Monday, August 20, 2012

The Art of Reductionism: My Top 10 of All Time

1. Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson)
2. Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir)
3. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
4. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick)
5. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick)
6. Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné)
7. The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel)
8. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey)
9. Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
10. The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)

(I've adhered to Sight & Sound rules and left off THE DECALOGUE, which would have been in my top five. I also stuck to one film by a director instead of just loading the thing with Kubrick).

DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST has had a meteoric rise to the top of my list. I would have never imaged as much a year ago even. I couldn't possible describe why I love it so much. All I know is that when it's playing, my eyes are glued to the screen and my heart swells with wonder and emotion. GRAND ILLUSION has a similar effect on me and could easily be my number one. I actually think that it is the greatest film ever made, but DOACP gets the personal edge at this point in time. I actually love WILD STRAWBERRIES as equally as THE SEVENTH SEAL. But I have been using WS as my default favorite film for years, so I just gave it the edge to be consistent. BARRY LYNDON could easily be any other Kubrick film instead. DAYS OF HEAVEN could be any other Malick film. CHILDREN OF PARADISE could be PORT OF SHADOWS. THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY is my favorite comedy of all time. DUCK SOUP is a close second. I retain my love for BLOW-UP, even if it is unpopular with the rest of our collective. It is, along with 8 1/2, almost entirely responsible for changing how I viewed the art of cinema. THE BIG SLEEP also had a huge impact on me that continues today.

Other All Time Greats:

11. Early Summer/Late Spring (Yasujiro Ozu) [not a tie–just 100% interchangeable]
12. The Gold Rush (Charles Chaplin)
13. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock)
14. The Earrings of Madame de... (Max Ophüls)
15. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
16. Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli)
17. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)


Some Modern Greats:

18. The Double Life of Veronique (Krzysztof Kieslowski)
19. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
20. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
21. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch)
22. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr)

I would have put THE THREE COLORS TRILOGY instead of TDLOV for Kieslowski, but the new rules prevented this. THERE WILL BE BLOOD, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, and MULHOLLAND DR. are my top three favorites from the Aughts. THE TURIN HORSE is a very recent favorite and included just for kicks.

And now that this list is done, I have to agree with John and Peter Bogdanovich that these types of ridiculously broad lists are beyond silly. Almost like a cinematic frame itself, what's most important isn't what is there, but what is not there. Where are Ford, Lubitsch, Tarkovsky, Truffaut, Sturges, Kurosawa, Huston, De Sica, Walsh, Fellini, Mizoguchi, and Wilder? My list sucks. No EMPIRE STRIKES BACK either. This list is getting worse and worse all the time.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Turin Horse

“The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances. ‘Where has God gone?’ he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’”

This oft misunderstood quote by Friedrich Nietzsche, know to herald “the death of God,” actually presages one of the great crises of modernity and its subsequent epochs. Unlike so many incorrectly imagine, the madman’s cries do not define God as dead in any corporeal sense, but dead as a standard for values, morality, and authority. For Nietzsche, the death of God meant that the increasingly anthropocentric advancements in science and philosophy (moving away from “the Great Chain” of the Middle Ages) had made “God the Father” obsolete to modern man. Nietzsche sensed that this idea of God dethroned and de-authorized would open up the crisis of nihilism–a point in which man, without an ultimate authority on values, would become value-less. For Nietzsche, this was a crisis for the ages.

Understanding the importance of this nihilistic turn is key to understanding Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche’s ideas begin right at the point when we have turned away from God and the abyss of nihilism stares us directly in the face. Of course, Nietzsche considered himself a “a life-affirming” philosopher–someone who would help lead man away from the nihilistic abyss that threatened to swallow him whole. His philosophy is an attempt to re-evaluate all values, giving man a self-appointed value system to live by without God’s authority and without giving into nothingness.

But what of this nothingness? Surely, it cannot be cast off so easily when it is so readily manifest to us? As the madman asks, “Are we not straying through an infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?” What if we are, and what if we do?

It’s difficult not to imagine Nietzsche and the crisis of nihilism hanging like a grim specter over the proceedings of Béla Tarr’s THE TURIN HORSE. The film opens with a famous anecdote of the great philosopher flinging himself in tears upon an abused horse, vanquishing the last vestige of his already tenuous sanity in the process. We then cut to, in what has to be the most audacious and beautiful opening shot of the last several years, this said abused horse driving its master forward through a violent gale of wind and leaves. We never actually see Nietzsche, but we are lead to believe that the film begins directly after his portentous encounter with the abused horse. What follows is an unfiltered glimpse into the fate of that horse, its master, and its master’s daughter.

