The Damned, Luchino Visconti, 1969

Visconti, like so many other Italian artists of his generation, spent a great deal of his career attempting to make sense of fascism and the terror it wrought on Europe.  The Damned is the ultimate expression of that struggle in Visconti’s work.  A tale of depravity, sensuality, wealth, and social decline, this film depicts the liberal political climate which birthed Nazism through the exemplar of one wealthy, bourgeoisie family.  Like many Visconti films, The Damned finds connections between sexual depravity and moral vacuity, as the family’s descent into backstabbing and incest is connected to their relationship with the ascendant Nazi government.  This metaphor is refigured and re-expressed throughout the film’s plot.

Stylistically, The Damned shares many features in common with the Giallo genre, a school of Italian horror-thrillers well known for its expressionistic use of color and lush, sensual images combined with unflinching depictions of violence.  The Damned‘s score is moody and foreboding.  This moodiness is reinforced by Visconti’s glacial camera movements which bear witness to the many of varieties of perversion which entertain the Nazis and their collaborators.  The set dressings are highly stylized and minimalistic, almost Brechtian in character.  Overall, the film is one of Visconti’s most singular visions of Europe in decline.

The Damned is a fantastic piece of cinema.  Its story is full of enticing reversals, but it does not become blogged down in plot-heavy, expositional sequences.  Similarly effective is Visconti’s vision of the Weimar Republic–acutely surreal, like a waking nightmare.  It works well as a proto-Giallo thriller in which the horrors of the Holocaust are foreshadowed in the moral failures of the industrial class who enabled it.

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La Terra Trema, Luchino Visconti, 1948

La Terra Trema is among the most evocative and emotionally devastating examples of the Italian neorealist aesthetic.  Compared to the more optimistic fare of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica, Visconti’s vision of life in a coastal fishing village is practically nightmarish in its abject fatalism.  That Visconti highlights the specific political and economic structures which contribute to the oppression of the fisherman and their families lends the film a leftist bent which will emerge as a major theme throughout Visconti’s career.

In the tradition of neorealism, Visconti makes use of non-professional actors which lends the performances a visceral, documentarian quality and lends the images a lived-in feel.  Similarly, the depiction of a cycle of life in a fishing village takes on a timeless, mythical quality; the film’s conclusion gestures towards the start of a new cycle, meaning that the struggles and tragedies of the depicted generation will be revisited on their children and grandchildren.

One of the major works of Italian cinema, La Terra Trema displays a depth of empathy and understanding for the plight of the working class which, though commonly found in other films of the period, takes on an epic proportion through Visconti’s careful construction of family life in the process of collapse.  The film’s themes of community and exploitation are balanced with careful characterizations and attention to the specific impact of various social phenomena on the individual.  All things considered, La Terra Trema is a film which deserves to be placed among the most acclaimed works of world cinema.

 

 

Top 10 Essential Films

I was bored today so I decided to attempt to compile a list of my 10 most essential films.  I’m not claiming that these are the best films of all time.  Simply put, these are films that I feel anyone who’s serious about cinema should watch and study closely.  Also, they’re all films that were important in the development of my own ideas about film and film criticism.  These are presented in no specific order because I don’t think I could objectively rank them in any way.

