Transcendent Moments Of Change: Falling In Love With Terrence Malick

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“Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother. We, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.”  [The New World]

His films sing the story of our land.  They help us rise from the depths of our pain.  And crystallize the murmurs of our hearts and minds.  He weaves a symphony of inner voices, our own voices, into the music of life itself.   There is not another American filmmaker living today so admired and so reviled based upon his storytelling techniques.  The more you seriously invest in his films, the greater the reward.  The quiet stillness of  a natural landscape with the the mosaic of faces, seemingly brings us closer to a truth.  A truth according to Malick and a burgeoning love for his unique poetry.

Terrence Malick, born 1943 in Ottawa Illinois and a native of Oklahoma and Austin Texas, holds degrees in philosophy and film-making with a thesis that involved a student short film with Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates.  He taught for several years in the subject of philosophy, before turning his interests solely to cinema.  The approach is much like his unfinished thesis on Martin Heidegger, the noted German philosopher.  The metaphysical study of being, or ontology, resides in most, if not all, of Malick’s filmic approach. The nature of being and how principal things are related to each other; namely man and nature for Malick.  His work continually experiments and stretches the medium.  His ambitious executions are sublime and sometimes infuriating, often within the same context for the person viewing.  When one of his films transforms all the elements seamlessly, it is monumentally inspiring.

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“I always thought that being alone was just something that a man had to put up with. It was like I just got used to it.”  [Days Of Heaven]

The painterly sense in images are apparent right from the start in his poetically blazing first features Badlands, from 1973 and Days Of Heaven, from 1978.  Each used first person narration and presented the specter of change for characters, location, dreams, and perspectives.  Badlands concerns the exploits of Kit and Holly on a crime spree fleeing from the murder of her father.  Holly narrates through an apathetic voice, a lost little girl dazzled by the James Dean-like charisma of her partner-in-crime.  The beautiful visuals are in stark contrast to the disturbing behavior and events of these two uncommon lovebirds.  Malick’s treatment of these characters are never cold or distanced, but implores us to listen and be shaken by their dark behavior.  It is a bold first film that put Malick’s name into the forefront of American seventies cinema.  Days Of Heaven paints a poem of the enduring theme of man and nature during the turn of the century America.  On the surface, it is a story of love and murder involving a man, his little sister (who narrates the film), and his girlfriend, but Malick explores the fascination with nature’s fury and beauty and shows its disregard for how man tries to tame or change it.  The languid “magic hour” (evening dusk) shots are spectacular in their small details and in capturing life as it happens.  Days Of Heaven secured Malick as a visionary artist, but an original voice as well.  Both of these films set up unbelievable expectations that would make audiences wait for nearly two decades later, from a self imposed exile from film-making, to make good on that promise.

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“Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros.”  [The Thin Red Line]

In 1998, after rumors and whispers that Malick was indeed making another film, The Thin Red Line was released.  Based upon the James Jones autobiographical novel describing WWII Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line used an ambitious multi character narration in a sweeping epic of men under the duress of war…and with nature, specifically the choking South Pacific jungle.  Nature is cruel, as Colonel Tall describes to Captain Staros, but so is man.  There is cruelty and darkness in all of us.  It is Malick’s brilliance in focusing on the jungle’s indifference to man’s insanity, its eternal connection as in one scene where a corporal mutters how they are all essentially dirt, as he sifts through a handful while crouching in the tall grass during battle.  There are also moments of complete silence, except for the incessant sounds of the jungle, that these men can voice everything within themselves through facial and body movements alone, beautifully captured by John Toll’s camera, that says more than twenty pages of dialogue. War changes men.  It brings out the best and the worst in those men.   It is a mark of a truly great film, that with repeated views, which continues to surprise with new information and touch something deep inside on many levels.  This is a journey into that state of being; into the heart of it all.  It is one of Malick’s very best works in the pantheon of cinematic achievements.

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“I thought it was dream… what we knew in the forest. It’s the only truth.”  [The New World]

The focus on 17th century America and a land untouched by greed and cruelty seemed a poetically justified choice for Malick’s next film.  The New World expands more on the the multi-character internal narration to a great effect.  Some critics actually coined it the Malick effect (with shots of the sun streaming through the treetops) and has been parodied by some since then.  The story covers a love triangle of sorts with Captain John Smith, John Rolfe, with the mysteriously beautiful princess, known to us as Pocahontas, at the center of it all.  This is a gorgeously photographed (with natural light) film that underscores change that is wonderfully curious and devastatingly tragic.  History has already taught us of the plight of the American Indian and Malick shows the wonder of a lost symbiosis with nature, if one truly listens and respects it.  Respect and reverence for this cathedral of trees and rocks and soil, the Indians look upon this invasion upon their lands with curiosity at first, but then anger when untruths are uncovered.  They know change is inevitable and not necessarily always for the good of their people.  Malick’s inner voices, heard through the several narrations, are actually our own doubts and fears and hopes.  It has grown in stature since its release with its ambitious stream of consciousness storytelling that weaves big themes both personal and worldly.

