Shining A Cinema Light Upon Women Directors

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I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population – and gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not going to know the whole story.    / Jane Campion, director

“I don’t think you catch people’s attention with normalcy. Seeing the same world through the eyes of a healthy married woman with three kids might be interesting, but it doesn’t catch people’s attention. I think the mechanism of shock triggers a more acute sensitivity. You have to put people in a certain frame of mind. I think a filmmaker has to be shrewd. Not in a bad way, not like, ‘I’m a shrewd businessman. I can get away with anything.’ But in terms of sensitivity, being shrewd means putting people in the right frame of mind. Then you can tell them, ‘Come with me on a journey…'”    / Agnes Varda, director

 

The successful release of Patty Jenkins’ film of Wonder Woman to critical raves upon this weekend has renewed discussion of the future of female cinema directors and their power within the Hollywood system.  Worldwide, there are indeed women directors producing some great pieces of work, but the number is much less financed than the currently male dominated industry.  Many women directors are left waiting to bring their works to light because of the continued biased towards an unrealistic belief that women cannot handle big budget films or bring both male, as well as female, audiences into the theater.  This sad devotion is depriving us of many possible great films with a perspective we need, as Jane Campion is quoted above.  A greater knowledge forms from different perspectives, and from that knowledge we all grow as humans.

Patty Jenkins success with a superhero film may repave this neglected road for women directors to gain much more of a foothold with numerous projects and bigger budgets.  We recently saw Sofia Coppola win the coveted Best Director prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for her new film The Beguiled.  This is only the second time a female has won that prize in 71 years.  The first was Russian film director Yuliya Solntseva, who won for her film Chronicle Of The Flaming Years back in 1961.  That statistic alone should illustrate the lack of recognition within this industry.  This is a statistic that needs to change.

We can begin to change this by recognizing and praising the very films written and directed by women.  It should not take the advent of a superhero film directed by a woman to crack open this bigger discussion,   This is a dam about to burst, for on the other side lies the very hardcore evidence that women directors are an important piece of cinema and just waiting to be unlocked.  The list below captures many recent works, so that one can easily find and stream those films, however there are some older works which are just a worthy as pioneers in cinema history.  Use this small list as a starting point to familiarize yourself to new perspectives and hopefully lead to others that I have missed.

Jane Campion [New Zealand writer, producer, director] The Piano, Sweetie, An Angel At My Table, Holy Smoke, Bright Star

Maya Deren [Ukraine/US experimental filmmaker]  Meshes Of The Afternoon, The Witche’s Cradle, At Land, Meditation On Violence

Claire Denis [French writer, producer, director]  White Material, Chocolat, Beau Travail, Let The Sunshine In

Sofia Coppola [US writer, producer, director]  Lost In Translation, The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, The Beguiled

Agnes Varda [Belgium/French writer, producer, director]  Vagabond, Cleo From 5 to 7, The Gleaners And I

Dorothy Arzner [US director]  The Wild Party, First Comes Courage, Get Your Man, The Red Kimono

Deepa Mehta [Indo-Canadian director] Fire, Midnight’s Children, Water

Lina Wertmüller [Italian writer, director]  Seven Beauties, Love And Anarchy, All Screwed Up, Swept Away

Lois Weber [US actor, writer, director]  The Blot, Suspense, The Hypocrites

Agnieszka Holland [Polish writer, producer, director]  Europa-Europa, Total Eclipse, The Secret Garden

Gillian Armstrong [Austrialian writer, director]  My Brilliant Career, Starstruck, High Tide, Oscar & Lucinda, The Last Days Of Chez Nous

Amma Assante [British actor, writer, director]  A United Kingdom, Belle

Susan Seidelman [US writer, producer, director]  Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens

Lynne Ramsay (Scottish writer, producer, director]  Ratcatcher, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Morvern Callar

Sally Potter [British writer, director]  Orlando, Ginger & Rosa, Rage, Yes

Chantal Akerman [Belgium writer, director]   Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (one title), No Home Movie, News From Home

Larisa Efimovna Shepitko [Russian actor, writer, director]  The Ascent, Wings

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Begin with these filmmakers and discover a world not governed by the male gaze, but at times a much more honest and cutting look into the female mystique (and humans in general) on screen…by women themselves.  These women behind the camera have a unique importance in cinema and a place in storytelling history.

And, perhaps in time, it will be unnecessary for such a piece devoted exclusively to women directors.  In the eyes of audiences, those filmmakers will indeed be equal without borders, without labels, and judged simply as artists.

Come Back, Philip Kaufman, We Need You More Than Ever!

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“Indeed, the only truly serious questions are ones that even a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limit of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.”      

