Monday, April 12, 2010

Ten Great Cinema Experiences

10 great cinema experiences as at April 2010

Whilst browsing through some Internet websites discussing the merit or otherwise of Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre, I came across a seductive site that details the Top 10 films of a number of academics that reside and teach in the USA. It can be quite problematic to offer a selection of the 10 best films you have ever seen. This is the case for several reasons.

Firstly, the list will continually change when the moviegoer remembers something else that he/ she may have forgotten before. Secondly, many people would find it very difficult to be totally honest. There are those that may think ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ is a great film, or ‘Forrest Gump’, but ego or pride might prevent them from listing it, feeling it safer to mention ‘Citizen Kane’ to avoid the ridicule of others and keep their reputation intact. And finally, it is extremely difficult to come up with a ‘best’ film in the first place. Is it a ‘best’ film because of the cinematography, or the acting or storyline, or the directing, or just because it left an emotional punch? And how can you limit films that have been created now for over a hundred years, to merely ten anyway? At any rate, any list is limited to the number of films you have actually seen. So just because ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ makes your list, and ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ doesn’t, might simply be because you have never seen ‘Ryan’s Daughter.’ I am yet to see ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ or ‘The Tree of Wooden Clogs’ so they can’t make my Top 10. And we are all influenced by our emotions. We might rate a film in our top ten list that in some ways is really just mediocre- it’s just that we can’t view it subjectively, and we include it because of the emotional experience that we gained whilst in the cinema.

So I have decided I will limit my list to that of the films that I can remember that had the greatest emotional impact on me at the time- that is, the top ten films that have given me the greatest cinematic joy (in no particular order). These films I will always remember with gratitude and fondness, but very few people would say they are all some of the best films ever made. There is nothing from my list that includes a film with Montgomery Clift or Marlon Brando ( two of my favourite actors), and I have seen two films in the cinema more than any other- ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’, and neither make the list. I think ‘Citizen Kane’ is a great accomplishment but it didn’t involve me emotionally as much as these others. These films came at the right time. I was in the mood for film watching and something about each of them- perhaps a single scene or two- left its indelible mark.

2001 A Space Odyssey (dir- Stanley Kubrick)- USA: ‘The Dawn of Man’ sequence which involves apes foraging for food, learning to use a bone as both a tool and a weapon and the sudden appearance of the enigmatic monolith- this constitutes a magical beginning. I generally haven’t enjoyed the SF genre, but this is an exception because of its mysterious appeal and timelessness. The appearance of the foetus-like ‘Star child’ floating in space is one of my favourite images from any film. In between this enigmatic opening and ending is the leisurely unravelling of an intriguing storyline that raises many questions and produces a lot of what is unexpected. And despite its title, for me, anyway, the film doesn’t seem to date, which is a huge compliment.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (dir Jacques Demy)- France: This was a total surprise- a film without spoken dialogue, only singing, might turn out ridiculous. But I found the romanticism very seductive, along with the beautiful colours, inspired by impressionism. It’s so beautiful to look at, especially the wintry scenes outside the umbrella shop with the myriad umbrellas dancing past. The music by Michel Legrand (‘I will wait for you’) is haunting. The ending was tragic but very apt. Guy is humbly working at the Esso service station with his beautiful brunette wife, Madeleine, and child, and Genevieve turns up unexpectedly to get petrol with the child she has had with Guy before he went to war. There is a brief longing there from Guy, but an acceptance that things turned out the way they did for a reason, and after all he is very happy. It is Genevieve, it seems, who may have missed out, wearing a mink coat and looking grand but spiritually empty.

Duck Soup (dir Leo Carey)- USA: The Marx brothers were very innovative and original and made a number of very funny films, and this is the one I feel the most attached to. There is one scene in particular when the leader of the small country, Freedonia, Rufus T Firefly (Groucho Marx) has announced his country is going to war. We see myriad images of people surging forward to represent the idea of enlisting and marching off to a frenzied war, including a shot of hundreds of what appears to be dolphins skimming across water. It is totally ridiculous and very Pythonesque, at least 40 years before Monty Python. And of course there is the famous ‘mirror sequence’, possibly borrowed from Charlie Chaplin.

Desert Bloom (dir-Eugene Corr)- USA: A film that I find utterly charming that sees Jon Voight at his best playing a lame returned soldier from the Korean War, oppressed by both physical and emotional pain. Jack lives with his suffering wife Lily (JoBeth Williams) and three step daughters, the oldest who is an adolescent who often bears the brunt of her father’s anger, frustration and alcoholism (Rose, played by Annabeth Gish). Dysfunction spreads when the aptly named Aunt Starr arrives, the very glamorous sister played by Ellen Barkin, who has a brief fling with Jack. There is a lot of symbolism in the film centred around the government testing of a nuclear bomb in the 50’s and some very emotional moments between Jack and Rose, as she grows up fast in trying to understand him and make sense of the crazy world she lives in (both social and personal).

Scenes From A Marriage (dir- Ingmar Bergman)- Sweden: I have seen many Bergman films, and there are several that I have fallen in love with, from Autumn Sonata and Fanny and Alexander, to Persona and Cries & Whispers. Scenes From A Marriage seems to me to be utterly truthful, with superb acting. Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson are initially complacent about their marriage and see it as virtually perfect. So it comes as a shock to them that it suddenly disintegrates when Josephson comes home after work one night to announce that he has fallen in love with a younger woman and what’s more, he is leaving in the morning to go to Paris with her to cement their relationship. Ullman naturally doesn’t see it coming and her reaction is very real. No histrionics or shouting, just a slow coming to terms with something that is a shock and a futile attempt to accept and understand it. Part of the reason the scene seems so utterly real is probably because it comes direct from Bergman’s own life when he left one of his several wives in similar fashion years before.