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 “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”  [Tree Of Life]

Tree Of Life is arguably Terrence Malick’s masterpiece which draws upon all of his obsessions and techniques seamlessly within the narrative of growing up in a small town in Texas.  This is a deeply philosophical film that deals with issues not normally seen in a wide release film.  The existential themes of why we exist and where are we going are front and center.  They lie underneath the proceedings, but are nevertheless key to its strength and power.  The jaw dropping beauty of life is captured in miraculous images that Malick manages (without the help of CGI) to give the audience the logical transition from innocence to corruption.  In the midst of this telling story of youth and change, comes a section in the film that many are critical of, but is actually a statement on where we came from…and more importantly the definition of grace according to Malick.  We are transported to the beginnings of this world (with visual effects by veteran maestro Douglas Trumbull) and the miracle of life created within the shrouded depths of an ancient ocean.  The emphasis of ever changing life takes the path to early dinosaurs where Malick’s act of grace is presented.  A dinosaur injured on a rocky stream bed is approached by a possible predator.  The predator cautiously steps up to the frightened injured reptile and lifts its foot to crush its skull, but something in its eyes catches the attention of the predator and it slowly takes its foot away, thus sparing the creature an ugly demise.  This act alone, whether divine or instinct, makes us pause for what lies in us as the basis for good and evil?  It is a huge risk that turned some audiences off, but upon reflection a very necessary statement to make by Malick.  We, as fellow creatures, are imbued with a sense of right and wrong; which begs the question of where does it come from?  Huge ideas with big statements in a film that wonderfully centers around a possibly autobiographical family of four.  Tree Of Life continues to amaze and project these lofty ideas with each viewing.  It deserves a much bigger audience than the one that intially received it with open arms.

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“Mercy was just a word. I never thought I needed it. Not as much as other people do.” [Song To Song]

Malick continued to explore this stream of consciousness storytelling in his next two films, To The Wonder and Knight Of Cups to a less satisfying degree.  Both films are so free form in structure and editing which now distances us from its central themes Malick is trying to convey.  It is as if Malick were attempting to shoot a Terrence Malick film, as absurd as that sounds.  Not to discount them entirely, each has its merits with stretching film language as an art and exploring relationships to varying degrees.

After Knight Of Cups came and went, Malick released another film right on its heels without little fanfare or advertising that counts as one of his very best efforts entitled Song To Song.  This is one of those films caught under-the-radar which ennobles the notion of how we are all connected in the bigger sense of the word and it is up to us to ignite those flames already burning deep inside each of us.  A change in scenery can bring peace and tranquility, but a change in partners brings a whole slew of questions which are difficult to navigate through peacefully.  Song To Song concerns itself with the music scene in Austin Texas and the ordinary individuals working behind it.  The deceptively simple plot encompasses everything we experience with others in its highs and lows.  It isn’t simply about love relationships, but also the search for ourselves, which is sometimes the greatest journey of them all.  All of Malick’s trademarks are here; the multi-voiced inner voices, the natural lighting cinematography, the beautiful close up images, the jump cut editing…and it all feels like something brand new.  Song To Song has the earmarks of something bigger waiting to be discovered with another view.  There is definitively some major themes going on beneath the surface which may be invisible to the naked eye.  These connections, these changes play a cosmic jigsaw puzzle waiting to be finished to form one big answer about us as humans.  This is a small film that speaks to the mind, as well as the heart.  It is where all the elements certainly pay off and, in time, the potential to be a great film alongside his best work.

We can see ourselves in these stories, some beautiful and some very painful, which connects us together.  Malick asks the big questions, and leaves it up to the viewer to conjure up some of those answers.  It may not always be pleasant to think about these things, but it is important to never forget to question who we are and where are we going.  Change makes us grow.  Change educates us.  Change makes life.

“I film quite a bit of footage, then edit. Changes before your eyes, things you can do and things you can’t. My attitude is always ‘let it keep rolling.'”  [writer/director Terrence Malick]

The Malick Filmography  [all quotes shown above written by Terrence Malick]

Lanton Mills, 1969

Badlands, 1973

Days Of Heaven, 1978

The Thin Red Line, 1998

The New World, 2005

Tree Of Life, 2011

To The Wonder, 2012

Knight Of Cups, 2015

Voyage Of Time, 2016

Song To Song, 2017

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The Cinematic Dilemma Of Stephen King

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” ‘They float,’ it growled, ‘they float, Georgie, and when you’re down here with me, you’ll float, too–’ “

The words and stories of Stephen King have become a pop culture phenomenon since his first publishing success with Carrie, in 1974.  King’s innate ability for description is uncanny when focusing on the macabre and horrific.  There is detail in his words, but just enough for you to fill in the rest yourself as the reader.  This makes his stories come alive much more so than if he coldly described the monsters inhabiting his novels in minute detail.  Some of his best stories trick you into imagining your own worst nightmares, along with certain painful memories.

