Life Goes On…

Ozu Yasujiro was one of the most consistent directors one could think of when it comes to the principles he applies to his framing, his cutting, and his circle of cast and crew. Between his 1949 feature Late Spring and his final film in 1962 An Autumn Afternoon, the only notable amendment to his comfortable aesthetic was the inclusion of colour in the late 1950s. This does not restrict any of those films from feeling less than perfect masterworks of a confident filmmaker or from feeling indistinct from one another. Because it may have been obvious that the man was using the same formal tools over and over again (and even the same themes), but different combinations of them were constantly applied to different moods, simply by perhaps a shift in the duration of certain shots or an uncharacteristic change in blocking or a drop of a smile establishing the difference between the tragedy of Floating Weeds and the comedy of Ohayo.

In the 13 movies ‘round that mature phase of his prosperous career, Tokyo Story is perhaps the most effective utilization of these features and most illustrative of his interests in deepening the stories he and frequent co-writer Noda Kogo would draft. In this particular instance, inspired by Leo McCarey’s 1937 elderly classic Make Way for TomorrowTokyo Story gives us a picture of Japan just at the cusp of blowing off all of the ashes left from World War II as elders Hirayama Shikuchi (Ryu Chishu) and his wife Tomi (Higashiyama Chieko) prepare for a trip from their hometown Onomochi to visit the titular city and see the nuclear families of their son Koichi (Yamamura So), daughter Shige (Sugimura Haruko), as well as seeing daughter-in-law Noriko (Hara Setsuko), who remains a reminder of the son they lost in the war. This trip leaves behind their youngest child Kyoko (Kagawa Kyoko) in the Onomochi home they reside in and hopes to pass by their second-youngest child Keizo (Osaka Shiro) who resides in Osaka.

Tokyo Story of course has a premise that notoriously lends itself to much sadness in the form of Shikuchi and Tomi observing the sort of distance that has grown from the children that have left to their own lives (little distance at all with Noriko however, as the loss between the three of them appears to have amplified their need to remember their late son and husband Shoji together). And being a movie with very little incident in itself, it’s through the reliability of Ozu’s regular troupe and the script’s chilly pleasantries that they must enact that the movie can communicate the sort of annoyance and guilt that the characters hold as Koichi and Shige try to impatiently figure ways to fill the parents’ time after coming all this way.

But what about the places where they don’t speak and just sit? Because Tokyo Story is a movie filled with those types of scenes, recognizable from our own life of moments where we just don’t know what to say, where our body language betrays our intentions, where our smiles might What does Ozu do to actively involve in the stillest and most muted moments of this domestic drama?

One of the two signature characteristics of Ozu’s filmmaking – collaborating here with Atsuta Yuharu as he occasionally did – would be the elevation of the camera at the eye level of the characters if they were to sit down on tatami mat that made up the flooring for most traditional Japanese households, as though to establish the camera as an inhabitant of these domestic spaces joining in on the interactions that make up the film and often at an angle that takes note of the empty spaces surrounding these characters, especially if it’s only one of them in the room at the time. This decision would be quite complementary to the other signature characteristic in which Ozu often framed shot-reverse shot sequences of dialogue with the camera specifically placed in the middle of the people involved in those conversations with each of the conversants centered in their own shot.

The style specifically rejects arguably the most fundamental of Western cinematic staging and cutting, the 180° rule that stresses a clear definition of every character’s geographical relation in scenes. But by breaking that rule, Ozu uses direct address to force us to see every nuance in the performers’ faces, stresses the shallow smalltalk and the shallow reactions to that catching up, and specifically places us in the middle of that intangible empty space between these characters growing more and more distant to each other, taking one box of them all sitting together and dividing them artificially. Editor Hamamura Yoshiyasu does just as well to arrange these shots in a manner that provides this function and yet allows the conversation to smoothly run as though the breaking of that line is unnoticed, while also taking great patience in drawing out the sort of gaps between each character’s statements before moving on to the next close-up with a response to give, betraying the conversation as dull and betraying the characters as having to take time to construct banter under which they hide their true thoughts.

Ozu’s Tokyo Story is precise filmmaking without the slightest bit of conspicuousness to itself, in spite of its rule-breaking, and effectively delivers on devastating domestic tragedy that way enhancing the already brilliant work of its cast. The notoriety with which Tokyo Story effortlessly perfects all the aspects of film possible for little more than honest character drama and makes it count is undeniably the reason why that movie ended up voted by the Sight & Sound Directors’ Poll in 2012 to be the Best Film of All Time (and Third Best in the film critics’ poll). And yet it’s also easy to imagine that it may not be the actual strategy through which its constructed but the bullseye way that Tokyo Story KNOWS how families talk (or don’t talk) and the simple pain that is left from those talks that just hits its viewers on a gut level and brings it to those accolades. Who knows? Maybe it’s just left unsaid.

Over the Moon

A little prelude: For years I’ve been playing with the idea of a video essay series, but we do not have enough time to do everything we’d like to do in our lives. What follows is basically what I’ve intended as one of the first batch of those videos so don’t be surprised if in the future I finally find myself with the free time to put them together and I lazily recycle this post for that video.

A further little prelude: I am aware that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is among the most beloved and popular films by that most beloved populist of cinema Steven Spielberg. It would have to be: it was the highest-grossing picture of all-time until Spielberg decided to make dinosaurs walk the Earth and its titular alien character is one of the quintessential icons of pop culture in the 1980s. And yet I never encountered very much of that love in my personal life: I certainly adored the movie since I first saw it at 10-years-old and I’ve seen the movie numerous times in cinemas but while seeking out people in my life who share my affinity for the movie, I come up short. Even when I took a course in film school on the films of Spielberg, the professor just straight up dismissed that movie. So objectively it’s the case that E.T. does not need defending, but in my experience… that movie gets endlessly shrugged off. Maybe I keep terrible company.

