In 2017, I saw a play by Wallace Shawn called Evening at the Talk House. The program book included an excerpt from an essay written this year by Shawn, "Night Thoughts," a full-throated defense of elitist tastes. (It was an excerpt from a longer essay, which was scathing about just about everybody.) He wrote
Undoubtedly less shocking, but possibly more weird, is the incredible fact that in the contemporary world many even of those who are born lucky are voluntarily forgoing the opportunity to develop their inner resources. Gorgeous and delicious fruits, grown by seductive geniuses, sit on the plates of these lucky people but remain uneaten. A process of decay has infected the lucky in various parts of the world, and very notably in the United States, leading many even of the luckiest to turn vehemently against complex thought in general and the cultivation of the intellect in particular--and even to turn against complex pleasures. And in certain circles, crude thought and ignorance are openly respected and praised, while the concept of basing one's conclusions on evidence (or replicable experiments)--even the principle of rationality itself--are ignored or even mocked.When I read this, I couldn't help but think of Donald Trump. But I also guiltily thought of myself, a man born lucky, who has always loved sophisticated art and thinking, but who has in recent months been binge-watching pretty dumb stuff on Netflix and Amazon Prime. My justification for this is that "my mind sometimes craves junk food"--this is a quote from "Prisoners of Hate Island," a short comic by Peter Bagge. It's spoken by Bagge's publisher, Kim Thompson, to justify why he liked an obviously terrible sci-fi movie. Whenever I go see a superhero movie, that phrase is what makes it OK. But I have been starting to feel like the "junk food" has kind of taken over my life.
So I decided to enter into a program of not viewing junk. British film magazine Sight & Sound has been publishing a list of the top 50 feature films for decades. They arrive at their list by polling critics. I thought to counteract the deleterious effects of a summer spent binge-watching old TV shows (including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a show in which Wallace Shawn had a recurring minor role), I decided I would watch all the movies I hadn't yet seen from the 2012 Sight & Sound list.
Wallace Shawn and Grand Nagus Zek from Deep Space Nine
I had seen #1 and #2 (Vertigo and Citizen Kane), so I started with #3 on the list.
(3) Tokyo Story by Ozu Yasujiro (1953).
The first two had tons of drama and in the case of Vertigo, suspense. Tokyo Story is a family drama but a very quiet one. Two elderly parents from the small city of Onomichi are visiting their adult children in Tokyo. Their son is a doctor and their daughter runs a beauty salon. They also have a daughter in law, Noriko, who is the widow of a son who died in the war (the film was released in 1953, so the war was a fresh memory). The son and daughter are quite busy with their lives in Tokyo and don't have enough time to properly entertain mom and dad. Only Noriko makes the time. The parents return to their hometown, and the mother (68 years old) becomes ill and dies.
Kōichi, Noriko, Shige, and Kyōko gather at their mother's side when she is ill
All the children return for the funeral. Shige, the eldest daughter, asks for some of her mother's clothing after the funeral, an action that angers Kyōko, the youngest daughter who still lives with her parents in Onomichi. That is the most dramatic moment in the movie. The other drama is exceptionally quiet, but over the course of the film, very present. The feelings of the characters are hidden at first, but become revealed as you get to know them.
This film is in black and white and mostly filmed indoors in people's houses and apartments. The compositions of the shots (which never feature a moving camera) is elegant and filled with complex interweavings of light and dark. Ozu seems to delight in showing you everything. Someone is leaving the house, and we'll see her carefully put on her socks, walk to the font, put on her shoes, and then leave. This kind of deliberateness typifies the "action". Aging parents and their adult children is a universal subject, but what was great for me was seeing this intensely Japanese--and thus very foreign to me--behavior.
The next few on the Sight & Sound list were movies I have seen: 4 is La Règle du Jeu by Jean Renoir, 5 is Sunrise by F.W. Murnau, 6 is 2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick and 7 is The Searchers by John Ford. But the next one is one I've long heard of but never seen.
8. Man With a Movie Camera (1929) by Dziga Vertov
This rather short (just over an hour) silent documentary film is portrait of a city over the course of a day. But not one city--it was filmed in Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev and Odessa. There are no titles (the only subtitles are there to help English-reading audiences read the Russian signs). It starts in a movie theater, as if people are coming in to watch this very movie. Then we see the city coming to life. A woman wakes up and gets dressed, busses and trams issue forth from their barns. People sleeping on the street and on park benches wake up (that struck me as odd--were these people homeless?). We also see a cameraman, carrying his movie camera and a tripod. It is barely portable, but he lugs it around the city. It's a hand-cranked camera. The cameraman is often the subject of special effects, that make him appear enormous or tiny. In one memorable scene, he emerges from a glass mug of beer.