Stephen King understands how powerful the tool of imagination is, which therein lies the wasteland of the many failed cinematic attempts on his stories.  It is one thing to imagine some dark horror King describes in a couple sentences.  It is quite another thing to envision it on the screen.  To this day, some of his best novels have yet to see a successful take on film.  It is because of the ignorance of King’s powerful tool of letting the readership imagine the worst.  That is quite a task to summon in a script for a big budget film, where the first thought is to spend all the money to bring King’s horrible monsters to life for all to see.  The misconception is that one can literally translate a novel into a film.  Film is an entirely different medium than a novel, and requires just as much subtlety and imagination on the other end of the spectrum, for with film you are dealing with not only words, but images and sound.  You are in a sense, filling in the gaps those words in the novel skipped over.  The trick is to figure out how to fill in the gap.

Not all of Stephen King’s cinematic endeavors ended in the wasteland.  Brian De Palma’s stylish and scary “Carrie”, from 1976, was the first big hit for King.  In 1980, the cinematic giant Stanley Kubrick took on “The Shining”.  In 1986, audiences were treated to a wonderful adaption of the short story The Body with Rob Reiner’s “Stand By Me”.  Even David Cronenberg realized ‘The Dead Zone” with intelligence and care.  Reiner later followed his hit with another King story “Misery”, from 1990.  Some other successes were “The Shawshank Redemption”, “The Mist”, and the creepy “Pet Sematary”.  What all of these films have in common, besides the same original writer, is that the filmmakers chose to interpret the novels outside of King’s words, sometimes doing away with whole sections that cannot be translated into film.  Stanley Kubrick was notorious for throwing out most of the original source for “The Shining” (a fact that still rankles King to this day), but produced a film that has grown in stature and greatness over the years.  All other treatments of King’s novels are bland, dry, and sorely lacking in imagination for they tried to literally pull the pages from those sources and plaster them onto the screen, with little or no success.

Which leads us to the recent release of one of Stephen King’s longest novels at 1,138 pages long (his novel The Stand beats it at 1,168 pages in the uncut version), which concerns the evil lurking beneath Derry, Maine in IT.  “IT” has broken box office records at this writing, which is astounding for an R rated horror movie.  The name Stephen King has become such a brand name these days with a seemingly hungry audience waiting to experience again one of his bizarre worlds. “IT” is an ambitious undertaking for it covers a lot of years and a multitude of characters.  There was a mildly successful television venture in 1990 that is only quite memorable for actor Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise, The Clown.  Beyond that, the miniseries was a “by-the-numbers” adaption that never rose to Curry’s demented brilliance.

The 2017 revision of “IT” is ably directed by Andrés Muschietti with a cast of mainly newcomers that shine in their roles.  Tim Curry’s shadow looms across this project, but actor Bill Skarsgård takes it to the extreme and leaves that shadow behind.  His performance is the stuff of nightmares.  Muschietti’s work with the actors is nuanced and has an air of authenticity, especially with the children.  When it comes to the horror action, this is where Muschietti stumbles…but let’s go over the stand outs in this production first.  The production design by Claude Paré perfectly captures the early eighties tinge and feels very realistic.  The images by cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung paints with deep shadows and bright light.  The actors, under Muschietti’s direction, are authentic and emotionally right on cue.  There does not seem to be a false moment with any of them.

“IT” is not without its missteps, and they are glaring.  The music, by Benjamin Wallfisch, is overbearing at times that  telegraphs certain scares before they happen.  The film would have been better off with less music.  For any horror film, sound is integral to ratcheting up tension.  “IT’ has the sound design of a gleeful kid ready to make you jump out of your seat at a moment’s notice, regardless whether the story calls for it.  It cheapens the scares that the film works hard to build up to.  Through all of this, it is ultimately the director, Muschietti himself, that is accountable for the lack of tension in this film.  To rely on jump scare tactics is juvenile, when he could have been slowly building up tension within the frame for those payoffs.  The film seems to jump to the next showcase without lingering on the horror that was presented to us moments ago.  To add insult to injury, while the film has an emotional integrity to it (a coming of age story which is key to its success), there is no underlying subtext present to make the viewer return for another look.  It appears to be a wonderful story about kids growing up, that happens to have a lot of sudden loud scares thrown in the mix.  Apart from the beautifully shot beginning sequence of Georgie floating his paper boat in the rain, only to meet Pennywise in the storm drain, the rest of the film looks wonderful, but shockingly empty of real tension.  It is sadly not a film to revisit.

In the end, King will continue to reside on top because of his words, not the films based on his words.  The novels breathe because we, the reader, push the air into its lungs with our imagination.  “IT” is a worthy attempt, and much better than most, which is saying a lot for the multitudes already strewn across the author’s cinematic wasteland.

