My 12 Favorite Movies and why
by Gus Edwards
Lists, lists, lists. Everyone’s always making lists of the best books, best plays, best restaurants, best museums, best supermarkets and so on. The selections are based mostly on popularity polls or some experts listing his or her preference. With movies there are lists everywhere, the best, the worst, the most popular, the highest grossing, the lowest grossing etc. Popular as they are these lists are still fun to read, ponder and argue about if for no other reason than they tend to reveal more about the person or group making the selection than they do about the films listed.
Anyway, following that perennial tradition I have decided to list not my 10 but 12 favorite films with the following disclaimers.
A) – These titles are subject to change at anytime according to my mood, the temperature of the day or the position of the moon in the night sky.
And B) – I would like to declare that many brain cells were hurt and killed during its creation. As long as this is understood, we can go on.
There are only three.
1) A film I can watch over and over again and discover something new that I hadn’t noticed before.
2) A film whose parts don’t bore me on repeated viewings.
3) A film whose dialogue I find cropping up in my everyday conversation.
(listed in alphabetical order)
A hilarious human comedy that inverts all the conventional values to make a poignant yet radical comment on the way we live now and the values that inform our way of life. The myth that “Poverty ennobles “ is taken to task in this story of a rich drunk whose very weaknesses are his most endearing qualities. The film starring Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli was brilliantly written and directed by Steve Gordon who sadly died a couple of months after it was released.
Dudley Moore who is brilliant in the title role said that the moment after he read the script that the role was something he could do without thinking much about it. “It fitted me like a second skin.” John Gielgud, Liza Minnelli and Ted Ross are also on hand to provide great supporting performances. This film was clearly a labor of love for all concerned.
Everyone’s all time favorite romantic thriller of love, foreign intrigue, patriotism, cynicism, greed and self redemption. All done in the mock serious tone that only Hollywood could manage. Rick’s Café Americain is the small solar system into which all sorts of human planets wander in search of hope, redemption and a new life. And Humphrey Bogart’s Rick is the emotionally damaged deity who dispenses favors and alters destinies. Ingrid Bergman plays the beautiful woman who touches his soul. Miss Bergman who said that she never got to know Bogart well either during the filming of Casablanca or after, once commented on his star appeal by saying that it was remarkable how a man so ugly could be so handsome.
This classic film is one of those happy accidents that sometimes happens in Hollywood (especially during the Studio System period) where a bunch of talented people are brought together to create a film based on an undistinguished work. In this case it was a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison entitled Everybody Comes to Rick’s. The work was then refashioned into a screenplay by Julius and Phillip Epstein along with Howard Kotch. Michael Curtiz, possibly the most underrated director in the Studio System was brought in with a dream cast that included Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henried, Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt among others and a Hollywood masterpiece was born. The renowned critic Pauline Kael once called this film “a shallow masterpiece” and she was probably right. No film about war should be so much fun.
Citizen Kane (1941)
What can one say about this film that hasn’t been said before? It has been hailed and praised in so many places as “The greatest film of all time…The greatest American movie.”…Or sometimes as a masterpiece among many other masterpieces or pantheon films, not better but equal. Conversely there are many who have said that they find the film loud, bombastic and most damning, a bore. So much for the unanimity of consensus.
In the many film classes that I have taught the question always comes up: Why is Citizen Kane considered the greatest film ever? And it is always presented as a challenge with the subtext being; Justify that to me! And in spite of the fact that I have seen the film more than a dozen times and read or heard many, many justifications for it, I can never give a definitive answer. All I could tell them is that it is arguably the greatest film made with the emphasis being on the word arguably. In other words the subject is open to debate and everyone is free to agree or disagree or if they feel so inclined, list which film in their viewing experience they consider the greatest. In fact I even encourage it because our reaction to film is such a personal thing.
For me the reason that Citizen Kane is a great film is because it contains one of the greatest characters (in the person of Charles Foster Kane) that I have come across in literature or film. In theatre and literature there are many great characters who have transcended the confines of their plot or story and fix themselves into the collective consciousness of the world. Characters like Lear and Hamlet from plays carrying their name or Ahab from Moby Dick. Characters whose obsessions and dilemmas we ponder, wrestle with and puzzle over for years, decades and even centuries. For me Kane is one of them. Every time I see the film it sets me to thinking about a man who starts out with everything only to wind up empty, lonely and lost, and gets me to wondering why. And although I’ve seen the film so often I still keep hoping with each viewing that he will work things out.
The fact is I have no answers to the many questions posed by this film but the questions become more fascinating, tantalizing and provocative the older I become. This is what I believe constitutes the enduring interest and compelling factor of the film. Not the technical innovations in sound or visuals that Welles and his collaborators introduced. Those were wonderful and new for their times but they have been surpassed over and over again. But what hasn’t been is the riddle of Kane as created in the screenplay of Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles and the resulting film that Welles acted in, directed, produced and designed. Was this a work of genius or just a happy accident? We’ll never know. We just know that it exists and I for one am grateful for that fact.
The Dead Zone (1983 – Canada)
A melancholy horror (or horror genre) film adapted from a novel by Stephen King with a sad and vulnerable hero at its center. A man is accidently endowed with a gift for predicting the future that proves to be a curse that robs him of love, a future and ultimately of his life. The pessimistic mood of the film is all consuming. And the episodic structure provides a rhythm that is both satisfying and convincing. The performance of Christopher Walken as the central character is to me a model of what the harmony of acting, atmosphere and story should be in all films. David Chronenberg directed it. This is a film that reminds us of how terrific an actor Christopher Walken is despite the many parodies that has so distorted our view of him and his work.
Rio Bravo (1959)
This is western story of good and evil cast in the form of a medieval morality tale. The reckless brother of a wealthy rancher casually kills a man for no apparent reason other than he felt like it. He is apprehended and jailed to await transfer to a larger town where he will stand trial for murder. The prison is then surrounded by outlaws and each day the danger to the sheriff, (played by John Wayne) and his deputies, (played by Walter Brennan and Dean Martin in what is probably the best performance of his career), looms larger and more forbidding. And it is not until he enlists the aid of a young gunfighter (Ricky Nelson), , a saloon girl (Angie Dickenson) and a Mexican (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) that justice triumphs. This film contains thrilling gunfights, amusing comedy and even a lively musical number. All in all a gripping and highly entertaining motion picture made by one of motion pictures’ greatest directors Howard Hawks.