Milan Kundera / The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

Philip Kaufman is an American writer, producer, and director with credits that span the seventies till his last project back in 2012.  A progressive thinker, Kaufman cannot be boxed into one category.  His films can be overtly political and sexual, with sometimes intermixing the two into interesting themes regarding societal doctrines.  As a writer, he crafted one of the best Westerns Clint Eastwood ever made (Outlaw Josey Wales) and gave Indiana Jones his first (and still best) ever adventure that was tough as nails.  He was the first to earn the much maligned NC-17 rating for a film with adult themes deemed too much for teenagers sneaking into R rated screenings.  Kaufman’s projects are acidly funny, but challenge audiences on serious subjects in an offbeat literary sense.  Some of his best work is based on original novels or sources, but his screenplays inject a European modern wit, a wink and a smile if you will, to the proceedings which leavens the sometimes heavy subject matter.

Kaufman’s voice in cinema is sorely missed in these current turbulent times.  One can only imagine what he would make of the continually scorched political climate, the confusion and chaos of our landscape.  One would hope he will soon plunge a dagger into this soft mess and reveal the vile under layer with amusement and wit in the very near future.  His last film was a project featuring Ernest Hemingway locking literary horns with Martha Gellhorn in 2012.  There have been no new works since.

Filmmakers, such as Philip Kaufman, fly under the radar and need a voice sometimes to spotlight their contribution to cinema.  What better way to argue for Kaufman’s return than to swing that spotlight now onto some of his best films which clearly illustrate his eye for the political, social, and sexual mores of our society.  These are highly intelligent, humorous and challenging films.  They are entirely re-watchable and entertaining in the best way possible; they cater to intelligent audiences.

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In 1983, the film version of a much beloved book, The Right Stuff, was released to theaters with all the Academy Award hyperbole sufficient to deem it as “important”.  What no one realized at the time, was that Philip Kaufman wrote a subversive script that gave rise to the wonder of space travel, but also poked fun at the convoluted political shenanigans that went behind the scenes with the space race with the (then) Soviet Union.  The one line during an exchange between President Lyndon Johnson and several German scientists hard at work on the American side is so much on point with how ludicrous the actual space race could be:

Von Braun: Mr. President, our German scientists are better than their (USSR) German scientists!

The media covering these events certainly did not get any mercy under Kaufman’s direction.  We see the propaganda infused Life Magazine editors, the incessant buzzing sound of bug/pest like reporters surrounding the Mercury Seven astronauts, and the flash bulb intrusions into homes and personal lives of these people.  The media in 1983 did not take kindly to this and blasted Kaufman for this (actually accurate) portrayal on screen.

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The Right Stuff certainly infused the mythological aspects of space travel beginnings in the guise of legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager (played memorably by playwright Sam Shepard).  It is the very stuff legends are made of in the sequence featuring Yeager on horseback challenging the new test rocket plane designed to break the sound barrier.  The old ways versus the new.  Kaufman continually alludes to how brave these men were, but reminds us the absurd conventions that made it possible to put these lives on the line.  It is a glorious epic that transcends the normal biopic.  It captures an all encompassing view, both intimate and huge, with a pace which is languid and engrossing.  This film failed at the box office because it was marketed as a patriotic emblem, instead of the subversive epic it really was.  The socio-political landscape is detailed beautifully amidst the grandeur of reaching for the stars.  That is a hard balance to maintain, but Kaufman effortlessly achieves it in this fine film.

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In 1988, Kaufman turned his attention to another much beloved novel by Milan Kundera about the roving adventures of a Czech surgeon, along with two very important women in his life, in Prague 1968, right before the Soviet invasion.  The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is a marvel of originality.  This time, Kaufman tackles the sexual politics along with the radical politics of a country on the cusp of intellectual and spiritual freedom before the Soviets crushed those dreams underneath the many tanks it rolled into Prague.

This sounds very serious and its themes of political/religious/sexual freedom are indeed very serious.  However, Kaufman’s touch gives the film an airy texture that lifts the film to a place where characters have room to breathe and grow and laugh.  One such example is the wonderful scene where Tomas (played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis) hints at his jealously of another man dancing with his live-in girlfriend Tereza (a simply glowing Juliette Binoche) and it develops into a free-for-all tickle romp on the floor ending in Tereza proposing marriage to a laughing Tomas.  It is sweetly intimate, as if we are peering into a room and seeing this spontaneous and loving couple enjoying life.  Sexual freedom comes with a price.  Sabina (brilliant performance by Lean Olin) completes the triangle of Tomas and Tereza as an artist who claims to want no ties with anyone–but secretly loves Tomas completely and runs from it.  The sex in this film is gloriously silly, playful, and intensely erotic.  The tension between these characters is so thick, you can sense an electrical bond between these characters.  It is a credit to the actors and to Kaufman’s innate ability to present sex outside of Hollywood’s gauzy pristine standards.  The photo shoot sequence between Tereza and Sabina was worth the price of admission alone.  There is a European flavor to it, but the heat generated between these two characters provided such a fitting tribute that love can still never be easily defined.