Stephen King said it himself, and filmmakers attempting to adapt his work should take heed;

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

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An Event Sociologique: Truffaut in 1977

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François Truffaut (w/ Bob Balaban back right) on location, 1976

7 March 1978
Beverly Hills

Dear François,

We have finally seen Close Encounters. It is a very good film, and I regret it was not made in France. This type of popular science would be most appropriate for the compatriots of Jules Verne and Méliès. Both men were Montgolfier‘s rightful heirs. You are excellent in it, because you’re not quite real. There is more than a grain of eccentricity in this adventure. The author is a poet. In the South of France one would say he is a bit fada. He brings to mind the exact meaning of this word in Provence: the village fada is the one possessed by the fairies.
These fairies who reside with you have agreed to let themselves be briefly borrowed by the author of the film in question.
Love from Dido and I.

Jean Renoir
[Source: Jean Renoir: Letters, edited by David Thompson & Lorraine LoBianco. London: Faber & Faber, 1994]

François Truffaut was pursued by a young Steven Spielberg to accept the role of a French scientist, Claude Lacombe, in his big budget Columbia Pictures venture, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.  His response to Spielberg was one of amusement and a statement that the only person he knew how to play…was himself.  It was in 1976 that one of the founders of French New Wave cinema found himself at the forefront of a complex, effects laden production which both fascinated and horrified him.  It was thanks to Spielberg that Truffaut would cement his decision to never accept a directing offer from Hollywood.

The role of Claude Lacombe is of an especially interesting diversion for Truffaut because of its intelligence mingled with child-like wonder.  Lacombe resembles, in some fashion, the inverse of young Antoine Dionel, the troubled boy in director Truffaut’s stunningly moving debut film Les Quatre Cents Coups, better known as The 400 Blows (a French variation of the term meaning to raise hell).  In that classic film, the young boy Antoine seems older and wiser beyond his years, whereas Truffaut finds himself in 1977 as an older, but child-like man in his pursuit of the truth.  Lacombe does not seem to be jaded by the times, perhaps because of some scientist code of filtering all outside information as possible solutions without prejudice or judgement.  He sees the world through a child’s sense of curiosity and honesty and…with a smile.

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That smile.  Truffaut uses it to such a subtle, but great effect.  It is a knowing smile as he examines an elderly Mexican farmer who was sunburned by a light that sang to him.  It is a gentle smile as Truffaut approaches the main protagonist Roy Neary, played with every-man greatness by Richard Dreyfuss, to ask what he wants.  It is a grateful smile he flashes to the Visitor as they exchange rudimentary hand signals, such a boys would do in a tree-house ritual. He saves his best mischievous smile when he spies from a window the three escaping captives whom he knows have a need and a right to be there just as much as he does.  You cannot help but smile yourself  with Truffaut through all of this.  His presence adds levity and an intelligence to all the fantastical proceedings.  It grants us a peek into that inner child which these celestial visitors seem to bring out.  Lacombe is a scientist you would want to hang out with after work.

The great French director Jean Renior mentions Georges Méliès, in his letter to Truffaut above, which, in a sense,  perfectly highlights that path from the wildly imaginative Méliès films from the silent era to Spielberg’s rumination on contact with extraterrestrials.  Same other-worldly subject matter, but now with a larger budget and bigger special effects.  To witness Truffaut in the midst of this, is to see a man in love with cinema totally and completely.  He may be playing himself, which is charming in itself, but he manages to make us invest emotionally with the scientific aspect, which parallels the Roy Neary emotional investment of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.  It makes us want more interaction between these two men; one that is searching for an answer as a man, with the other eternally searching for the truth as a scientist.

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“I saw plenty of differences in degree, but not in kind. I felt the same admiration for Kelly and Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain as for Carl Dreyer’s Ordet.

I still find any hierarchy of kinds of movies both ridiculous and despicable.” 
― François Truffaut, The Films in My Life

These are the words of a true cinephile, a person who truly loves all things cinema regardless of subject matter, format, style, or period.  Truffaut was a film critic first before going behind the camera.  He talked about his ambitions to be a novelist, but found filmmaking to be a higher art form.  The absolute genuineness of his art and his life made Truffaut one of the great enduring figures in cinema.  His presence in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, was for many American audiences the first time one had ever heard of the name François Truffaut.  Steven Spielberg was nervous in asking Truffaut to be in the film because of his huge reputation and stature as one of the founders of such a formidable movement in cinema art.  To the unsuspecting American audiences, he was a French scientist with a very thick accent, who was extremely likable.  Who was this guy, they may have asked?  In the days before the internet, one had to search the library in newspapers, magazines, or books to find out more.  It could be by chance that some revival house or college would be showing one of his films that could be discovered.  Thanks to technology, we have a plethora of information and actual films of Truffaut waiting to be enjoyed at the click of a mouse.

