A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness

As I get older I learn to appreciate John Carpenter as the old wizard he is. He works magic, waves his hand and the ordinary becames ineffable, uncanny, there and not there. Vampires would be useless in almost anyone else's hands, but he composes it perfectly. Starman, The Fog and Christine as well as, of course, The Thing grow in my heart everytime I think about them. Over at RogerEbert.com you'll find my essay on The Ward, which I think best illustrates the quandary of analytical cinema going. What do you want from your movies? I want experiences like John Carpenter fashions in The Ward. 

An Actor in Search of a Movie

The slasher film reached both its apex and its nadir in the mid-80s. The good and the bad mingled freely, all you needed were some teens willing to disrobe and a POV cam with a big knife to send them back into the waiting arms of Him-on-high, who'd all the while been judging their escapades. Virgins live so long as they aren't too anxious to get quit of their virtue. To be sure, it was a loosening of the censor's cassocks during the Reagan years that led to the creation of so many of the things. Good or bad hardly mattered. More and more kids were getting cameras and making slasher films on the cheap, the last decade where extra-textual lichen like camp value and/or nostalgia could flourish. Before then Americans could hardly get away with slaughtering denuding coeds, so the slasher as we know it sat in the shadows waiting for mom and dad to leave. How long, you ask? The 70s had its fair share of proto-slashers before Halloween kicked off the wave with lean, grimacing gusto. Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown had a huge masked man with an usual Modus Operandi, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas had the POV cam and Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve had an isolated wooded setting, the weird gory murders and a whole yacht-load of red herrings. Bava had already done away with a fleet of conniving models in the beautifully lurid Blood and Black Lace in 1963, the same year Arch Hall Jr., known to fans of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 as the Cabbage-patch Elvis, became the first teen idol to ditch his reputation in a hurry by killing some poor stranded squares in the sickly entertaining The Sadist. In other words our impulse to watch the not-quite-innocent get punished by freaks of morality goes back a long, long way. We may never know who had the idea first, but I'm willing to bet that if pressed you wouldn't have said Andrew L. Stone.

To many Stone is the last man under Andrew Sarris' "Lightly Likable" directors category after Henry Hathaway, Delmer Daves and Mervyn LeRoy. If you've seen a Stone film, likely as not you had no idea you were watching the work of one of the most committed auteurs the American cinema ever produced. He loved making potboilers, his compositions were wide-open-bordering-on-obvious, he relied to a ridiculous amount on voice over, asked his leads to play against type, and he always wrote his own scripts. His wife Virginia edited everything he directed and shared producing duties with him, which may explain why he rarely did grand romance right, preferring instead to drop in on married couples for a few hours. His most famous film is probably Julie starring Doris Day, with the 1960 disaster film The Last Voyage in second, the film that gave Irwin Allen his disaster movie formula on a primary coloured platter. Stone directed an un-credited remake of The Great Escape called The Password Is Courage featuring Dirk Bogarde as a breezily truculent man of action, one of the weirder things ever asked of the actor. Seeing Bogarde smile without something twisted motivating him just seems wrong. Stone worked with Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Adolphe Menjou, Pola Negri, Joseph Cotten and John Cassavetes and in 1958 he accidentally made the first American slasher film. 

Stone's major problem was that he was between eras. He loved crime melodramas and big machines often clumsily stood in for his character's frazzled moral compass, but he just couldn't bring himself to frame like he was aiming for suspense. Even if he had those ubiquitous voiceover tracks would have killed the suspense anyway but I digress. Andrew Stone was as impervious to change as any of his heroes. He delighted in depicting idyllic American lives almost as much as he loved blowing them up. Find a job, get a good education, settle down, take a wife, have a child, now fight for your life. He got that the country was a disturbing place behind the white picket fence, he merely lacked the faculties to say anything new on the subject. His camera often feels like a drugged spectator unable to do anything but stare at the kidnapping plots and menacing killers he dreamt up. This method works in The Last Voyage as it gazes in awe at the mammoth fires raging below deck. Luxury liner captain George Sanders can do little else but look at them while his mate gives him the rundown on the damage. Stone doesn't commit to the fire as a threat, merely as an object. Similarly he lets Woody Strode run around shirtless trying to put out the fire and his professionalism allows him to blend in with his surroundings. Strode's just a muscular crewman, ego completely vanished, only those moviestar cheekbones betraying him. Stone's awed view of the action works shockingly well, but it can't hold a candle to his 1958 film The Decks Ran Red. Stone's object this time was Broderick Crawford, one of America's most underrated actors. 

The Decks Ran Red really oughtn't to work. To use Stone’s device, the film is a rickety old tub being towed by one dynamic performance. James Mason flees a rocky marriage in California to work on a ship in New Zealand after the corpse of the last captain washes ashore. He struts around the boat setting things right and everything from his weird stab at a regal Southern accent to his gait says "by the book." It also communicates how a man, and an actor, can be hopelessly lost at sea. But Mason was still in the stage of his career where he committed utterly to his surroundings, which means he's on one side of the film's reality, along with Dororthy Dandridge, unfortunately given nothing to do but fall out of her clothes, much to Mason’s chagrin. In another dimension entirely sits Crawford, a greasy Miura bull whose indifference to his appearance extends to his own skin as he appears to be trying to melt out of it. Crawford has to exude a certain dirty indifference to authority to make it clear he's Mason's inverse and biggest threat. But did he have to commit so completely to playing the worst man in the world? He and fellow crew member Stuart Whitman, a lascivious cartoon eel with the face of a young Dick Miller, have hatched a plan to kill everyone on board and sell the ship for scrap rather than earn their wages as seamen. Critic Bosley Crowther lamented that the film was too unbelievable . How anyone could find Crawford incapable of murdering dozens of people for no good reason was simply not paying attention to what was right in front of them. The fact that his scheme sounds like nonsense is what makes it so terrifying. The truly chilling thing is that Crawford and Whitman aren't motivated by much more than greed and stubbornness. It might not work as plot, per se, but it works like gangbusters as cinema, especially when you look at the motivation behind any of the hundreds of mass murders committed in any given year. “Why would anyone want to do a thing like that?” asks Mason. Why indeed?