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Let us not forget how The Unbearable Lightness Of Being displays a political landscape of Soviet blanketed propaganda that tried to place a good light on their invasion of Czechoslovakia.  People were brutalized, imprisoned, and sometimes killed for protesting such a wrongful show of force.  The film deftly mixes actual documentary images with our characters to give a real grounding on how massively shocking this all was to the world.  The Soviets placed a foot on the throat of democracy and freedom until it choked under the weight of the so called righteous.  We now live in a world that frowns upon the act of protest as a movement.  We are to follow our leader into the abyss if need be.  We blindly take sides against each other and do not listen.  There was a time when you took to the streets because there was no alternative choice remaining at your disposal.  We are faced with those times again and it would be wonderful to see what Kaufman could do with these themes today.

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In 1990, Philip Kaufman brought a dream project of his to life by adapting the lives of writers Henry Miller and Anias Nin with the first NC-17 rated film in cinema history, Henry & June.  Sex is prominently in the forefront with this film as Miller (a surprisingly great Fred Ward) assumes the self exiled status of an artist living in Paris.  He loves his wife, June (a luminously tragic Uma Thurman), and is jealously devoted to her.  Nin (a sexually intelligent performance by Maria de Medeiros) catches his eye, but it is her mind that he craves even more.  Their romance ended up lasting a lifetime through letters, but again, Kaufman presents sex and love in an entirely adult fashion that confused general audiences.  Their definition does not fit the norm of society.  Paris was at the height of freedom to explore and redefine sexuality and art.  American audiences may have been too straight laced to fully appreciate what Kaufman was attempting, thus the box office failure of yet another wonderfully subversive and intelligent film.

Another love triangle was on display in Henry & June which beautifully defies all standard love story conventions.  These are people rich in the experience field willing to put themselves (and their partners in some cases) on the line in order to find something that no one else has found.  Miller and Nin duel mentally throughout the film with literature, life, and love.  They consistently habitually redefine themselves, but fall back onto social conventions such as monogamy and financial success.  It is a rarity to see a Hollywood project take on the fringe elements of art and love with such openess.  It is not surprising it earned an NC-17 rating, but it is not exploitation.  It is adult with adult themes which require an audience with intelligence and open mindedness.  How often can one be challenged on how we were brought up to think about relationships and sex on a level that questions it.  Miller and Nin were free spirits, but haunted by their own inadequacy and limitations placed by society and class structures.  These people may come across as self absorbed, but Kaufman places them in the context of adventurers of a modern world not quite ready for their conquests.

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So, we plead to Philip Kaufman, the missing in action American writer and director…please return to the cinema screen and give us your shaman magic for the modern world.  Redefine for us again what it is to be human with all of our subtleties and frailties and the wonderfully funny behaviors that enrich us.  We don’t care what project you have your eyes on, just put your wonderful words to paper and train the camera with your all seeing eye.  We need it now, more than ever.  Our subversive nature is slowly being throttled by unseen forces.  Please, Philip Kaufman, we need you more than ever.

Rumble Fish and the Ghosts Of Time

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Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.

The American writer, Susan Eloise Hinton (better known as S.E. Hinton) gained fame as the teenager author of “The Outsiders” in 1967, a “young adult” novel before there ever was such a genre.  Her gift for language and setting (Tulsa Oklahoma) among the disillusioned and lost youth has since become a regular part of public school curriculum.  The novels Tex, That Was Then This is Now, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish deal with themes which resonated with young readers and continue to influence today.  Francis Ford Coppola, frustrated with his brand name (The Godfather series in particular), embarked on two small personal projects with limited budgets with his “family” of actors and creative team members from past films to reach back to his instinctive creative days.  The resulting work produced The Outsiders in March 1983 in expressive color and Rumble Fish later that October of 1983 in striking black and white.  Both films were photographed by Stephen H. Burum (veteran of many Brian De Palma films such as The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way).

There are tragic echoes, ripples in time, that reverberate and connect most of the characters in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish, a underrated effort which recently received a prestigious Criterion Collection release on disc.  These ripples flow through the two troubled brothers, their alcoholic father, the mother who abandoned them, the veteran street cop watching over one of the brothers, the doomed romance between two young lovers, and the addicted ex-girlfriend.  The disconnects, loneliness, and quiet despair lies underneath the everyday lives of these people.  They are all ghost-like searching the city streets for clues.  This ethereal longing for something greater is a central theme that Coppola brought strongly to the forefront on screen.  Youth has a taste for self destruction while believing themselves indestructible.  This duality is the heart that beats in Rumble Fish.  Floating within the confined wastelands of Tulsa, the yearning to break free trembles beneath the surface at all times.

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Coppola touted Rumble Fish as an art film for teenagers.  It is much more than that for it relies on the unforgiving conceit that youth is not all that it is cracked up to be.  This is perhaps why the film tanked at the box office and never managed to acquire young audiences such as the novel did.  Coppola does not utilize cinema tricks just for the sake of it.  The clock in Rumble Fish continually ticks (you can hear it in Stewart Copeland, founder of the band The Police, and his manic percussive score) that makes the characters march towards some unknown fatal destination.  Many ghost-like scenes invade otherwise standard exchanges between characters such as the father, inebriated as usual,  confused at first whether he really sees both of his sons in his squalid apartment.  The lovers spat on the street is suffused with other-worldly smoke that swallows up the characters.  The knife fight between gangs where we can see striking shadows and mist surrounding a nightmarish decaying stage set for some long ago battle.  Tulsa is seemingly transported to another age and another time, again giving rise to this idea of ghosts floating through this story.