As I said, Nietzsche does not appear in the film, but his ideas weigh cumbersomely over the events of the film, and his presence is even made manifest in the bald man who visits the the farmer and his daughter (he very much speaks like a Nietzschean “madman”). THE TURIN HORSE, to me, is one of the most potent and vivid depictions of the nihilistic crisis Nietzsche warned of ever committed to celluloid. It is a 2 and 1/2 hour long descent into the abyss itself.
The madman asks us if we feel the “breath of empty space,” but in Tarr’s film we not only feel its breath whispering in our ear but its violent force thrashing us about, threatening to decimate all it touches. It is no coincidence that the wind in this film is incessant, that it has wiped everything away, and that it storms around the farmer’s small abode in a fitful, unrelenting rage. This is the wind of the abyss; the thrash of nihilism that confronts us like a parapet, both when we have lost God and when the world is ending. THE TURIN HORSE could very well be at the brink of both.

Filmed in about 30 takes, with some of the most gorgeous black-and-white cinematography since the Golden Age, and told almost in silence, with only a few repeating actions, Tarr has crafted one of the most artistically sublime and understatedly profound masterpieces of the modern era. Tarr’s film is the work of a stubborn genius, one who refuses to compromise his vision in the face of changing cultural and artistic whims. In a current film climate where so many directors are striving for bigger, bolder, and brash, Tarr might has well be from another planet. Like Bresson, he completely eschews theatricality. Everything in the film has been striped down to its most basic, atavistic elements. Like Beckett, he refutes traditional narrative structure in favor of repetition and inexorable realism (I was strongly reminded of Beckett’s ENDGAME while watching the film, both for its cyclical nature and pervading sense of doom). Like Herzog, he captures the most haunting issues of life and death in the most deceptively simple manner. But as much as THE TURIN HORSE recalls these other masters, Tarr’s aesthetic is undeniably his own. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the film could have been disastrous, but in Tarr’s hands, it is beyond masterful. The way he films time and space is as assured as any artist to ever direct a camera.

And what is he filming exactly? “The story” of the film is basically non-existent. It is just six days in the monotonous lives of a horse and its two owners. The daughter dresses her father every morning; the daughter walks through the trashing wind to fetch water from the well; the father and daughter eat their steaming potatoes every night–their only visible sustenance; the pair tries to get the horse to eat and work–both of which it refuses as it slowly wastes away towards death. These images repeat themselves in the least interesting manner imaginable, but they are filmed differently each time. The takes are long and seemingly tedious, but they do build towards something. Tarr isn’t trying to lull you to sleep, but to create a sense of life. He isn’t belaboring a point; he is weaving a tapestry. That tapestry may be bleak and dark, but we are forced to confront it. I honestly believe that it is perfectly natural to feel bored and let your mind wander while watching the film. That is the point. But this wandering is indispensable both for reflection and immersion. We are made to reflect on the abyss, on mortality, and the spectre of nihilism. As the film slowly unfolds, we become increasingly engulfed within its rhythms, setting us up perfectly to receive the final blow. And what a final blow! The last half hour of the film is one of the most unbelievable crawls towards death, destruction, and the void ever conceived. It is utterly maddening.

To say that this film is one of the most vivid depictions of nihilism isn’t to say that it argues for nihilism. This isn’t the case at all. The film is merely haunted by nihilism. It is haunted by Nietzsche’s fear of the world entering a new epoch of moribundity. It is a film that takes this fear to its limit and never looks back. In a way, the film itself is a ghost of a crisis; an death-laden battle within the very soul of man.

I would say that one is free to complain about the film’s length all one wants, but all we see is 2 and 1/2 hours out of the 144 that compose the THE TURIN HORSE’s six-day journey into the heart of nothingness. This is, in reality, just a snippet, albeit a very evocative one. If one is dulled by the film, that is fine, but its length is necessary to create its very powerful sense of life and death. In an interview about why his films are so long, Tarr discussed an earlier film of his to stress a point about the necessity of such length. He said, “With DAMNATION, for example, if you're a Hollywood studio professional, you could tell this story in 20 minutes. It's simple. Why did I take so long? Because I didn't want to show you the story. I wanted to show this man's life.” The same could be said for THE TURIN HORSE.