It would be remiss to discount Truffaut’s contribution to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind as merely a star cameo.  There is something more in his performance.  It has the substance of reality.  He was playing himself, but Vilmos Zsigmond’s camera captured something special.  Something much more.  Within those wonderful smiles, he was having fun with the whole process, and that, ladies and gentleman, is a very difficult measure to capture on film.  In a pivotal scene in the film, his character Lacombe pleads with an army major about this psychic connection, when it almost sounds like Truffaut is talking about the cult of the movie going experience;

Lacombe: I believe that for everyone of these anxious, anguished people who have come here this evening, there must be hundreds of others also touched by the implanted vision who never made it this far. It’s simply because they never watched the television. Or perhaps they watched it, but never made the psychic connection.

Walsh: It’s a coincidence. It’s not scientific.

Lacombe: Listen to me, Major Walsh, it is an event sociologique.

 

François Truffaut [February 6, 1932 – October 21, 1984] Writer, Director, Producer, Critic, Actor

Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, 1977, written and directed by Steven Spielberg, photography by Vilmos Zsigmond, music by John Williams

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[left to right] Bob Balaban,  François Truffaut, Lance Henriksen, director Steven Spielberg, producer Julia Phillips on location 1976

Movies To Make A Grown Man Cry

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“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”    Charles Dickens / Great Expectations

When sitting in a darkened theater and the everyday distractions are blissfully worlds away, sometimes the unexpected can happen when one gets emotionally involved in a good movie.  There is, of course, laughter, amazement, shock, and happiness that can occur.  And then there are the tears.  Yes, we all cry at times when a movie, or a song, and maybe a piece of art will drudge up some unexpected memory which casts some colored feelings over your mind to produce tears of joy, regret, or pain.  Men cry too.  Whether some want to admit it or not, we positively absolutely do.  Some may even try to slyly hide it with a popcorn box or quickly wipe away the evidence.  Yes, we cry.  Any man that says he does not is lying.  There is nothing to be ashamed about it, but men are still subjected to media images of a manhood which is strong and silent.  The only moisture hitting “the blinding dust of earth” (as Dickens said) with these accepted images of men are from sweating or rainfall dousing upon their heads.

So what kind of movies would actually make a man cry?  Is it when ET purportedly dies with the boy Elliot clinging to him?  Or maybe when some two hundred million dollar sports car gets trashed in a Fast And Furious story?  There is no one set of criteria for what a grown man would cry at in the movies.  It is, of course, entirely subjective and based on the individual person.  So, for the sake of argument and a little fun, I will list some movies that never fail to bring a tear to my eye.  I mean, it is classic choking up time when these scenes arrive on the screen for me.  I am not afraid to admit it.  There are various reasons why this occurs with these particular scenes and I will use this opportunity to explore it.  I have five examples to display.  There is a recurring theme of death or impending death with some of the choices, but for the most part, the scenes vary in styles and motifs.

1.)  Expectations dashed in Charles Chaplin’s City Lights from 1931.

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Charlie Chaplin (playing the iconic Tramp) has fallen in love with a visually impaired flower girl and maintained an image of himself towards her that did not match reality.  When the flower girl regains her sight at the end and searches for this man who was kind and caring towards her, she does not “see” Chaplin at first.  When he confesses it was him, Chaplin cuts to an over the shoulder shot that homes in on the expectation of rejection (based on his appearance) with all his hopes and dreams  about to be crushed.

That one shot encompasses so many things in Chaplin’s eyes, but it also involves a lot of what is in me.  Chaplin manages to conjure up those tears in me, but earns it with such grace and heart through his lovable Tramp.

2.)   The swing-set in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru from 1952.

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Kanji Wantanabe finds out he is slowly dying and discovers there is nothing to show for his life.  He has not lived, but merely existed (hence the English title translation of To Live).  Throughout the film, he searches and examines through his life and focuses on beautifying a neighborhood playground park.  When all seems lost, Kanji goes to the park and sits on one of the swings.  Humming softly, he swings slowly in the snow, knowing his death is very near.  This humble law abiding man, who did everything by the book, finally discovers what life is all about…and it is too late.  I cannot help but be touched by his acceptance of his situation.

I watch this at least once a year and it never fails to produce tears when that scene arrives.  This lonely man faces his consequences with great humility and tranquility.

2.) The projection room in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, from 1988.

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Salvatore grew up in a small Italian village where he befriended the local movie house projectionist, Alfredo, and slowly becomes an important figure in his childhood, where no father existed for him.  The film has humor, love, tragedy, and a tremendous sense of nostalgia that you cannot help but love.  Tragedy does strike and the now adult Salvatore hears word that his mentor, Alfredo, has died.  The gift that Alfredo has bestowed upon his young apprentice is of such tenderness and love.  Sitting in a projection booth, Salvatore witnesses his childhood all over again when the images of every “lewd and profane” scene in all the movies they played in his small town are spliced together (the local parish made them cut out kissing and brief nudity in classic Italian, French, and American films they were presenting to protect the townspeople at that time).