Crawford was one of a handful of unheralded screen presences who set the table for method acting. He was a rotund, burly man with a million dollar smile who used his weight to his advantage. At his best it wasn’t so much that it didn’t seem like he was trying, it was like a film happened around him. In Andre De Toth’s excellent Last of the Comanches he ties his belt tightly around his gut, hinting at a man who could at any moment let his responsibilities get away from him and do what's easy rather than what's right. It's a wonderful performance that exudes quiet dignity, his stiff upper lip just concealing his insecurity. In Federico Fellini's Il Bidone his weight gives him a tragic edge that Anthony Quinn and Marcello Mastroiani never quite achieved, despite giving flashier performances for the ringmaster. In The Decks Ran Red he went out of his way to look like a pile of oily rags come to life. If in 2008 Alfredo Castro and Steven Seagal had switched bodies before the filming of Tony Manero, the effect would be close to the level of repulsion that seeps out of Crawford's face every moment he’s in front of us. Lee Marvin took a lot from Crawford over the years, his  performances here and The Fastest Gun Alive contain the DNA for most of Marvin's best-known performances. Coleman Francis, another MST3K favourite and the writer, director and star of the Bay of Pigs invasion thriller Night Train to Mundo Fine (or Red Zone Cuba), seems to have modeled his performance in that little nightmare on Crawford here. A cantankerous murderer in a sweat-stained jumpsuit trying to make a buck. Francis goes out his way to illustrate that he’s capable of any crime in the name of staying free. He strains for danger while Crawford just stands there talking a little too much. He doesn’t try to seem unhinged. The script has him kill a dozen people, so why stress the point?

We meet Crawford in the bowels of the ship recruiting a third member of his mutiny. When the young man expresses incredulity at Crawford and Whitman's plan to get him rich in a hurry, the big man responds with the ease of a man ordering coffee: "well, like killin' the whole crew." There's only the faintest hint that he knows what he's saying is absolutely insane. He's trying to make it sound nonchalant to impress upon his charge that the scheme is as safe as houses. Just one of a million ideas he's got. His eagerness to speak just makes him all the more frightening. He talks too much and too fast, justifying everything to himself as he goes. It’s like he’s improvising a mile a minute to keep his mind occupied so he never thinks about himself too seriously. His nicotine-yellow extemporizing has the confidence of Robert Preston in The Music Man and the robust rhythm of Fela Kuti’s tenor saxophone, his lips rippling like pond water disturbed by a skipping stone, his cheeks moist sheets flapping in the wind. His expressions are ripped up by tics and his face darts back and forth like a dog following a tennis ball. His best trick is that little smile he gets whenever someone asks him the right question. He’s got the lies ready and he’s been saving up a little charisma to sell them. “Look, maybe we got no romance in our souls,” he says unnecessarily before he and Whitman commence their massacre, looking almost embarrassed to have to give any shred of a rationale for his behavior. It’s the world that’s at fault for being so slow and upright and not giving him what he deserves. 

Stone’s movies are largely by-the-numbers; the heroes win and the villains go to jail. We in the audience keep expecting Mason to figure out what Crawford’s up to and stop him. And then a mutiny fails, Crawford loses patience and goes for his rifle. “From here on in we got nothin’ to lose” he says to Whitman, and the film follows suit. They smash the radio, head below deck and Crawford starts picking people off. Stone could never have made a horror film on purpose. He directed like a boyscout, afraid of Dutch tilts, fast edits or subjective camera. Ever the watchdog, he can do little else but gawk as Crawford wriggles through the ship like a tapeworm and starts killing people in cold blood. Any other director would have punctuated the shooting with music, spaced them out over a few scenes, given the victims a little dignity, a close-up and some meaningful last words to shepherd the movie back to safety. Like Strode in The Last Voyage, these are just men, and Crawford and Whitman just kill them with only the faintest signs of knowing how monstrous they are. This could be because Stone had absolutely no idea how completely unnerving it was to just watch murder instead of stylizing it. There are no shadows, no cuts for emphasis, no underscore, no sense of who was killed, just the dull roar of machinery and the sound of gunfire followed by the percussive thud of bodies falling against the hard metal floor. Stone may as well have been making a documentary; Man Bites Dog with no sense of guile and none of the comforts of irony. 

The only time I’ve ever seen a performance that so transcends not just the film that houses it, but cinematic reality entirely was when someone finally built a film around Melanie Lynskey. In Hello I Must Be Going, she’s 3D Imax Technicolor in an academy ratio black-and-white world. Every second she’s on screen it’s like you’ve turned your head from the film to the woman who’s suddenly appeared next to you. She’s an effervescent, quavering mass of conflicted humanity begging you to take her seriously before she collapses. The film hasn’t been made that can handle a starring performance from Melanie Lynskey going full on. We’d implode from having given her all of our sympathy and having none left for our friends and family. Directors patently don’t know what to do with someone whose resplendent earnestness can cause heart palpitations. Just as no one after Andrew L. Stone made the mistake of turning a camera on Broderick Crawford and assuring him he didn’t need to earn audience sympathy. He’s as unlovable as Lynskey is lovable, and if he never got entire films devoted to him playing the most frightening men alive, it was because there was no such thing as a Slasher movie at the time (if he’d gone back to Europe, he could have teamed up with Robert Siodmak, who’d just completed Nachts, Wenn Der Teufel Kam, the great early serial killer movie). Crawford overflows with Freddy Kruger’s callousness in The Decks Ran Red, not to mention the skulking menace and imposing frame of Jason Voorhees, the thoughtlessness, size and relentlessness of the phantom killers in The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Humongous and Just Before Dawn. Perhaps more to the point, he has the sting of the real about him. Jeremy Renner’s Jeffrey Dahmer, James Wood’s Greg Powell and Michael Rooker’s Henry Lee Lucas, not to mention the unseen Zodiac killer from David Fincher’s telling, all seem to have sprouted from the seeds of evil Crawford planted here. All because Stone had no idea what to do with his actor or the towering performance he gave. His character wasn’t playing by the rules, so Crawford went ahead and did the same. There may never be anything like it again, for which the part of our brains that generate nightmares weeps.

