitchcock, his films were altogether very different. While Diabolique (unseen by me) is often cited as the director's premiere work, it would be unwise to overlook the film that preceded it, Wages of Fear. The plot focuses on four men transporting nitroglycerine across the French countryside,. While it boasts a number of tense set pieces, the whole film is an exercise in rising tension, to the extent that by the end the suspense reaches almost unbearable heights. As the story unfolds and the tensions ratchets up, Clouzot refuses the viewer the ease of placing the characters and visual styles into familiar boxes, thus enabling easy judgment and passive enjoyment. In so doing, Clouzot teeses out a surprising amount of subtlty stemming from its simplicity. In simplicity, Clouzot finds nuance instead of easily exploited convention.

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Any person who calls her/himself a lover of horror simply cannot afford to miss Dario Argento's film, which can best be described as an erotic fetishization of gore and death. I should note that I have not seen very many films by Dario Argento, but Suspiria is nonetheless one of my very favorite horror films. Although I hear Argento uses color to great extent in all of his films, his overt, sharp color palettes make the ballet school where the film is set become a labyrinth of flesh, blood, and death. As the film does on, Argento digs more and more into this vivid imagery, transforming the school into an inferno world from which the central character cannot escape. The first murder scene stands as one of the most gruesomely sexual sequences I've seen in a horror film, and one of the most memorable.


Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Ted,

A bit late commenting here, but it was a great post. How do I know it was a great post? Well, by the end of it, you had changed my mind 4 times as to what the next film I wanted to see was...From "Rules Of The Game" to "Belle De Jour" to "Nosferatu" to "Suspiria". I've seen all 4, but only one time each (I own two, but just haven't got back to them yet) and you've made me want to see all 4 RIGHT NOW.

I do want to defend "Run Lola Run" a bit as well...Not that you attacked it by any stretch, but I think it's a fine addition to the list. Though it didn't quite get one of my 25 votes, it was close. I find it hugely entertaining and an example of a young director really playing with the medium. I don't have a good feel for how influential it was, but it certainly opened up foreign film for some people I know (granted, they haven't really moved much beyond the action realm, but still...). I'd really recommend some of Twyker's other films like "Winter Sleepers", "The Princess Ant The Warrior" and the recent "Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer". All very different, but incredibly stylish.

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, Bob,

I suppose I may have come on a little too strong concerning Run, Lola, Run. I definitely really liked the film. I saw it in High School, when I was catching up on other contemporary film geek movies. And it's a fun bit of narrative reflexivity. But I felt that the overwhelming positive response to the film's visual style and structure was similar as the reponse to The Matrix. I just got sick of people who supposedly appreciate art and cinema trying to convince me that it was one of the great films of new age cinema. It was good, but I see a lot of good films; and neither Run Lola Run nor The Matrix distinguish themselves from the rest of it. They are bold and original only to those who rarely come across the bold and the original.

I have heard really good things about The Princess and the Warrior, and I saw Perfume, which I wrote about here. I think that film did some really fascinating things, conjuring strong sensual desires and pleasures. But I think that burned out too quickly as the murder plot kicked in. It was no doubt a fascinating film, though, and I will definitely keep up with Twyker's work.

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks for the link to your review of Perfume. Very well stated and I agree with all of it, except that I thought the last half of the movie was even better as it builds in anticipation for that final creation. The first half lays it out and then the last half follows it through. But that's just me...

I'm not sure if we agree or disagree about Run Lola Run...B-) I like it probably a bit more than you, but the difference seems to be in the discussion around it. Those I know who like it have used it as a springboard, whereas the people you've talked to (or read) seem to see it as a culmination. I could definitely see how that would colour your view of the film (in no way am I suggesting your view is coloured wrong...just different).

Ted Pigeon said...

The problem I had with Perfume is that it worked so hard to create these dark moods and atmospheres (with its sensual images and foreboding darkness in the initial murders) that the shift in tone to a murderous rampage plot and all of the accompanying montage resulted in a very strange whiplash. I just didn't think the railed up tension was conducive with the atmospheres that it built in the first portion.

Also, the initial scene with the red-haired woman struck me on such a deep level because she was a stranger, because of all the unknowns. She was a mystery. The central character who her pursues in the rest of the movie just isn't as interesting.

As for Run, Lola, Run, I think part of the reason I am a bit biased toward the movie is (as you correctly observed) the discussion about it. I saw it in my first film class in college, which I hated. (I think I got a B+ in it, or something.) The coments from the teacher and student body were simplistic, uninteresting, and reductive, but they were convinced that the movie was so innovative.

Like I said, it's a worthwhile movie. But there are so many other movies out there deserving of the attention this film seems to get. Even other good movies (as opposed to great ones) have more interesting things going on, in a subtle way, I mean, than Lola.

A good movie? Sure. But a postmodern triumph it is not.

Bob Turnbull said...

Thanks for all the comments back Ted...You given me a few things to ponder regarding "Perfume". I'm happy with the recognition "Run Lola Run" gets, but I'll certainly agree that there are plenty of other films equally deserving of attention.

By the way, I made "Suspiria" my first choice for my October Horror marathon due mostly to your post. It was just as good as I'd remembered (I'll forgive some goofy dialog and bad acting) and the sets were even better. Man, what a beautiful film.