I know, I know. I haven't been on here (or any other social media platform, for that matter) in forever. I apologize for that. It's been difficult to write. When I was doing school and work in tandem full-time, it was impossible to find the time. Now that I'm done with school (which, I'm happy to report went well), it's just hard to find the motivation. I seem to always suffer some type of post-semester writing malaise whenever I'm on a break from school. When you spend so much time obsessing over words and the craft of carefully eliciting and arranging them, it's easy (at least for me) to eventually get cynical over the contrived nature of writing, especially critical writing. It takes a lot to see beyond the artifice and find the honesty of criticism, which is why during my time away from school I'm so loath to indulge in critical reading and writing and more wont to dig into some great literature and film without the ulterior motive for dissection. It's a nice feeling to pick up a book by Stendhal or watch a film by Kurosawa and just revel in the artistry, mood, and entertainment of them without having to think about how you can condense their sublimity into a neat, pithy, and grammatically sound paragraph, ya know?
But, I do miss my friends! And I miss film club. And I miss discussing movies. So, even if no one reads anything I write, I'm going to do my best to get over my reservations on writing and post some thoughts about movies on here more often, if only as a means of connecting back with my lifelong passion–film. But, enough of my excuses, Let's get started.
I've seen waaay too many movies since my last post (almost two years this winter...yikes!), so I surely won't touch upon them all. But here's a few thoughts on some of the things that stand out the most in that gargantuan gap. I apologize in advance for the randomness and disjointed nature of my thoughts.
THE BIG COUNTRY (1958)
I caught this last winter during a severe movie drought, and I just got swept away by it. It was freezing cold; I was fully immersed in school and was seeing maybe two movies a month, if I was lucky. Perhaps it was the timing or just my need for anything cinematic, but I was floored by the scope, Wyler's assured hand, and its insistence on the need for a private self to combat the larger, cultural pressure for vainglorious public display. The west may be a "big country" (exquisitely framed by Wyler) but its the intimate moments of interior struggle that make this story so compelling.
FLOATING CLOUDS (1955)
I've (unintentionally) avoided Naruse for too long. I've secretly known for a while that I would love him given how oft his style is compared to the serenity of Ozu's. And I was not disappointed. The film is beautiful duet of longing, regret, and alienation (an icier version of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, if you will). Sultry memories from the past mix with the frigid distances of the present in one expertly controlled vision of sorrowful love. I'll be exploring more Naruse imminently.
LE SILENCE DE LA MER (1949)
This is probably the best film I've seen in years. One can see how easily Bresson was inspired by it in his making of DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST. It's such a humane film. And so well directed too. What is truly impressive about it is that, despite the claustrophobic nature of the setting, Melville is able to use the limited space to his advantage. The formal relationship between the characters is established with a repetition of similar, quotidian shots. But, just as the the formality between the characters is silently broken over the course of the film, so too is Melville's visual schema with a sprinkling of subtle variation. Not a frame is wasted here, and it's beautiful to behold.
SAMURAI REBELLION (1967)
One of the best directed movies of the 1960s and maybe ever made. I stand fully behind that. It's a masterclass in visual storytelling. Every shot advances the story, every position and blocked move of the actors is calculated to perfection. It's turned me on to Kobeyashi in a big way. What a gem. If I were teaching a class on what exactly a great director does, I'd start with this.
I think this is my fourth time seeing what many critics consider to be Hitchcock's first truly masterful American film (For my money, he was hitting it right out of the park in his first year over here with REBECCA and the underrated FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT). It seems to be something I return to every few years or so, mainly out of curiosity to see how my opinion on it has changed. The first time I saw it around 16, I didn't really care for it. There was just something cold and anti-climactic about it that kept me at an emotional distance from it. Every time I've seen it since, I've become more impressed by how assured the hand is that's directing it all. Before seeing it this time, I read an amazing article on how to read the visual language of NOTORIOUS by the late, great Roger Ebert. In the article, Ebert talks a lot about the strong/weak dynamics of staging and framing in cinematography and how adeptly Hitchcock can show a character's interior struggle (like Grant's Devlin) simply through the way they move throughout a scene. One thing that Ebert doesn't mention but that he inspired me to notice is how little Bergman's Elisha moves in the location of the frame throughout the film. I believe I counted only once or twice in the entire film where Bergman isn't framed on the dominant right of a shot (right in that golden ratio location where our eyes instinctively move). Just as she is the cynosure of the male character's attention, so is she ours within the frame. And, although she appears to be a weak pawn within their patriarchal jockeying, she holds the dominant position because she ultimately owns her sexuality. Her sexual freedom is what keeps her fixed and dominant and what makes the other male characters squirm around her in the frame.