At the time of its release the film was, in some circles, considered to be a response to the award winning High Noon (1952) which in those paranoid times was considered to be a Leftist tract by certain individuals. Fortunately, with the passage of time, all that political baggage has fallen by the wayside and now we can appreciate both films for what they are, wonderful examples of motion picture art.
Singing in the Rain (1952)
To me this is the ultimate Hollywood film. A joyous, exuberant musical extravaganza that contains several of the best musical numbers ever recorded on film along with some of the most captivating dancing too. It is also the funniest and best plotted musical made and a lively and engaging look at Hollywood’s transition into the sound era. There are no dull moments in this film. It moves with the pace of a Bugs Bunny Cartoon and holds our attention all the way.
One area of the film that is hardly ever praised or even appreciated is its visual look that was provided by production designers Cedric Gibbons and Randal Duel and its cinematography courtesy of Harold Rosson. Much of the pleasure of the film is provided by its skillful use of color and great costume design by Walter Plunkett. Try to imagine the movie without their contributions and you can then appreciate how important they were to the entire mise en scene.
Everyone of course knows that the film was conceived by Gene Kelly who starred and co-directed it as well. He also choreographed it with the other half of his creative team Stanley Donen who co- directed the film and later went off to have a very successful directing career on his own. The script was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. One year later they recycled the same basic story into another terrific musical, this time with Fred Astaire called The Band Wagon (1953).
Singing in the Rain has been called the best musical ever made. Again the point is arguable but whether we agree or not it has to be acknowledged that it is a masterpiece in its own right.
The Silence (1963 – Sweden)
This film represents Ingmar Bergman in his most maddeningly enigmatic and provocatively inaccessible phase. It presents the story of two sisters at odds with each other passing through an unknown and unnamed European country. One sister (Ingrid Thulin) is sickly and possibly dying, while the other (Gunnel Lindblom) is aggressively healthy, sexually restless and perversely unpredictable. They stopover at a hotel where a group of curious circus performers are staying. These performers do strangely comic (but unfunny) antics in the hallway while various kinds of military hardware (tanks etc.) pass through the town at night. Most of the action is seen through the eyes and sensibility of a ten year old boy who is the son of the sickly sister. A crisis occurs between the two protagonists and the following day one moves on while the other remains. Nothing is explained, nothing is resolved yet this film remains for me one of Bergman’s most provocative and engaging works.
Bergman and his works are somewhat forgotten today but there was a time when he was considered one of the greatest or possibly the greatest filmmaker that cinema has produced thus far. Perhaps the statement was extravagant and extreme but his body of work deserves
serious observation or re-observation because they represent an intellectuality that is rare in cinema.
The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
If a fiction film ever captured the pulse of a city at its most amoral, ruthless and cruel aspect, it is this hilariously bitter study about the relationship between a powerful newspaper columnist played by Burt Lancaster and a cunning, and insanely ambitious press agent played by Tony Curtis. Both have never been better although at the time their masterful performances went unnoticed and unheralded. The characters take on larger than life proportions and are given pungently memorable dialogue (courtesy of Ernest Lehman who wrote the original novella from which it was adapted and playwright Clifford Odets) to match the scale of their ambitions and deeds. This is a film that has been quoted and misquoted over the years. Still on each successive viewing its power still holds.
It was directed by Alexander Mac Kendrick, an American who lived in England for many years and made several distinguished films including The Ladykillers (1955), Sammy Going South (1965) and High Wind in Jamaica (1967). Then he left Hollywood to become Dean and a professor at The California Institute of the Arts where he taught film and produced many students who have gone on to make a place for themselves in the film industry due to his excellent teaching.
Talk to her (2002 – Spain)
To my mind Pedro Almodovar is among the most talented writer/directors in the world today or possibly the best. I hate absolutes so I’ll only go that far. He has won awards from all over including 2 Academy Awards and continues to expand the horizons of the international cinema with each successive film he releases. With Talk to her, my favorite of his considerable body of work, Almodovar tells three love stories with a dimension and a generosity of spirit that is his and his alone. Of all the directors on the international scene he strikes me as the most sophisticated both in his technical expertise and in his world view. His films deal with the trials and tribulations of social and sexual outsiders with both insight and wit that seems to echo the philosophical statement “Nothing human is alien to me.” Or the religious one “There but for the grace of God go I.” Talk to her is my favorite but his entire body of work is worth viewing for anyone who is remotely interested in the state of cinema today.
To me this is the ultimate chase film. And that chase operates on several levels. There is the chase after the mystery involving Carlotta, then Scotty’s obsession with the illusion of love that he thought he had found and searches so frantically for, and finally the chase or search for the truth about what really happened. This is a terrific mystery that poses many tantalizing questions some of which get answered, many of which don’t because there are no answers to the larger questions about the mysteries of life.
Alfred Hitchcock’s work has always been so deceptively simple on the surface that for years he was viewed as merely an expert practitioner of light entertainments. But in the last 25 years or so film critics and academic theorists are beginning explore and analyze the complex subtexts that lay below the surface of all his major works. Books after books have been and are being written about it, so much so that he is today the most written about American director.
This film Vertigo is to me his most complete and complex work. A work that bears repeated viewings if only to appreciate the multiple levels on which the story is told.
Weekend (1967 – France)
Jean Luc Godard’s radical collage that uses a weekend trip and a traffic jam as a metaphor for the state of society as he sees it. The film is angry, satirical, confusing, maddening, obscene and irritating in a variety of ways. But it is never dull. This is a film full of references derived from virtually every aspect of our culture including literature, cinema, politics, music, history and philosophy. I look at this film at least once a year to remind myself of how adventurous cinema can be in the hands of a true iconoclast. And an iconoclast Godard is indeed. He has broken every rule of filmmaking only to re-invent them in a variety of fractured ways that is constantly pointing to the future possibilities of cinema as an art. In his controversial career he has been called everything from genius to madman. And according to your point of view he is either one or the other or even possibly both.
