A trip through the lands of Tarkovsky, Bergman, and so many others |
Revised from an email I wrote to a friend some years ago.
I should warn you this will get overlong. In my 10 or so years of watching Good movies I have come across many that have imprinted themselves onto my memory - hovering images and sounds that in a curious way make me happy to be alive. What I will now do is try to put all those most striking experiences into a flowing set of paragraphs and hope it all coheres. Perhaps these shall have the same effect for you, perhaps not - nonetheless let’s go!
Any conversation with me about quality art movies has got to start with Andrei Tarkovsky, the poetically melancholic depths of any Russian’s soul incarnate. Very slow. Very poetic. Beautiful, disturbing, strange, spiritual. An acquired taste, and to some a complete nonsensical bore. Solaris, a trippy 3-hour sci fi meditation on love and human consciousness, is a good starting point as the most accessible of his films. But I prefer his latter yet more poetically inclined works, such as The Sacrifice - a tale of a man averting a nuclear war through a spiritual journey. Better yet is Stalker, a 3-hour meditation on faith and the struggles inside our souls, and one of my favorite films. These movies have characters and stories, but describing them is almost beside the point - Tarkovsky’s work is visual poetry, and can only really be understood as such.
Next, Andrei Zvyagintsev, the recent successor to Tarkovsky’s crown - a sort of enlightened monarch who retains many of the customs but changes the underlying frame of mind. I will without reserve recommend three of his films: The Return, Elena, and Leviathan. The first is his first movie, and is as difficult as it is rewarding to watch, the sort of movie that sinks into you, the sort of movie that you have not seen before, the sort of movie that when you realize its subtle story you experience a moment of wonder and appreciation for its elegance. Or, the sort of movie you call pretentious and stop watching midway through, much as with Tarkovsky. Elena is both more and less complicated, a stylish slow neo-noir that many critics amazingly did not comprehend to be a devastating critique of modern Russian society as well as its history. Luckily critics had no such difficulty with Leviathan, a transparent and devastatingly beautiful critique of the corruption of modem Russian government and spirituality.
Another quite good slow Russian movie is The Island, but lets not get fixated on those. After Tarkovsky, my first GOTO masterclass director has got to be Ingmar Bergman, the director to top every director’s list of favorite directors (or at least Woody Allen’s… and Tarkovsky’s… and Kubrick’s…). His movies are about… many things, the subconscious depths and murks of our half-understood psyches most of all perhaps. Slow, quiet, amazingly talented at creating minimalist black and white scenes. The Seventh Seal, a classic film about a medieval knight who plays chess with Death, is a good starting point. The Hour of the Wolf, a sort of slowly creeping surreal film about guilt, derangement, and ultimately horror is at the other end of the spectrum of accessibility but is supremely good. And this more or less is the range of Bergman’s large body of work - dark explorations of human’s shattered souls and psyches rendered with unbelievably striking black and white imagery.
But all this is so recent, pretty much 60s onwards, what kind of self-respecting movie person would I be if I dont have some directors from the olden days to show some love for? A bad one, clearly. That’s where Friz Lang, the mad genius from the days when sound has yet to ground cinema to dull reality, enters the picture. Have I seen any of his crazy epics besides Metropolis? No, but I can tell you Metropolis is quite the crazy epic and perhaps the first sci-fi film (robots!). It’s hard to beat Ebert on this one: “Lang’s film is the summit of German Expressionism, with its combination of stylized sets, dramatic camera angles, bold shadows and frankly artificial theatrics.” But! Believe it or not, the much less grand M - a film about the merciless retribution of a city against one who has sinned against it - may be the better film. Either way, you can’t go wrong with Lang.
And then ofcourse there’s the other director any person who has taken a film history class is overjoyed to bring up in normal conversation (because damn it, the world needs to know your knowledge), Sergei Eisenstein. But Battleship Potempkin really is quite Radical, the prototypical example of the alternative form of cinema that bloomed in the strange days of soviet youth. If you want to get truly crazy, give Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera a watch - its not just capital R Radical, its all-caps RADICAL, but in the sort of intellectually and theoretically backed way that is actually quite striking and at least it makes sense maybe and does not seem like a student project by a guy who has seen too many artsy short films.
Across the pond Chaplin and Keaton are making far less weird masterpieces about this time (Modern Times,The General), but let’s stick with European strangeness, specifically that hailing from Spain. Here Luis Bunuel has managed to hang out with Dali a bit too long and accidentally produces Un Chien Andalou, a surreal movie to surmount all surreal movies. This does seem like a student project by a guy who has seen too many artsy short films, but hey, it was the first, and its got some hella weird imagery. Bunuel then continues to make weird surreal cinema for decades, eventually getting around to laugh-out-loud family favorites such as The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Basically, if you are in the mood for surrealism, then this guy can hook you up.