Our Favourite Films of the 1950s

Our consensus vote: 

1. Seven Samurai
2. Night of the Hunter
3. The Seventh Seal
4. Some Like It Hot
5. The 400 Blows
6. Sweet Smell of Success
7. Paths of Glory
8. North by Northwest
9. The Searchers
10. Singin' In The Rain

Scout Tafoya
1. The Tarnished Angels (alternately: North By Northwest)
2. Lola Montès
3. Park Row
4. Kiss Me Deadly 
5. M. Hulot's Holiday
6. Inferno
7. Pandora & The Flying Dutchman
8. Day of the Outlaw
9. The Revenge of Frankenstein
10. Wagonmaster

Olivia Collette
1. Some Like It Hot
2. Nights of Cabiria
3. The 400 Blows
4. Mesa of Lost Women (aka Tarantula)
5. A Streetcar Named Desire
6. All About Eve
7. The Trouble with Harry
8. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes 
9. Funny Face
10. Strangers on a Train

Mark Lukenbill
1. Rear Window
2. Magnificent Obsession
3. Bonjour Tristesse
4. Shadows
5. Brigadoon
6. Anticipation of the Night
7. Johnny Guitar
8. Diabolique
9. All About Eve
10. Charlotte et son Jules

Tucker Johnson
1. Sweet Smell of Success
2. Paths of Glory
3. Sunset Boulevard
4. On the Waterfront
5. Night of the Hunter
6. Vertigo
7. In a Lonely Place
8. The Killing
9. Bridge of the River Kwai
10. High Noon

Monica Castillo
1. Seven Samurai
2. Singin' In The Rain
3. On The Waterfront
4. Vertigo
5. Night of the Hunter
6. Bridge on the River Kwai
7. Pickpocket
8. Sunset Boulevard
9. Pather Panchali
10. An American in Paris

Dan Khan
1. The Searchers
2. Wages of Fear
3. All That Heaven Allows
4. The Ladykillers
5. North by Northwest
6. Paths of Glory
7. Creature from the Black Lagoon
8. Nights of Cabiria
9. Seven Samurai
10. The Cranes Are Flying

Theodora Blasko
1. All About Eve
2. Seventh Samurai
3. 12 Angry Men
4. Rear Window
5. Singin' In The Rain
6. A Streetcar Named Desire
7. Some Like It Hot
8. Strangers On A Train
9. Vertigo
10. Lady & The Tramp

Tori Davis
1. The Bridge On The River Kwai
2. Seven Samurai
3. The 400 Blows
4. Dial 'M' For Murder
5. The Seventh Seal
6. Vertigo
7. Encore
8. Some Like It Hot
9. Sabrina
10. Ikiru

Diana Drumm
1. Sunset Boulevard
2. The Searchers
3. Rashomon
4. The Seventh Seal
5. A Streetcar Named Desire 
6. The Quiet Man 
7. The Ladykillers
8. Marty
9. Vertigo
10. Some Like It Hot

Tim Earle

1. Sweet Smell of Success
2. In a Lonely Place
3. Singin' in the Rain
4. Wild Strawberries
5. Touch of Evil
6. North by Northwest
7. Seven Samurai
8. Hiroshima Mon Amour
9. The 400 Blows
10. Night of the Hunter

Lucas Mangum
 1. Godzilla
2. Creature from the Black Lagoon 
3. Horror of Dracula 
4. The Day the Earth Stood Still 
5. On the Waterfront 
6. Seven Samurai 
7. War of the Worlds 
8. Throne of Blood 
9. Curse of the Demon 
10. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Julian Lazare
1. Seventh Seal
2. Strangers on a Train
3. Ikiru
4. Path of Glory
5. Marty
6. Ace in the Hole
7. Touch of Evil
8. Pickpocket
9. The Man with the Golden Arm
10. Shadows

My Funeral in 15 Films

The following is inspired by Kyle Turner's questionnaire over at his Film Critic of the Week podcast. It is how I'd like my funeral to be conducted. I'd like it to be celebrated by a day of movies at my favourite theatre in the world. 

Arrive at the Brattle Theatre, Boston, at 5:00 AM. Be seated by ushers and given coffee and breakfast. Catering by the staff of the Pulse Cafe (may they similarly rest in peace). 

5:30 AM : The Wrong Trousers directed by Nick Park

6 AM : La Belle Endormie directed by Catherine Breillat

7:30 AM : The Long Day Closes directed by Terence Davies

9:00 AM : Leave Her To Heaven directed by John M. Stahl

11:00 AM : The Big Bird Cage directed by Jack Hill

1:00 PM : The Royal Tenenbaums directed by Wes Anderson

3:00 PM : Mon Oncle directed by Jacques Tati

5:00 PM : L'Avventura directed by Michelengelo Antonioni 

7:30 PM : Pierrot Le Fou directed by Jean-Luc Godard

9:30 : Unsere Afrikareise directed by Peter Kubelka

9:40 : Rabbit Seasoning directed by Chuck Jones

9:50 : A Sheep in the Deep directed by Chuck Jones

10:15 PM : The Red Shoes directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

12:35 AM : Pandora & The Flying Dutchman directed by Albert Lewin

2:40 AM : Apocalypse Now Redux directed by Francis Ford Coppola 

6:00 AM Coffee while Paul Robeson records are played. Leave as the sun comes up. 


