Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Sunchaser (Michael Cimino, 1996; photographed by Doug Milsome)
The Greatest Civil War on Earth (Tian-lin Wang, 1961; photographed by Luying He)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Six Great American Films, 1978 - 1988

...All the Marbles (1981)
This was Robert Aldrich's last movie, and I like to believe that Aldrich died happy, knowing he'd made it. Along with Abel Ferrara's Cat Chaser, made, at the tail end of the decade, this is one of the last true examples of film noir. It's simultaneously shadowy and colorful, in every sense. But what do you expect from Joseph Biroc, who gave the world the image-monuments of Forty Guns and the careful delirium of Confessions of an Opium Eater? And you end up wondering the kind of movies Peter Falk would've been in if he was born 20 years earlier--him and Harry Dean Stanton. How many bits of 80-minute grit could they have cranked out in the post-war years?

Big Wednesday (1978)
History, tugging like a hand on your sleeping shoulder. John Milius's best film, and one of the few epic films. The mise-en-scene is Vincente Minelli and John Ford arguing about a decade; you're never sure if the 1960s were a tragic romance or some great folly. Waves crash, punches are thrown, mistakes are made and lived through. Grandly sincere, or sincerely grand, this is Milius's attempt to make The Great American Movie. The attempt is a failure, but the result is a success regardless. That's the funny thing about movies: though the intentions behind them play a role, intentions aren't the final result. Yes, a film is a gesture, but it is more importantly a film. The writer only writes what he or she thinks up, while the moment you start running film through a camera, you let the world in. What language can't communicate, cinema wholeheartedly accepts, sometimes without us even noticing.

The Driver (1978)
The vague and the painstaking. The soundtrack is a terse musique concrete composition for voices, squealing tires and slamming doors. The driver of title is played by Ryan O'Neal, an actor without temperature, neither cool nor warm. Maybe that's why Stanley Kubrick managed to put him to such good use: Kubrick's cinema is climate-controlled, which leads many people to wrongly assume that it's cold. Walter Hill is an abstractor (this film, 48 Hrs.) and a parabalist (Streets of Fire, Crossroads, Johnny Handsome), which is more or less the same thing. To take something complicated (a history, a morality) and turn it into a parable is not very different from taking a real thing and, through its image, making something direct: a color is easier to understand at first glance than a street, the cold light of a headlamp is simpler than an oncoming car. But, of course, no two things are completely alike: the parable has only a limited meaning, while the image is bottomless.

Modern Romance (1981)
The present hasn't been too kind to Albert Brooks, but history will be kinder: we'll someday say "Brooksian" with the same ambiguous clarity as "Hawksian." Fed by a distinctly American sense of compromise, that sour taste that accompanies every sweetness, Brooks' cinema is not one of contradictions: the world is complicated, but it isn't fractured. Every happy thing is sad, and every sad thing is a little funny; there is no clear separation in our experience of things. It's through focusing on certain elements, through the sieves of our memories (or the editing of a film), that we are able to look back and distinctly say that an event was tragic or that it was good. It's the basic premise of Brooks' later Defending Your Life, in which the newly dead must argue that scenes from their lives display their strengths, even though it can just as easily be said that they show them at their worst. Absolute happiness is an illusion: it's just something you claim to win an argument. Modern Romance is a rejection of traditional dramatics, a serious approach to comedy. And always unflinchingly intelligent.

The Moderns (1988)
An incomparably passionate film by the most brilliant American director of the 1980s. The Jazz Age is to Alan Rudolph what the Belle Epoque was to Jean Renoir: an era of creativity that inspires more creativity through reflection. A film about the ideas of an era more than its specifics. Or, to rephrase, a film that takes inspiration from the ideas of an era to create something new. Keith Carradine is Keith Carradine is a painter, Wallace Shawn is Wallace Shawn is a gossip columnist, John Lone is John Lone is a businessman and Kevin J. O'Connor is some dream image of Ernest Hemingway. Here the elements that are used haphazardly or lazily by other directors become rigorous and expressive. Rudolph stands with Fassbinder--and now Hong Sang-soo--as one of the few poets of the zoom lens: what is done with a jerky hand-operated zoom in a brief sequence in The Moderns is more beautiful than most directors' camera movements. The use of black-and-white historical footage is genuine quotation instead of a lazy attempt to set a mood.

Paradise Alley (1978)
I refuse to believe that any movie directed by Sylvester Stallone isn't at the very least interesting. Sometimes, as in the curious case of Paradise Alley, the movie's much more than that: it's great. Case in the sense that Paradise Alley is isolated from its contemporaries and seemingly the rest of film history; curious in the sense that every film is the result of a set of choices, and the choices here are, as if often the situation with a great movie, infuriating--certainly more infuriating than Big Wednesday, and possibly more infuriating than The Moderns. A movie that seems to belong to no time and no mindset
. Lit with the kind of neons that bathe a body but designed in the earth tones that make every character feel like a part of the room they're in, it's set in 1940s New York--more of a location than a period, just one of those places any story can be set as long as it's costumed accordingly (like "Morocco").

As a director, Stallone is always acting. Every one of his movies isn't directed by Sylvester Stallone, but by Stallone playing some directing archetype; he's clearly playing a different character behind the camera of every film. So maybe Paradise Alley is his best movie because Sylvester Stallone, Director of Paradise Alley is his most original character, the ordinary visionary he'd re-use for the first half of Staying Alive.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2008; photographed by Eric Gautier)