Rumble Fish incorporated many of Francis Ford Coppola’s merry band of regular cast members and some of his own family.  Matt Dillon and Diane Lane, fresh off of The Outsiders with Coppola, were the first cast.  There is Lawrence Fishburne (Mr. Clean from Apocalypse Now), Nicolas Cage (nephew of Coppola), Herb Rice (Roach from Apocalypse Now), Tom Waits (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), Sofia Coppola (daughter and filmmaker in her own right), Vincent Spano (whatever happened to him?), the late Christopher Penn, Diana Scarwid (whatever happened to her?), veteran character actor (and personal favorite) William Smith, and even a sly cameo by author S.E. Hinton as a prostitute trying to drum up business with the two brothers.  Coppola brought master production designer Dean Tavoularis (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather trilogy, Zabriskie Point, Ninth Gate) which took actual locations in Tulsa and heightened the surreal uneasy feeling of the film.  Director of photography Stephen H. Burum worked closely with Tavoularis to create the German expressionist landscape of deep shadows and confining spaces that defines this wasteland of youth (they even painted shadows on the sets to deepen the expression on film).  The fact that these very creative filmmakers contributed their time and energy to such a small project is a testament to Coppola’s mettle as one of America’s top modern cinema masters.

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Clocks are ever present in almost every scene either by visual or an auditory sense.  It is counting down the seconds, winding up the tension in Rumble Fish.  Time is like some heavy cloud (such as the time-lapsed clouds in the beginning sequence) that weigh upon Rusty-James (Matt Dillon) and his ghostly idolized older brother, Motorcycle Boy (played to perfection by a young Mickey Rourke).  This longing, referred to earlier, reaches such high levels when these two are on screen together.  Rusty-James tearfully pleads with his brother to just see him.  See him for who he really is.  That inherent need to belong, to feel needed or loved, is such a universal feeling we all share.  With the incessant feeling of time ticking away, the film presents the characters as being short on that time to discover their place in this world before that world chews them up and spits them out.

Time also ticks away on the soundtrack (an incredibly intricate sound design by Richard Beggs) in a variety of inventive ways.  We not only hear clocks ticking, clanging, buzzing, but in water dripping, echoing voices (another ghostly like effect), percussive beats from the Stewart Copeland soundtrack, and an underlying blanket of sound that gives that sense of something different in this world running away with time.  Beggs never seems to overindulge in these effects.  It seems a natural part of the world they have created.  Do yourself a favor and turn up the sound when watching this film to fully appreciate the work that went in to creating this aural landscape.

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The title Rumble Fish refers to Motorcycle Boy’s statement of certain fish in the local pet store that are separated in the fish tank for they would kill each other if in the same space.  His thought of freeing these fish into the river, giving them the space they really needed, would undo that primal need to destroy each other.  Is this what we need for the self destructive behavior for youths in gangs?  Freedom and the responsibility to choose, rather than be like the ghosts of past gang members on the endless cycle of nihilistic violence?  Sometimes it takes a ghost (in this case, the quiet presence of Mickey Rourke) to show the way; break free of the constraints of endless repetition that life sometimes hands us.

This all sounds so bleak on the surface, but there is a beautiful hope.  Coppola provides it little by little as the film progresses for we end up caring, against our better judgement, for these characters and want them to succeed.  These are flawed broken people, but they carry the same needs and desires we all do.  Hope is possible and given in the end which lifts the film up right where it needs to be.

No longer a ghost of time will Rusty-James be, but living in the present upon a path to something better than the world he left behind.  Rumble Fish is a work of art with heart, daring, and the inventiveness of a Coppola that he strives to be outside of the ghost of his mainstream successes.

On the Set of

[Francis Ford Coppla (foreground) with Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke on set, Tusla OK 1982]

Valhalla Of Masculinity: The Alchemy Of Nicolas Winding Refn

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mas·cu·lin·i·ty
ˌmaskyəˈlinədē/
noun
 possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men.

Nicolas Winding Refn is a 46 year old Danish film director, writer, and producer that engineers striking visuals with some punishing violence.  There is a lot of flash on the surface which at times conceals his myriad statements about masculinity, which is interesting and at times disconcerting to the uninitiated.   Born in Copenhagen, Refn has a unique world view that houses European sensibility with flat out Hollywood enfant terrible tendencies.  His films are deadly serious, but so much fun to watch with his fractured male “heroes” blindly groping for meaning.

You may have seen at least one of his films, though you might not know his name.  To discuss the landscapes he has created in his films, one must pick and choose which stories merit such mention.  I chose three that I find myself returning to again and again.  These are works worth seeking out to stream or rent, but for the purpose of this article I want to make the reader aware they exist and certainly worth trying at least once.  Plus, they are entertaining as all get out.