The most obvious point of criticism is that it is the most blatantly sentimental and emotionally manipulative movie of Spielberg’s, a showcase of all his most characteristic and romantic saccharine moods. And well… yes, of course, it is. Art functions that way: it is meant to provoke a response out of you and a majority of that art (particularly cinema) already has an specific reaction it considers ideal to itself. Maybe that’s not a strong excuse if it’s not your flavor and Odin knows I have my share of movies that I completely reject their cloying approach to it. But I consider Spielberg to be among the best storytellers of the modern age because he knows the exact right arrangement of ingredients to get the most profound passionate reflexes out of my heart and when it’s firing on as many cylinders as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial does, I can’t intellectually resist that. I am wholly vulnerable and in awe of the power Spielberg flexes in making one of the ultimate emotional experiences in all of film.

What I can try to do intellectually is to break down how I believe it works, but first of course the acknowledgement on what E.T. is for those who have lived under a rock for the last 40 years: Written by Melissa Mathison and very clearly owned by Spielberg the whole way through, the screenplay begins with a scouting group of aliens that land quietly in a forest outside of Los Angeles. Ostensibly this landing was not quiet enough to avoid government officials chasing back into the ship and off the ground, leaving behind one unlucky member who rushes into the suburbs and is found by a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas). As Elliott gives shelter to the creature – whom is named E.T., of course – we learn about his broken homelife with his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton), baby sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), and recently divorced mother Mary (Dee Wallace). Such a life has left Elliott with an unspoken empty feeling that’s filled by E.T.’s friendship with him, a bond that appears be psychically compelled. Still E.T. of course is not on this planet to stay and Elliott with his family and friends assist to get E.T. in contact with his ship.

That magical friendship connection at the center of the movie is its own awareness of what it’s doing: it’s telling us how to feel in every moment, through a variety of strategies all of them successful to me. This begins with Elliott’s perspective and the way the movie manages to align with him. Cinematographer Allen Daviau – in the first of his three collaborations with Spielberg – fills the movie with all sorts of hazy exterior atmospheres whether the soft darkness of the forest, the foggy light of the backyard, or the sleepy oranges of an autumn sunset (this happens to have my second favorite Halloween sequence in any movie not about the holiday for the reason of those colors, the first place prize going to Meet Me in St. Louis). There’s a whole lot of beautiful sunset and night skies captured unlike anything in Spielberg’s filmography in their comforting shimmering darkness. But the secret weapon of his camerawork is how much of it remains eye level with Elliott, most impressively in the long takes where a variety of angles will need to be taken to intersect past Elliott’s head to reach the subject he’s looking at (the biggest reason I wish I could have made this a video essay: there’s a specific shot about a quarter into the film that demonstrates this impeccably, where E.T. is obscured and covered but Elliott if looking at an empty door frame and then following his hands over a work bench). It is perhaps responsible for being the most dignified a child’s perspective could be without losing that character’s inexperience or condescending to Elliott as an expressive human being, inviting us to see the world from his level.

What I really didn’t recognize until the most recent watch (the 40th anniversary IMAX re-release in August) is how Spielberg and Daviau use that camera level technique to properly shift between human perspectives. Because certainly Elliott is the main protagonist but E.T. turns out to be a film also dedicated to how this one little creature impresses upon every member of that family (all of whom are meeting Thomas’ level in sophisticated performances – Wallace’s labored maternal tension is my pick for best-in-show but I wouldn’t also hesitate in claiming Gertie’s eager fascination is my favorite performance in Barrymore’s life-long career). In the below clip, you can easily tell by eye levels who is taking over this wildly variable sequence as constructed by the wise measures of Carol Littleton’s editing – the best of Spielberg’s many “dinner” sequences, which is a thing he does great and often, it turns out – from Elliott and Michael’s argument to Gertie’s earnest repetition of what’s said to Mary’s attempt to control things and the spot where it all collapses.

Anyway, that was a lot of rambling about only one of the major tools Spielberg has in his arsenal to control the viewer’s emotions in synchronicity with Elliott. And it’s wild how many of those words spared describing E.T. himself as designed by Carlo Rambaldi. Rambaldi in all his wisdom made an absolutely ugly creature whose ugliness is in the right gauge to make him absolutely adorable in his extended neck, his squat body, and his marvelous large eyes. Those eyes are easily the closest this creature comes to expressiveness and it’s never anything other than unthreatening in the relaxed open-and-close of his eye lids combined with his lazy smile and piercing blue eyes. It is not impossible to recognize how such a pudgy thing could appeal to children in its benign weirdness even before we see the magic of that glowing finger and in turn to the credit of Rambaldi’s animatronic puppet and the imagination of the child cast to work together as scene partners.

But just as there’s only so far we can get before having to talk about the titular entity in E.T., it is impossible to discuss a Spielberg film from his most successful era between the late 70s and early 80s without talking about the man behind the music: John Williams, who used many of Spielberg’s productions to craft together his most iconic melodies and E.T. is no exception. In fact, much like one can say that Star Wars is emotionally driven by Williams more than anything, it’s no doubt that E.T.‘s emotional tenor is determined by Williams’ compositions and this was legendarily something Spielberg recognized to the point of having the climax from the famous bicycle chase on to the final cut to black entirely re-edited AROUND Williams’ score rather than force Williams to compose to the film’s rhythm. This turned out to be the perfect directorial call to allow Williams the grounding to carry all the thrills and awe and sensations of that very packed finale without sounding like the music is straining one bit, letting its spirited themes build up to a climax that wallops me. The last few minutes of quiet in the final shots before the last note is blasted is probably what I find most disarming as I try collect myself in the dark of the credits against sprinkling piano notes playing. In those final moments, Williams and Littleton as collaborators truly hit the sweet spot between triumph of helping your friend and the tragic sadness that they will now leave your life in a beautiful powerful way.