***** (Five Stars)

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Cringing Game

Hey Brandon. Thanks for the response post. I've somehow found the inspiration to write at night. Here are some thoughts back at cha:

Well said about L’ATALANTE. I wouldn’t have been able to put it better myself. Your comment about a director knowing exactly where and when to shoot reminds me of a great quote by Emeric Pressburger which goes, “I think that a film should have a good story, a clear story, and it should have, if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing - it should have a little bit of magic...Magic being untouchable and very difficult to cast, you can't deal with it at all. You can only try to prepare some nests, hoping that a little bit of magic will slide into them.” Directors like Vigo were just the best at preparing those nests.

Good call on the humor and risqué qualities of THE SCARLET EMPRESS. In addition to being a very rich film to look at (ridiculously gaudy and beautiful images), it’s also a very entertaining one to get caught up in. I think it has my favorite Marlene Dietrich performance too. The way she plays shy, coy, sultry, and commanding all in one role is really something to see. Here’s hoping I can see this one again sometime soon.

When I said that you aren’t as big an Ozu guy as I am, I didn’t mean it in a rude or supercilious way. I just meant that I seem to unconditionally love everything he made while you are a bit more grounded in your appreciation for him. I wasn’t suggesting that you didn’t like him. I’m aware that you are a fan. I’ve seen your ’49 list my man :)

For me, the humanism of A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS is the same sort of humanism in all Ozu films–and it is all in the way it is shot. Ozu shoots his characters with love, even if they are pitiful, as in this film. The moments he captures of them are usually mundane, but to me they seem thoughtful and reflective on human behavior. You must notice that Ozu loves shooting at an extreme low angle. This way the characters within the frame appear massive, emphasizing their importance. He also loves to situate his characters very distinctly within a given space and surround them with everyday objects (always meticulously arranged within the frame). Ozu cross cuts between the outside world, transient objects, and his characters because he is thinking deeply about everything he sees. Notice too how he loves to shoot conversation by breaking the 180 degree rule. He adheres to his own 360 degree rule where the characters are filmed from every view possible, and when they speak they look directly into the camera. Ozu loves to place his characters in space (establishing shots) and then get in between them so that we experience all aspects of them. It’s very personal and humanistic filming, while also considering things that are outside human relation.

I’ve never taking a class on Ozu. I just discovered that I loved everything about his directorial style when I watched LATE SPRING and EARLY SUMMER back in December. I started reading more about him and watching most of his films. I think it was Ebert who said that to see one Ozu film is to catch a glimpse of them all. I’ve probably seen 15 of his films by now so I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on his style and what it means to me. If you ever want to, we can sit down and watch an Ozu film together sometime and I can provide running commentary for you. It’s hard for me to express what is great about his compositions without showing you the images themselves. I will just say for now that I love how Ozu meticulously sets up every shot and everything in it to convey meaning/his thoughts. He creates tableaux and his unmoving camera lets you discover the image for yourself. There’s a richness and plethora of meaning to each of his shots if you sit and contemplate them for a while. I may just be excessively nerdy over this sort of thing, but it’s important to understand that I’m also a lover of Kubrickian symmetry. Nothing in cinema quite does it for me as a still frame carefully composed and generously detailed. Ozu and Kubrick are such favorites of mine because, with an image, they do not record; they paint.

Anyway, I’m glad you liked A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS and I honestly don’t mind if it’s not on your list. I slightly mind this though (in good humor, of course): “I think there is perhaps a wall built around the man that many are afraid to chip away at.” Perhaps, but I think there are so many directors that you could say the exact same thing about–why single out Ozu? The cult of auteurism has made many idols. Besides, this is the age of the Internet my friend; everything has been chipped away at.

I would proudly be as unhip as humanly possible in loving the entire THIN MAN series with you, even THE THIN MAN GOES HOME. Also, there’s certainly nothing wrong with liking AFTER THE THIN MAN more. It’s just as great as the first.

I’d like to see THE BLACK CAT again as well.

The early Lubitsch musicals (like the Berkeley ones) are great bits of fun and fresh air alongside the other films that came out at the same time. They really stand out in the crowd. But, I’d obviously agree that his later films are more than preferable. Nothing beats NINOTCHKA, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, TO BE OR NOT TO BE, and HEAVEN CAN WAIT.