Woman in the Dunes (1964 – Japan)
The stripped down simplicity of its setting (itself a symbol and a metaphor), the clarity and beauty of its characterizations, and finally (also most importantly) its existential philosophy to which I subscribe makes this one of my favorite films of all time. This film was adapted from a novel by Kobo Abe’ who also wrote the screenplay. The director Hiroshi Teshigahara and Abe collaborated on several adaptations of his novels but this award winning film starring Eji Okada and Kyoko Kishida is the one they are best known for.
Adventures of Robin Hood
Hollywood sweep. The true swashbuckler. Captain Blood is great but I can’t escape the bright colors of Robin Hood. By bright colors, I don’t just mean the gorgeous Technicolor. I mean the soaring music, unafraid to inhabit the mythic quality of the story, to play for fun and to play for thrill. I mean Olivia de Havilland, looking good enough to storm a castle for. I mean Errol Flynn interrupting a banquet of rich snobs, knocking guards away with the antlers of the deer he carries on his back. I mean sensational moments, one after the other.
Directed by ultra-prolific Michael Curtiz, Robin Hood is the perfect action movie: playful, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It indulges only in the magic of cinema and never have I felt such magic on screen.
Not prolific but almost always excellent, Stanley Kubrick created a few masterpieces and some great films. For me, Barry Lyndon is the best of his work.
All of his films are funnier than they get credit for, and Barry is the funniest. Though it is certainly tragic to watch Ryan O’Neal’s character rise to fortune and fall from grace, a subtle humor runs throughout the movie. This humor is one of the secret touches of Barry Lyndon that make it so good.
The narration tells us in most cases what will happen before it does but this doesn’t ruin suspense because Kubrick’s movie is about how things happen. The pace and rhythm are unique and refreshing, like many of the camera moves which zoom in and out of gorgeous compositions. Ryan O’Neal is better than he was ever expected to be. He is in almost every scene in the movie’s three hours and is perfect in every one of them.
A master of literary adaption, Kubrick created a movie where in every frame, every line of dialogue, every time the music comes in and goes away, I feel the touch of brilliance.
Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle)
It begins while our post-apocalyptic hero screws a blow-up doll, the closest he can get to human affection, male or female. From there, Luc Besson takes us to a burnt-out city where the sky rains fish. Only half-way into the movie we learn why no one has spoken a word thus far (it isn’t just a French obsession with Charlie Chaplin, though it does feel like The Tramp meets Mad Max).
Words are sparse in Le Dernier Combat and so is beauty but both are present, reserved for small delicate moments. Black and white and bleak, Besson makes the fight between a couple of men the last real human battle. He reduces conflict to a simple goal, lets us feel all the horror of failure and the surprise of hope. It is as dark and beautiful as the future can get.
How Green was my Valley
One of John Ford’s non-Westerns, How Green was my Valley is an unforgettable portrait of childhood. The story takes place in a Welsh coal mining village. Ford follows one family, its leader the father played by Donald Crisp. There are many sons, the youngest is Roddy McDowall, the narrator, the eyes through which we see all the events. As conflict arises in the mine, the family is spread apart, some of the sons push for a union while the father remains traditional. His one daughter, played by Maureen O’Hara, falls in love with preacher Walter Pidgeon but marries a rich man out of duty.
As the picture travels through light and dark moments, McDowall’s character grows up, not physically, but emotionally as he sees both the courage and hypocrisy of the adults around him. I love the film not only for its moments of tragedy, which are great, but the instances of joy. Always a little clumsy with his use of humor, Ford uses scenes familiar to his canon and they are better than they ever were: scenes of drinking and singing, fist-fighting, moments of simple logic faced with sophistication.
I don’t think childhood has ever been captured better on screen. Though it isn’t the best representative of John Ford’s overall work, I find it his best picture.
Perhaps my favorite of all these, How Green was my Valley
Lessons of Darkness
Werner Herzog denies that his documentaries are documentaries, and claims that his fiction films like Aguirre are documentaries. His entire body of work is undefinable; it can only be called film, pure film. He is the most daring, the most exciting filmmaker alive.
Of all his work, Lessons of Darkness is the best in my opinion. Is it a documentary? Well, at the end of the Gulf War, Herzog flew over Kuwait in a helicopter with his cameraman. Together they captured the oil fields on fire. But this isn’t the same breed of film we see in the political-agenda docs that have become so popular. Herzog calls it a science-fiction film and it is. The fires spout from the earth like giants. Our world doesn’t look like our own. This is the journey to another planet. Herzog even reads scripture over the images.
A filmmaker bound to the quest for new images, for fresh landscapes, Herzog creates in Lessons of Darkness a film like no other. It defies story, it even defies experimentation. He tests the boundaries of the visual medium, what it can do and will do, by showing us the parts of nature that we don’t even realize, how alien they are to our consciousness.
Only Angels Have Wings
At this point in my life, I could make a list like this filled with only Howard Hawks movies. I am in love with his cinema. His worlds are filled with men that I want to have as friends, women I want as lovers. I wish that I could inhabit any of his films, to be stuck forever up on the screen trying to prove that I’m the best with his reporters, his flyers, his cowboys and his soldiers.
Of all his that I love, Only Angels Have Wings I love the most. It’s about a bunch of flyers who deliver mail out of a small South American town. They’re led by Cary Grant, fearless, professional, unable to associate with women emotionally because they always want to ground him from what he does. It’s scene after scene of the Hawks ethic: men test each other’s ability, men and women snap at each other with wit, the shamed man gets a chance to prove himself, the hardened one finally gives in to the woman who isn’t as tough as she seemed, I guess neither of them were.