Let us start with 1990’s Valhalla Rising.

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Valhalla, according to Norse mythology, is a vast hall armored with a roof adorned with shields for half of the slain warriors in battle to live forever in harmony under the god Odin.  It is a virtual palace filled with abundant feasts under a rafter of spears.  The Hall of the Slain.

Valhalla Rising concerns a one-eyed mute kept as a fighting slave, who escapes with the help of a boy and joins company with a group of reformed Christian Vikings wanting to bring their way of life to a new land…Paradise.  With very little dialogue (a risk by Refn, but works in favor for the film), the story is bone crushingly violent, as was the times, and borders on the mystical with “One-Eye” and his apparent visions.  His ultimate quest is to journey to Valhalla in the only way he knows; a valiant and honorable death in battle.  How he comes about with answers for that journey is what the film purports to present in graphic shocking terms intermixed with moments of tenderness.

The male mystique, as Refn showcases, is a trial by pain, brutal violence, and survival of the fittest.  The animal-like behavior is necessary to coexist with the harsh realities of the times.  “One-Eye” never once utters a word, but you feel his perplexing confusion and naked curiosity when faced with his own mortality.  The boy he befriends (if you want to call it a friendship) is his only concession to being human outside this facade of brutal masculinity.  That boy is central to “One-Eye” and his humanity.  There seems to be a connection that links his own childhood past with that of the boy walking alongside him.  One-Eye sees what he has lost in himself and what he has become.  Masculinity among the breathtakingly harsh landscapes of the Scottish Highlands (where the film was shot) lends no room for mistakes and no trust for your fellow man.  In the end, “One-Eye” achieves his Valhalla quest, but also regains some of his humanity, thanks to the boy.  We only hope the boy, who witnessed the proceedings, will go forward with a newer definition of what it is to be a man; of sacrifice, honor, duty, and a trust in something good.  “One-Eye” was no mentor by any stretch of the imagination, but the boy saw something in him more than just the ragged animalistic masculinity around him.

Refn’s visual splendor is on display in Valhalla Rising with the gorgeous muted landscapes, bodies sculpted in mud, and blazing colors within those visions.  These men seem to be hewn from the very rocks scattered across the fields.  Death surrounds them at all times and yet, “One-Eye” yearns for something greater.  A slowly natural progression from the endless circle of violence.

Next up is 2011’s Drive.

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This is another of Refn’s “heroes” who are actually bad men striving to be good against their better nature.  Drive was Refn’s critical and audience breakout hit.  The film boasts some terrific performances with knockout visuals which highlight a far more symbolic foray into the realm of masculinity.   The Driver (we never know his real name) is a Hollywood stunt driver by day, but yields a sideline business as a getaway driver by night.  This all sounds somewhat cliched, but director Refn infuses the whole scenario with Driver’s need for salvation, something he discovers he has a need for, but has trouble reconciling that need with his darker nature.  Being a man, a good man, is Driver’s quest.  Entering within his masculine world of cars, speed, danger, and the solitary male existence is his next door apartment neighbor, Irene and her young son, Benicio.  What starts as casual words in the hallway, soon leads to the opening of a whole new world for Driver; the world of hope and a new sense of the masculine mystique.  This involves the caring and nurturing of possible loved ones, as opposed to the disposable criminals rushing into his getaway car (and if late per his dictated schedule, he leaves them behind with only the concern for himself and his own safety).  He sees an existence beyond his male definition, perhaps one that was created by the Hollywood dream factory that he works in by day.

There is one glorious sequence in Drive where Refn gives the audience everything that is conflicted within Driver and necessarily explodes.  I am, of course, referring to the elevator sequence.

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This spellbinding scene places danger (a man sent to kill Driver) in between Irene and Driver in close quarters.  Driver realizes he has to resort to his darker nature, but before he does, he holds Irene close and kisses her tenderly one last time (notice the lighting change Refn chooses during this kiss) because Driver knows Irene will now finally see his true nature; a bad man capable of punishing exact violence.  And she may never want him back after that, for she will never again see him as a good man.  The action is sudden and very brutal, however the violence is necessary.  This is who Driver is and Irene needs to see him for what he is.  When Driver pushes Irene out of the elevator, she looks upon his blood splattered face with horror and confusion as the doors close on him.  He has turned into a monster of a man.  It is masculinity both ugly and bent.  How can a man who tenderly kisses her reverse into animal mode destroying another human all within a matter of minutes?  Where does that line in the sand appear between man and animal?  Driver recognizes this quality within himself, but cannot help himself.  Like “One-Eye”, Driver seeks redemption after this and eventually finds it at the cost of many lives and a hopeless future.  His Valhalla is a solitary existence or death after making his great sacrifice on the Los Angeles streets of battle.

Lastly, we discuss one of my favorites, but has turned out to be Refn’s first critical and commercial bomb, 2013’s Only God Forgives.