  1. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
    Godard remains, in my estimation, one of the most innovative and original filmmakers of all time. Seeing 2 or 3 Things… for the first time completely exploded my notion of what film could be and do as an art form.  Its experimental, recursive structure allows for Godard to present a perceptive, incisive critique of modern, bourgeoisie society.  Despite its obvious ideological overtones, it remains a visual wonder, a showcase of the many techniques Godard developed over his first decade as a director.  Using these refined techniques, Godard destroys the traditional grammar of film, challenging the nature of the visual sign in cinema and offering a truly deconstructive portrait of the post-modern world.  Even viewers who resist the lure of the avant garde will find that 2 or 3 Things… is a cinematic triumph.
  2. La Dolce Vita (1960) dir. Federico Fellini
    It’s hard for me to talk about this movie without thinking about my first film studies teacher, Dr. David Lavery.  He was the first person to turn me on to European arthouse cinema, and La Dolce Vita was the first of his recommendations that elicited a visceral response from me.  The version of Rome constructed by Fellini in this film is endlessly fascinating to me, and Marcello Mastroianni’s lead performance so perfectly capture the ennui and alienation of mid-century life.  Though some may consider 8 1/2 Fellini’s true masterpiece, La Dolce Vita crystallizes the social landscape of Roman society in the post-war economic boom better than any other film I’ve seen.
  3. Kings of the Road (1976) dir. Wim Wenders
    The ultimate road trip movie from a master of the format, Kings of the Road is both a perfect distillation of Wim Wenders’ early filmography as well as pure cinema of the highest order.  Like many road trip flicks before it, this film uses the picaresque structure afforded by a travelogue to create a series of vignettes which explore West German culture, the influence of American culture on Europe, the art of filmmaking, and the compulsions which drive the urge known as wanderlust.  Wenders’ training as a photographer has never served him better than in this film.  Each frame is so deliberately and provocatively structured as to lend the film an otherworldly beauty which acts as a counterpoint to the film’s mundane and recursive narrative framework.  Though it offers little in the way of plot, Wenders’ stylistic preoccupations and slowly unfolding characterizations more than make up for a lack of traditional adventure motifs.
  4. Blue Velvet (1986) dir. David Lynch
    I don’t know what else to say about this film that hasn’t already been said.  This was undoubtedly my first taste of truly independent cinema.  I was brought into contact with Blue Velvet by my father’s lifelong love of Dennis Hopper, and his turn as Frank remains, in my mind, one of the most powerful evocations of malevolence and madness ever put to film.  Something about the dreamy surrealism of Lynch’s work speaks to me on a subconscious level, and even though he’s made a career of probing the deep-seated psychological trauma which lurks beneath the facade of suburban normalcy, this early treatment of that theme remains his most fully realized.
  5. L’Avventura (1960) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
    It’s extremely difficult for me to pick a favorite film from Antonioni’s trio of alienation (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse) and perhaps they’re best studied as variations on a common theme.  However, there’s something about Monica Vitti’s performance in L’Avventura which renders it more memorable and weightier than the actress’ other collaboriations with Antonioni.  Antonioni is the unchallenged master of existential angst, a cinematic poet capable of capturing and transmitting the atomized nature of man/woman under the strictures of bourgeois, capitalist society.  His work explores the total alienation of the individual from the society at large.  In L’Avventura, this probing takes the form of an unsolvable enigma in which the ontological and phenomenological issues raised by existential philosophy find their expression in Antonioni’s stark, anti-romantic imagery.  Though it bears a certain gravity due to its creator’s ideology, above all else L’Avventura is a mesmerizingly austere journey into the heart of mankind’s overwhelming dissatisfaction with the existing social and moral structures through a collection of expertly crafted images and motifs.
  6. Miracle in Milan (1951) dir. Vittorio de Sica
    If there was any justice in this world, Miracle in Milan would have become as widely watched and as treasured as any film from Disney or Warner Bros. in the decades since its release.  On its surface it is a simple parable of positivity and perseverance in the face of injustice.  De Sica manages to inscribe the entire ethos of Italian neo-realism in this simple fable which lacks the historical heft of other films from that period which deal directly with the roll of fascism on the psyche of Europe.  Instead, it substitutes the gritty, documentarian style of Rossellini or even De Sica’s Umberto D. for a magical realist narrative arc in which the oppressed and downtrodden are redeemed from their lives of abject suffering and privation.  Though some might find it overly precious, De Sica’s masterful presentation of the moral and social issues facing post-war Italy completely eclipses any tendency toward naive optimism.  Though the film’s ending suggests that the only escape possible for the poor is that of divine intervention, it still never fails to impress upon me the importance of movies as a means of overcoming the ideological structures created by capitalism and imperialism which foreclose upon any vision of a world in which those systems no longer hold sway.
  7. Oedipus Rex (1967) dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini
    This is probably a strange pick for a favorite Pasolini film, especially considering I typically respond strongly to films which speak directly to my political viewpoint (Porcile, Teorema, Salo).  However, the mythic quality achieved by the director in this adaptation of the classical legend of Oedipus speaks directly to the power of symbols and narrative to speak to the essential aspects human consciousness.  Pasolini’s visual amalgam of Greco-Roman, African, and pre-Christian culture grants the film a certain universality which pairs perfectly with the tale of Oedipus, a parable which has often been seen as an illustration of certain invisible, psychological textures related to sexuality and the construction of masculinity.  Pasolini’s work often has a hypnotic effect, and Oedipus Rex uses this quality to communicate with the viewer on the level of the subconscious, tapping into archetypal narrative forms and themes as old as civilization itself.
  8. The Conformist (1970) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
    A perfect marriage of visual sensuality and psychological depth, The Conformist remains one of the most compelling and influential explorations of fascism in cinema history.  Through the construction of the fascist subject characterized in the film’s protagonist, Marcello, Bertolucci explores the ideologies and pathologies which led to the rise of Mussolini, a monumental dictator whose regime was enabled by the collaboration and capitulation of the masses.  Through its exploration of loyalty, sexuality, and the psychology of mass movements, The Conformist creates a believable template for explaining how seemingly well-adjusted, bourgeois citizens can be persuaded to embrace the tenets of far-right militarism in the face of liberal democracy’s inadequacies and failures.  That Bertolucci manages to accomplish this task without ever sacrificing the lush, poetic imagery for which he is best remembered is a testament to his mastery of the art form and his understanding of the Italian society into which he was born.
  9. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) dir. Luis Buñuel
    Buñuel is the master of cinematic surrealism in the truest sense.  Surrealism is a movement which seeks to upset the established social order of the day through a preponderance of images which upset the structures of logic and reason in favor of dreamlike associations and metaphoric exploration of mankind’s attempts (and failures) to superimpose meaning on the meaninglessness of the universe.  This is project remained a preoccupation for Buñuel long after the cultural upheaval of the inter-war period gave way to the crushing conformity of the Cold War.  The Discreet Charm… is the perfect summation of Buñuel’s cynical and iconoclastic view of middle-class consumerism as expressed through a series of loosely connected stories which seem to weave together the fabric of dreams and waking life.  Though its overall narrative structure defies concise explanation, its depiction of imperialism, vapid materiality, and a perceived inability of the bourgeoisie to gain perspective on their own role in reproducing the worse aspects of global capitalism render The Discreet Charm… an essential component of the European New Wave.
  10. Cries and Whispers (1972) dir. Ingmar Bergman
    I’ve never been a huge fan of conventional horror films, though I do find them interesting subjects for deconstruction and analysis.  Something about the construction of the horrific in typical generic conventions leaves me cold.  But the work of Ingmar Bergman is deeply unsettling to me on a variety of levels.  His gothic preoccupations and ability to transmit abstract terror and anxiety through narrative film render him one of the most fascinating figures in cinematic history, by my estimation.  Cries and Whispers deals with many of Bergman’s pet themes (sickness, death, broken families, recurring psychological trauma, and fear of the supernatural).  All of this is communicated through the director’s mastery of tone, using  subtle cinematographic and narrative techniques to create a sense of creeping dread which permeates every fiber of the filmic atmosphere.  Though it offers little in the way of jump scares or gore, Cries and Whispers is a film which I remain (contentedly) haunted by.

