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

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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.

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In Nolan We Trust

“Thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open. When it was found impossible for the armies of the north to reopen their communications to Amiens with the main French armies, only one choice remained. It seemed, indeed, forlorn. The Belgian, British and French armies were almost surrounded. Their sole line of retreat was to a single port and to its neighbouring beaches. They were pressed on every side by heavy attacks and far outnumbered in the air.”

Winston Churchill’s speech delivered to House of Commons  /  June 4 1940 

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In an unusually cold May of 1940, German forces advanced into France and drove the Allied troops into the wall of the English Channel and trapping them in the port town of Dunkirk.  French, Belgium, and Dutch soldiers, alongside the British, desperately were counting the minutes upon the vast beaches of Dunkirk while waiting on a few ships for safety across the Channel.  With the German forces closing in, Dunkirk was hit with a barrage of fire from land, sea, and air putting close to 400,000 lives in constant danger.  With meager support from French/British ground and air forces, nearly all the men were miraculously safely evacuated utilizing every serviceable ship or civilian boat in the area.  Churchill used this event to rally the British people in their continued fight against the growing German empire.

This is the basis of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s newest venture, Dunkirk.  It is a mesmerizing study of time and pressure.  It is abundantly clear, based upon past projects such as Inception, Memento, Interstellar, and even Insomnia (notice all the one word titles in his catalog, including the newly released Dunkirk), Nolan has always been fascinated with effects of time and its relation to human perceptions and behaviors.  Dunkirk is no exception while it tinkers with land, sea, and air stories with each unfolding section several hours behind the other.  It builds tension within one perception, while giving more information from another view.  We get swept up in the experience of a particular story, only to discover we do not have all of the specific information of that event as we delve into another perception.  No exposition is really given to any of the characters.  We are expected to discover for ourselves who these people are within the different facets of time and dimension.  This is an experience film (much like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), but Nolan brings such a ferocious tension throughout the proceedings that leaves one breathless.  War is not pretty and this film certainly sows the cruelty and ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man.  It also shows the valor and the human instinct to help fellow strangers in need.  There is a toughness to Nolan’s images, but they are never just cosmetic for the sake of aesthetic worthiness.  Dunkirk is filled with arresting camera work that rightly puts the viewer into the fear of these men.  The screaming German Junkers throttling towards their prey on the beaches of Dunkirk are nail bitingly tense.  The running squad being picked off by a snipers places you directly in the line of fire as you scramble for safety.  This is war where the only option is to survive.

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“..the politique des auteurs seems to me to hold and defend an essential critical truth that the cinema is in need of more than the other arts, precisely because an act of true artistic creation is more uncertain and vulnerable in the cinema than elsewhere…”

André Bazin / La Politque des auteurs  /  1957

In Nolan we trust is a moniker coined by fanboys during his Batman days when anticipating his next adult take on the dark knight.  It is actually a statement that fits.  Christopher Nolan is a modern cinema auteur who believes in film language as a visual aesthetic with limitless possibilities.  The name is synonymous with craftsmanship which would make any smart person look forward to a new work of his.  He can rightly be compared to another master auteur, Stanley Kubrick (Nolan is British).  Like Kubrick, Nolan is a perfectionist and oversees every aspect of his films.  No detail is too small and every shot contains information to further the story or idea.  This is what makes both Kubrick and Nolan’s films entirely re-watchable.  Dunkirk resembles a Kubrick film in the slightly detached god-like stance in direction and the sparse dialogue which makes the viewer pay more attention to the images on the screen.  His playfulness of relational time and audience expectations is also very Kubrickian in the cinematic sense.  Nolan adheres to the old school of film-making which is refreshing in this day  of CGI overkill.  His dedication to an artistic vision, within the confines of big budget films, is what makes him stand far apart from his contemporaries who sometimes sell out for the sake of success.  One need look no further than the mind bending epic that is Inception, which goes against all what makes a mainstream big budget film successful.  It is filled with dread and the loss of self control with an ending that is as ambiguous as it gets.

Dunkirk is an unexpected surprise (well, maybe not that big of surprise since we are talking about Christopher Nolan after all) because it paints upon a WWII canvas for the audience in a brand new hard light.  We are simply thrust into the proceedings, while Nolan expects us to figure it out.  It is a rarity with a mainstream film that the audience is expected to be smart.  None of his past films pander to the latest trend, for his films become the latest trend with originality and daring.  He may not hit it out of the ballpark every time (Interstellar and its ending), but this is a film-maker that consistently challenges you and dares to ask the questions no one else in big budget films ask; who are we?  What is truth?  What is really our perceived reality?  Where are we going?

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The microsom of society is in the form of a civilian boat christened Moonstone which exemplifies family, sacrifice, and honor.  War affects everyone, not just the brave men/women in battlefield.  Moonstone suffers tragedy in the face of war, as if the unit were back in London during the nightly blitzkrieg attacks.  There is nothing lofty or sentimental in Nolan’s treatment of the Moonstone participants.  It just is.  When tragedy does strike, the boy and his father honor the dead.  Consequences are accepted and some are haunted forever as a result of it.  These people tried to make a difference…and some succeeded.