“The film itself is pure Ford and I think you are wrong about this one.” That’s fine. I admitted to John my own personal failing over A FAREWELL TO ARMS and have no problem admitting it here. I’ve been able to look past much stereotyping and marginalization of black folks in a host of other films from the era, but I guess I wasn’t in the right mood to do the same for JUDGE PRIEST. As soon as Jeff Poindexter started talking right in the opening of the film, I was reminded of Malcolm X’s autobiography where he discussed feeling profoundly embarrassed and ashamed of Butterly McQueen in GONE WITH THE WIND. I just couldn’t shake how awfully racist the portray of Poindexter was (he’s the epitome of the indigent and ignorant black jester). The film just must have caught me at a bad time. I didn’t have the patience for it. I’ll be sure to give it another chance sometime. I don’t doubt my own inconsistency/unfairness here over it.

The KILLING THEM SOFTLY trailer looks real good. I think the only film I’d actually go see in theaters before THE MASTER is LAWLESS. Maybe that will be our next one to discuss.

Good chatting with ya.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


'Twas great to see your '32 list, John. I can't really argue with any of your picks because I don't feel all that confident about my own '32 list. Nothing really stands out to me as a definitive #1, and there aren't too many films from the year that I feel all that passionate about. I'm a much bigger fan of '31 and '33, as any film from the top five of either of those lists would easily crack the top slot of my '32 list.

I agree with you about what makes A FAREWELL TO ARMS a very well made humanistic picture. It's Borzage so its going to be beautifully shot, poetic, romantic, and deeply personal. The only reason I can't get behind it enough to put it on my list is because I'm such a huge fan of the novel (probably my fav. Hemingway). Like with Wyler's WUTHERING HEIGHTS, I recognize the quality of the filmmaking but cannot give the film a fair shake in comparison to the novel. All I want to do is read the book instead.

I haven't seen a majority of the rest of the films from your list and my own in over a year. I'd love to re-watch them because I'm having a tough time remembering things like SCARFACE, BOUDOU SAVED FROM DROWNING, and even VAMPYR. It's interesting that you can't remember I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG because it is one of the few I can actually remember quite well. That's probably why it's currently at the top of my list. My memory is a fickle thing, and it usually dictates 90% of how I make a list. Anyway, here's how my 1932 list stands for now. I'm still waiting on that lambent picture that will shine brighter than all the others (perhaps ONE HOUR WITH YOU), but for now:

1. I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Leroy)
2. Horse Feathers (McLeod)
3. Vampyr (Dreyer)
4. I Was Born, But... (Ozu)
5. Boudu Saved From Drowning (Renoir)
6. Scarface (Hawks, Rossen)
7. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch)
8. Freaks (Browning)
9. Grand Hotel (Goulding)
10. Love Me Tonight (Mamoulian)

HM: A Farewell to Arms (Borzage), The Old Dark House (Whale), The Music Box (Parrott), Shanghai Express (von Sternberg), Island of Lost Souls (Kenton), Rain (Milestone), The Most Dangerous Game (Cooper, Schoedsack), Number 17 (Hitchcock)

I've seen 18 films from 1932, and I'm trying to see at least 20 for each year from '30'-'59. I've seen over 20 for several years, so I'm getting close. I've also decided, like Ed Gonzalez, to limit my honorable mentions for each year to 10 films. I like the idea of differing tiers of honorableness, but I'm hoping that eventually I just have one group of honorable mentions that I feel really strongly about for each year. We'll see.

I recall 1934 a little better than '32, Brandon. I also think it's a better year. THE THIN MAN, L'ATALANTE, A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and THE SCARLET EMPRESS are some of the best films of the 30s and could top any list. I honestly feel strongly about all five, so much so that I could do a five-way tie for first on my list. The ranking I have concocted is basically arbitrary and pointless, as I don't think that any one is particularly better than the other. They are all tremendous to me.

L'ATALANTE is considered one of the greatest films of all time and it's hard to argue that point.
Vigo had an awfully short but nearly flawless career.

I'm glad you responded so strongly to THE SCARLET EMPRESS, as I was very impressed by it as well. It's a masterpiece of set design, mise-en-scène, and visual splendor. It's my favorite von Sternberg and probably his best.

We've already established that I need to see IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT again. It's been years.

You clearly aren't as big an Ozu guy as I am. I guess neither is John. I respond to the warmth, humor, and humanism in his films, but above all I worship his style. A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS and I WAS BORN, BUT... are immaculately framed just like all of his pictures. Reading the language of his films is probably one of my most blissful cinematic experiences. I just feel like he and I are on the exact same wavelength in terms of composition. I don't know if you dislike A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS or if it's just not your thing, but I think it's gorgeous and couldn't get enough of it.