Niagara Falls takes place every time I see that scene.  I know it is coming, but it does not matter.  It is because of the characters I love dearly in this film and the haunting nostalgia of a childhood lost inside me.

4.)   1634 Racine Avenue in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, from 1987.

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Jim Malone was an old Chicago street cop on the beat for 20 years with nothing on his mind but getting off his shift alive each night.  Then one evening he spots a young Elliot Ness looking suspiciously dismayed and packing some heat.  This blossoms into a friendship and business partner in fighting crime, namely Al Capone and his bootlegging business.  Jim Malone was the role Sean Connery was born to play (besides his iconic portrayal of super suave 007).  He brought a toughness and humanity with an ever present spectre of death around him.  Malone talks about death, violence, and its consequences all the time in the film.  He is no nonsense and you cannot help but love the guy and wish him well on his retirement.  Those retirement plans changed when he met Ness.  One evening at his place on 1634 Racine Ave, Capone decided Malone had hurt him enough and sent hitman Frank Nitti to take care of business.  When Ness arrives in the aftermath of a bloody shootout, he finds his dear friend Malone lying face down on his throw rug and screams, “God damn!!!”.  When I hear those words and see Ness rush to his friend (and father figure), I feel the anguish and pain for a man I cared for so much  as well and get misty eyed every damn time.  Ennio Morricone’s haunting music certainly adds to the emotion of the event as well.

Perhaps I think of my own father when watching this scene and relive that day of his passing.  Malone was a man of honor and a caring individual, much like my father.  I don’t believe I was ever so happy to see a man fall to his death, as I was when Ness pushed Nitti off the roof in that climatic chase near the end of this film.

5.) One last ride on his shoulders in Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One, from 1980.

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Writer and director Samuel Fuller was assigned to the First Infantry, The Big Red One, in WWII and was exposed to the real horror of war.  His film is a sort of chronicle of his experiences from D-Day to the liberation of Dachau.  The Sergeant (no other name is given to the career defining performance of Lee Marvin), quietly leaves one of his young privates who is continually shooting into the ovens where an already deceased German guard was hiding.  He walks over and discovers a young boy, one of the interned prisoners in this camp, slowly walking up to him.  Throughout the film, The Sergeant continually draws the children’s interest with his strong fatherly persona, which hides a soft caring nature.  This boy approaches The Sergeant where he receives a piece of food from him which he eagerly accepts.  The Sergeant senses the boy needs some caring and takes him outside to a tree where they share some more food while other soldiers are busy investigating the camp in shock of what they are seeing.

When the impromptu picnic is finished, The Sergeant urges the boy to get up on his shoulders so he can give him a ride.  The look on The Sergeant’s face has taken on the whole world’s pain and sadness (Marvin’s performance is brilliant) while the boy happily rides upon his strong shoulders.  It is when the camera closes in on The Sergeant’s face do we realize something is wrong.  The boy slumps.  The apple he was eating falls off to the side.  Tears form in The Sergeant’s eyes as he realizes the boy has died.  One of the private’s voice is heard in narration throughout the film and he tells us that The Sergeant kept walking for several hours before he put the boy down.  Niagara Falls again from me whenever I see that boy slump on his shoulders, for that is what war is all about…the death of innocence and the innocent.  Whether this was based on a true event or it actually happened to Samuel Fuller himself, it does not matter for it has a ring of a deafening truth.  Lee Marvin’s performance is impeccable and the very soul of The Big Red One.  It never fails to move me each time I watch it.

It takes certain experiences, raw emotions to have a movie strike nerves within us.  As Charles Dickens stated, it is good to cry.  It does not have to be only in pain or anguish, but in thought and reflection as well.

Happy tears or sad tears, we all do it.  Even grown men.

 

PÊCHÉS MIGNONS dans Cinéma: Luc Besson’s SUBWAY

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This will be the first of many entries in the Guilty Pleasures category.  We all have them and sometimes are reluctant to admit, amidst the gaudy, over-the-top, or badly executed pieces of work, we return to them again and again for various reasons.  I find a lot of films that are close to my heart usually revolve around a certain year(s) when I was heavily into watching as many films as humanely possible.

The first entry is a French film, hence my cheeky title (French for guilty pleasures in cinema), from 1983; Luc Besson’s pop influenced Subway, starring Christopher Lambert, Isabelle Adjani, Jean-Hughes Anglade, and Besson regular Jean Reno.  Strikingly shot by Carlo Varini with a wonderful production design by Alexandre Trauner, Subway is a flashy take on boy meets girl scenario that never takes itself seriously.  The fun is in watching the kinetic set pieces that show off some very clever camera work while the actors having fun with their lightly drawn characters.  Christopher Lambert is especially interesting because we are never quite sure whether he is making this up as he goes, or has some cosmic plan all along to bring together these ragtag subway dwellers to create a cohesive eighties tinged pop/rock band with them.  Does it make any sense?  Maybe not, but it certainly does not mean it isn’t any fun.