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Only God Forgives is such an interesting, but polarizing film.  There are no “heroes” to root for, least of all the leading character Julien; a man so traumatized by his mother and past deeds that it immobilizes him from any real human relationships.  Julien wants to love and be loved, but the very idea frightens him because of his conditioning (by his mother) of what kind of a son/man he should be.  His mother’s ideas are bizarre to say the least and verge into Oedipal territory.  Julien struggles with his inner demons and, like “One-Eye” and Driver, seeks salvation.  He recognizes his Valhalla in the form of Chang, a retired Thailand police officer, who exacts redemption (Refn has corroborated this in later interviews) as if he were in fact…God.

Pretentious, you might say? That accusation can be justified on this film, but that is what makes this such a glorious mess to watch.  All of Nicolas Winding Refn’s gallery of societal male anxieties are all on display here with a good dose of that sudden punishing violence Refn is known for.  He does not glorify or push aestheticism into his violence, but rather makes it an extension of his character’s inner demons which can explode to an ugly effect at any time.  Violence has consequences and there are no heroes when one uses it in Refn’s world.  Even Chang (God) seems to have no remorse in his actions, only to coldly and systematically carry out his redemption.

So why the fascination with this overly symbolic and (as I admitted earlier) pretentious piece of work?  Quite honestly, I have never seen a major released film present such a brutally fractured view of the male psyche in such a stylish celebratory manner.  The surface has stunning cinematography, faces that fit with the story, beautiful music, and editing that is peerless.  Underneath is nasty, grimy, pulsating with an idea of masculinity gone horribly wrong; so wrong that the man we should be rooting for is pretty much a lost cause.  His only hope for Valhalla is to rid himself of the root cause of all his deep seated problems, which is mutilation.  Sounds very extreme, but it is his only path to salvation…to his Hall of the Slain as it were.  It all sounds so over the top and that is part of its charm.  Perhaps Refn intended that, for I cannot help myself from returning to this film from time to time to reaffirm what I had witnessed before.

It is a big beautiful train wreck of a film with a major star and a major director striving to achieve greatness and falling short.  It was also the last time the two worked together (Ryan Gosling and Refn).  There was talk of a Logan’s Run reboot with these two and I cannot help but wonder if Refn would have concocted only a big budget version of Only God Forgives with Sandman Logan 5 as another fractured male seeking redemption or his Valhalla known (as in the original film) as Sanctuary.  Seems tailor made for Refn and maybe that is why the studio scrapped the project before it ever got to script phase.

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[director Nicolas Winding Refn (l) with Ryan Gosling on set of Only God Forgives, Thailand 2010]

Directed By Jonathan Demme: Colors and Shades

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The versatile American writer/director, Jonathan Demme, passed away today from cancer at 73. Thankfully, his soft spoken and gentle demeanor are forever etched in each of his works. The rain outside seems only to color further the grayness of today.

Beginning in such humble surroundings with Roger Corman’s low budget studio efforts, Demme rose to prominence in the eighties starting with the critical darling “Melvin & Howard” [1980], a small film with a big heart.  His sensitive direction and eye for composition soon caught the eyes of Hollywood and the music industry.  Demme’s career ranged from comedies, dramas, documentaries, television, music videos, with never seeming to repeat himself in style or content.  The one consistent theme throughout his work could be the abundant enthusiasm for his subjects.

The eighties saw such a wealth of screen work in films such as “Swing Shift” [1984], “Stop Making Sense” [1984], “Something Wild” [1986], “Swimming To Cambodia” [1987], “Married To The Mob” [1988].  Each of these films displayed a talent for mixing stylistic choices into different mediums that were currently stagnant in repetition and riddled with cliches. “Something Wild” is a film I consider one of Demme’s very best work and incorporates all his themes and ideas into a richly funny, yet very dangerous story.

Then in February 1991, Demme released his most influential hit, “The Silence Of The Lambs”, which the following year won big at the Academy Awards.  The film is miraculous in that he never really wanted to approach the material because of a distaste for violence on screen that has no intrinsic value except for sheer excitement.  When assured that he could tackle the themes of Thomas Harris’ original novel in his own way, Demme ended up producing a work both shocking and thought provoking which audiences immediately recognized as something different.  One can see Demme’s influence such as tightly focusing on the character Clarice Starling’s face amidst the horror surrounding her in many scenes.  There are far more hints of violence, than actual visual depictions of it.  Watch how the camera seems to chase Starling from behind in the woods sequence at the beginning, only to discover she is actually on a training exercise with the FBI.  The position of Starling as the outsider in situations, making her appearance small in stature and hemmed in by the walls of Dr. Lecter’s holding cell or surrounded by those tall local policeman at the funeral home.

One cinematic masterstroke (and evidence of Demme’s dislike of violence) comes by way of the climatic ending with Buffalo Bill and Starling.  When all seems lost in the dark for Starling, she turns and shoots at the hunted serial killer, striking him in the chest several times.  When all other filmmakers would show the “hero” in their moment of triumph over adversity, Demme chooses instead to focus on the repercussions of such a violent act with Buffalo Bill lying on the floor bloodied and wheezing the last few breaths of his fading life.  We never see Starling’s heroic face in relief, we only see the aftermath of violence in all its ugliness.  This is a master filmmaker completely in tune with his materials and his personal vision.