 

The Milky Way, Luis Buñuel, 1969

One thing that makes Buñuel such a fascinating figure is the process through which he came to be one of the dominant European directors of the 20th century.  Specifically, he cut his teeth as a filmmaker in the 1920’s in collaboration with Salvador Dali and the French surrealists.  The two products of this collaboration, Un Chein Andalou and L’Age d’Or, both catapulted Buñuel to international fame and basically guaranteed that the young artist would become a persona non grata on the arts scene due to the blasphemous and iconoclastic content of his works.

The Milky Way is, in large part, a return to the concerns and provocations which caused the Vatican to denounce Buñuel as an enemy of the church due to L’Age d’Or‘s connection of the legacy of Jesus Christ to the writings of Marquis de Sade.  Like the aforementioned silent features, The Milky Way is a parabolic, episodic film in which a variety of interconnected vignettes are developed to explore themes of faith and dogma as they pertain to the teachings of Catholicism.  In the hands of a less artful director, such a structure might seem didactic and repetitive, but Buñuel manages to bring his trademark brand of surrealism to play in a way which makes The Milky Way‘s amalgam of modernity and medievalism feel perfectly suited to dealing with the theological issues which the film explores to humorous and delightfully irreligious effect.

Buñuel’s filmography spans decades and continents, taking him from the impetus of modernist art in the inter-war period to the heights of mid-century, arthouse cinema.  As such, he presents a unique opportunity to engage with the ways in which filmmaking developed as an art form.  Students of his work will be able to trace the themes and images which are most meaningful to Buñuel and chronicle the ways in which they are recursively treated by his many works.  The Milky Way finds the director at a crucial moment in his career, having achieved a degree of fame on the festival circuit in the early-to-mid 60’s.  In both form and substance, The Milky Way both points backwards to Buñuel’s artistic roots as well as presaging the works he would make in the last decade of his life, which are among his most studied and well-loved.