All Or Nothing (dir- Mike Leigh)- UK: Some of Mike Leigh’s films have what he calls a ‘hook’- that is an overriding topic or issue to satisfy the audience and his film company so they can sum up neatly what the film is about. Secrets & Lies is about the complications associated with adoption. Vera Drake is about a woman assisting pregnant women in having ‘backyard abortions.’ Life is Sweet deals with adolescent ennui and bulimia. However All or Nothing is not strongly about anything in particular- just a family living in a council estate- husband and wife and two obese adult siblings- and their associations with other people, usually tragic. Leigh’s constant, Timothy Spall, plays taxi driver Phil who is hopelessly lost and drifting, and misses the airport run every morning because he sleeps in. When equally helpless Rory (about 18) has a heart attack, both parents are forced to come to terms with the sorry state of their listless marriage. Typical of Leigh’s films is a major catharsis, and in this film Phil tells Penny (Lesley Manville) that she speaks to him like he is ‘a piece of shit.’ His crumbling and sobbing is heart wrenching and is my favourite moment in any of Leigh’s beautiful films.

Breathless (A Bout De Souffle) (dir-Jean Luc Godard)- France: It was the quirkiness and originality of this film that struck me strongly the first time I saw it when I was nineteen. I found Jean Belmondo intriguing in his recklessness and lack of personal responsibility and Jean Sebring charming in her loyalty and youthfulness. The freshness comes about partly because of its improvised nature and its spasmodic editing in the form of jump cuts- see for example the way the motorcycle police confrontation is handled at the start. The first film of its kind that I ever saw and very seductive in its ‘coolness.’

Mother and Son (dir-Alexander Sokurov)- USSR- I saw this at a Melbourne Film Festival circa 1998. People left the cinema in droves. By the end of the film there was only a handful of us left. Clearly the quietness and the stillness was too much for some people. But I felt entranced. As is the case with the lavish Russian Ark (also by Sokurov), it is a unique piece of film making. There are only a handful of words. On paper, the plot consists of one line- a son carries his dying mother on a long walk along various paths from her sick bed to what will eventually be her death bed. But it isn’t the story or the acting that is the feature here, as this is not a conventional film. I remember in particular one long, unedited shot in which the son who is carrying his dying mother in his arms appears at the bottom of the screen. In a single still shot which goes for several minutes, the pair travel from the bottom of the screen to the top and then out of sight. It is very simplistic and peaceful and full of meaning. It allows you to catch your breath and think about what you are seeing, and not feel harassed or hurried. It is the enormity of the moment that you can take your time to luxuriate in. The look of the film is apparently inspired by Casper David Friedrich. A major reason why the film doesn’t eventually become dull is that it is filmed using distorted lenses and filmed through painted glass panes. It is a seductive dream-like landscape, that fills you with emotion. The touching comfort, care and tenderness that exists between the mother and her son is very moving, a moving familial relationship that is repeated in the next film, this time between father and daughter.

Burnt By The Sun- dir- Mikhalkov-USSR: This film takes place during an interesting time in Soviet history in the 1930’s when the Revolution turned sour and Stalin’s purges in the 30’s were taking place. As a result, the film’s charismatic hero, Bolshevik Colonel Kotov, is under physical threat from the sudden arrival of a member of the anti- Communist White Party. This ex-nobleman, Mitya is a threat to the family for lots of reasons, with his previous involvement with Maroussia, Kotov’s wife, and the potential disruption to Kotov’s idyllic lifestyle in the countryside with his beautiful wife and (real life) daughter, Nadya. The affection between the father and daughter is touching, and their relationship is at the emotional core of the film. One of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen enacted on screen takes place with Kotov and Nadya embracing in a tranquil river. In several such scenes, father and daughter express and demonstrate their love for each other. Kotov is played by the film’s director, Mikhalkov who explained "I shot this film very quickly because I wanted my six year old daughter to play the role. . . . Children grow quickly and lose the tenderness, the simplicity, and the charm their youth carries." It is almost as if Mikhalkov made this film to memorialize those ephemeral years of absolute love when father and daughter each believe the other can do no wrong. Kotov is a beautiful man who meets a tragic end because he is living at a terrible time in which the lovely and innocent lives of good families are under siege.

Psycho (dir-Alfred Hitchcock)- USA: A rare example of something that is incredibly popular, and at the same time incredibly good. A landmark film for its time. Incredible scenes of tension- will Marion Crane steal the money that is sitting in an enticing bundle on the bed? Will the policeman who finds her by the side of the road search the car and find the money? Will the private detective be able to ascertain that Marion Crane did more than just drop in overnight at the Bates Motel? All unanswered questions that the scriptwriters continually throw up. And there are some great lines- the used car salesman, on dealing with a flummoxed and nervous Marion Crane- ‘that’s the first time I’ve ever heard the buyer pressure the salesman’- and ‘my mother- what’s the expression? She’s not quite herself today.’ The ending of the film, with its denouement in the court room, is a bit lame and dated, but the rest fascinating and exact.

1 comment:

Peter Mooney said...

Great post Darren. I can't even remember the names of ten films, let alone the ten best I've seen but of your selections I would have to agree with your choice of Burn't by the Sun. On the other hand, Mother and Son requires more emotional input than I could muster in a lifetime.