There’s a scene where a pilot without good eyesight goes out on his last run, a fog-filled flight that spells suicide. He crashes on return. Grant tells him in the privacy of a tent that his neck is broken. The pilot asks his best friend to leave him alone. You see, he’s never died before and he doesn’t want to do it badly the first time.
Some think that the debate of the great American director hedges between Hawks and Ford. Like another of Hawks characters says, I wouldn’t want to live on the difference.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
One image of Renee Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Joan of Arc is enough to haunt me forever. The performance is harrowing, as the young plain girl is faced with interrogation from high religious and political figures. Her eyes are wide and filled with the kind of mystery that still surrounds Joan. It is perhaps the most perfect casting ever.
The film, silent and filmed almost entirely in close-ups, looks like none other. It is simultaneously beautiful and horrible to watch. The camera moves still seem fresh and modern. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film that surpasses the evolution of the medium.
Places in the Heart
Overlooked in the history of American cinema are simple stories that evoke subtle truths. My mind goes to two great films from the 80′s: Tender Mercies and Places in the Heart. But Robert Benton’s story of a mother, played by Sally Field, recently widowed with two children and her struggle to bring in a cotton crop is the one that sticks with me the most.
She discovers friendship and love in the hands of Danny Glover, a wanderer who knows how to do the things she doesn’t, and John Malkovich, a bitter blind man who finds a home. The film shows people doing great and horrible acts without the overbearing style that has plagued so much of cinema about poverty and racism; this has none of Stanley Kramer in it.
The ending, my personal choice for the best ever, is poetic and touching. It perfectly completes this American story.
Up against all the actors of old, William Holden remains my favorite. True, he is more WASP than the rest of them, but there is something about his attitude, a constant sense that he knows just a little more than the others around him. Sometimes he even seems to know ahead of time how bad a situation he’s in but stuck like a fated character in a Thomas Hardy novel, he plays out his doom in dry sarcastic form.
Sunset Boulevard is Billy Wilder’s best, a Hollywood nightmare of fame desired and lost. Holden takes a job from Gloria Swanson’s psycho-starlet. He can tell from the start its a bad idea (we know too since he narrates the movie, drowned in a pool). Still the journey is more important, far more entertaining, and frightening than the outcome.
What elevates this movie above most horror, and it really is a kind of horror, is that however insane Swanson might be, she remains human. Created by Hollywood, it is impossible for her to want anything else but to be what she was in her prime. This makes her own destruction and the destruction she brings to Holden’s life timeless and tragic, especially when Holden discovers but is unable to experience true love with Nancy Olson.
Sure, the last shot and line are about as common as “Rose Bud” but the movie itself contains some of the best directing, acting, writing, and shooting of any film ever made.
The Thin Red Line
Terrence Malick’s adaptation of the James Jones novel is like no other war movie to come before or after it. It throws away convention, diving into the narrative of many, many soldiers, as the movie floats in an out of their heads and the lush jungle. At a young age, because of its unfocused style, I was unable to comprehend its worth and therefore hated it. For a few years now, it has become one of my favorites.
The Thin Red Line represents the best use of Terrence Malick’s poetic visual style. It seems to complete what he began with Badlands and Days of Heaven and does not go astray like The New World. Though it possesses an unending cast of familiar faces, it strays away from the multi-character form established with Nashville and often replicated. The connections between soldiers is not determined by consequence, but that they each have a unique war experience on the same island in WWII, each as valid as the next. There are many great performances, as small as John Savage who appears in a couple of shots, and as large as James Caviezel who serves as the closest I could conventionally term a “main character”. Sean Penn is stripped of any over-the-top moments, Elias Koteas shines as an officer with law background unable to comprehend the simple sacrifice method of the army, John Cusack is the hero that his colonel Nick Nolte admires but cannot understand and vice versa.
The cinematography, the tribal chants that grace the soundtrack, it all combines into a terrific picture.
John Carpenter’s remake of the Howard Hawks-produced The Thing From Another World couldn’t be more different from its origins. Departing from the gut versus science action sci-fi classic, Carpenter created the ultimate horror film. And The Thing is horror, not science-fiction. Though the plot revolves around an alien landing in an icy landscape, the real conflict concerns human interaction, whether one man can trust another, if a man can really trust himself, and visually it dwells on the mutilations of the body.
Kurt Russell leads a cast of great faces like Keith David and Wilford Brimley. They all pull their weight in what becomes, after its introductory first half, a tale of paranoia. Never have I felt suspense so much as the scenes where Carpenter has his characters test each others blood for sign of infection. The camera waits in silence for the Thing to reveal itself as it does in the end when the last two survivors wait in the freezing cold to find out if and which one of them is the intruder.
Wild at Heart
Wild at Heart exists between the two halves of David Lynch’s career. After and less conventional than his most hailed Blue Velvet and before he wandered into the super-abstract dream-enigmas that began with Lost Highway and evolved into Inland Empire, Lynch created something quite odd and unique in his adaptation of Barry Gifford’s novel.
A lovers-on-the-run road movie, Wild at Heart maintains a basic plot while Lynch’s wilder side riffs on The Wizard of Oz and Elvis Presley. On the soundtrack, heavy metal music blares, as well as Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and a traditional symphony score. This movie is as diverse as the American landscape and its people, willing to go places we don’t expect or have even imagined.
It features Nicolas Cage at his most unpredictable, Laura Dern at her sexiest, and Willem Dafoe at his creepiest. It is David Lynch at his best, and story-driven American film at its most daring. Most of all, it is just fun.
Just about anyone who pays attention to movies and their makers know who he is. Generally speaking he is viewed as a quite good director, an okay actor and a wonderful raconteur. But the area I value him most is in his role as an anthropologist of old Hollywood (a period ranging approximately from the 1920s through the 50s) because for anyone who is interested in the creative state of its “Golden era” his two books on the subject are invaluable. The first is Who the Devil Made It (Conversations with legendary directors – 1997), the other is Who the Hell’s in it (Conversations with Hollywood’s legendary actors – 2004). Both books have great introductions that give us carefully detailed accounts of what the various individuals were like and how Bogdanovich got to know them.