I know it isn't terribly hip in auteurist or cinephile circles to have THE THIN MAN ahead of some of those other films I just mentioned, but I'm not too worried about it. It's certainly not as well directed as A STORY OF FLOATING WEEDS, L'ATALANTE, or THE SCARLET EMPRESS, but it's probably my favorite of all those films (slight favorite-as I said, I love them all). It just gives me the most pleasure. It's the best film from perhaps my favorite film series of all time.

THE BLACK CAT is an insane movie. Easily the most shocking and weird horror film of the decade.

I like THE MERRY WIDOW, but I don't think it's as good as THE SMILING LIEUTENANT or MONTE CARLO. The only unfortunate thing about the early Lubitsch musicals is how similar they are to each other. They can kind of blur together when you see them all in a short period of time. I think THE MERRY WIDOW might have taken a small hit in my estimation because of this. I recall the other two more distinctly.

I have to admit that I'm not much a fan of JUDGE PRIEST. I honestly couldn't get over some of the film's more cringe-worthy racism. I'm sure there's a better film in it than I can recollect, but all I can remember is wanting to bury my head in sand as soon as Jeff Poindexter opened his mouth. The "lynching" line uttered by Rogers was just the icing on a very unpleasant cake.

I'm really glad you dig DAMES as much as I do. It's just a fun and hilarious film. I think you're going to be really impressed with the other Berkeley musicals because they are all incredibly witty, entertaining, and visually spectacular. FOOTLIGHT PARADE is the best of the bunch and one of my favorite movies.

Anyway, here's my brand-new '34 list:

1. The Thin Man (van Dyke)
2. L’Atalante (Vigo)
3. A Story of Floating Weeds (Ozu)
4. The Scarlet Empress (von Sternberg)
5. It Happened One Night (Capra)
6. Twentieth Century (Hawks)
7. The Black Cat (Ulmer)
8. The Gay Divorcee (Sandrich)
9. The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock)
10. Dames (Enright, Berkeley)

HM: The Merry Widow (Lubitsch), It’s a Gift (McLeod), Man of Aran (Flaherty), Evelyn Prentice (Howard), The Count of Monte Cristo (Lee), Of Human Bondage (Cromwell), Manhattan Melodrama (van Dyke), Babes in Toyland (Meins, Rogers), Judge Priest (Ford), The Little Minister (Wallace)

Sorry I didn't have much to write back to either of your lists, but I haven't been in a writing mood as of late. Hopefully I snap out of it soon.


I don't have much else to add to THE DARK KNIGHT RISES posts of Adrienne, Chris, and Brandon. The scene with the cops marching down the street triumphantly and exclaiming, "there's only one police in this town," did give me some pause. I understand that it's a provocative image in the context of Occupy. I stand with Chris though and maintain that the film isn't any more conservative than say something like THE AVENGERS. Nolan convolutes the political landscape of the film, but the main goal is keeping order and preventing destruction. Bane is ultimately no different than Loki and Batman ultimately no different than The Avengers in terms of desired outcomes.


I'm very glad to hear that you are a PTA fan, Adrienne. It's nice to see your ranking of his films, and I would encourage you to see HARD EIGHT. It's awesome. It's also very heavily inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville's BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956), so it might be cool to see both and compare them. I love MAGNOLIA too, and I have to say, it's about time someone in this film club other than me gave BOOGIE NIGHTS its due. It's one of my favorite modern movies. It's just so fucking hilarious. The only thing I'd disagree with you is over THERE WILL BE BLOOD. To me, it's PTA's masterpiece and one of the very best films of the past 40 years–at least. I think John and I are completely on the same page here.

Though I find it hard ranking PTA's films (I unconditionally love all of them), my list would look like this:

1. There Will Be Blood
2. Boogie Nights
3. Magnolia
4. Punch-Drunk Love
5. Hard Eight

I'm pretty much guaranteed to worship THE MASTER, but I'll be curious to see where it fits in with the rest of his films. Thankfully, it got moved up a whole month and is now scheduled for release on Sep. 14th, a day after my birthday. It probably won't open anywhere around here for a few weeks after that, but I'm still hoping I can see it before October. Nothing for the rest of the year has me more excited.

(Speaking of PTA, the fellas over at Cigarettes and Red Vines are the greatest source for all things PTA on the web. I've checked that thing religiously over the years).