And if I could backtrack a bit, just as Williams is the star of those big emotions of that finale, the place-setting he makes with the first half of the film is responsible for setting us up for that intense sequence of sounds. Indeed, he helps guide us through Elliott and E.T.’s kindred recognition that they have a companion to help their lonely souls find their place again. The first hour finds Williams under the sequences shaping tonal moods rather than letting coalesce into a musical vocabulary, that’s what the action-packed second hour is for.

Somehow it doesn’t feel like I’m ruining the trick by recognizing these components to Spielberg’s direct aim into the viewer’s core. Even when I’m thinking about Daviau, Littleton, Rambaldi, and Williams’ contributions during my later adult watches, the full picture still remains intact and sophisticated even knowing the hands behind the veil. That’s a picture about a specific group of people failing to connect and learning by the luck of a small alien who landed into their lives, specifically able to align the perspective of an isolated young boy and a divorced mother and even a distanced government functionary (as I must give it up to one more cast member: Peter Coyote is probably the closest we come to an antagonist** in the film but his interrogations are so concerned and betray a history of fascination that generously give him as much sympathy as any other character) with limitless grace. And that fluidity through which E.T. uses its construction to understand and appeal to every member of its central cast is probably why it remains as impactful to my core as an adult as it did when I was a child watching it alone in the dark.

Even in a year that has seen Spielberg literally make his semi-autobiography, I am still pressed to suggest E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial remains clearly his most personal film: it taps into his full powers as a crafter of cinematic marvel, his deepest anchors to childlike amazement, and his effortless understanding of how to tell specific and complex feelings by a specific arrangement of compositions, visual and audial. So what if he’s laying it on thick? He gets the job done just the same and better than any other storyteller I can think of. When you’re the best at something, I don’t think you should have to apologize for a damn thing.

*It’s also to the point where originally for that movie’s 40 year anniversary, I pitched a central episode on the movie for A Night at the Opera and one of my co-hosts who shant be named expressed reluctance due to not caring for the movie. Ah well.
**I will confess if there’s any specific issue I have with the movie it is the sudden presentation of the villains, specifically their costuming in the scene where they confront the family and invade their home.

Sight & Sound 2022

(NOTE: if you live in Chicago, it might be fun to know that the Gene Siskel Film Center already happened to have scheduled screenings of four entries in the Critic’s list INCLUDING the number one Jeanne Dielman.

Parasite – Monday 5 December
Stalker – Friday 23 December
In the Mood for Love – Saturday 24 December
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – Tuesday 27 December)

So it’s been a day since the BFI’s movie magazine Sight & Sound published the eighth edition of their list of the Greatest Films of All Time. For those who may not know, every ten years since 1952, the magazine had been reaching out to an extensive amount of professionals in the film industry – critics, programmers, curators, and directors (the last set of whom have their own list released with it) – and pooling their ballot of ten best films into a definitive consensus.

We just received our 2022 iteration, with the top ten spots taken up by the below ten films:

  1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman)
  2. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
  3. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
  4. Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu Yasujiro)
  5. In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar-wai)
  6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
  7. Beau Travail (1999, Claire Denis)
  8. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)
  9. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)
  10. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)

And do I have thoughts? I certainly do. Personally I haven’t yet determined if they’re a net positive or negative, maybe I can hash that out through this sprawling rant.

I’ll start with the positive first: that top ten is pretty damn unimpeachable. All ten in fact are jostling for spots on the upcoming edition of my top 100 favorite movies list (Spoiler Alert: I’m hoping to finish that up by New Year’s). Including and especially Jeanne Dielman. Such a radical choice for number one, dethroning Vertigo only one decade after THAT film took Citizen Kane‘s long-reigning top spot.

Jeanne Dielman‘s entrance, let alone its top spot, seems to be indicative of a major shake-up to the list that cannot be understated: there’s more films by women. 11 films by 9 different filmmakers out of 100 movies is not a major amount, but the last edition had only two in a set of 93 (Jeanne Dielman and Beau Travail) and now it’s representing over 10% in the 2022 list. Plus, of the 10 I’ve seen (Wanda is the single blind-spot I have on the whole list), they’re all quite marvelous and among the movies I’d use to introduce someone to the art. Plus some choices are delightfully idiosyncratic: I know we all love Agnès Varda now (later than we should have) but I’d never expected The Gleaners and I to be her second best according to consensus. And Daughters of the Dust shoots me over the fucking moon as a movie. Neither Gleaners or Daughters are better than Portrait, but surprisingly Portrait is one of the items I’m most muted in my enthusiasm for and I guess I may as well address the reasoning as one of the negatives.

4 films out of 100 should be insubstantial, one would think, but there’s just something that does not sit right with me on movies younger than 10 years being considered one of the best movies of all time. My admittedly arbitrary attitude is that any serious consideration should stand a test of time to qualify “all time”, but I’m also a bit thrown by the blatant populism of the selections. Two of those movies from the 2010s – Moonlight and Parasite – are Best Picture Oscar winners, Get Out is another Oscar winner that broke multiple box office records, and all three with Portrait of a Lady on Fire are pretty big time internet favorites.

I’ll confess: part of my stance is a projection of my own insecurities regarding blurred lines between impossible objectivity and inevitable subjectivity. I’m never even close to 100% certain that movies from the 1920s or 1940s are the Best of All Time. But I’m a little more confident in the context of everything I’ve watched and the sort of legacy they’ve left behind that lead to my exposure with them than by the great movies of the 2010s, which at least share the excellent high of loving and enjoying movies like Portrait or Parasite (both being among my Top 100 of the 2010s, mind you) but neither yet having the length of time to really feel like they left a transformative quake. 3 years – 2 of which had the movie landscape completely transformed so that we’ve had a significant depletion of movie releases – feels like some voters saw they had free spaces and just scanned their favorite movies of the last ten years.