The dance of the trolleys and pedestrians in Man With a Movie Camera
The film goes through various stages of a day. Work (scenes of factories and machinery, as well as other kinds of work, including some memorable shots within a coal mine with a horse pulling a cart--reminding one of Zola's great novel Germinal). We never linger too long on any given shot--Man With A Movie Camera is typified by quick editing (the editor was Vertov's wife, Elizaveta Svilov). And in most shots, there is motion; machines, vehicles, people doing things, walking hither and yon, as well as many tracking shots. Vertov mounted his camera on vehicles for some exceptional shots, including even mounting it on a motorcycle (he films his fictional camera man riding on a motorcycle, steering with one hand and cranking the camera with the other).
The workday ends and we see various forms of recreation--people doing track and field events, playing soccer and basketball, racing motorcycles (!), drinking in beerhalls, going to the beach (presumably in Odessa). There are several weird shots of a woman covering herself with a black cream on the beach, perhaps as sunscreen. And we see her black covered breasts, which must have been quite sexy for the time (I assume--I have always heard that Soviet society was quite prudish).
As a documentary, it is in no way cinema verité--many of the scenes were clearly contrived by Vertov. All of the scenes with the camera man, the scene of the woman waking up, several brief stop-motion animated shots, etc. But it is quite breathtaking. A picture of the Soviet Union in the relatively optimistic period before the forced collectivization of the early 30s. Vertov was an formalist experimenter, but he also was a committed Communist and saw his mission to produce agitprop. So the film is a wholly positive portrayal of Soviet life. And it is a beautiful piece of film, obviously influential. The Sight & Sound list skews towards fiction films, which perhaps shows the short-sightedness of film critics and film viewers, but Vertov is a powerful voice for turning on the camera and filming what is around you.
I've seen (9) Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer), (10) 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini), and (11) Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisentein).
12. L' Atalante by Jean Vigo (1934)
This seems like a very slight movie to make the list, but it has charm. Jean is a barge captain (L'Atalante is the name of his barge) plying the canals and rivers of France. Juliette is the woman from a small village that he marries at the beginning of the movie. She has never left the village and longs to see Paris. She has a highly romantic idea of love (she claims to have seen Jean's face reflected in water before she ever met him).
But life on board a barge is no picnic. That part I thought was intelligently filmed--I spent a couple of years living aboard small boats and they are every bit as cramped as L'Atalante suggests. Fortunately, none of my shipmates was a packrat like Père Jules. One memorable scene is set in his cabin, which he shares with the cabin boy Le Gosse. Père Jules is an inveterate collector of useless junk from a lifetime spent on ships, as well as a collection of stray cats.
Père Jules shows Juliette his puppet theater in his cramped cabin
Juliette and Jean are constantly arguing when they aren't making love. Père Jules says they are always either squabbling or smooching. It's a tough environment for a new wife.
Père Jules is indirectly the cause of the biggest conflict in L'Atalante. When they get to Paris, Jena promises to take Juliette out on the town. But Père Jules goes out instead and Jean can't leave the barge unattended. Père Jules gets ripsnorting drunk, stays out all night and Juliette's ambition to see Paris for the first time is thwarted. Jean and Juliette argue and at their next stop, Juliette jumps ship to go see Paris.
Jean is angry and sets out immediately for Le Havre. He acts erratically. Père Jules is worried and has to vouch for him to the boss at the shipping company. Père Jules resolves to find Juliette and bring her back. He is successful and Juliette and Jean have a rapturous reunion. This story is so simple it borders on trivial. I honestly have no idea why this rates being the 12th greatest film of all time. But I wasn't bored watching it, which is the least one can ask of a film.
13. Breathless by Jean-Luc Goddard (1960)
This is one where I've seen the beginning a bunch of times but never saw the whole thing.This is the first of the Sight & Sound list that was pure entertainment. The story is pretty thin--a car thief named Michel Poiccard steals a car that he is to deliver to Marseilles. But as he is driving there, the police chase him and he kills a motorcycle cop. He runs away and returns to Paris. There he meets up with a girlfriend, Patricia Franchini. She is an American (played by Jean Seberg), who is working for the International Herald Tribune as a newspaper vendor and a cub reporter. She is supposed to register for classes at the Sorbonne in order to keep her allowance. You get the impression that she knows Michel is a low-life, but not that he is a professional criminal. (It reminds me of a cartoon by Adrian Tomine. Two beautiful young hipster girls are talking. One says, "Sure he's trouble, but that's just not enough anymore.")
Michel makes an effort to get some money and get out of town, but the police are closing in. He's identified and his picture is published on the front page of the newspaper. Meanwhile, he makes plans to go with Patricia to Italy. She is contacted by the police to whom she confesses that she knows who he is. They give her a number to call. While they are lamming it at the home of an underworld connection, she calls the police. They come and Michel is shot trying to run away.
Michel is a horrible person, but attractive. He's go that bad boy allure. He's not sympathetic, though--practically the first thing you see him do is commit murder. But his and Patricia's story is compelling. Goddard filmed it in a deliberately sloppy way. There are lots of unexplained jump cuts, which to a modern movie watcher are not particularly jarring, but must have seemed very daring in 1961. The movie looks great. (It helps that the stars look so great.)