In Nolan we do indeed trust.  His eye is on the prize at all times with his usual concerted and secretive efforts.  Dunkirk may be his finest film in which everything is honed to its essential properties.  Cinema started out as a visual medium and Nolan pledges his allegiance with his latest release.  Every image tells a story, such as the soldier at Dunkirk beach throwing off his gear and attempting to swim back home in a suicidal act.  There are many such moments which begs a second or third viewing.  This is the kind of big budget movie making we need with far reaching ideas and the understanding of cinema language.  Christopher Nolan is an auteur for the 21st century.  Let’s hope he continues upon his personal artistic path and continues to give us stories that astound and challenge our way of thinking.

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Oedipus Rex Redux

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“Japan never considers time together as time wasted. Rather, it is time invested.” 
― Donald Richie / A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan

 

I have long been an avid fan of Japanese cinema, from the silent films of Ozu to the colorful brashness of Kitano…and everything in between.  The quiet stillness of Naruse goes hand in hand with the measured lunacy of Obayashi, often within the same studio.  The Japanese cinema mixes so many styles, moods, and subjects (mainly about their own socially political culture) and conjures up films with an otherworldly, yet familiar landscape.  There is nothing taboo, nothing too extreme (think Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses) that Japanese directors will present to audiences.  Not all stories are told with a Japanese seriousness, for many of these films have humor (both dark and light) and a sense of experimental fun.  A well known epic is Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, which encompasses a multitude of stories brilliantly interwoven with high drama and streetwise humor.  One of my very favorite Japanese films is Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story, which simply concerns an elderly couple facing changing times and indifferent older children with busy lives of their own.  It is filled with such life and love with each measured nuance Ozu adds to his humanist universal story.  I watch it at least once a year.

“…count no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last.” 
― Sophocles / Oedipus Rex

In 1969, Japan was undergoing a series of university closures due to student uprisings across the country in protest sentiments against the Vietnam War and the Security Treaty with the United States.  The world over had revolutions during this year such as the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam protests in the United States, the Cultural Revolution in China, Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia,  and student/worker uprisings in both France and Germany.  The students in Japan wore white hard hats and armed themselves with wooden 2X4’s to fend off the lightly armed police at that time.  This movement was organized into a nationwide group known as the  Zengakuren, which surged in membership in the late sixties due to the rapid economic boon in Japan lending itself more and more to “reform” its ties politically and socially to the United States and the world over.

It is within this societal climate that video artist and filmmaker Toshio Matsumoto (1932 – 2017) envisioned his cinematic shattering of taboo’s with Funeral Parade Of Roses.  Shot in gorgeous black and white, Matsumoto’s experimental rendering of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex is turned upside down in modern day Tokyo wherein the story now consists of a boy who instead murders his mother and sleeps with his father. Funeral Parade Of Roses mixes both documentary, avant garde stylistic choices, humor, violence, along with a heavy dose of melodrama (hence the love triangle of two gay men vying for the affections of the club’s male owner) for good measure.  This strange mix yields such an interesting piece of modern Japanese history which displays the rising openly gay culture amidst the political violence on the streets.  There is no other film in recent memory that both attacks and heralds such a wide variety of subcultures and movements, sometimes within the very same shot.

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Funeral Parade Of Roses has been largely unseen in the United States since it’s official release in 1970.  My only knowledge of its existence was an interview I read with director Stanley Kubrick (2001:A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, Dr. Strangelove) who listed this film as highly influential in his conception of A Clockwork Orange.  It is not hard to see how true that statement was with the choice of music, high speed photography, and the depiction of violence (never glorifying, but showing its futility and ugliness) that mirrors what Matsumoto accomplished with his film.  It is both bold and ridiculous at times in those scenes of rampant drug use, violent confrontation, sexual conquest, and the persona (masks) these young men inhabit on a daily basis.  Working at the aptly named hangout Club Genet (named after the famed and openly gay French thief/writer/political activist Jean Genet), the underground transgender love triangle houses two men, the tragically beautiful Eddie and the aging transvestite Leda, who are both heavily invested in Genet’s owner Gonda.  The film consistently breaks the fourth wall with short interviews with these young men about their sexuality and their hopes and fears.  It is experimental, but somehow rings true to what Matsumoto is trying to accomplish with this film.  I was caught off guard at first by this conglomerate of many styles and moods, but soon got caught up with the vision presented.  As with any love triangle (and one based on Oedipus Rex, mind you), it cannot end well.  The violence is shocking and lingers long with you after the film ends.

Matsumoto neither condones nor praises the subjects he raises.  He merely presents a  little seen section of modern Japanese society through an artist’s eye.  Sometimes, it is not the ideas on screen that matter…it is the way it is perceived and presented to an audience that truly matters.  Funeral Parade Of Roses aims for the cosmos with its studied microcosm of Japanese cultural platitudes with some success and a lot of daring.  It is indeed a statement on the times (especially the student movement in the streets complete with those bloodied hard hats and riots) and the ever expanding cinematic boundaries, but at its very center stands Eddie and his truly tragic story.  Without Eddie, this film would struggle to find its heart and soul.  Eddie encompasses every human’s search for identity and acceptance with others.  The wearing of masks soon becomes tiresome and futile in the face of truth.  Eddie and his lover/father Gondo, unknowingly tear off their masks and can no longer play their parts to epic tragic consequences.