That said, I don’t think recency bias is a new thing to Sight & Sound, I just think the degree is more severe in 2022 than it’s ever been. People have already been pointing out on twitter that the first edition of this list in 1952 had a four year old Bicycle Thieves as its choice for Best Movie Ever, but there’s a newfound expansion of film history and film accessibility in 2022 than we had with feature films not even being 50 years old in 1952 and I think that summons us as film lovers to try to engage with that vast wealth. And sure recency bias was still going on as the list entered the 21st Century with Pulp Fiction, All About My Mother, and Yi Yi. All three are great movies but did 2002 was too soon and I now welcome all three with open arms (congrats to Yi Yi for sticking around, it’s the best of those three).

I also don’t think recency bias is something unique to movies from the 2010s. Consider that we recently lost Varda and Akerman – though Varda I think it’s safe to say had received a growing lens on her since the 2017 Oscar nomination for Faces Places – and they each receive two very deserving films apiece. In turn, it’s tempting to attribute that same postmortem respect to the whopping 4 that Godard has on here now if not for the fact his death occurred shortly after voting ended so I don’t know, something’s in the water with that one. And I’d be shocked if Věra Chytilová’s death was all that registered as being something recent, though it was only 8 years ago. Anyway, I’m not complaining for this: four great filmmakers got their masterpieces pushed in.

There’s also another side of recency bias in the inclusion of Daisies, Black Girl, Wanda, and Daughters of the Dust. Those almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if not for the recent restorations of the last 6 years making them much more accessible. But you won’t catch me claiming a single one of those movies are out of place on this list, despite only having seen Black Girl and Daughters of the Dust within those last 6 years. I guess largely because we know why it was so critical that the reinvigorated distribution of those films be paid attention to. That said the “recent restoration” rule isn’t infallible either. Did Touki Bouki need to find its way into the Scorsese World Cinema Project to already exist on the list by 2012? Or fellow 2012 entrant Beau Travail when it only just landed in the Criterion Collection 2 years ago? Plus, consider the films from the 2012 iteration that dropped off in this new list – conveniently reported by the below tweet – which includes The Mother and the Whore, Greed, The Color of Pomegranates, and The Magnificent Ambersons, all of whom had major restorations and re-releases through the past decade.

I’ll confess the biggest blows to me are the drops of Greed and Intolerance – not only because they’re silent movies, but because they mark a level of ambition that fits very well with the best entrants of the list. In addition, I’m a bit relieved to see Fanny and Alexander fall off as one of those “television =/= movies” prigs and shocked to see The Godfather Part II dislodged entirely from its previous dual placement with The Godfather to fall furthest from grace. And yes, I feel a special sadness for Nashville and Rio Bravo fully kicking Robert Altman and Howard Hawks off the list. Most of these movies I shall mourn quietly, so let’s turn to what we have remaining the 100 list before us.

No use beating around the bush: The 100 movies in the Critic’s List and the major shifts in both the entrants and the placements look like they are representative of the cultural atmosphere beyond movies. Or to use the term a lot of reactionary responses have had: if the ballots themselves aren’t political (which one can never determine), the full consensus feels like that on surface. So, let me begin with addressing this is not a bad thing in itself, I don’t think. A consensus like this was always representing and betraying certain things about its voters and the world they live in, especially when Sight & Sound made a point of expanding its voter base majorly from 2002 to now. A new variety of backgrounds from which people respond and put themselves into art means a final result that can resemble those perspectives in a singular way. And frankly a lot of these movies are long overdue: Do the Right Thing is the most obvious instance and that should have been showing up by 2002, though it’s clear in 2022 why it’s especially angrily relevant.

The angle of that singular presentation bugs me a bit, though. By shifting the usual center of film criticism from Europe (France particularly) to America, we’ve honestly moved even closer towards Anglo- and Euro-centric arenas for the most part. Of the increase in woman-directed films, we have one non-white women (Dash – Daughters) and the only one whose movies aren’t in either French or English is Chytilová. Of the black filmmaker-directed movies, only two are non-American (Sembene – Black Girl, Mambety – Touki Bouki). There’s stagnation in the films from Japan (only real newbies are two films by Miyazaki Hayao and both are deserving, but boy would I like more animated movies), China, and Iran. The only Indian film is the obvious one (Pather Panchali). And we are absent any Latin American films. Is this the responsibility of the more diverse entries? Fuck no, they’re still outnumbered by films by white men if we’re going to import that something HAS to be replaced by these marginal areas on the basis of representation and I don’t think I’m committing to that attitude. I just note these deficiencies as a quiet observation of what has been given priority over the list’s outcome of ostensibly broadening its range.

Back to the list’s representation of culture circa 2022 and its values: This may be a brand-new path for the Sight & Sound list, but it also felt like we were headed this way ever since Citizen Kane showed its reign was not infallible after 50 years. I can understand the abrupt feeling but while 3 years is not a long time, 10 years is. That 7-year difference is, I think, what makes this list feel at least more thoughtfully put together as social mirror than would seem on first glance.

That said, I read a take online about preferring a stodgy list as the primary canon by which new cinephiles may launch their exploration into the medium and I think I mourn that particularly. When I first caught the 2002 edition of the list around 2005, that was how I dived into my movie gateways: Intolerance, The Seventh Seal, Seven Samurai and so on codifying what I look for in cinema and why I love the films I love. Those movies aren’t deep cuts by any means: you can’t tell me with a straight face Citizen Kane or Singin’ in the Rain are underseen gems. But… in 2022, if I’m trying to use a list as a ground level for a nascent cinephile’s survey of its history and potential, it’s more likely the case that whoever is reading the list has already seen Parasite or Get Out than they have Singin’ in the Rain or Man with a Movie Camera. Y’know why Wanda is one of the few new entries that really energizes me? Because it’s the only one I haven’t seen and its placement is a challenge to me, hearkening back to that 13-year-old I was wanting to know what the hype is on this here Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. And sure, maybe some people will catch Jeanne Dielman and wonder what the fuck was the fuss, but y’know what? I think that risk and tension is a big part of actually breaking into your own viewpoint on art in general. There’s a lot on the 2002 list I found overrated upon first watch: Batteship Potemkin and Out of the Past and they actually grew on me over time. I think we need to give the space for overhype, disappointment, and reconsideration for filmgoers. It allows the film fan to be a dynamic and changing force able to hold its own against the moving image. Sadly, I think we lose that risk the closer the entries come to the present day or feel representative of movies everybody has already caught so it can reconcile that “your taste is valid”.