The murderer and the paper-girl--Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg
This was Goddard's first film. Despite it's shocking, hand-held camera style and editing, Breathless was a huge hit in France and made Goddard's name around the world. Personally, I loved it.
I'll skip (14) Apocalypse Now as I have seen it several times.
15. Late Spring by Ozu Jasujiro (1949)
Made four years before Tokyo Story, Late Spring also stars Chishū Ryū and Setsuko Hara, who as in the latter film plays a beautiful single woman names Noriko. But the Norikos are distinct characters. In this movie, Noriko is the daughter of Professor Shukichi Somiya (the Chishū Ryū character). He is a professor and a widower and the pair have a strong bond. Noriko was until the time the film started quite infirm. Her malady isn't specified but it caused her to have a low blood count and was said to be a result of forced labor during the war. (The war looms in the background quietly--the original script was censored in small ways by the U.S. Occupation force.) She is considered something of an old maid (although she is young and beautiful) because she couldn't or wouldn't marry while she was ill. This isn't explicitly stated, though. It's my interpretation of what happened.
The pair of Noriko and Somiya are kind of perfect. They seemed to be a "duprass", a perfect holy pair in the religion of Bokononism from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle. And Noriko is perfectly happy being her father's substitute wife. For some reason, she considers the idea of widowers remarrying to be "indecent" or even "filthy." But her father wants her to get married because he thinks she need to be with someone who will take care of her and with whom she'll find happiness, as he did with his late wife. There is some scheming to get her engaged, mostly by her aunt. Her best friend is divorced and has a somewhat cynical view of marriage. She seems to like her father's assistant, Hattori, but he is already engaged. So a suitable match is found and arrangements made. (This seems to be just at the cusp of the age of arranged marriages and freely chosen marriages.)
Her father tells her that he is going to remarry, because he knows if he doesn't, she will never consent to be married. After Noriko's wedding, he is in a bar with a female friend drinking sake and tells her of his scheme. She approves of his deception, and is actually kind of flirtatious with him.
The plot is simple--minimal even. As in Tokyo Story, it is told with a kind of deliberateness. You see every room in Noriko and Somiya's house frequently--usually from the same angles. Ozu frequently shoots from a low angle, so the camera is looking up at the characters. But this is unobtrusive--he's not doing a worms-eye view. In fact, when characters kneel down or sit on cushions, the low angle is no longer a low angle.
Actions are filmed deliberately, as in the end when Somiya, along in his house for the first time, peels an apple. Ozu shows us the whole thing. It gets across the loneliness and sacrifice that the old professor has just made.
This is a beautiful movie. I liked it better than Tokyo Story.
16. Au Hasard Balthazar by Robert Bresson (1966)
This film didn't make a huge impression on me. Set in rural France along a border (not sure which border), it starts off with a group of kids playing. Their father buys them a baby donkey whom they name Balthazar. It switches forward a few years and Balthazar is repeatedly sold or given to new masters (who invariably mistreat the donkey). The young girl, Marie, who was given Balthazar at the beginning of the movie is a character whose story is told in parallel with the donkey's. She is played by 18-year-old actress Anne Wiazemsky, who subsequently had a minor film career, married Jean-Luc Goddard, then wrote several novels. As Balthazar is abused, as is Marie. At one distressing moment, she seems to be raped (it's not explicitly depicted) by Gerard, the leader of a local gang of juvenile delinquents. His story is also woven into the story of Balthazar.
Marie and Balthazar
As a portrait of rural French life in the 1960s, it has value. The fact that people still use donkeys as beast of burden then was shocking (although one wonders about the documentary accuracy). Balthazar is almost comically stoic, which reminds us that animals put up with a lot of evil shit from us humans. There is no attempt to humanize Balthazar. In the end, Marie leaves this evil little village (in which Gerard and his gang seem to be able to act with impunity), and Balthazar dies a violent death after being used to smuggle items across the border (Gerard and his gang graduate from juvie crimes like vandalism and burglary to "grown up" crimes like sexual assault and smuggling.)
The grain dealer played by Pierre Klossowski
One of Balthazar's owners is a grain dealer, whose intention with Balthazar is to work him to death and draw every penny's worth out of the poor beast. He was played very well by Pierre Klossowski, who was best known as a writer (especially about the Marquis de Sade) and for being the younger brother of the painter Balthus. Klossowski's character also lusts after Marie.
Bresson's style is called "ascetic", which is accurate enough. I can see that Bresson had an artistic intent, but Au Hasard Balthazar felt like it held back so much the viewer--this viewer, at least--that I can't say it gave me much pleasure. Ozu is another director with a quiet, barely there style, but I found there a lot more to relate to in his films than in Au Hasard Balthazar.
(17) The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa is another I've already seen...
I will continue this exploration of Sight & Sounds' greatest films in subsequent posts.