Nazarín, Luis Buñuel, 1959

Exploring Buñuel’s early films has been a curious, rewarding task.  Even if I do not love all of the films he made while living in Mexico, I consistently find his cynicism and penchant for iconoclasm delightful.  That Buñuel was particularly productive during this period, making more than 12 films in the 1950’s alone, allows a viewer to watch the filmmaker’s singular style develop over the course of a decade.  It is fitting that he would bookend that period with two of his strongest early films, Los Olivdados (1950) and Nazarín (1959); though the former is one of the director’s most affecting and empathetic works, the latter finds the director developing the penchant for satire and cultural critique which he first evinced in the surrealistic Un Chien Andalou (1929).

Nazarín is, above all else, a tragi-comic adaptation of Jesus Christ’s messianic narrative.  Set in rural, poverty stricken districts of Mexico, it tells the story of a Spanish priest whose selfless, Christlike behavior consistently brings him into conflict with the worldly, sinful Mexicans whom he seeks to redeem.  The racial politics of this tale are certainly cause for concern.  There is no doubt that the image of a fair-skinned, European Christ-figure attempting to evangelize a dark-skinned, native populace is deeply problematic, but one can read this as a sly commentary on the part of Buñuel.  As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the director’s main purpose of this tale is to satirize impulses toward evangelism by high-minded religious leaders who understand little about the populations they mean to save.  Similarly, the film also reveals the vice-ridden peasantry as both comic figures whose impoverishment renders them combative and irrational and embodiments of tragedy, forced to hustle and scheme to eke out an existence in the slums.  Though Buñuel populates rural Mexico with a cast of ridiculous figures, the film’s plotting makes it clear that his sympathies lie with them throughout.

There might be a temptation among some critics to read the film as a condemnation of modern society, a world in which egocentrism and sinful delights have inoculated the populace against the positive influence of Padre Nazario.  However, that viewpoint assumes that Buñuel, a director whose irreligious provocations toward the catholic church were legendary, has crafted a film based on the idea that the redemption offered by the church is a legitimate and beneficial service.  Instead, I would counter that the film’s conclusion, in which Padre Nazario avoids death which is the logical ending of a Christ-narrative, suggests that his humiliations and ultimate loss of status within the church represent the ultimate incompatibility of altruistic, humanistic philosophies with the structures of organized religion and the fragmented, stratified society produced by capitalism.

Nazarín demonstrates decisively that Buñuel developed his preoccupations early in his career and returned to them often in a variety of works, from many different perspectives.  Viewers who enjoy the enjoy the tempered misanthropy and anti-bourgeoisie sentiment of The Exterminating Angel and Discreet Charm will enjoy the political subtexts of this film, even if its narrative structure and visual compositions are more traditional than either of the aforementioned movies.

Beau Travail, Claire Denis, 1999

One of my favorite things about this film is the way in which it manages to tap into all of the major themes of its source material, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, while also transforming Melville’s scenario into one which invites connections to ideas of post-colonial critique. Through her portrait of a homosocial, militarized environment, Denis taps into homoerotic undercurrents and picks apart the deleterious nature of violence and militarism on the psyche.

Though the images present a realistic landscape in the not-too-distant past, Denis manages to cultivate a mythic tone which lends gravitas and profundity to the intensely personal narrative she has constructed. This creates a space in which the viewer can become invested in the well-being and actions of certain characters while also pondering the film’s commentary on society as a whole.

No Fear No Die, Claire Denis, 1990

No Fear No Die is primarily an examination of the psychological and spiritual cost of cruelty–in this case, the cruelty humans inflict on animals in the name of profit. Though its general statements on humanity are thinly sketched, the film provides a showcase for the magnificent performances of its two leads who find themselves deformed and deranged by their participation in a cockfighting ring.

Denis’s location work brings to mind elements of Jean-Pierre Melville’s seedy crime-dramas. One gets a sense of the isolation experienced by alienated, immigrant communities living on the fringes of French society. As the camera follows the lives of two black men who want badly to be accepted by their adopted homeland, it becomes apparent that their exploitation at the hands of French gangsters is intrinsically linked to their status as racial outsiders.