But we also lose that risk even more when one of the last reliable and steadfast big movie lists to maintain its core spine goes this wildly in flux. Sight & Sound’s transformation into a time capsule of the new decade’s extra-cinematic attitudes might be less annoying if the Critic’s list wasn’t mostly resembling the same takes I can catch in a scan of letterboxd or film twitter. Or maybe if there were more gaps for me personally to square a potential new “Definitive Oversight on How Movies Evolved and Developed in Form”. Maybe some can find excitement in the way that this suggests further shaking up in another ten years when some of the contemporary selections will drop (not to say they’ll age badly: All About My Mother is still a masterpiece in my eye and if Portrait waves goodbye – I fear it will, it’s the largest recipient of “Actually Not Good” twitter takes since the list dropped – it’s still easily one of the great masterpieces of the 2010s). And if the number one remains continuously changing, we should be so lucky if they maintain the five-star masterpiece track of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, and Jeanne Dielman.

Anyway, I ask to be permitted my sense of discomposure by this new reality and the lack of real import the list is going to have as a recommendable start point if there’s no real stability to it from here. I’m sure I’ll learn to live with it by the time another ten years passes.

Most important of all: At least there’s now 8 more silent movies, which is a miraculous growth since 2002 had only 1 and 2012 had only 3. If I had my way, it’d be at least 75 silent movies and I guess we can give a couple to them talkies.

Anyway, that’s a lot of talk just for the Critic’s list. But what of the Director’s Consensus List, top ten listed below…

(Note there are ties between 4 and 5, between 6 and 7, and between 9 10 and 11)

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
  2. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
  3. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
  4. Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu Yasujiro) TIED WITH
  5. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975, Chantal Akerman)
  6. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) TIED WITH
  7. 8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini)
  8. Mirror (1974, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  9. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman) TIED WITH
  10. In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar-wai) ALSO TIED WITH
  11. Close-Up (1990, Abbas Kiarostami)

Honestly, the top ten is on-par with the Critics’ Ten in unimpeachability. Personally I prefer Jeanne Dielman to 2001, but it makes sense why director’s would favor the magnificent craft of 2001 compared to the exercise in watching that Jeanne Dielman represents. I bet I just doomed myself to forever be a guy who talks about movies instead of making movies with that claim, fuck!

But maybe not as this is yet another instance where I find myself more aligned with the directors’ entries and absences than the the critics’ version. More Iranian films (including Taste of Cherry), more Tarkovsky, Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga rolling up, Don’t Look Now, A Woman Under the Influence, Jaws (and ain’t it something that the Critic’s list disrespects Spielberg so close to his birthday?). Even the only two movies that are from the last ten years to switch over are the two that I’d without a doubt call capital-G Great: Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Heck, the only true objection outside of that and Michael Haneke’s existence (though there could be worse choices for him than Caché) is Fanny and Alexander being there since it’s television but it’s still a masterpiece so boo me. It doesn’t lose the same sense the Critic’s list has on being a representative of The World as Seen in 2022, but I think it approaches it at least closer from being Western-centric and with more movies I’d both be giving five star ratings to and feel like deep cuts. And yes, I accept that such a sentiment – like every letter of this post – says more about me than it does about the list. Plus it has one additional gap for me outside of Wanda, Ken Loach’s Kes.

Finally, since I’m likely to never be invited to submit a ballot on this thing, I guess I may as well have some fun by submitting what my pick for the ballot would be, not necessarily meeting “Best” or “Favorite”, just the ten I’m feeling at the time. Not even sure I bothered thinking up an order besides number one.

  1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  2. Battleship Potemkin (1925, Sergei Eisenstein)
  3. I Am Cuba (1964, Mikhail Kalatozov)
  4. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)
  5. L’Avventura (1960, Michelangelo Antonioni)
  6. Psycho (1960, Alfred Hitchcock)
  7. Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)
  8. Nostalghia (1983, Andrei Tarkovsky)
  9. The Wizard of Speed and Time (1979, Mike Jittlov)
  10. Tale of Tales (1979, Yuri Norstein)

Yes, I’m aware that only three movies on my list are silent films. I’m a quitter.

I Am At Your Service

Continuing my little mini-movement of my writing from the confines of a facebook group to this here blog, this one being a little more relevant given the recent death of the filmmaker. I’ll probably want more to say since I certainly don’t feel I exhausted what is one of the most radical movies experiences I think happened in my lifetime, but for now this will suffice.

We got “ok boomer” and we got “Old Man Yells at Clouds” and we got several more memes to indicate the unveiling of a new generational divide and the deep truth that old people are fucking bitches sometimes. It seems like a natural response towards changes to dig your feet into principles or behavior you’ve embedded into yourself regardless of how it conflicts with the shift of time. Young people are champions at this stubbornness but old people have it down pat.

One such bitch that we happened to give a camera to is Jean-Luc Godard and while that bitch-ass bitch attitude of his is released in ways that are often unproductive, toxic, and hurtful, there are times where it’s turned to the cinematic artform itself and the wrestle that ensues ends with the medium turned on its head in the most exciting way. This was present in his canonised peak of the late 1950s into the later 1960s and I think this is even more present in his current time. If the late cinema of Godard’s contemporary Agnès Varda was her using cinema to reconcile her age with a medium that allows her to exercise a young soul, Godard is barely trying to reconcile his age with a medium that stayed fresh and dynamic without him. And in my opinion, it has led to some exciting and introspective attempts to construct a personal language out of the new tools available to him.