As fun as Bunuel’s surrealism can be, sometimes you just want to stick to the weight and tragedies of the real world. Well then, fine, just go be morose in the reality of post WWII Italy. Yes indeed, Italian Neorealism is where its at. Umberto D and Bicycle Thieves are the ones that I know should be seen, and I cant help but squeeze in a mention of Ikiru by Kurosawa here as well (ah, but you must see Kurosawa! Too many of his movies deserve mention, at the very least the grand truth-mocking treatise that is Rashomon). And wait, Neo? Realism? That’s right, let’s skip on straight to the French New Wave baby! Yeah, like so much in this little letter the classics are classics for a reason, and French New Wave favorites such as Breathless and The 400 Blows. Still, there is only so much hard real-world reality you can take - luckily Fellini did come in and merged Italian Neorialism with very personal surrealism. Another person more of whose movies I should watch, but at least I can say 8 1/2 is wholly enjoyable.
But lets say you want your surrealism with a dose of psychoanalysis and strangely menacing Americana. Two words: David Lynch. Let’s get this out of the way: Lynch’s hair is amazing. Did he start my appreciation for nonconformal hair? It’s possible. Eraserhead, his incredibly weird movie about city and family oppression and fear in the mind of a young artist featuring a weird worm baby and an actual eraserhead, is also notable for crazy hair. But for real, Mulholland Drive is another one of my favorite movies - a story that makes perfect sense in dream logic, the true realization of the promise of surrealism in cinema, a modern film so vivid with color and character your eyes feel drunk. Its predecessor, Lost Highway, is also in that vein and also has Nick Cage, so it’s pretty much a must see. But if the vivid color and subversion of quintessentially American naivette is more exciting to you than Nick Cage, then Blue Velvet is definitely where you will get the most thrills.
Speaking of America, it turns out some fine directors lived there. Too many I am aware of, in fact. So let’s get some famous ones out of the way: Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove), Francis Ford Copolla (Apocalypse Now), Scorsese (Taxi Driver), Allen (Annie Hall), the Coens (Fargo), Fincher (Fight Club). Yeah, I know, you’re not impressed. Let’s move on to the hip ones. Darren Aronofsky, a fairly recent addition to the cannon of distinguished American filmmakers. His first movie was the low-budget Pi, a film about a gifted mathematician increasingly going insane in search of the deep fundamental mathematical truth. That’s Aronofsky in a nutshell - people struggling and increasingly coming apart, as shown with unsubtle but very potent vision. In the magnificent Requirem for a Dream, due to drugs, in the overtly ambitious The Fountain, due to death, and so on. Aronofsky’s film pack a strong stylistic punch, and a good counter to that are the naturalistic films of Richard Linklater. If nothing else, consider Boyhood - a film that took 12 years to film yet managed to pack all that time in 2.5 hour movie most considered successful. Ah, this paragraph is getting long, but I’ll sneak in Paul Thomas Anderson and tell you that There Will Be Blood is great and all and enjoying The Master will get you intellectual street cred but if you have not seen Punch Drunk Love you are missing out on a completely original amazing experience.
Hmm, about now the next wacky transition is starting to get harder to think up, so I’ll pull the nice trendy post-modernist trick of self-awareness. Speaking of post-modernism (BAM), it’s about time I brought up Charlie Kaufman. He is distinguished on this list for being the only one who is primarily an author of screenplays, yet it is fair to say his work is unmistakably his. Synecdoche NY, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich - fantastic movies about art, love, and life. They speak for themselves.
Kaufman basically exudes talent. In addition to writing all the above, the people who did direct his films are themselves rockstars of the art film. Spike Jonze (Adaptation and Being John Malkovich) also directed the magnificent Her, a film that managed to understand that science fiction is not solely a vehicle for action or horror, and a host of fantastic short films: Kanye West Meets His Demon, Robots Can Love Too, and Damn Arcade Fire Is So Fucking Good. It just so happens that Jonze was also married to Sofia Coppola, whose Lost in Translation is about as good as you can hope from a movie premised about an aged and lonely Bill Murray befriending an existentially wrought Scarlett Johansonn in Japan. Back on topic: Michel Gondry directed the Kaufman written Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a movie perhaps unparalleled in its presentation of dreams and how our inner lives are reflected in them, a joy of a movie owing if only for its inventiveness and emotional resonance. He also directed the enjoyably quirky but perhaps forgettable Science of Sleep and a host of awesome Bjork music videos - this may well be my favorite music video ever.