Style is king in Besson’s film and rules with a mighty hand.  In fact, it overshadows most of what is in the story.  Christopher Lambert plays Fred (no last name) who is on the run from certain shady gangster type men and literally crashes his getaway car (stolen from the looks of it) into the underground subway entrance where the rest of the film primarily takes place.  The subway houses its own culture and collection of people that seemingly live there deep within the hidden corridors and rooms underground.  Fred, with his shocking wild peroxide blond hair, looks right at home with these lost figures secretly walking among the everyday commuters.  As the film progresses, Fred befriends some of these shadow people living there and takes upon a leadership role.  He sees talent in certain people and brings them together creatively as a whole.  Meanwhile, Isabelle Adjani, who plays Helena (no last name either), enters the subway looking for something that Fred has taken from her, which explains the chase at the beginning of the film.  Little by little, we discover Fred is in love with Helena and used the theft as an excuse to get closer to her.  Fred represents the guy on the other side of the tracks to Helena’s rich and privileged life style.  This is all played out with a wink and a smile.

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Subway is not a serious piece of work.  It is a film of style over substance in which the viewer is treated to some truly amazing scenes.  It is not particularly French (although it takes place in Paris with French actors), but encompasses a very Hollywood sensibility marketed for everyone to enjoy.  All the characters have one name only, for there is no need to find out anything more about them; even the two detectives are nicknamed Batman and Robin.  What makes Subway so enjoyable is the innocence of the characters and their actions.  Fred has a child-like demeanor towards life and people, which makes everyone around him trust him.  Besson’s script and direction also has a child-like gee whiz attitude which makes the experience for what it is…nothing too important, just have a great time watching it.  It has no grand statement on the human condition, nor did Besson ever intend on making one.  He is having fun behind the camera and the actors are obviously along for that carnival ride as well.

A guilty pleasure can constitute many facets and is very subjective.  I tend toward much more serious films, so my inclusion of Subway is to remind myself that cinema is also to entertain, not just teach.  I could feel guilty that I enjoy watching this, instead of poring over another work by Bergman or Tarkovsky or Ozu.  When it comes to cinema, I am not close minded.  I enjoy all types of films and try to see the good in most of them, even if they don’t deserve it.  Subway did teach me one thing; maybe we all need to be more like Fred and see the world as a child does with new eyes.  Like Fred, we then can see the beauty around us that lies hidden by our everyday trials and troubles.

Subway 1983 [written and directed by Luc Besson, photography by Carlo Varini]

currently only available on DVD (out of print)

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Facing The Mirror: Annette Wernblad’s Epic Journey With Martin Scorsese

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“Martin Scorsese is an extremely spiritual man and filmmaker who has been concerned with moral issues since childhood.  The majority of his films concern characters who are forced through an ordeal, a mythical journey, and thereby offered a chance to face and embrace their whole selves.  These characters reflect sides of all of us, and Scorsese’s films touch us in places we may not necessarily like to be touched.  They delve into caves where we have hidden things we do not want to look at.  They hold up a mirror in which we are confronted with our darkest, most unflattering sides.”     – Annette Wernblad, The Passion Of Martin Scorsese [preface]

The numerous books, articles, and treatises examining the work of American film director, Martin Scorsese, attests to his artistry and influence within the cinema world.  Scorsese himself is all too happy to discuss his dedication to his craft and his prolific cinema knowledge, much to the joy of all his fans.  One such outstanding book is the ongoing amended edition of Scorsese On Scorsese, published by faber & faber,  edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie (which my own personal copy only goes up to 1990’s Goodfellas).  It is filled with in-depth interviews with Scorsese on each of his films, so you are hearing it directly from the artist himself.  This is all well and good, but one soon discovers that even the artist will not divulge all of his/her secrets.  And why should they?

A critical view of his films in book form may seem a dime a dozen, but one particular book takes a view of Scorsese’s world by throwing a mirror onto us that is tantalizingly original and reveals themes otherwise not discussed by past writers.  I am referring to the 2011 critical study The Passion Of Martin Scorsese, by Annette Wernblad.  This is a scholarly piece of work on the films and life of Scorsese, but accomplished in such an entertaining way for any fan to relish.  Wernblad executes the seemingly gargantuan task of analyzing all of Scorsese’s films (up to 2010’s Shutter Island before publication) and presents clues, symbols, recurring themes and links within each production.  Swirling within all of this fascinating material is Wernblad’s argument that Scorsese is actually holding up a mirror to us with these stories.

Scorsese never uses the horrifying images to get cheap thrills.  Neither is violence in his films simply literal, physical violence. It belongs, to use Campbell’s (author Joseph Campbell) words, within “the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams.”  Like in the Catholic liturgy, blood-letting in Scorsese’s work is part of a subtle, ritualized process meant to bring forth spiritual enlightenment, catharsis, and redemption.