So I finally got to make a video essay on the films that have sort of become the embodiment of failure in American cinema. A lot has been written over the years about Heaven's Gate and pretty much as soon as The Lone Ranger's box office receipts started getting tallied, it was clear that people were ignoring a beautifully weird movie. Everyone knew the score right away. So why talk about them? Because when movies like this fail, the conversation becomes about why they failed (economics, people don't like westerns, blah blah fucking blah), rather than the movie itself. Ryland Walker Knight seemed to be the only guy post-failure who wanted to talk about something other than its non-commercial braggadocio. So yeah maybe I'm being redundant by talking about two of the highest profile failures in living memory, but these films are beautiful and deserve to be talked about. I don't need people to reassess their opinion of the films (that'd be nice, but it's a secondary concern) I'd just like it if maybe we could have an excuse to talk about the genocides this country was founded upon. I'm also proud that I finally made an Unloved that feels a little like one of my own movies. The great filmmaker/critic Kevin B. Lee got me thinking about the disparity between my own work and my video essays and this was the first time I really made an effort to make something informative that was paced like my fiction, and a little more reliant on poetry than fact. I made this fully expecting my very patient editors to say "No thanks, too weird," but thankfully they liked it. It's tough and maybe pointless and foolish to think about your own work, but it felt nice when someone whose opinion I trust said it was the best video essay I'd ever done. That meant a lot to me. I'm gonna feel good about that for a little while if that's ok with you.

Double Exposures

It's taken me a while to figure out how to articulate this but if you looked at last year's best movies and squinted, you could be forgiven for assuming someone had swapped them out for the greatest hits of the 70s. So I've gone through and matched a bunch of films released within the last year with something from the 70s, trying where possible to avoid the obvious (remakes for their sources, older films by the same director). So if you liked any of these, maybe try their counterpart and see how we've been talking to the past. I don't mean that all of these are superior, mind you. I'll leave that up to you. 

Listen Up, Philip - Mikey & Nicky
Inherent Vice - Marlowe 
Night Moves - Sorcerer
Actress - A Woman Under The Influence
Under The Skin - Phase IV
Beloved Sisters - Two English Girls
Force Majeure - Scenes From A Marriage
Jealousy - The Mother & The Whore
Winter Sleep - Providence
Blood Glacier - Food of the Gods
Jauja - The Story of Adele H. 
Obvious Child - Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Dance of Reality - The Tin Drum
Story of My Death - Heart of Glass
Joe - Scarecrow
Enemy - Shivers
Nightcrawler - 10 Rillington Place
The Blue Room - LA Babysitter
Saint Laurent - The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant
A Field In England - The Wicker Man
The Dark Valley - Four of the Apocalypse
Transcendence - The Terminal Man
The Homesman - The Missouri Breaks
A Walk Among The Tombstones
Calvary - Apocalypse Now
The Quiet Ones - Demons of the Mind
Our Sunhi - Wanda
Two Days, One Night - Norma Rae
Cheap Thrills - Autostop Rosso Sangue
Starred Up - Mean Streets
The Captive - Frenzy
The Purge: Anarchy - Death Race 2000
The Rover - Jeremiah Johnson
Tom At The Farm - The House on Straw Hill
Horse Money - Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht
Step Up: All In - At Long Last Love
Grisgris - Badou Boy
Venus in Fur - Last Tango In Paris
Goltzius & The Pelican Company - Lisztomania 
Michael Kohlhaas - Lancelot Du Lac
Maleficent - Escape to Witch Mountain
Heaven Knows What - Panic in Needle Park
Life of Crime - Family Plot
The Retrieval - Leadbelly
Goodbye to Language - Eggshells
Jimmy's Hall - The Molly Maguires
La Sapienza - The Spider's Strategem
Snowpiercer - Quintet
The Guest - Deathdream
Stray Dog - The Whole Shooting Match
Strange Color of your Body's Tears/Whiplash - Four Flies on Grey Velvet
Mr. Turner - Edvard Munch
Interstellar - The Black Hole
Boyhood - Sounder
Godzilla - Prophecy 
The Double - Dead Mountaineer's Hotel
The Raid 2 - Detonation: Violent Games
A Most Wanted Man - The Offence
Jimmy P - One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
A Most VIolent Year - The Nickle Ride
Wolf Creek 2 - Almost Human
Charlie's Country - Emperor of the North Pole
Beyond The Lights - A Star is Born
Paranormal Island - Frozen Scream
Timbuktu - Chronicle of the Years of Fire
Nonstop - The French Connection II
The Congress - World on a Wire
The Town That Dreaded Sundown - Sisters
Dear White People - Hi Mom!
Leviathan - Posse
Burning Bush - Executive Action
Left Behind - Blood Freak

50 Week Film School Curriculum

Inspired by Catherine Grant sharing Mark Cousin's idea of a 50 week film school curriculum, here's my own version of that idea.

Week 1 

Hand students a digital camera and tell them to go film something honest. Can be anything so long as I believe it. Film it in days 1 and 2, edit them the rest of the week. 

Week 2 

Watch documentary films by Robert Flaherty and Robert Greene, examine dramatic truth, cinematic non-fiction. 

Week 3 

Keaton, Chaplin, Murnau and truth without words

Week 4 

Show all of John Cassavetes' movies as director, and the Dick Cavett interview with Falk, Gazzara and Cassavetes. Film is a series of accidents. 

Week 5

John Carpenter, Ingmar Bergman and how to fill a frame. 

Week 6 

Montage, from Eisenstein to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. 

Week 7 

See any and all repertory cinema available in the outside world. Must be on celluloid. Students must take notes on impressions of watching film in every case. 

Week 8 

Joe Swanberg's Silver Bullets, Art History, Kissing on the Mouth, and Aaron Katz' Quiet City, and Cold Weather - focus as a way around budgetary restrictions.

Week 9 

Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Peter Kubelka, James Benning and how to communicate with the natural world. 

Week 10

Cameras handed out again. Short films (20+ minutes) must incorporate environment and written dialogue. 

Week 11

Edit resulting films. Show them to cadre of critics for reactions. 

Week 12

Powell & Pressburger and how to build a world across several films.

Week 13

Terence Malick and what a script can't tell you

Week 14 

Bill Morrison and how to interact with images. 

Week 15 

First week on how to film comedy, Preston Sturges vs. Jerry Lewis

Week 16

Second week on how to film comedy, Frank Tashlin, Billy Wilder & Jacques Tati. 

Week 17

Third week on how to film comedy, Laurel & Hardy. 

Week 18

Fourth week on how to film comedy, screwball comedy. 

Week 19

Exploitation: from Dwain Esper/Kroger Babb through to Michael Findlay

Week 20

Exploitation from Russ Meyer to Shauna Grant

Week 21

Third World Cinema: marxism and equal distribution of the tools of filmmaking. 