Bogdanovich in his 20s going into his 30s worked as a stage and film critic, a journalist, a stage director and an aspiring filmmaker. But he was also a fan and aficionado of the films coming out of the Studio System from the silents right up to the mid to late fifties. And when he finally got to Hollywood first as a reporter and later as a wunderkind director it seems that he made it his business to meet and befriend nearly everyone who had been around and working during those creatively halcyon times. Luckily for us he recorded many of his conversations with them and through these conversations we get to know George Cukor, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet up close and personal. And it’s the same with actors and personalities like Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Jerry Lewis, Anthony Perkins, Marilyn Monroe and others. Through their conversations and his reminisces we get a full and lively portrait of a time gone by when Hollywood wasn’t just a place where movies were made but dreams were manufactured. Dreams that have shaped and influenced our lives in ways we couldn’t even begin to itemize or collate.
His other book that bears recommending is This Is Orson Welles (1992). It is to my mind the best and most intimate portrait of cinema’s great enfant terrible that I have come across in print. He was a long time friend of Welles and the book was a collaboration between them. The intent was for Welles to record his perspective on the various aspects of his life and career that he felt had been misrepresented in too many other places. For a variety of reasons the book was never completed and the tapes were put aside for more than a decade. Then in 1987, two years after Welles’ death Bogdanovich and Oja Kodar (Welles’ companion) enlisted the aid of Jonathan Rosenbaum to edit the tapes and put then in publishable form. The result is this wonderful book that brings us as close to Welles as we will probably ever get.
There is a rumor that another close friend of Orson Welles, filmmaker Henry Jaglom has several hours of taped conversations with the great man. If this is true hopefully he will one day share this treasure he possesses and publish them. But till then we have Bogdanovich’s book to read, savor and re-read over and over again.
Peter Bogdanovich has been praised and pilloried in the pages of the popular press for a variety of reasons. But I don’t believe he has ever been properly appreciated and thanked for wonderful service he has done for the millions of fans and scholars of old Hollywood and the wonderful films, memories and dreams it has produced. Hungrily we look forward for more books from him. But for what he has given us thus far mere words on paper can’t communicate how grateful we are. THANK YOU PETER. THANK YOU FROM THE BOTTOM OF OUR HEARTS.
Before Pulp Fiction made extinct the kind of slick crime pictures of the 80′s (though Michael Mann continues to chew on their remnants in digital form), Hollywood produced two very good ones: Internal Affairs (1990) and Deep Cover (1992). They both happened to have been written by Henry Bean. Though now, Bean has turned to independent dramas and a focus on directing, I aim to salute the crime writing of his past.
“How many cops you know, huh? Got nothing. Divorced, alcoholic, kids won’t talk to them anymore, can’t get it up. Sitting there in their little apartments, alone in the dark, playing lollipop with a service revolver?”
-Dennis Peck, played by Richard Gere
Internal Affairs, directed by Mike Figgis, stars Andy Garcia and Richard Gere. They both play cops: Garcia the internal affairs Latin do-gooder, Gere the excellent-cop with four ex-wives and his hands in drug and prostitute money. These forces collide in Bean’s screenplay, a seedy L.A. tale full of sex and deception. The character he builds in Dennis Peck is a ruthless villain as attractive as he is repulsive; he’s funny and sadistic and Gere owes screenwriter Bean his best role ever.
Still playing in the world of straightforward storytelling, what seems so refreshing in Bean’s creation is the relationships: Garcia’s lesbian partner, their interplay as well as growing affection for each other, the pathetic William Baldwin and his beat-up-not-so-innocent wife, Garcia and his wife, her sexuality tortured and ignored while he works too hard, ripe for someone like the animal that Gere plays to come in and take advantage.
There is a great scene in the last half of the picture where a fellow criminal comes home to find Gere screwing his wife. Gere smiles and unapologetically moves around the scene of the incident, the wife (a stiff European-type) is embarrassed but turned-on. The husband says, “I could kill you,” speaking to either of them or both. Gere throws him a gun and taunts him to shoot “the tramp”. The gun goes off. We don’t know who’s been shot. Suddenly Gere says, “That’s my foot.”
Henry Bean created something in Internal Affairs that will always linger with me, a kind of simple, hard crime picture I wish still got made. Specifically, he constructed in Dennis Peck a character that will revel in the bliss of evil forever, even if only in my imagination.
As a side note, Figgis’ work on this film should not be ignored. I admire him for the later, more experimental direction he took his career. But Figgis will always be Stormy Monday, Internal Affairs, and Leaving Las Vegas to me. If it was the 1940′s and I was the head of Warner, I’d confine him to the world of noir.
“This is the greatest night of my life. Terrible, terrible, but great.”
-David Jason, played by Jeff Goldblum
With Deep Cover, Bean spins a drug yarn. Honest cop Lawrence Fishburne gets recruited to go undercover. His goal is to work his way from the bottom to the top of a narcotics ring. Along the way he meets a dealer/businessman played by Jeff Goldblum. Like the Garcia/Gere relationship, this is the highlight of the film, different than the other but equally complex.
Fishburne, solid, under-appreciated and misused as he often is, plays the least interesting character of the two: he gets lost in the world of crime, sees the hypocrisy of the law, and falls for a woman on the wrong side. He is the arch but not the spice of Bean’s screenplay.
At the beginning of the film, Goldblum is just a businessman stuck in a world of rich thugs. But, in the film’s best scene, he transitions into a true criminal. When they discover that their ultra-violent boss is actually a police informant, Fishburne and Goldblum end up stuck in a limo with him in a car chase from several squad cars. I won’t say anymore; you can watch the scene.
By the end of the film, it’s hard to tell whether I want Goldblum to die or not. After the turn, he grows more and more sadistic, but his evil is too much fun to watch. Again what seems fresh in Bean’s work is not the originality of the plot but the interactions and depths of the characters.