Enter 3D, the hottest fucking toy that the past decade has re-introduced in manner more vital than the previous 3D boom of the mid-1950s. And it’s only one of a few things Godard and his new regular cinematographer Fabrice Aragno decides he wants to figure the fuck out of in this new age of filmmaking he’s living in, although it’s not the only thing since he’d already messed with prosumer cameras in Film Socialisme and surround sound with Notre Musique. And so with all that sort of curmudgeonly attitude about both cinema as an experience and as an art, he goes ahead and starts demolishing it and dissecting it on-screen.

The result is the most physical non-action-movie experience I think I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Jean-Luc Godard’s entire career ethos seems to be making us aware of how we register movies as pieces of each other – whether putting his focus on the editing or the subject or the color or the genre elements, it’s always something he wants us to notice in a pestering way – and the movie he made with Aragno just translates that to the modern advent of film technology: how do our eyes register entirely different information, how does that now change with movement on certain degrees, does this technology really add anything to the observation of nature, what about something we shouldn’t be looking at like a hairy ass or a penis or a breast or a vagina, what about something that we absolutely are physically unable to look at like an out of focus object, can we replicate the inconsistent positioning between our eyes, and so on. And then there’s the sound mix: ok, now we are forced to look in this direction but hear something in that direction, does it amplify off-screen sound (especially VIOLENT off-screen sound), was that a fart joke? Yeah that was a fucking fart joke.

I know this sounds like homework to a degree, but it is exhilarating to me: the concept of playing into the limits of a medium and then pushing further and seeing what happens when it crashes over and over (and oh how many times it can crash). This is certainly an experiment that has been replicated (there’s no way Blake Williams’ PROTOTYPE exists without this movie and it’s a lot more pleasant, but Williams has also been making 3D shorts before this movie and this isn’t even Godard’s first tango with 3D), but the angry energy of this movie jazzes it up enough to make it all fresh and vibin’. It’s a fun and joyful movie in spite of the sort of anger that animates it somehow, but I think this is so of most Godard movies: he may not be having a good time but we are.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is a pretentious movie from a pretentious filmmaker. But you kind of have to be pretentious to look at something and say “I am going to break that down as to render it useless”. And you can’t back out on that attitude, you gotta follow through on your arrogance if you want to succeed in creating a brand-new cinematic language out of it (something I’m never not going to be excited by and a thing that I think Godard is only met with Terrence Malick’s post-Tree of Life movies in attempting). After all, even if the plot is the last thing you should be paying attention to, the conversations and monologues had about technology’s growing place in collapsing the way people communicate together even face to face is insistent that something’s gotta give and these shining new toys demand a new vocabulary to work with them.

Which is probably why the movie in question was called Goodbye to Language.

People Like Us

For a little bit of meta-blogging, I’m phasing myself out of a facebook group I’ve been in and some of my contributions to that group involved some long-form writing that I’m a little bit proud of and would like to share outside that group’s confines. As such, below is the first of what will be several posts this month migrating my writing from there to here.

Depending on the results at the night of which I write these words (Author’s Note 1 Dec 2022: this was written the night of the 2020 Presidential Election), who knows if we’re in the mood to think about some small utopic town in Texas? But somethings just have to be grappled with for some and I’ll wrestle with your conscience while you wrestle with your partner.

Just to get full disclosure out of the way: I’m barely certain that David Byrne’s 1986 movie True Stories – the only movie that the frontman for the former band Talking Heads ever directed – is actually a good movie and don’t have any illusions of it being a great one by the metrics I go by. Byrne, co-writers Stephen Tobolowsky & Beth Henley, and editor Caroline Biggerstaff don’t seem to have spent enough time thinking about how to connect all the wonderfully fascinating ideas and concepts they have about this one isolated Americana town of Virgil, Texas. More particularly, Byrne appears to see making a feature film as no different that making a bunch of music videos and though those music videos are marvelous eye candy as shot by the great Ed Lachmann with subtly depressive tones of bright blue and pink and of course Byrne is a phenomenal songwriter (and anybody who needs to see the light on Talking Heads must run to the masterpiece Stop Making Sense immediately), it doesn’t make for feeling like we ARE watching a whole. Just pieces.

And this kind of prevents me from feeling like the creation of Virgil as a place – the very raison d’etre of True Stories – is as complete as I could be satisfied by. The knowledge that we are watching setpieces instead of living in an environment and the full lack of even atmospheric thoroughline between those setpieces.

And yet… True Stories is a movie that I am deeply in love with ever since I had first seen it 3 years ago, coincidentally a few months before I visited Dallas in flee from Hurricane Irene (and funny enough almost bought a DVD copy from the Movie Trading Company in Beltline before reminding myself a Criterion edition was being hinted at the time). Another visit to Dallas years later would see me deliberately visiting locations where I knew it to be shot.

Works about America as a concept interest me greatly (the Western lover in me insists on this) and works especially about America as a concept made by foreigners interest me most of all (such as Wim Wenders’ work or Garth Ennis’ Preacher comic series). They make me recognize that as somebody who isn’t born of this land, there is a way to examine it while feeling of a part of it in all but birthright. Calling David Byrne a foreigner is something of a stretch given that he’d moved to Baltimore by the time he was 8, but that is a couple of years older than I was when I came here and her took much longer to get his American citizenship than I did (in fact, he was still solely a Scottish citizen at the time he made this movie). More importantly, the energy and attitude of this movie looking in on the town of Virgil is explicitly that of an outsider and that’s what encourages us to have an exploratory attitude. Byrne’s music had already by this point given away his desire to dissect what is in motion about a community or a society or even just a connection between two people with a sense of distance that somehow doesn’t feel tragic (in one of the rare instances of Armond White’s mouth not spewing reactionary bullshit, he observed a yin and yang between Prince’s desire to turn the sexual into intellectual and Byrne’s desire to turn the intellectual into the sexual, which I absolutely believe songs like “Wild Life” lead into and hey look at that… there’s a Prince homage in that scene). True Stories has given him an opportunity to apply that fascination – something that almost always spilled over to interrogating modern life’s focus with consumerism and Rockwellian domestic fantasies – to a different medium and try to see what that medium allows him to do. Apparently, it allows him to turn it on its head by choosing as a subject a land ostensibly rural that also ends up indebted to a single computer company Varicorp, something I feel could be treated as more cynical than it is (though at the very least, Byrne, Lachman, and Biggerstaff treat Varicorp as a sterile environment) or to have long dolly shots through the malls that Byrne’s lyrics so previously had curious musings on.

