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 - Wanda
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 - Norma Rae
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.


In A Lonely Place

"You're thinking like you're back there." says a character whose name I can't even remember in Michael Mann's Blackhat. I know she's played by Wei Tang from the terrific and underrated Lust, Caution. I know this because like Public Enemies, Michael Mann's last film, Lust, Caution was the last film before a director threw up his hands and said "What do you want?" to an audience he no longer knew how to please. The further into discovering digital he's gone - the medium someone else found for him, that he knew would be the future, for better or worse - the further away from audiences he's gotten and the more he's burrowed into a select few critics' hearts. Having worked in a record store that specializes in trade-ins, few directors have their whole catalog traded in with the regularity of Mann, a director I've loved since I was old enough to know what a director is. People don't have the time for him they evidently once did - you can't return a film you didn't buy. And just as Lust, Caution sent Ang Lee racing toward middlebrow, NPR-friendly fare after a fearlessly intimate decade-plus to himself, and Ridley Scott retreated into Gladiator style pablum after the formally abstruse The Counselor was called the worst film of his already polarizing career, the indifference that greeted Public Enemies seems to have broken Mann's stride. Public Enemies was an experiment in a time, place and language that were altogether unfamiliar to him - I know I'm not the only one who thinks that film redefined the possible in digital grammar. I wouldn't change a frame of Public Enemies. It's perfect in its deliberate imperfections; one of the defining films of the 21st century. And when people shrug at your masterpiece it might just hurt your feelings. 

I don't pretend to know what Michael Mann went through in 2009, but a few things seem clear enough - Blackhat's attitude is one of defeat, a movie defined by grief for a world that has changed and will continue changing. Progress means nothing anymore. Mann was likely equally devastated when he returned to Los Angeles - his true home despite that beautiful Chicago accent - and discovered they'd changed the lights on him. The sick yellow glow of the Halogen street lamps he used to play his greys, blacks and blues against has vanished. Replaced by white/blue flourescents. The resulting vacancy in the air was caught expertly by Robert Elswitt in Nightcrawler - the town finally looks like a set in a tv studio. It's anathema to Mann's version of reality; he has a formula for background stylistics being inversely proportional to the stylishness of the action. Chicago looks like a cool neon nightmare in Thief, but the action itself is all purposely grounded. Tough, but real. He met in the middle for Heat. A new LA just won't do. So, like a thwarted moth, he sought a new source of light. There are the neon orgies on the streets of Hong Kong, the dull sizzle of computer monitors blurring and muting flesh, always presented in contrast to the earthy reality of the skin of those watching, and finally the unearthly glow of the banks and towers of harddrives. Mann's recreation of the inhuman space of data traveling through circuitry is all the virtue (and none of the boneheaded mythology) of Tron and Tron: Legacy in one bravura little sequence. And it hints that a resigned Michael Mann isn't someone concerned with people anymore. His hero is a Chicagoan, like Mann himself, and he's only interested in getting every single task taken care of as quickly and efficiently as possible, because the motivation to do them splendidly isn't there anymore. 

Chris Hemsworth's Nicholas Hathaway is a man who forgets what it meant to do things because there is joy in them. He does them because on the other side is the possibility of remembering how to love them. He emerges from prison after the same number of years since the last time Mann has made a film. He hasn't made a film set in the modern world in almost ten years. That's a long break from depicting our world as we know it. Hathaway is shown first listening to headphones, his hearing muffled. The world is now a little too big, a little too fast. Maybe that's why the mouths speaking Mandarin dialogue seem to lag a little behind their voices. Why Hemsworth needs a long second to himself before boarding a plane to LA. The world is bright now, and both perversely bigger and smaller than it's ever been, to paraphrase Transcendence. We're all in the same room, but no one's on the same wavelength. Hathaway/Mann's way of doing things just don't work anymore. The bad reviews that have greeted Blackhat confirm as much. There are hints of the old Mann in here (The action sequences still glue you to your chair, Viola Davis channels Pacino in Heat very effectively, the frenetic camera work of that film returns briefly, though in truth it resembles a hungover pantomime of the precision ambling of The Color of Money), but we're looking at a director looking for new pleasures. He's found only a few. 