Week 22

Romantic Comedy, and how to draw characters worth caring about.

Week 23 

French New Wave & Giallo, radicalism evolving in two different directions, all from Roberto Rossellini 

Week 24

Filmed plays and how to handle theatricality

Week 25

Film scoring, Miklós Rózsa through to Jonny Greenwood, but really we're talking about Michael Nyman here. 

Week 26

Italo-modernism: L'Avventura, La Dolce Vita, The Grim Reaper, Fists In The Pocket, Before The Revolution, 8 1/2, L'Eclisse, Red Desert

Week 27

Learning how & when to move camera: PT Anderson, Max Ophüls, Ramon Zürcher, Wes Anderson, Orson Welles. 

Week 28

Old Hollywood grandeur. Presented without comment: forgetting about context and just trying to enjoy the image. One Tobe Hooper  film at the end of every day of screenings. 

Week 29

Classic Criticism: close readings of Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, Otis Ferguson, Roger Ebert, Cahiers Du Cinema, James Baldwin, Pauline Kael, Lindsay Anderson.

Week 30

Modern Criticism: Kent Jones, J Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dan Sallitt, Daniel Kasman, Ryland Walker Knight, Molly Haskell, Linda Williams, Miriam Bale, Keith Uhlich, Calum Marsh, David Cairns, Wesley Morris, Armond White, Aaron Cutler, Fernando Croce, Ben Sachs and more. Students will write about a film meaningful to them.

Week 31

Video Essays: Haroun Farocki, Kevin B. Lee, Matt Zoller Seitz, Chris Marker, Nelson Carvajal. Students will make a film without once picking up a camera.

Week 32

Cinematography masterclass: How to hide truth in sumptuousness, and how to properly film Tilda Swinton: The Conformist, Apocalypse Now Redux, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Pandora & The Flying Dutchman, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, I Am Love, The Limits of Control, Ashes of Time Redux, We Need To Talk About Kevin. 

Week 33

Week off: no film or TV watching allowed. Students will go to museums and look at paintings, read poetry and listen to classical music. 

Week 34

Ken Russell & early work of Andrzej Żuławski. Students will train for steadicam pentathlon. 

Week 35

Werner Herzog. We'll see if we can meet him by a waterfall at the end of the week. 

Week 36 

Weird, independent America (Coleman Francis, George Romero, Ted Mikels, Ray Dennis Steckler, Eagle Pennell, Jim Jarmusch)

Week 36

Triumphs of independent African cinema. 

Week 37

Westerns, how history talks to itself. 

Week 38

Modern textural filmmaking: The Turin Horse, Joe, Guy Maddin, Albert Serra, Hard To Be A God, Michael Mann, Phillipe Grandrieux. 

Week 39

Film Noir landmarks. Students will rearrange the lighting scheme in eight different rooms to change psychological profile of the space. 

Week 40

Soviet Cinema

Week 41

Landmarks of feminist cinema: Dulac, Dorothy Arzner, Deren and The Wasp Woman. 

Week 42

Landmarks of feminist cinema part 2: Akerman, Breillat, Chytilová, Campion, Coppola, Shortland and more.

Week 43

North American Melodrama/Fassbinder. Start drafting final projects: one feature, format up to students.

Week 44

Write & edit final projects, run dialogue with each other and start casting. 

Week 45

Black independent American cinema: From LA Rebellion to Ava DuVernay.

Week 46

Bresson in colour / Buñuel in Paris

Week 47

John Ford, (closing night screening: If....)

Week 48

Film projects. Nightly showing of dailies. 

Week 49

Editing, midnight movies on loop in breakroom (El Topo, The Ruling Class, The Savages, 13 Assassins, Putney Swope, Below The Belt, Bohachi Bushido, Mark of the Devil, Horrors of Malformed Men, The Holy Mountain, the complete David Lynch, Sweet Movie, Mr. Freedom, Mansion of Madness, Who Could Kill a Child?, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde)

Week 50

Show final films. Celebrate by going drinking with guest lecturers Pedro Costa, Hong Sang-Soo & Lisandro Alonso. 

The 2014 Monsieur Oscars

Every year I hand out (invisible) awards to the movies and artists who made the biggest impression on me throughout the year. This year, I'm a little bummed at how much I lined up with conventional awards show nods. But, hey, maybe the rest of the world is finally catching up with what actually matters in art? For more of my superlative lists you can go here. Alas, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night still eludes me. 

Favourite Fiction Film
  1. Hard To Be A God
  2. Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari
  3. Over The Garden Wall
  4. Only Lovers Left Alive
  5. Night Moves
  6. Inherent Vice
  7. Listen Up, Philip
  8. Under The Skin
  9. Beloved Sisters
  10. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  11. Selma

Favourite Non-Fiction Film
  1. Actress
  2. Manakamana
  3. The Last of the Unjust
  4. The Look of Silence
  5. Maidan
  6. Citizenfour
  7. National Gallery
  8. Natan
  9. Afternoon of a Faun
  10. Stray Dog

Favourite Performance By a Director
  1. PT Anderson - Inherent Vice
  2. Aleksei German - Hard To Be A God
  3. Abel Ferrara - Pasolini
  4. Rupert Wyatt - The Gambler
  5. Denis Villeneuve - Enemy
  6. Robert Greene - Actress
  7. Dominik Graf - Beloved Sisters
  8. Abderrahmane Sissako - Timbuktu
  9. Mike Leigh - Mr. Turner
  10. Aleksei Fedorchenko - The Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari
  11. Alex Ross Perry - Listen Up Philip
  12. Bennett Miller - Foxcatcher
  13. Ava DuVernay - Selma
  14. Gabe Ibáñez - Automata
  15. Albert Serra - Story of My Death
  16. Peter Greenaway - Goltzius and the Pelican Company
  17. Bong Joon-Ho - Snowpiercer
  18. Gina Prince-Bythewood - Beyond The Lights