It also allows him to populate this community with quite a crew of characters, like John Goodman’s breakout performance as the gregariously yet melancholy Louis Fyne or late monologuist Spalding Gray’s chattering civil leader Earl Culver (who will apparently talk the head off of everyone but his wife, played by Annie McEnroe) or Tejano musical icon Tito Larriva’s suave psychic, not to mention a bed-resting Swoosie Kurtz or Jo Harvey Allen’s compulsive liar. I expect that most of Tobolowsky’s background as a phenomenal and deservedly beloved character actor went into creating these people, but apparently they also came from a bunch of eccentric news clippings that Byrne collected and put against a wall from his time touring with Talking Heads and his wondering about what if… these stories were all true? And even with performances that distinguish and live in these characters – Allen and John Ingle’s conspiracy theorizing preacher in “Puzzlin’ Evidence” particularly hint at the darker side of Virgil (though I honestly think the playfulness of “Puzzlin’ Evidence” as a setpiece weaken and muddle this) – that core allows the people of Virgil to feel like extensions of what Byrne is trying to put together about the town as a conduit for a community.

In any case, I find the loneliest moments of True Stories where those characters are nowhere to be seen the most compelling to me: the shots of Texan landscapes in sad blue dusk light and horizons that feel more like they’re going than coming, gas stations with no cars stationed at them, buildings with the lights out. Moments like this find ways for Lachman to play with the lines of architecture that clash Virgil’s modernization against what this land used to be, an attitude Byrne opens the film with discussing with unexpected candidness compared to Earl’s later platitude about God’s wisdom in making people who would like Virgil how it is. Virgil as it is is not what it was. But most importantly, it stresses both the isolation of Virgil as an environment and us within Virgil looking into it. It gives us the same outsider energy that Byrne has making this.

Given both Louis and the Culvers’ familiarity with Byrne’s nameless narrator, there’s not much reason to assume the Narrator’s much of a stranger to Virgil. But the way that the Narrator drives in and out and especially musing as he exits with the film behind him on how he loves forgetting the details of a place so that he can see the place “as it really is” makes it feel like he’s just passing through. Maybe he’ll always be passing through. As somebody who finds myself at my most free when I am just driving a long distance – and I mean long… cross state lines, cross country lines sometimes even – and deciding to just figure out where I landed, I like to think I’ll always have that manner of just passing through no matter how familiar I get when I go “I guess that this must be the place”.

I Am Vengeance… I Am the Night…

30 November 1955 – 10 November 2022

If you’ve been reading since the last few weeks, you already got my perfect introduction to Batman: The Animated Series in the list of my favorite episodes. Still I’ll paste it below for ease:

“I happen to have grown up exactly in the sort of generation where, if you were a Batman fan as I was and still am, your first exposure to the character was almost certainly Batman: The Animated Series – which shares with myself the distinction of having turned 30 this year – the groundbreaking animated television series that kickstarted an animated universe developed by creators Bruce Timm, Eric Radomski and Paul Dini, renewed interest in the artistic medium’s potential for mature storytelling, idiosyncratic processes, and translating comic book visuals. They lifted from art deco shapes and expressionist lines (so basically just an animated noir!), they drew backgrounds on black paper, and they provided some of the most nuanced and well-dimensioned villains in all of superhero pop culture to the point of even re-wiring the source material. It in effect amplified the way that Tim Burton’s 1989 smash-hit feature film made the character one of the most recognizable in all of pop culture.

And yet, even with all the various forms in which one has to have been exposed to Batman through television, movies, comic books, video games and such… when I think of the character, the very first image that pops into my head is the square-jawed black cowl against grey cartoon that Timm designed off of Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original caped crusader. And the man who gave that version its voice was Kevin Conroy, who is sadly no longer with us as of this past weekend. So basically the affinity I’m voicing for Conroy’s work as the voice of my quintessential concept of Batman is shared with an entire age group of fans and likely beyond.”

As I mentioned in that same post, I unfortunately don’t have the time in my life to review every single episode of that monumental tv show in my life. I do however have time to talk about what spent most of my life as my favorite feature film involving the Dark Knight himself, a spin-off of that animated series that was originally intended for the small-scale direct-to-video release but shifted gears after the success of the show’s first season. The result was that Timm and Radomski – who were co-directing the film – had to crunch hardcore on the production the feature compared to the usual schedule theatrical animated features receive, but when you’re built off of the incredible technique and profound iconography that Batman: The Animated Series got off of, you’ll still end up a near-masterpiece at the very least.

That near-masterpiece released on Christmas Day of 1993 as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

As the spin-off of such smash hits and based on an inescapably popular character, the screenplay (written by Dini, Alan Burnett, Martin Pasko, and Michael Reaves) begins in media res of Batman’s career as Caped Crusader to the city of Gotham. It appears that a specific group of Gotham’s old time gangsters are being bumped off one-by-one and because the figure who is arranging these murders is a shadowy figure who fades in and out like the night, the M.O. frames Batman for these slayings. We know that’s not the case from scene one since we see Batman and this Phantom (Stacy Keach) in the same room, unlike how Batman and billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne are never in the same room*.