I don't think the Chinese setting was arrived upon idly, as the influence of its vanguard is strongly in evidence. Wong Kar-Wai used to juxtapose the deadly serious (cops, traffickers, hitmen) with the lighthearted (clingy ex-lovers and OCD lovers-to-be) and Mann's fused them without too much fluctuation in tone. The discussion about whether an ex-con should be dating a cop's sister crops up right before a police raid, a stray thread that will eventually be woven into the quilt once the focus has narrowed toward the end. There's a scene in a Korean restaurant that has the languid awkwardness in its choreography that calls to mind the delicate dance of space in Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times. It's clumsier, but Mann has a heavier footfall. The lightest he's ever been was in Public Enemies. Those days are a distant blip in the rearview. Everything here weighs a ton. It starts with how he chooses to fill a frame. He builds himself a considerable team; Davis, Hong Kong police including Hemsworth's love interest, Hemsworth himself, his minder (played with little fuss and credible workmanlike anonymity by the ever-dependable Holt McCallany, still showing the beauty he wore forever and a day ago as a rapist in Alien³) and whoever else happens to be within arm's reach. Mann arranges them in chaotic patterns and erratic formations, hinting that they aren't united by a purpose, merely by incidental geography. Then he makes this giant crew sprint through the X and Z axis as frequently as he can find a reason to. The running is labored and ugly. It looks strange. Perfunctory. "What'd she say?" "Move fast." They run because they're being compelled. Different from the usual desperation with which Mann imbues his action sequences. They don't live for this. It's a task, like anything else.  When asked what he'll do once he's been freed Hemsworth lamely suggests that he'll fix TVs. The world doesn't need Mann's version of a hero. The world is quiet and his characters have fallen quiet with it. Mann searches the faces of the dead for meaning and finds nothing as sad as Hemsworth, framed alone in worlds moving at an alien pace. Blackhat is a very lonely film.

There is, however, a dignity in the silence, and here is where Blackhat works best. The villain's philosophy, that which is not in front of him does not matter, is what Mann has discovered he's up against. Audience attention span, audience willingness to indulge fetishization, audience's sympathy for an idea that takes a whole film to bloom. That which does not stimulate continuously is not worth considering. That scheme - or is it a fear? - informs the film in every imaginable way. There's the dialogue, recorded haphazardly, fading in and out seemingly at random, forcing audiences to think about whether the content of a conversation matters in a film that's meant to be all momentum. There's the way the team slowly disbands, leaving Hemsworth and his love interest alone. Soon their influence fades and the film begins to reshape into a movie that seemed to be about them all along. Did they have any impact on each other or on Hathaway? It's a film ruled by a tide it can't seem to control, like the Apocalypse Now style festival and its current of bodies that keep Hathaway from his target in the final shootout. The action comes in, forcefully washing away the quiet. The action washes away and the quiet returns. In the quiet, gestures and symbols register. A sleeping man's hand lies on the floor. Hemsworth and his love interest lie together on their sides, facing each other in bed, waiting for a phone call. Three people walk through a bustling marketplace to a secret rendezvous, colours and sounds flaring up all around them, no point beyond seeing them navigate the crowds. Hemsworth's perfect face staring holes  into data-filled screens and the night sky, feeling disproportionately connected to them, mournful synthesizer telling us what he can't ever come out and say. Conversations have no punctuation. When Tang is told by her brother that she's the only one he can trust, she looks away from him and into space we can't see for a small eternity and then turns back briefly to say "when do we leave?" in heavily accented English. Hathaway wants to let suspects walk around and lead them to the next man on the ladder. "I say we let 'em ride" he says to Davis. She sits with the idea for a long, long moment and simply offers a soft "yeah." Nothing clever, nothing memorable, except that the film had led us to believe that something greater was coming. Nothing great comes. Just violence that is all the more destructive for interrupting human contact founded on shared silences and knowing when not to talk anymore. Nothing more spectacular than death awaits them. There is time to stop, talk, and look into each other's eyes. Watching Blackhat is realizing that we can't possibly protect what we imagine to be our future. No government can plan for malevolence with no motive, a lesson some still refuse to learn. The indifference is here to stay. 

Accident Art: Nixon

This film was the perfect vehicle for my weird brand of fake art, not just because distorting the faces of these characters externalizes their descent into madness, paranoia and monstrousness, but because Oliver Stone's films live and breathe conspiracy. Distorting the images bring out new patterns, layers and symbols that make you wonder what's going on below the surface. Or anyway, there's something incredibly haunting about Anthony Hopkins' Richard Nixon impression turned even more shark-like by removing the humanity of his face. Nixon is one of both Stone and Hopkins' greatest achievements.