Favourite Performance by a First Time Director
  1. Patrick McHale - Over The Garden Wall 
  2. Jennifer Kent - The Babadook
  3. Ramon Zürcher - The Strange Little Cat
  4. Graham Annabel & Anthony Stacci - The Boxtrolls
  5. Gillian Robespierre - Obvious Child
  6. Wally Pfister - Transcendence
  7. Eliza Hitman - It Felt Like Love
  8. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon - The Town That Dreaded Sundown
  9. Trish Sie - Step Up All In
  10. Gary Shore - Dracula Untold

Achievement in Cinematography
  1. Dick Pope - Mr. Turner
  2. Darius Khondji - Magic in the Moonlight
  3. Robert Yeomans - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  4. Robert Elswitt - Nightcrawler / Inherent Vice
  5. Mátyás Erdély - The Quiet Ones
  6. Sean Price Williams - Listen Up, Philip
  7. Robbie Ryan - Jimmy's Hall
  8. Fabrice Aragno - Goodbye to Language
  9. Michael Goi - The Town That Dreaded Sundown
  10. Sofian El Fani - Timbuktu
  11. Greig Fraser - Foxcatcher
  12. Benoît Delhomme - The Theory of Everything/A Most Wanted Man

Favourite Screenplay
  1. Jim Jarmusch - Only Lovers Left Alive
  2. John Michael McDonagh - Calvary
  3. David Chirchirillo & Trent Haaga - Cheap Thrills
  4. Alejandro Jodorowsky - Dance of Reality
  5. David Cairns - Natan
  6. Hong Sang-Soo - Hill of Freedom
  7. Martín Rejtman - Two Shots Fired
  8. Hugo Guinness & Wes Anderson - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  9. Gina Prince-Bythewood - Beyond The Lights
  10. Hirokazu Kore-eda - Like Father, Like Son
  11. Lars Von Trier - Nymphomaniac
  12. Sophie Fillières - If You Don't, I Will

Favourite Lead Performance by an Actress
  1. Camille Rutherford - Mary, Queen of Scots
  2. Emmanuelle Devos - If You Don't I Will
  3. Brandy Burre - Actress
  4. Angelina Jolie - Maleficent
  5. Jenny Slate - Obvious Child
  6. Melanie Lynskey - Over The Garden Wall
  7. Arielle Holmes - Heaven Knows What
  8. Dorothy Atkinson - Mr. Turner
  9. Elisabeth Moss - Listen Up, Philip
  10. Lisa Loven Kongsli - Force Majeure
  11. Charlotte Gainsbourgh - Nymphomaniac
  12. Melisa Sözen - Winter Sleep
  13. Elena Lyadova - Leviathan
  14. Dakota Fanning - Night Moves
  15. Essie Davis - The Babadook
  16. Briana Evigan - Step Up All In / Paranormal Island
  17. Atsuko Maeda - Seventh Code
  18. Gugu Mbatha-Raw - Beyond The Lights

Favourite Lead Performance by an Actor
  1. Mathieu Amalric - Venus in Fur / Blue Room / If You Don't I Will / Love Is The Perfect Crime
  2. Ralph Fiennes - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  3. Ryan Reynolds - The Captive
  4. Timothy Spall - Mr. Turner
  5. David Oyelowo - Selma
  6. Robert Pattinson - The Rover
  7. David Gulpilil - Charlie's Country
  8. James Caan - The Tale of Princess Kaguya
  9. Jake Gyllenhaal - Nightcrawler
  10. Dan Stevens - The Guest
  11. Andre Benjamin - All Is By My Side
  12. Chadwick Boseman - Get On Up!
  13. Michael C. Hall - Cold in July
  14. John Jarratt - Wolf Creek 2
  15. Philip Seymour Hoffman - A Most Wanted Man
  16. Joaquin Phoenix - Inherent Vice
  17. Frank Grillo - The Purge: Anarchy
  18. Oscar Isaac - A Most Violent Year

Favourite Supporting Performance by an Actress
  1. Radha Mitchell - Bird People
  2. Pamela Flores - The Dance of Reality
  3. Katie Boland - Gerontophilia
  4. Misty Upham - Jimmy P.
  5. Eva Green - 302
  6. Uma Thurman - Nymphomaniac
  7. Reese Witherspoon - Inherent Vice
  8. Krysten Ritter - Listen Up, Philip
  9. Sara Paxton - Cheap Thrills
  10. Elle Fanning - Maleficent / The Boxtrolls
  11. Nina Hoss - A Most Wanted Man
  12. Grace Gummer - The Homesman

Favourite Supporting Performance by an Actor
  1. Jonathan Pryce - Listen Up, Philip
  2. Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher
  3. Stacy Keach - If I Stay
  4. Ronnie Gene Blevins - Joe
  5. Shia Lebeouf - Fury
  6. Jean-Claude Van Damme - Enemies Closer
  7. Rupert Friend - Starred Up
  8. Josh Brolin - Inherent Vice
  9. Riz Ahmed - Nightcrawler
  10. Don Johnson - Cold In July
  11. Gene Jones - The Sacrament
  12. Ben Kingsley - The Boxtrolls
  13. Dave Bautista - Guardians of the Galaxy
  14. Chris Isaak - Over The Garden Wall
  15. Edward Hogg - Mary, Queen of Scots
  16. William Hurt - Days and Nights
  17. Hugh Bonneville - Monuments Men

Favourite Duet Performances
  1. Denis Levant & Lee Kang Sheng - Journey to the West 
  2. Tallie Medel & Jordan Clifford - Joy Kevin
  3. Harry Treadaway & Rose Leslie - Honeymoon
  4. JK Simmons & Miles Teller - Whiplash
  5. Niels Arestrup & Andre Dussolier - Diplomacy
  6. Zoe Kazan & Daniel Radcliffe - What If
  7. Kristen Wiig & Bill Hader - The Skeleton Twins
  8. Nicolas Cage & Anton Yelchin - Dying of the Light
  9. Liam Gillick & Viv Albertine - Exhibition
  10. Paul Eenhorn & Earl Lynn Nelson - Land Ho!
  11. Agata Kulesza & Agata Trzebuchowska - Ida
  12. Tilda Swinton & Tom Hiddleston - Only Lovers Left Alive

Favourite Debut Performances
  1. Cecep Arif Rahman - The Raid 2
  2. Armando Espitia & Andrea Vergara - Heli
  3. Collin Dean - Over The Garden Wall
  4. Giulia Salerno - Misunderstood
  5. Maria Alexandra Lungu - The Wonders
  6. Gina Piersanti & Giovanna Salimeni - It Felt Like Love
  7. Liv LeMoyne, Mira Grosin & Mira Barkhammar - We Are The Best!