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After the huge success of “The Silence Of The Lambs”, the turn toward more serious films consumed his career.  “Philadelphia” [1993] focused on the current AIDS crisis and another Academy Award winner.  “Beloved” [1998] was a strange and wonderful ghost story during the aftermath of Deep South slavery.  “The Manchurian Candidate” [2004] was a worthy revisionist take on the Frankenheimer classic.  Two other films were molded on the comedy genre, most notably “Rachel Getting Married” [2008] is a joy of a film and most overlooked.  Within these years Demme worked on documentaries with Neil Young, President Jimmy Carter, and also directed some superb television work.  Before his death today, he was in preproduction for another film.  Working right up to the end.

Jonathan Demme was (is) an American original.  To watch one of his films is to see a compassion for human frailties, mistakes, and a yearning for something greater.  Melvin’s need for meaning, Starling’s need for acceptance, Drigg’s need for excitement, Beckett’s need for understanding.  All of these characters have real basic human flaws, which Demme loved and cherished.  The term sensitive direction does a disservice to Demme’s films.  He was an artist able to channel his own ideas of how the world works in a variety of adjectives too numerous to list.  It is sad to think we will no longer be treated to a new Jonathan Demme film.  No longer will we see his smiling face and enthusiastic passion shining a light on what makes us human.  Goodnight, Mr. Demme and thank you for sharing with us.

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[Jonathan Demme 1944-2017]

“Everything I’ve made – it doesn’t mean they’ve all been good – but everything I’ve made so far, big or little, fiction or documentary, has been something that I’ve been really enthusiastic about.”

The Doors Of Heaven & Hell: Easter According To Martin Scorsese

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“If I were fire, I would burn; if I were a woodcutter, I would strike. But I am a heart, and I love.”     ― Nikos Kazantzakis / The Last Temptation Of Christ

In a humid month of August 1988, a storm of a different shape took hold on this nation with emotional tirades of self-righteous indignation for a film that precious few actually watched, much less had authority to banish from the movie screens.  The spearhead of this movement was Rev Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association against Martin Scorsese and Universal Pictures.  The judgement calls of obscenity, blasphemous content, and outright satanic behavior was shocking to see when juxtaposed with a film that, if anything, actually celebrates the divine complexity of a central figure which is still a hot topic of discussion with millions of people around the world.

I was privy to an actual screening of this film at the now demolished Avalon Theater here in St. Louis.  Throngs of angry protesting individuals pushed leaflets and shouted to me why I must not see this film.  They demanded an answer if I knew this was a fictional account of the Gospels?  That if I knew this was not the Truth?!  I returned their demands with the question, what is truth?  And added that I am here to actually see this film and decide for myself.  There were some police keeping back the protesters and the scene gave the experience a surreal “you-are-in-the-moment” feel to it all.   I was later to discover that most, if not all, of the protesters did not even bother seeing the film they were vehemently against in local newscast interviews all that week.  It left a sour taste in my mouth which made my resolve all the more stronger to support this film and its filmmakers to the detractors that approached me in the days following.

The lights dimmed and Peter Gabriel’s pulsing music rose to a sold out audience in the dark. The Avalon Theater was in a declining slope which was evident in the slightly fuzzy projection and the sub par sound system.  However, I do applaud them for their bravery in choosing to screen this film (the only theater in St Louis to do so).  As the film progressed, the minor annoyances of the theater dissipated as I watched director Martin Scorsese pour his soul onto the screen.  He challenged you, cajoled you, and made you question your perceptions of all you may have been taught as a child or an adult.  The astonishing decision to do away with the Kazantzakis’ poetic delivery in the novel, and replace it with street-like common language, was jarring at first.  Where was the Shakespeare-like delivery that was staple in every religious themed film?  Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader (such an interesting filmmaker in his own right) wanted a different feel for this film, one that spoke directly to the people and not from some lofty summit.  A daring choice and it plays off beautifully upon repeated viewings.  The recently departed Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography is inventive, bold, and holds true to the material as Scorsese envisioned.  The scene where the followers grow in numbers is striking and brings up questions on cult-like mentalities.  Working within a small budget (many of the Roman soldiers are the same small handful of stuntmen shot from different camera angles), the technical brilliance displayed is a result of a group of filmmakers lovingly devoted to their material and to an idea; to challenge thought and make one seek out their own answers.  Isn’t that what great art is supposed to do?