Finally, George Clooney! George Clooney started his directorial work with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, yet another awesome movie written by Kaufman. Clooney’s later work is not that artsy but he should get way more cred for how good it is. Speaking of which, Micheal Clayton. Clayton is weird only in how damn realistic it is, how fully it acknowledges the way humans are, how non-indie and not-artsy it is in its exploration of those themes. One of my favorites films - get through to the last scene and sit speechless at the genius of it.
But now the tone is getting too heavy - this can be addressed with some exploding heads. David Cronenberg is a peculiar auteur, the true master of body horror through all the eighties and nineties. Just watch the trailer to Videodrome or Naked Lunch. Just do it. His later work (Eastern Promises,A History of Violence) is strangely normal but still fantastically well made. So if you want to see a TV that has something resembling a vagina, a type writer that has something resembling a vagina, cars that dont have have anything resembling vaginas but are distinctly erotic (I am not making this up), well… Its fair to say you maybe don’t really want to see those things, but the general weirdness of Cronenberg’s early work and its legit thematic underpinnings should be appreciated, as should his basically excellent if more traditional work.
Not interested in seeing inanimate manner being quite so animate, or just want to watch some nice classy art movies? Shane Carruth. The director whom I quite literally proselytize to every one I meet, a software engineer turned auteur filmmaker. Primer. A purportedly $7000 movie about the mind fuck of time travel from the perspective of an engineer, and the corrupting power of power. Upstream Color. A hypnotizing movie that merges sci fi and artfulness in a way I have never seen done - I can think of few dialogue-free scenes as striking as found in this movie. In this case a quote from RottenTomatoes feels most appropriate: “As technically brilliant as it is narratively abstract, Upstream Color represents experimental American cinema at its finest – and reaffirms Shane Carruth as a talent to watch.”.
So many words, yet so little ground covered. Let’s do a quick sweep of the globe - fast now, over in Japan we forgot to mention Ozu, whose excellent Tokyo Story you will surely love, and the more recent Takeshi Kitano with his existentialist gangster films in the vein of Sonatine, and lastly the counterpoint of Hirokazu Koreeda whose Nobody Knows is the best minimalist theme I can think of and his more recent Shoplifters is just as good. But let’s not linger - over in China there is the distinctly weird yet unquestionably interesting Wong Kar-Wai with bizarre dreams like Chunkgink Express and Fallen Angels, though if you are not into that there is also Johnie To with fantastic Shakespearean gangster tragedies like The Triad Election. Then it just so happens in Korea Park Chan-Wook is both violent and bizarre, most notably in the already-classic Oldboy (and personal favorite blood-dark romantic comedy Thirst, and his exquisite tale of sensual seduction The Handmaiden), and alongside his work there is as a host of recent fairly normal yet fantastic violent thrillers of which Lee Jeong-beom To’s The Man From Nowhere is surely the best. But let’s not wholly leave the weird artsy stuff behind; over in Taiwan there is Hou Hsiao-hsien writing and directing astoundingly beautiful romantic films such as Millennium Mambo and Three Times.
Not to be all about Asia here, over from Mexico there is Benecio del Toro with the unforgettable WWII fairy tale Pan’s Labyrith, and Alfonso Cuarón has the poignant life tale Y Tu Mama Tambien and the just-please-watch-it-you’ll-be-happy-you-did-masterpiece Children of Men. Let’s mention Britain too, where Richard Ayoade has recently made the excellent coming of age tale Submarine and the somehow yet more delightful adaptation of Dostoevsky The Double. Finally, we wind up in Israel due to the sheer beauty of Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir of which you may be convinced with nothing more than the following image.
Tired yet? I’m impressed you made it this far. Listen, I wonder how to close this thing - I have journeyed through most of my memory and mind and found the scattered pieces of film impressions that are clearly somewhat important to me, yet can I be expected to find some sequence of sentences to sum up all this? No, that would hardly be a reasonable expectation. Rather, I shall close on one last filmmaker, perhaps my favorite, and most certainly one not sufficiently recognized as of yet. That filmmaker is Satoshi Kon, and I must admit his work not to be film strictly - as with the above it is animation, anime (speaking of which, surely I can take for granted you have heard of Miyazake and Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away). Yet, his work is about film - Perfect Blue with its obvious Hitchcockian inspiration, Millenium Actress with an overt and beautifully rendered and just so damn wonderful recollection of the history of Japanese cinema, and finally Paprika - a movie about the power of dream that may as well equate cinema itself to that act. Vivid, creative, exuberant, surprising, challenging, comedic, touching - Kon’s work is a testament to the power of film, and the fantastic dreams we may inhabit through them.