Favourite Performance by an Ensemble
  1. We Are The Best!
  2. Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari
  3. Hard To Be A God
  4. Beloved Sisters
  5. The Homesman
  6. Timbuktu
  7. Inherent Vice
  8. Mr. Turner
  9. Listen Up, Philip
  10. Like Father, Like Son
  11. Selma
  12. Leviathan

Favourite Original Score
  1. Jeff Grace - Cold in July / Night Moves
  2. Steve Moore - The Guest
  3. Hans Zimmer - Interstellar
  4. Rob Simonsen - Foxcatcher
  5. Alexandre Desplat - The Grand Budapest Hotel
  6. Micah Levi - Under The Skin
  7. Danny Elfman - The Unknown Known
  8. Amin Bouhafa - Timbuktu
  9. Sven Rossenbach & Florian van Volxem - Beloved Sisters
  10. Alberto Iglesias - Two Faces of January
  11. Howard Shore - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  12. Jonny Greenwood - Inherent Vice

Achievement in Art Direction
  1. The Boxtrolls
  2. Mr. Turner
  3. The Dance of Reality
  4. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
  5. The Strange Colour Of Your Body's Tears
  6. Automata
  7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  8. Zero Theorem
  9. Maleficent
  10. Timbuktu
  11. The Double
  12. Goltzius and the Pelican Company

Achievement in Production Design
  1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  2. The Double
  3. Snowpiercer
  4. The Quiet Ones
  5. The Boxtrolls
  6. Beloved Sisters
  7. Hard To Be A God
  8. Inherent Vice
  9. Mr. Turner
  10. Foxcatcher
  11. Beyond the Lights

Achievement in Visual Effects
  1. Viy
  2. Godzilla
  3. Edge of Tomorrow
  4. Noah
  5. Goodbye to Language
  6. Birdman
  7. Interstellar
  8. Automata
  9. WolfCop
  10. Birdman

Achievement in Costume Design
  1. Dracula Untold
  2. X-Men: Days of Future Past
  3. Hard To Be A God
  4. Step Up All In
  5. Maleficent
  6. The Homesman
  7. Mary, Queen of Scots
  8. Mr. Turner
  9. Inherent Vice
  10. Timbuktu
  11. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  12. Beloved Sisters

Achievement in Sound Design
  1. The Strange Colour of Your Body's Tears
  2. Hard To Be A God
  3. Night Moves
  4. Under The Skin
  5. The Babadook
  6. Exhibition
  7. Godzilla
  8. Afternoon of a Faun
  9. Edge of Tomorrow
  10. Cheap Thrills
  11. Wolfcop

Special Award for creator of a TV series that beat film at its own game for a beautiful second:

Steven Soderbergh for The Knick

The Tree of Knowledge

Aleksei German had one of the harder lives of any working filmmaker of the last half century. His movies - six in all, though he disowned his debut The Seventh Companion - never went according to plan. His early work was considered anti-patriotic by the Russian Government, one of the more activist when it comes to arts funding, and had their releases delayed or they were banned outright. In 1971 and 1984 he mounted films (Trial of the Road and My Friend Ivan Lapshin) based on books written by his father, the successful communist writer Yuri German, though neither enjoyed much of a life in theatres. Trial of the Road was released during Perestroika, some 15 years after it had finished shooting and the Union of Soviet Filmmakers’ Conflict Committee shelved My Friend Ivan Lapshin for three years. He paid direct tribute to his father the man in the form of the lead character of his 1976 film Twenty Days Without War. Though ostensibly based on the writing of Konstantin Simonov, it tells the story of a wartime writer who cuts a figure very similar to that of Yuri German. It concerns a journalist who returns from the front to help organize a film based on his experience writing about it and finds everyone has their own idea about what the moral center of a war’s narrative should be. Twenty Days Without War was also kept away from audiences. Rumour has it that the end of its banishment in 1981 only came about when the well-liked Simonov directly intervened on the film’s behalf. It is, in short, a miracle that Audiences are going to get the opportunity to sit down and watch his films when they play a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives this month to coincide with the release of his final film, on which more in a moment.

Aleksei German’s fortunes could not have been more different than those enjoyed byhis father. According to Alexander Werth in his book Russia: Hopes and Fears, writing two years after Yuri German’s death: “His novels, many of them wartime novels with good plots and full of adventure, were unusual in Russia and, therefore, enormously popular…he was a man of great moral courage…” Aleksei never had Yuri’s populist appeal in Russia, despite working for over 50 years and culling material from his father’s much loved work, but they shared that moral courage. German was vehemently anti-Soviet from his first film until his dying breath. His 1998 masterpiece of a film maudit Khrustyalov, My Car! about Stalin’s final week on earth as experienced by a paranoid General, was based largely on German’s experiences having observed not-so-secretly by the state after a life delivering one . German’s films present the alternative history of life in the Soviet Union and modern Russia. The one that journalists are still murdered for trying to talk about. These movies feel like Aleksei’s way of dealing with not only his own history, but that of a country that strayed so far from its ideals he couldn’t find a way to make sense inside its borders.