(Because Batman is indeed Bruce Wayne under the cowl, in case you did not know what the hell a Batman is.)

As these murders are being investigated by both Batman and the police, Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany, who would return to the DCAU voicing Lois Lane, the romantic interest of the OTHER big DC superhero, when Superman: The Animated Series premiered 3 years later) returns to the city and she happens to be an old flame of Bruce’s. In fact, the complicated past relationship between the two happened to overlap with the moment Bruce fully committed to his new identity as Batman and it’s through a series of flashbacks that we are made privy to what Andrea’s presence did to brighten Bruce’s life and why that was something unsustainable to Bruce’s mission. Basically what we associate with an origin story is instead used to deepen where the present-day investigation is going, especially rewarded by how honestly predictable the storytelling is and how swiftly it moves to our projected revelations in a runtime below 80 minutes.

Because for one thing, Mask of the Phantasm is as deep a dive into Bruce’s psyche as Batman Begins or Batman Forever. Any reasonable person would recognize the way out that love offers for them and take it with no strings attached, but Wayne’s burden is something he is unwilling to detach from and that’s what shapes the tragic character study of Batman as a figure. He doesn’t just feel responsible for carrying the pain of his parent’s death, he NEEDS to carry that pain. Conroy’s performance is intuitively aware of how to portray that byzantine self-punishment for the character throughout the movie’s runtime, whether it’s the disruption Andrea brought to his life, the aggression when his trusty valet Alfred (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) verbally observes the way the case and Andrea’s return has cut deep, or just the complete shambles he is in trying to recognize the crossroads he’s at. Is it Conroy’s best work in the 30 years he spent in the role? I’m a bit hesitant to claim that when he’s seldom failed to be at the top of his game, but I must confess: “I didn’t count on being happy” is probably the single most devastating line delivery I’ve heard out of him. It is the very soul of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm as drama and of Conroy’s Batman.

But the other thing about that flashback weaving of Bruce and Andrea’s romance abruptly cut by Bruce’s determination to transform into Batman is how it plays into this movie’s invoking of repetition as an anchor to how it suggests the cyclical highs and falls of Bruce and Andrea as a romantic couple. Tim Brayton at one point used a trio of shots involving a composition of Bruce or Batman facing away from the audience to a spot of parental remembrance to best demonstrate how the visuals play into repetition in a resemblance to comic book symmetry. But it’s also just one of many arenas the movie is about the past is coming back to knock the wind out of Bruce from various angles: from Andrea, to his need to consult his grief for direction, to even that long-time and almost-as-iconic nemesis The Joker (Mark Hamill in a performance that, alongside the tv show, rivals Luke Fucking Skywalker as his most iconic work) having some root in his past with an impressive sourcing of his recognizable character design in one of the flashbacks.

In fact, that strategy of compositional patterns is probably one of the few arenas where the visuals in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm comes close to the average highs of the animated series**. It’s not devoid of any impressive usage of thick shadows, deco designs, and pop iconography for hard-impact imagery – just consider the expressionist portrayal of Bruce donning the cowl for the first time and the gigantic look of horror on Alfred’s face (including a breathless utterance of “my God!” that might be Zimbalist’s best line delivery in the role) – but sadly the rushed production schedule ensured this movie would never surpass those highs. The movements particularly leave a little to be desired in their aimless waving, particularly when it comes to the action sequences (outsourced to Korean studio Dong Yang, who would afterwards be doing most of the work on the imminent second season) or floppy gesticulating of tertiary antagonist Arthur Reeves (Hart Boechner) as he uses his political influence to push a police manhunt for Batman. The closest graphic strengths it has alongside the echoing shots come to the design of its most essential background location: a futuristic World’s Fair exhibit that is monumental to Bruce and Andrea’s romantic optimism and in turn gets transformed over the time lapse into a robotic abattoir for the bitter final battle to occur. The design of the set feels not only like a worthy expansion of 1950s Metropolitan concepts but also plausibly uses the model scales so that the three-way fight gives proper homage to the work of artist Dick Sprang. It’s a literal larger-than-life treatment of the conflict at hand, both emotional and physical.

And that’s in fact the staying power of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm: it really does feel like it’s trying to amplify the bombast to the grand movements of opera, even in the areas where it had to succumb to its budget or schedule. Hell, even the music by Shirley Walker is aiming for the big theatrics with its opening gothic choirs. That’s all a good thing. The emotions are bigger, the scope of the story is bigger, the scale of the action is bigger, and the only thing that keeps it human-level is the fact that the thing at stake most is Batman’s soul, trying to fill out the space where Andrea claimed his heart. Maybe it’s a bit melodramatic for some, but I seldom want my comic book movies to be subtle when they are based in an artform that is about the fundamental effect that is a character you can recognize like the back of your hand striking poses of great pageantry. The pomp in this case is not just in those images, but in the direct and sweeping storytelling as it’s in there that Mask of the Phantasm became my favorite superhero movie when I was a child. It took my favorite superhero and made him as engaging and psychologically accessible as he’s ever been – in the comics, in the movies, on the television, whatever – and that’s probably why the hooks Conroy’s voice got into me as Batman will never ever leave my immediate conceptualization of the character.

Thank you, Kevin.

*”Perchance to Dream” and “The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne” don’t count, don’t @ me.
**I guess this is as good as any spot to note humbly that I’ve been able to see this movie on 35mm TWICE now and each time was a different aspect ratio: 1.33:1 which would be expected for a direct-to-video production to accommodate the television screen shape in the early 1990s and 1.85:1 which would of course be conventional for a modern theatrical release. I think both have their strengths and weaknesses: neither version is absent of cut off characters or cramping, but there’s less of it in the widescreen presentation. Still the full frame iteration has my heart as I feel the looming nature of Batman as a character and the centralizing of each shot’s subject gives it more accentuation and power. Plus at first I felt weird about how the full-frame sort of fades into the black paper it was animated on, but now I’ve come to dig it.