Remember I mentioned my desire to fill out my film background? That quest is still underway, and I'd like to pause with the topical posts for the moment and reflect on my progress. In the interest of this blog, I'm going to list all the iconic movies I've seen, and I'm going to try to tell you, in as few words as possible, why each of them is great, and why I feel its place in this quest is justified.
Fistful of Dollars (1964) - How's it feel to sit through a film where a corrupt city totally destroys itself because of one lonely outlaw, and finally to see that main character walk off into the sunset, still a mystery to us? I think it's a good way to experience the transience and instability of the savage, mythical Old West.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) - A true showcase of personalities, framed, contrasted with one another, and revealed in the complexity that makes them so poignant. There's no way to do this except with the present combination of brilliant writing and flawless delivery.
Casablanca (1942) - The atmosphere of Casablance brought volume to the sense of time and place, giving a presence to the historical politics... moreso, however, the characters made the story seem eternally topical, and they showed that history is lived, rather than simply remembered and represented.
LA Story (1991) - LA Story was nice as a RomCom, but more than anything, it's the story of its director's creative genesis: in Steve Martin's strange plotting and jarring pacing, you can feel the quirkiness of a new director, but in his unpredictable characters and convergences, you can feel the spontaneity and passion of a young artist's hands just touching the clay.
Basic Instinct (1992) - Basic Instinct was an intense film because it drew me into the obsessions of its characters: when Nick finally decided to play Catherine's game, I was scared for him, but I was also genuinely excited to see if he could meet her challenge. It helped that the film refused, from the first scene, to make any promises to us.
The Hunger (1983) - Any time you get bored with the slow, ambiguous gravity of this film's emotions, you should just stop for a second and appreciate the lush beauty of its set and atmosphere.
The Searchers (1956) - This film was basically a jewelry case for John Wayne. The rest of the characters were pleasant set-pieces, over-acting and complimentary. Wayne was a frightening, awe-inspiring mythical hero, complete with the flaws and alienation required to get the job done.
Intolerance (1916) - I have trouble seeing past the production quirks of old movies, but I simply couldn't help stopping every so often during Intolerance and appreciating the light, the geometry, the flawless aesthetic perfection of its key shots.
The Wild Bunch (1969) - This was one of my favorites. On the surface Peckinpah's movie is all brooding savagery, but underneath, you can find all the brotherhood and nostalgia of the mythical Old West (and presumably of the military life that Peckinpah came from).
Escape from New York (1981) - Snake Plisskin was a one-of-a-kind antihero, and after following him through his journey into danger and redemption, we still never connect with him enough to predict him. Again, the rest of the characters are set-pieces, right along with the insane sets themselves.
Blue Velvet (1986) - David Lynch has a strange way of making the bizarre seem mundane. His bright, flat key lights and primary colors distract us for a while, and then, all of a sudden, Lynch's bizarre sexual and emotional revelations pull us back into the visceral world of flesh.
Gone With The Wind (1939) - Gone With The Wind was a beautifully-plotted film about a cast of fascinating characters building lives together without ever really recognizing or finding one another... like leaves circling on a blustery day (note the parallelism). Also, I saw three or four scenes in this film that have been referenced DOZENS of times in more recent movies and television shows.
Stroszek (1977) - I finished this movie thinking I didn't get it, but it stayed on my mind for days afterwards, and I eventually realized that all of the surreal and meaningless details had come together to create a weird, compelling world of beautiful but tragic confusion.
Fast, Cheap and Out Of Control (1997) - I'm still not sure I could tell you what this documentary was about, but I think that was part of its genius: it was a uniquely empty space for an intertwining set of motifs and explorations that were channeled through the obsessions of its four protagonists. Brilliant in a very micronarrative kind of way.
Pretty Woman (1990) - Was this an amazing film for the romantic plot, or was it great because of all its subconscious complexes and wish-fulfillment brilliance? It's really a good movie, for serious, among the better rom-coms, but it doesn't really become fascinating until you mobilize your psychoanalysis and gender studies to eviscerate it.
Say Anything (1989) - I'm actually watching the commentary track for this as we speak. I'm a big fan, as it turns out... it was a film full of good people, confused about their own relationships and emotions, and improvising their ways through the consequences of their decisions. This is very much how I remember my suburban adolescence.
Lost In Translation (2003) - Coppola encapsulates a short, fiery, hopeless relationship and frames the themes that should by all accounts make her famous: loneliness and alienation in an artificial world, and the glimpse of hope provided by fragments of understanding discovered in total strangers.
Marie Antoinette (2006) - Like Lost In Translation, this is a film that explored its themes deeply, without ever bringing them above the level of atmosphere and aesthetic. We could tell from the direction that Marie Antoinette was a normal girl who had an artificial world erected around her, intended to protect her, but ultimately isolating her from the world that was bearing down on her.
So I've seen all of Sofia Coppola's body of work, and I've touched a whole range of genres, directors, and eras. Coming up next, I've got a couple more Sergio Leone films, another David Lynch, and Fellini's 8 1/2. Down along the line, there's a ton of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman, because those two seem to have produced about a thousand "classics" each. So many films, so little time... stay tuned for further journal-style records of cinematic experience.