Perhaps realizing that attempting to deal in facts would mean making a film no one would ever see, German got to work on his passion project, adapting a metaphor-rich sci-fi novel by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky called Hard To Be A God. He’d always intended it to be his first film, but it didn’t pan out that way. The story goes that when the novel was adapted in 1989 by theatre veteran Peter Fleischmann, the brothers Strugatsky were less than pleased. They thought Fleischmann’s approach (turning it into straight pablum a la Krull or Outlaw of Gor, but with a detached, cool Berliner energy that works against it) was all wrong. Their novel could only be handled by a Russian who shared their reference points and lived through the same winters. Someone who'd really understand what they were trying to say. Someone like Aleksei German, for instance. German worked on his adaptation for years, shooting from 200-2006, stopping the incredibly complicated editing process when he died in February of 2013, leaving the finishing touches to his wife and son. There’s a touching continuity to his family carrying on his legacy, just as he’d done for his father, but the truth is that losing German felt more than tragic. It felt deeply unfair. It seemed as though a conspiracy that had lasted most of his adult life had finally swallowed him whole. Even his wikipedia page has a tone of hostile ambivalence, like an intern went in and changed key adjectives and verbs to make his achievements sound unearned.

Whether or not the Brothers Strugatsky ever actually said that German was the only man for the job of adapting Hard To Be A God, the fact remains that few directors endured the whips and scorns of a government that seemed to actively resent his existence. This made him uniquely qualified to tell the story of a civilization stuck in the dark ages. Tossing out just about everything except what felt true to the central conceit - mainly the drunken antihero’s perpetual snit as he drifts around a world he's not allowed to change - German hasn't so much made a movie as engineered a case of Stendhal Syndrome. There is no way to avoid being sucked into the slithering bowels of this film. It lassos you and drags you across 3 hours of mud and every sort of sec-and-excretion. On paper it's worth mentioning that the film is set in the future, and the protagonist is a scientist sent from earth to monitor alien life on a planet where educating yourself is a criminal act. In reality, the film is about earth right now and the abhorrent way we treat artists and intellectuals. How we stamped out revolution, egalitarianism and positive invention. How we no longer put our energy into bringing people together, just pointing out our differences and allowing xenophobes to commit crimes based on imaginary imbalances of character. It's a planet where everyone has abandoned reason and replaced it with a dimwitted equality and to stand apart from the public is to risk random, horrifying execution. 

German achieves total immersion in this world through a three-pronged attack. First, he jams frame with extras so deep in character Meryl Streep should be losing Oscars to them, each betraying a lifetime spent in ignorance through a handful of gestures. Second, the camera moves like the inebriated cousin of Terrence Malick's god's eye view in The Tree of Life and The New World. Rather than blinking when its overwhelmed by creation and jumping to the next dizzy steadicam shot, Hard To Be A God stares dumbly for as long as it can manage until it begins to tear up from the smoke and dust in the air. Third, objects and characters rush into the frame like deer jumping in front of headlights. There is no time to get used to their presence, nor any use, as they're often gone before any sense can be made of their appearance. Tempting as it is to extend the Malick comparison – it feels more like an inversion of the American poet’s style than a compliment – a more useful reference point might be Andrzej Żuławski's half-finished post-punk sci-fi odyssey On The Silver Globe. In that kindred film, memories are recorded on panes like antique photographs. In both films, you become an unremarked upon character in every scene, a sensation helped by people often staring into the lens. Which is a long way of saying that the film doesn’t tell a story so much as crawl through a fully realized, grotesquely tactile landscape. You're in this up to your neck, whether you like it or not.

German’s textural accomplishments cannot be overstated. The world of Arkanar, the fictional region where the film is set, is a perfect organism. Every inch of every chamber and courtyard seems to serve a function, down to the last jangling trinket. The clean black and white cinematography by Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko splendidly and unsparingly captures the abject filth that coats every surface. The perfection of the environment is laid like a blanket over all but the faintest narrative concerns. Our scientist hero has assumed the identity of a minor lord called Don Rumata (German all but excises this bit of backstory from the novel), which grants him a little power over his fellow cretins. One senses that he’s gotten a little too in character. The film follows Rumata as he navigates the faintest glimmer of a social and political hierarchy and loses his footing due to poor planning, or possibly trusting the wrong people. Rumata’s knowledge of Earth keeps him smarter than even his most cunning enemy, but he assigns a logic to them that they consistently fail to conform to. His brain is a curse and a crutch, the reason he’ll always be an outsider. His wallowing, in self-congratulations, in muck, in pity, in his imagined freedom and regality, is the engine that propels the film’s POV-camera through every gross corridor of Arkanar. The sights that await him can never be scrubbed from one’s conscious: a gang of prisoners carrying their gallows on their shoulders like a parade float, a catapult-sized torture device shaped like a phallus, a man drowned in an improvised toilet, bas-reliefs of sexual torments adorning the halls of a lord, soldiers called to attention and puking as if on cue, bizarre wooden symbols built up in a town square, casting eerie shadows on the wall as the indifferent night mist blows through. It’s an outlandish series of events that took boundless imagination, not to mention an obsessive-compulsive attention to detail. The blocking alone is mind-boggling, and it's all in service of one of the simplest theses German could have dreamt up: If living up to our potential isn’t incentivized, and we continue to punish development and free-thinking, we’ll sink into darkness so quickly it’ll be hard to remember a time when growth was possible. Hard To Be A God is a disgusting, disorienting journey into a foreign land where no future seems guaranteed.

Rumata’s aimless wandering takes him in and out of womb spaces that don’t offer the comfort and safety he wishes from them. Those zones and the appearance of Leonid Yarmolnik in the lead role hint at shades of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible, about a man who loses his soul in his mad quest for power. Don Rumata already has power and a tenuous grip on his soul when we meet him. He’s been separated from earth, his mother and father, for so long that he forgets what values they imparted to him. He tries continually to crawl back inside any sheltering body that will have him, desperate to return to a state of innocence, away from the responsibility of having to be himself. He wants to cast off responsibilities to his people, past and present, to live without continuity. German too had been absent his father, the man he paid tribute so often before the government took that away from him. Russia ground down German’s connection to his past, his home and family into a pile of ashes. Would that the aftermath of an epoch-making statement not be defined by the absence of its creator but German is gone now, too, and he’s left us with a double-edged sword of a parting gift. On the one hand, we have one of the most most damning diagnoses the human race has ever received. On the other, one of the richest works of art ever produced. All that remains is to see which we rise to. We live in a world where German’s films can be found and watched, which is a better place than the one he lived in.