So, that leaves the question, that was shouted to me in protest, of whether this is a true depiction of the Gospels?  In actuality, the question should be, does this film instill the desire in you to seek out a truth for yourself?  The answer to that lies within each of us and I can never propose to suggest otherwise.  Director Scorsese spent nearly a lifetime bringing this story to the screen.  His vision of man/God wrestling for the good of all mankind is arresting in its presentation.  It was never meant to be the one singular Truth.  The story takes the concept of the original novel to make us think and reason and most of all, feel.  I can laugh at the inherent corniness of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 “The Ten Commandents” (most pointedly the line, “Moses, oh Moses, you splendid adorable fool”).  I watch “The Last Temptation Of Christ” and I begin to wonder what my place is in the world, my moral center, or even how past civilizations began and evolved.  It is a credit to Scorsese that he brings his personal love of cinema/history/human/religious subjects to the forefront for all to see and examine as adults.  This is not pandering to one ideology or agenda.  This is a subject for grown-ups to endlessly discuss.

When the film ended, an applause rose thunderously.  When exiting the theater, the only evidence of the earlier protesters were discarded leaflets, some signs, and the police barricade still standing for tomorrow evening’s showing.  Not one person stuck around outside to ask how the film was, or demand an explanation of why I enjoyed it.  Now that would have been an interesting discussion!   In the years since its release, the outraged noise has turned down into a deafening silence.  Art is resilient and hopefully perhaps, many of those that protested, actually viewed the film years later and saw what the film was trying to achieve.  Let it be said, anything that challenges us to question what we have been conditioned to hold dear in this world…is something to be treasured for it makes us grow as individuals.  Happy Easter, Mr. Scorsese, and many thanks.

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[pictured on set Willem Dafoe & Martin Scorsese (r)]

“The Last Temptation Of Christ” 1988 2hrs 44min (directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Paul Schrader, director of photography Michael Ballhaus, music by Peter Gabriel, editor Thelma Schoonmaker)

Passing Into The Night: Terrence Malick Asks The Hard Questions

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“This great evil, where’s it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us, robbing us of life and light, mocking us with the sight of what we might’ve known? Does our ruin benefit the earth, does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night?”
-Terrence Malick / The Thin Red Line


This great evil.  It exists in many forms, many disguises, and somehow perpetuates itself as something good or acceptable at times in society.  There are moments, thankfully few in my personal lifetime, that have emblazoned such evil and its effects upon me like some burn across my hands after touching a white hot cooking pan. Suffice to say that it is out there slithering along the muddy earth awaiting its next prey

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In 1998, the film “The Thin Red Line” was released to critical acclaim, but little box office. The public viewed it as yet another WWII film on the heels of Spielberg’s search for Private Ryan.  As kinetic and pulsing as Spielberg’s film was, Malick’s film is poetic and thoughtful.  In the long run, Malick’s film wins out for you can return to it like some favorite great novel that continues to teach and illuminate your life in unexpected ways. The narration alone, such as the one quoted above, is filled with questions and universal thoughts written to be examined and felt.


I speak of evil because lately in this world, the slithering creature seems to be having a field day.  I fear not only for our children, but for mankind as some higher being. I finished watching Malick’s epic take on the world alone a few nights ago and came away with a feeling of hopelessness or a kind of restlessness that we, as a family of men, have still yet to come together to work towards common goals and feed all that are hungry for justice, happiness, and love.  Are we not all looking for these three things?  Malick asks the hard questions and we still seem to be not listening.  We all struggle in our own way without the need for more to shoulder when the world rears its ugly head.  I am hungry, like all of you. I have my carefree times, my selfish goals, and self congratulatory moments.  That is why I take a step back and look at where I am and who I am surrounded by.


How we deal with the evil inside us, as well as the world around us is the key.  I am talking of the very real evil that festers and germinates within many and sprouts violence both physical and mental to others at will and without mercy.  It angers me and saddens me with my inability to change things.  War certainly brings that out (as this film displays brilliantly), but so does society that does not cultivate the real hope for happiness or change after such a climactic war; any war for that matter.  We either deal with it in outrage or apparent denial.  What is the right path or roads we need to take?  This film brought out these thoughts and challenged me to assess the situation as all great art should do, but I do not have any answers.


I do not subscribe to the world has gone mad analogy being presented each night on television.  Scare tactics for ratings do not impress upon me with any importance or merit. Each one of us has a story, a beginning, a reason for who we are and why we do what we do.  The small infantry of men charging up that grassy hill upon a barrage of fire from an entrenched Japanese enemy, seems simple enough to view that we are in the right and they are evil.  However, once that hill is taken, we discover that the faceless Japanese are also human with the same frailties we all suffer from.  The enemy becomes us.  We succumb to this righteous evil only to discover we are only perpetuating and spreading the evil ourselves.  The effects of such an act destroys lives and nature surrounding us.  Pretty heady stuff for a WWII film and the reason that it is so much more relevant today than when first released.


One can only end these thoughts with an image that has haunted me ever since I saw it in a darkened theater upon its first release.  The image, for me, shows how our propensity for violence and cruelty has a lasting impact on the innocent.  The image produces tragic consequences with a newborn bird caught amidst the onslaught of cannon fire, screaming men, and whizzing tracer fire.  This is us.  These are the results of our insanity and hate we still bear.  How do we end such evil?  Can we end such evil?  And a question that bears asking, do we want to end such evil?

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“The Thin Red Line” (1998) written/directed by Terrence Malick, Cinematography by John Toll