“When a boy…discovers that he is more given into introspection and consciousness of self than other boys his age, he easily falls into the error of believing it is because he is more mature than they. This was certainly a mistake in my case. Rather, it was because the other boys had no such need of understanding themselves as I had: they could be their natural selves, whereas I was to play a part, a fact that would require considerable understanding and study.”    Yukio Mishima / Confessions Of A Mask

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The newly restored Funeral Parade Of Roses has been playing at selected art house theaters nationwide and will hopefully be available soon for streaming to a wider and much appreciative cinema loving audience.  This is an interesting time piece of cinema (queer cinema, that is) and it richly deserves some study and attention.  It only adds to the long and rich tapestry of Japanese cinema.

Funeral Parade Of Roses [1969]   Toshio Matsumoto, writer/director  1hr 47min

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Our Most Unwelcome Visitor

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Sensuality without love is a sin; love without sensuality is worse than a sin.    /  Jose Bergamin

The oppressive sound of late afternoon cicadas blanket the emerald hued deep south woods whose very branches seem to hang down in some sort of defeat from the summer sun.  A young girl steps into the space, humming a tune while picking mushrooms from the mossy floor.  She takes her time stepping amidst the wooded area and comes upon unexpectedly to find a wounded Union soldier lying against a tree.

This is how writer and director Sofia Coppola’s newly realized take on The Beguiled begins.  Filmed previously by the underappreciated Don Siegel in 1971 with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, Coppola ramps up the mood with dripping humidity and creeping sensuality that seems to emanate from the surrounding trees right from the very first frame.  Setting the mood  a couple of years into the American Civil War, an all girl’s school in Virginia finds themselves sheltered and cut off from society with only the distant sounds of cannon fire to remind them of the encroaching brutal war surrounding them.  Daily lessons, gardening, and evening prayers take up the bulk of their lives.  Routine for survival during wartime which brings the household into a protective bubble that is in danger of bursting with the appearance of the wounded Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell).  Head mistress, Miss Martha (played with the usual aplomb by Nicole Kidman) eyes the intrusion with suspicion and an undercurrent of buried sexual desire despite her lofty station within the school.

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The rest of the cast includes Kirsten Dunst (a regular of Coppola’s films) as the repressed, but yearning Edwina and Elle Fanning as Alicia, the budding young woman barely containing her sexuality (notice how her blouse is rebelliously unbuttoned halfway in the beginning sequence).  The rest of the young actors Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, and Emma Howard are first rate unknown faces which lend an authenticity to the period.  In all of Coppola’s films, the exploration of female sexuality and gender are forefront in her vision.  The Beguiled affords a chance for Coppola to zero in on these specific themes with a dark foreboding melancholy of hidden desires.  Her insistence on focusing the camera longingly on the beautiful forms of costumes, surrounding nature, architecture, and the human body is unmistakably Coppola’s eye (look no further than her excellent Lost In Translation).  For some, this may be a slow, but slowly burning, film that takes too long to reach its pivotal climax of gender wars.  It seems to be Coppola’s intention for this pace to build up the tension slowly so that the audience has the time to appreciate each of the character’s eccentricities, hopes, and somewhat fatal desires that Corporal McBurney unlocks.  Madness does not arrive in quick editing jump cuts or swirling camera moves.  This madness comes out of necessity and slowly evolving logic.  There seems to be no alternative when faced with the Corporal’s rage and hostility towards the women.

There is one presence that seems to be missing in Coppola’s “gender Civil War” period drama; the African-American presence.  This is a Civil War drama located in the South that has no appearance of slaves, working or freed.  The school has none, perhaps as a result of runaways or some other event.  It is never mentioned (to my knowledge) in the film, although the original source novel does contain characters as such.  Does the exclusion of such characters do a disservice to the story?  Or does it focus ever so much more on the subject at hand; gender and sexuality?  All through Coppola’s work, the same themes are of interest to her and The Beguiled is no different.  By excluding the presence of African-Americans in this Civil War themed drama,  Coppola is only using the artist’s intent to tell the story on her terms because this is what interests her the most.  If she were to introduce a racial theme in the midst of already established points, the story would lose its concentrated focus.  Perhaps there is another story to be told that would not only present gender differences, but racial differences within the same gender.  The Beguiled is not that story and therefore confidently renders its intended vision.

The Beguiled is a rich and darkly atmospheric tale which goes beyond conventional stories pervading today’s mulitplex cinemas.  It requires your patience and richly rewards it with questions of morality and female empowerment.  Coppola’s film does not purport to have any answers, but it does make you think of the differences of perception between men and women; the persona (or mask) we tend to wear that is wrenched away when threatened or emboldened with desire.  As Miss Martha quietly tells her girls,  “…it’s seems the enemy… it’s not what we believed.”  The enemy being their most unwelcome guest and all he symbolizes.

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[Writer/Director Sofia Coppola on set, 2016]

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.