Though the film’s subtexts are difficult to interpret, engaging characterizations and beautiful cinematography renders No Fear No Die immensely compelling. It displays the careful attention to human relations and socialization which has defined the works of Denis, many of which focus on the struggles of the individual to succeed in the face of society’s totalizing impulses.

Atlantic City, Louis Malle, 1980

Louis Malle is one of the few directors arising from the European art cinema tradition to achieve mainstream success in American film. Atlantic City is an excellent demonstration of the way in which his sensibilities can be translated to a relatively traditional cinematic narrative.

Helped along by a magnificent later career performance from Burt Lancaster, Atlantic City continues the tradition of neo-noir narratives kickstarted by the Nouvelle Vague and later adopted by the New Hollywood movement. One could almost imagine Scorsese directing this picture as it seems to pine for an authentic, grimy past which has been paved over in an effort to co-opt Atlantic City’s legacy for the sake of family friendly entertainment.

The film maintains a tone of bittersweet nostalgia throughout, playing off of Lancaster’s legacy as a Hollywood icon to heighten the sense of a bygone past. He is paired expertly with a young Susan Sarandon whose performance oozes fragility and vulnerability. Though the film has a few thrilling moments, it is overall a drama of emotion, with Lancaster’s character seeking to redeem himself for a lifetime of perceived cowardice. The depth of characterization achieved by all of the principal performers gives the film’s unexpected ending a heartwarming quality which suggests that even in the face of adversity, these men and women will find some way to persevere.

Atlantic City is, arguably, Malle’s finest English language film, and it’s a damn shame that it didn’t win any of the academy awards it was nominated for.

Lacombe Lucien, Louis Malle, 1974

Though many films have touched on the subject of the French Resistance in World War II, few have dealt with the issue of collaboration in a manner as honest and straightforward as Lacombe Lucien.  Malle’s naturalistic portrait of a young man’s navigation of the moral quandaries abounding in Vichy France demonstrates the manner through which many French men and women found themselves aiding the efforts of the fascists to purge France of so-called undesirables.  Part of the film’s effectiveness can be attributed to Malle’s decision to cast a non-professional in the titular role.  Pierre Blaise embodies Lucien with a natural grace and guilelessness which is made even more singular by the fact that he delivered only a few other performances before his death at age 20.

It is hard to capture the gravity of this film in words.  If one had to elucidate its thesis one might point to the intoxicating and alluring  nature of violence and authority, as the viewer sees  Lucien become seduced by the fearsome nihilism embodied by the secret police who continue their reign of terror even when it becomes clear that the liberation of France is at hand.  The shame and guilt of collaboration is underscored in the film’s conclusion in that despite his turning away from fascism, Lucien is still held accountable by the Resistance for his actions.

A meditation on the banality of evil, Lacombe Lucien is a reminder of the power of social pressure to encourage men and women to take part in unmitigated evil.  The power of its images and its immensely convincing performances render this film a unique piece of art in dealing with the legacy of nazism and the Vichy government.

 

Zazie in the Metro, Louis Malle, 1960

Zazie is a bit of an oddity.  Representing Malle’s effort to adapt an unfilmable novel by Raymond Queneau, its tone is that of a madcap, slapstick comedy which makes use of strange and unpredictable cuts to inject realistic scenarios with a hint of fantastical whimsy.   Those familiar with the works of Wes Anderson will see clear evidence of the debt that director owes to Malle when watching this film.  Its deliberate color palette and immaculately stylized sets and costumes bring to mind such Anderson films as The Royal Tennenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, though both of those films are not nearly as silly as Zazie.

The film itself is extremely entertaining; exploiting a variety of locales throughout Paris to present Zazie and her harried guardians with ever-more-ridiculous set pieces to enact, Malle distills the manic energy of childhood into filmic form.  However, the film lacks any overarching theme or ideology besides vague meditations the power of disorder and chaos to reinvigorate stuffy adulthood.  This leaves the movie feeling acutely hollow at its conclusion, with the narrative failing to provide satisfying resolution to any central conflict or train of thought.  The enormous stylistic departure represented by Zazie, when compared to Malle’s earlier works, prefigures the increasingly experimental bent of his output through the 1960’s.  Simultaneously a film which might have been marketed to children and an expression of Malle’s interest in expanding the grammatical and stylistic boundaries of cinema, Zazie in the Metro is ultimately an engrossing, but not entirely satisfying movie.