Scorsese shows us that—like it or not—we all are barbarians somewhere inside.  The sides of us that are hidden in the dungeon do not go away, and unless we acknowledge and own up to them, we ill invariably act like barbarians.   [Wernblad, page 7, Chapter 1 Something Being Done In Front Of The Altar]

Wernblad contends that this mirror is for audiences to recognize our “shadow self” (to use her reference) which houses the dark leanings within us all.  Her book details many such examples from Taxi Driver (a seminal piece of work) to Raging Bull to Casino (which I personally consider one of Scorsese’s masterpieces) and how the films interconnect with each other.  It is surprising to discover clues, uncovered by the author, which gives a new slant, perhaps an all new interpretation to some of his films.  In The King Of Comedy (one of Scorsese’s most underappreciated works), Wernblad cements the protagonist Rupert Pupkin’s (played with gusto by Robert DeNiro) inability to discern his carefully built fantasy with the reality around him by example of his mother.

The mere fact that he still lives with his mother in his mid-thirties suggests a regressive personality.  Throughout the film, Mother yells admonitions to him, but, in fact, we never see her.  The reason for this, I would propose, is that she is dead and the voice from above is only in Rupert’s head.  In his comedy routine he says, “If she were only here today, I’d say, ‘Hey, Mom, what are you doing here, you’ve been dead for nine years.'”  Even after Mother has been gone for almost a decade, Rupert needs her to be present to the point where we can hear her, always criticizing him, the same way we could hear the late Mrs. Bates yelling at Norman.  [Wernblad, page 94, Chapter 4 Through The Looking Glass]

It is not only a clear understanding of Martin Scorsese’s life and work that the reader is given in this book, but a depth of knowledge for the history of cinema that gels seamlessly with the arguments presented.  This is a goldmine for any serious or casual cinema buff.  You are also given the psychological coloring necessary in understanding what Wernblad believes Scorsese is attempting as an artist.  This may sound very dry as some old high school history book, but Wernblad draws you in with a unique voice by starting off with a personal story of a record recording of Little Red Riding Hood that brilliantly casts the reader into the theme at its purest form.  It is entertaining, humorous, and opens the door into the author’s mind and her basis for writing this book.

The mythological journey, which Wernblad states again and again, consumes most, if not all of Scorsese’s main characters in his films.  The chance for redemption, enlightenment, or a catharsis is something we all harbor inside ourselves, though we may not recognize it.  From Travis Bickle, to Jake LaMotta, to Rupert Pupkin, to Charlie, to Paul Hackett, to Lionel Dobie, to Henry Hill, to Sam Rothstein, to Newland Archer, to Amsterdam Vallon, to Howard Hughes, to Teddy Daniels; each of these characters seem to share a connected journey.  It was not clearly seen (by yours truly) how this journey was consistently presented by Scorsese in all of his films until this book opened that door.  It begs a revisit to all of his films, which is a credit to Wernblad’s skill in presenting her ideas.

“The idea of cinema as part of an ancient quest, of Martin Scorsese as a man with a vocation whose films are ritualized stories that take place in front of an altar and affect us on deep spiritual levels, forms the very essence of what this book is all about.”  [Wernblad, page 21, Chapter 1 Something Done In Front Of The Altar]

It is a journey worth taking upon repeated times and a book certainly worth reading for even the casual movie goer, for it may open the eyes to all those layers a filmmaker intentionally places within their stories.  When eyes are opened, a whole new world rises up for discovery.

The Passion Of Martin Scorsese, 2011, Annette Wernblad

annettewernblad.com

 

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[pictured author Annette Wernblad]

Barry Lyndon Under The Microscope With Eric Peeper

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I have been wary of writing about my number one American cinema idol, Stanley Kubrick, for fear of not doing justice to his accomplishments and inspiration he continues to bring to filmmakers and audiences alike.

Eric Peeper has written a lovely treatise on one of Kubrick’s most difficult, but now considered masterpieces of cinema that highlights the technical and story advancements on screen.  Barry Lyndon was, for a long time, a film I was not sure if I liked or disliked due to the pacing, the lead performance of Ryan O’Neal, and the overall coldness of direction by Kubrick.  Over the years, it has become one of my favorites for precisely these past perceived inadequacies, funny enough.  Peeper delves into the history of Kubrick’s process and technological advances with entertaining skill.

This is a piece worth sharing for it presents why Kubrick is important in cinema and the need to revisit his films with great relish.  Ingmar Bergman remains my Everest of filmmakers, but Kubrick is right alongside in terms of being able to revisit his worlds and still learn something new with each viewing.  That is a mark of brilliant craftsman and an enduring filmmaker.

Please click on the link and discover why it is time to possibly revisit Barry Lyndon.

https://ericpeeper.wordpress.com/2017/07/22/cut-glass-cruelty/