What Henry Bean so clearly provided in these two cop classics was the opportunity for good actors to take on great roles. Never have either Goldblum or Gere been better and it is the duality of attraction and repulsion that Bean breathed into the script that allowed them to exist.
Eyes Wide Open , Frederic Raphael’s account of his work with Stanley Kubrick, frustrated me; it is a contradiction, a tortured journal of insecurity written about the supposedly insecure by the insecure. It is perhaps one of the most essential books about movies I have ever picked up and I would recommend it to anyone with cinema interests.
I will say nothing more about the book but to post an excerpt. This is more dialogue between Kubrick and Raphael.
Kubrick: Sure. I played chess pretty seriously at one point.
Raphael: What was the most serious?
Kubrick: Depends what you mean by serious. I played with some Arab prince one time. That was pretty serious. He had this ivory-handled pistol in his belt. He heard I played chess, so he challenged me to a game.
Raphael: What happened? Did you accept?
Kubrick: It was his house, there were a lot of people around, it was kinda hard not to. Yes, I did. He said he was pretty good. He had this fancy chess set in the next room he took me to.
Raphael: Good players don’t like to play with fancy pieces too much, do they?
Kubrick: Probably not. But he had this fancy set he liked to play with. He closed the door and played a game. He wasn’t bad, he wasn’t good.
Raphael: You won?
Kubrick: I won pretty quickly.
Raphael: So what happened?
Kubrick: He wanted to play again. What could I do? We played again. I figured he didn’t want to
go back in the other room too fast.
Raphael: And what happened the second time?
Kubrick: I made a mistake.
Raphael: And let him win?
Kubrick: And didn’t.
Raphael: You won again! Was that wise?
Kubrick: Probably not. But… that’s what happened.
Raphael: What did he do?
Kubrick: He didn’t pull his gun exactly, but… He showed it to me. He… made me aware of it. And then he smiled, not too much of a smile, and he said we should go back in the other room where everyone was. He patted me on the shoulder and let me go through first. I didn’t feel too… easy about his attitude, but he was okay. When they asked him who’d won, he looked at me and then he said, “We each drew a game.” I didn’t argue. Anyone who knew anything about chess would know it was ridiculous. And anyone who didn’t, so what?
Raphael: Do you know the story about Greg Peck and Willie Wyler?
Kubrick: I don’t think so.
Raphael: Peck was producing and starring.
Raphael: And the first day, Peck suggested Willie shoot a close-up of him. Stanley Donen told me this story. Willie said he didn’t need a close-up and Greg said it would be a good idea to shoot it in case. Willie said they’d pick it up when they had time. He kept putting it off, and finally Greg, as producer, threatened to close the picture down if Willie didn’t do this particular close-up. The studio people came down and begged him not to endanger the whole picture, so Willie said okay, he’d do it before the end of the shoot. Greg said, “Do I have your word? Because otherwise I’m walking right off this set.” And Willie said, “You have my word.” They went right through the last day of shooting and they still hadn’t done this particular close-up. They did the last setup and Willie said that it was a wrap. End of shooting. Greg couldn’t believe that he still hadn’t had his close-up. Willie said it was too late. Greg said, “You promised. You gave your word. How can you do this?” Willie said, “Know something, Greg? A man holds a pistol to my head, there isn’t anything I won’t promise.”
Personal note #2
Humphrey Bogart: #1, The World Over
When I was a kid, I went to the movies almost every day. This was because they changed the bill frequently. Movies were shown only twice each day, in the afternoons at four and in the evenings at eight. Our main theater was called the Center Theater and it was aptly named because it was on Main Street in the center of town.
The Center Theater showed the same film on Sunday and Monday, a new one on Tuesday, a double bill on Wednesday, a new picture on Thursday and Friday, and a triple bill on Saturday. The Sunday/Monday movie was a big budgeted prestige type film, Tuesday perhaps a musical, Wednesday, two gangster pictures, Thursday and Friday a melodrama or soap opera, and Saturday western, western, western. This was our favorite day, almost four hours of films. There were three showings that day, the first at10AM, very young kids went to that one. The second was at 3PM, teens mostly went to that show. The third started at 8 PM and that’s when the adults went. So you sort of grew into each time slot as you got older.
African Americans are great movie goers, always have been. I remember some years ago in the late sixties and early seventies, some demographic company did a study and discovered that fact. It was trumpeted as some kind of major discovery. I was surprised because I could have told them that, all they had to do was ask.
Today, you hear a lot of talk about kids wanting to see heroes of their own ethnic stamp. We didn’t have that problem at all. First of all, we liked the villains better than the heroes. But even when we did like the heroes, we had no interest in what color they were. As long as they were tough and took no shit, they were OK in our book. And it wasn’t only just us kids; the adults felt the same way too.
Take Humphrey Bogart for example. Who didn’t like Bogart? My father loved Humphrey Bogart. One reason I think is that they were both approximately the same size and built in a similar fashion. Bogart was small and slim, so was my dad. Bogart smoked a lot and talked through his teeth, my father did too. In his movies, if Bogart didn’t get killed, he always got the girl. Even in Casablanca (1942), we knew that one day the Elsa (Ingrid Bergman) would leave Victor Laslo(Paul Henried) and go back to Rick. Why? Because he’s Bogart.
People on the island used to name themselves and their kids after Bogart. (Read V.S. Naipaul if you think I’m making this up.)And they didn’t call themselves or their children Humphrey either. Anyone could be called Humphrey. They named their children Bogart Harris, Bogart Turnbull, Bogart Williams, Bogart Sinclair, and so on. Always using Bogart as a first name.
My mother was always accusing my father of trying to look and act like Bogart. He never owned up to it. Maybe he wasn’t even aware of it, but it was there for all to see. And he wasn’t the only one. Everyone liked Bogart then and that hasn’t changed. They recently took a poll and Bogart came out the number one movie star all over the world. Not just on some little dipshit island in the Caribbean, but all over the world.