With that all being said, I still feel an emotional detachment from the film (largely due to the unsympathetic nature of each of the characters), but I'm just so impressed by its visual brilliance and ultimately its perversity. It's interesting to watch the film now and see how it has next to nothing to do with espionage and everything to do with the pettiness of jealousy and the precarious authority of male desire.
IF I WERE KING (1938)
Ronald Colman is severely under appreciated. He had more grace, more insouciant charm, more natural kindliness to him than just about any actor who ever lived. He radiates such an ineffable warmth on screen that I truly believe is unparalleled in film history. Not just here in IF I WERE KING (which is great fun) but also most notably in A TALE OF TWO CITIES (where he gives one of the most moving portrayals on film) and LOST HORIZON. He was a great, great actor and he makes you not only believe but deeply feel every word he utters. His performances are worth treasuring.
And, slightly unrelated, but so are Charles Laughton's. Every time I see him on screen I get more and more convinced that he's the greatest screen actor who ever lived. Very few come close to his versatility or command on screen.
Stray Horror Film Thoughts
Truthfully, I should do a whole post on this since I've seen a lot of horror movies within the past year or so, but for now I'll limit myself to a few comments. Most of these are fresh on my mind from Halloween, so I just wanted to share my impressions briefly.
HALLOWEEN II (1981) is underrated. I think it's great fun. It does its best to mimic Carpenter's style (a good thing) and it has more gruesome, inventive kills than the first. I love that it picks up precisely where the previous film left off. There's literally no gap in time between the two, and ultimately I think it's to the franchise's benefit. We don't have to waste time introducing new characters or settings to then copy and paste the slasher formula on (something later sequels would struggle with) but can continue with the same Halloween 1978 killing spree in media res. Isn't that all we really want from a sequel like this anyway?
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II deserves similar praise for keeping continuity with the first. It's not nearly as well made a film as HALLOWEEN II, but I do like how it is able to initially introduce Jason as the killer without turning him straight into the gimmicky boogeyman icon he would become in for the rest of the series. This is, no doubt, a trashy and deeply formulaic film but it does well to make us understand Jason better than any other entry in the franchise. Here, he's not the hockey mask wearing, machete wielding kill machine, but a deranged Norman Bates-esque orphan with a bag over his head, trying to avenge his mother.
I didn't like HELLRAISER all that much. 80s body horror admittedly just isn't my thing. It does have merit simply for how strange and perverse it is (and, of course, for the disgusting prosthetic work), but I found the American voice dubbing to be too distracting and the acting to be uniformly terrible. I didn't get a sense of Barker's visual style offering anything like Carpenter's or Cronenberg's either. This is a TV movie at best.
The french horror film THEM (2006) is definitely worth seeing for fans of the home invasion sub-genre (which I am). It's got some wonderfully orchestrated scenes that build tension seamlessly and a genuinely creepy ending to boot. INSIDE (2007) is also one to see. It's insanely, often gratuitously violent, but it's extremely effective. It doesn't boast the same level of intelligence as something like MARTYRS (which, I believe, justifies its violence with a genuine sense of introspection) but its relentless intensity works for it in an unusual way.
I'm going to try to write another post soon about the few films from 2015 I've seen. I'm extremely behind on a lot of them (I've only seen a handful, at best), and I've been largely unimpressed by everything I've watched, but I'd still like to get some of my thoughts out there. And, by the way, Brandon's recaps of 2015 have been uniformly amazing. I will forever be comfortably within his shadow.
I haven't seen enough from 2014. It was difficult to find the time for a majority of the films released last year (or the year before that, truth be told). But, if you asked me to make a cursory top 10 list, it'd look something like this:
1. Two Days, One Night (Dardenne Brothers)
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
3. Winter Sleep (Ceylan)
4. Inherent Vice (P.T. Anderson)
5. Under the Skin (Glazer)
6. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Amirpour)
7. Mr. Turner (Leigh)
8. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch)
9. Ida (Pawlikowski)
10. The Guest (Wingard)
For me, the standout here is TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. It's head and shoulders above the rest of the pack from last year and the only 2014 film I would consider a masterpiece. I'd take the Dardenne's over just about anyone in modern cinema.
Okay, that's it for now. More to follow, hopefully soon.