Why? Because Bogart had style and he was tough. A trenchcoat and a big .45 were his trademarks. Who didn’t want a trench coat when I was growing up? The .45 could get you in trouble so we left that alone. But the trench coat was something we would have killed for, both kids and adults alike. The only problem being there wasn’t any use for trench coats on our little island. The weather was too hot and it hardly rained, so the stores didn’t stock them. I had to wait until I was an adult in the United States before I could get my first trench coat. As soon as I got it, the first thing I did was pull up the collar, put on a snap brim hat, and had a friend take my picture which I sent to my father. He promptly wrote back, “You’re looking great son. I guess America is taking good care of you.”
And when you talk about tough, who could be tougher than Bogart? He was small but he could fight. Big guys would mess with him and he would beat them to their knees. And he wasn’t just physically tough; he could talk the talk too. “I’ll not only slap you, I’ll slap you and make you like it”, he said to one guy in a movie. How could you hate a man who talked like that?
I have no problem understanding why he’s still number one the world over. Every time I see Bogart in a film, I think of my father. Because what the movie going public didn’t know is that Bogart had a twin. A Caribbean black man approximately his height and build who smoked like him and talked like him. When I was a kid, I would go over to him and say “Hi Dad”, he would look me up and down, take a drag off his cigarette and say “Hi kid. Here’s looking at you”, then he would open his arms and hug me. What kid could ask for anything more?
India Song (1974 -100 minutes), based on a play she had written at the request of Peter Hall, then director of London’s National Theatre, is probably the most accomplished and accessible of all her films. Here everything works. The gliding camera movement, the dreamlike world the characters inhabit and the curious soundtrack of voices that does and does not correspond to anything shown on screen.
It was not surprising that this film along with The Truck were the only sold out shows at the retrospective. But even at The Truck there were perhaps nine or ten vacant seats. For India Song there were no tickets to be had. So much so that the normally polite people behind the film tickets desk at the museum were uncharacteristically abrupt and sharp tongued when patrons not believing the sign that said in bold print ALL TICKETS FOR INDIA SONG SOLD OUT, would ask; “Are there any more tickets?” the response would be; “If there were then why do we have the sign?”
At the end of the showing that I attended there was a spontaneous burst of applause. As we left going up the escalator and through the pleasant lobby there was a nice buzz coming from the crowd. It was one of pleasure and satisfaction. I was feeling that too. M. Duras, through her film had challenged and extended me in ways that few artists can. I was feeling grateful and excited. I wanted more but there was no more to be had, this was the end of the retrospective. If I wanted more I would have to go back to the novels, essays and plays. I did and still do but they are no substitute for the films of Marguerite Duras.
Howard Hawks said that a good movie was three good scenes and no bad scenes. Sometimes he would even rush actors through scenes, telling them that these weren’t important and they shouldn’t try too hard. I’ll call this the Hawks Principle for now, one that could be used to judge and measure films all across the board, but especially as a lens to view his work.
I will start with Monkey Business, starring Cary Grant, with an early role for Marilyn Monroe.
Cary Grant, a scientist (on the brink of inventing a formula that makes the old young again), visits his boss’ office. The secretary, sexy blonde Monroe, leaps from her desk and wants to show him something. He agrees. She pulls up her dress and there it is. Her long full leg in all its perfection. It’s the nylon, she explains, one of this earlier minor inventions. He stares closely through his thick glasses at the leg and agrees that he has done a remarkable job.
Grant stumbles into the formula when one of the lab chimps mixes it correctly. It turns him into a racing, chasing playboy. It turns his wife into a dancing, high-pitched pig-tailed bouncing ball. In one scene, the board of directors chase Grant and his wife (Ginger Rogers) around trying to figure out what the formula is. Rogers snaps rubber band’s at Monroe’s ass. First she slaps the head director because she thinks he’s getting fresh. Then she slaps Grant as the rubber band snaps her behind from the other side. Rogers bounces up, screaming victory over the younger, prettier blonde.
When his wife’s childishness turns into a pout, Grant observes a phone call she makes to friend/lawyer Hugh Marlowe. He decides in a boyish jealous rage that he must “scalp” Marlowe when he comes to pick his wife up. He paints his face, steals some garden clippers and bands with a group of neighborhood children (already dressed for Cowboys and Indians).
As they scheme, a low-voiced child reminds Grant that you can’t scalp someone without doing a war dance first. Grant complies and leads the bunch in a rising chant. When Marlow arrives, he’s suckered by the kids and tied to a tree. Grant jumps out of the bushes and howls.
“You can’t scalp someone until you do a war dance.”
Of all the films seen I found Les Enfants (The Children-1985) the least interesting. It took great effort for me not to join the streaming line of people moving toward the exit from about 10 minutes into its running time. I think this is because it is the most conventionally structured of the films I watched. Scenes were established via master shots and then alternating close-ups and pov shots. Nothing quirky or unorthodox, just straight filmmaking by the numbers. This film to me revealed all her limitations. For Duras was not a filmmaker in conventional or professional sense. She was a writer, theorist and experimenter. A conventional filmmaker she was not. Her visual rhythms were off, scenes seemed to take forever to move from A to B and no sense of continuity of suspense ever emerged. The film just seemed to drone on for its entire 90 minutes. While leaving the theatre I heard a woman saying to her friend; “That was a movie I wish my children could see. They haven’t been good lately and need this kind of punishment.”
Now one of the fascinating aspects of watching a Duras film (for me) comes from trying to figure out how she got certain actors who have become familiar to us via the international cinema, to work for her. I’m speaking of actors like Jeanne Moreau, Gerard Depardieu, Delphine Seyrig, Michael Lonsdale and Dominique Sanda among others. The reason I’m confused is that a Duras film requires none of the histrionic know-how other film projects need and demand. In any Duras film all they’re ever required to do is sit, sometimes move around in somnambulist fashion and occasionally say a line or two. In Le Camion (The Truck-1977) a young Gerard Depardieu is only asked to sit at a small table and listen while M. Duras reads the script of the film. Perhaps six times in 80 minutes he gets to ask some seemingly innocuous question like: “What is he feeling this time?” M. Duras would then answer the question and go back to reading the script. In spite of this the film wasn’t bad. In fact it was quite good once one went along with the conventions she had established. It was perhaps the best of all the films shown at this retrospective but hardly a vehicle for actors to practice or show their skills. Duras used the actors as props, moveable props as they used to refer to them in the old days of the Hollywood Studio System. But the actors didn’t seem to mind, they seemed to lend themselves enthusiastically to her purposes. Often all they do is stand or lie looking vacantly off into the distance as the camera lingers on them, sometimes interminably and we are invited to study and penetrate the surfaces in an attempt at finding out what’s going on in their minds. Difficult or impossible as this might seem Duras is surprisingly successful in getting us to participate in this endeavor over and over again. In the films Agatha Ou Les Lectures Illmitees (Agatha and the Lectures Unlimited – 1980-90 minutes) and Le Navire Night (The Ship Night – 1979-94 minutes) she manages this with great success.
It should be noted that it only takes a few minutes into the running time of a Duras film for one to realize that you cannot approach it with conventional expectations. All of our practiced history of viewing motion pictures in a certain way must be put aside and we have to attend to it the way we would at look at an abstract painting or listen to a piece of music, chamber music especially. It is not going to come to us; we’re going to have to go to it. And we’re going to have to work with it as well. A Duras film doesn’t give, it takes. Not only does it take, it demands. And if we’re not willing to give then we should leave the theatre promptly because the experience will be an annoyingly frustrating one.
On Viewing Duras
Diary notes; New York 1995
Marguerite Duras is a novelist, playwright, essayist, thinker and perhaps visionary whose works have always held my interest even though I often found them to be baffling, contradictory and sometimes impenetrable. I knew that she had dabbled in filmmaking but had only seen one of her films, India Song (1974). This May while visiting New York City I managed to catch up on several that were being shown at The Museum of Modern Art: Department of Film and Video. I had read her work and viewed one of her films, so of course I knew what to expect. That was the idea. But I was wrong. One should never anticipate what one will get from Duras. She is unpredictable but in the oddest ways. She is either more exciting or duller.
Before going on I should talk about the movie theater where these films are being shown. It’s called Titus #2 and is located one short escalator ride below the street level of the museum. It’s a pleasant room that seats around 150 to 200. The audience at most showings that I attended numbered around 80 to 100. Seventy percent were 50 years or older while the other twenty five percent seemed to be mostly students. And there must’ve been some stragglers who didn’t know what they were in for because 10 to 15 minutes into each film somebody in front or behind would rise and mutter aloud; “What the hell kind of movie is this?” and leave. Then later 20 to 30 more people would leave, some quietly, some not so. This happened at every show I attended. Many in the audience were French or spoke it. But there were many like me who didn’t speak the language. We read the subtitles and were content. Between films I asked one young lady who was sitting next to me if she understood French or had read anything by M. Duras. To both questions she answered no. Then I asked why was she there, she said she had seen The Lover (1992) a film directed by Jacques Annaud based on Duras’, prize winning bestselling novel. That film with a screenplay by Gerard Bach was very popular but Madame Duras had said publicly that she felt no connection to it whatsoever. So I was not surprised that it was not among the titles selected for this retrospective. But the young lady sitting next to me said that she was surprised it wasn’t included.
La Morte Du Jeune Aviateur Anglais and L’Ecrire
The first program I attended included La Morte Du Jeune Anglais (The Death of a Young English Aviator-1993- 36 minutes) and L’Ecrire (To Write – 1993- 43 minutes). Both were directed by Benoit Jacquot and both featured an 83 year old Duras responding to questions being asked by someone behind the camera. The first leads her to telling a story about an English pilot whose grave she says she discovered in a small village not far from where she lives. It was not clear if she was telling a true story based on direct experience or something elaborated on just by looking at the grave. But that wasn’t important. What was important was the business of looking at Madame Duras moving about her house and speaking with utmost calm and clarity. Obviously the woman was comfortable before a camera. And obviously she was aware of her own importance, or what she perceives to be her own importance.
She told her story in a fragmented fashion not ever trying to make a coherent narrative out of it. All she gives are facts and impressions leaving it up to us the viewers to make what we will out of it. It is not just left up to us but demanded of us. Of course we could refuse to be involved in the enterprise but then the question becomes; why go to a Duras film?
The truth is, the story isn’t important, its lack of coherence isn’t important, the artless filming technique isn’t important either. It is the presence of Duras that is important. That presence is not only important but privileged. The very casual nature of the film is what gives it its intimacy. In that brief and virtually uneventful 36 minutes I had the impression that I had gotten to know M. Duras somewhat. That the barrier of the medium had been stripped away. She talked, I listened and it was pleasant as well as informative. The septuagenarian charm of Duras had captured me. And it was then I realized that she was not only a writer and filmmaker but a performer as well. A sly and skillful performer who knew how to captivate an audience and in the most artless manner intrigue them into listening. When the lights came up I sat back in my seat and thought “This is remarkable. In my 40 years of film viewing I have never been so quickly disarmed intellectually and yet so curiously engaged.”
The next film L’Ecrire (To Write) continued the business of her talking to someone off camera. This time she’s not telling a story but talking about writing. Not other people’s writing, her own. Again it’s disconnected and off center. Sometimes the questions being asked seem designed to get her back on track when she wanders off. That’s how informal and unplanned it all appeared to be.
I listened and was engaged but what I was really doing was watching that very old lady (she seemed very old indeed) and studying every line and every wrinkle on her face, trying to look closer, wanting to see even more. She talked about her alcoholism, how it stimulated her and why she stopped. She talked about solitude and the various books she wrote in the house she now occupies. “Here is a woman who has seen and experienced life,” I thought all the while I was looking and listening. It was all there on her face, in her eyes and on her hands. Two very old hands, two very wrinkled but very expressive hands as well. She kept her neck hidden with scarves restricting our view to only her face and hands. I kept wanting to see her neck. I don’t know why, I just did. But I never got to see it. One only gets from M. Duras what she wants to give us, no more, no less.