The masterpiece of Orson Welles has the same youthful exuberance and vigor as Citizen Kane, but it’s a lot more memorable. Shot in Spain with a limited budget, it has a rotten splendor. The film is about the baroque contrast between the lowly and the lofty; the tension between hedonism and greatness. Welles gives the performance of a lifetime as Shakespeare’s tragicomic Falstaff. Falstaff’s den—a whorehouse—is a labyrinthine, tubercular netherworld: people’s faces appear to sprout from the walls as if they were malformations in the architecture. But it’s full of merriment and depravity. It has life in it. Then there’s the king’s castle, the palace of angularity, sobriety and forbidding empty spaces. Falstaff stands in rejection of chivalry, honor, order and any concept of an “honest life” (he’s both a coward and a sensualist). Armored for battle, he’s like a creature from science fiction… a fat toy scurrying for safety. In the famous battle sequence, Welles gives us a full picture of his worldview, with the mud swallowing the bodies, sculpting the carnage. If this is how greatness is built, with chivalry, honor and order to support them, then how could they be just? Welles said the movie was about “the betrayal of friendship”, and when the betrayal comes, it resonates. Falstaff’s defeat is like the defeat of simple human feeling: there’s a purity to him that kingly figures lack. Welles sides with the wicked, rustic side of human nature, but he expresses the pain of being left behind, of greatness eluding us. But it certainly does not elude this film. (Watch out for Margaret Rutherford as the hysterical, frenzied madam… she laughs as if she were consorting with the devil).
Jan Troell’s version of the failed balloon expedition to the North Pole at the end of the 19th century. It begins, chillingly, with real photographs of the cracked skeletons. As in The Emigrants and The New Land, Troell’s brand of epic filmmaking is shockingly intimate and often disturbing. He focuses on the three Swedish men who undertook the expedition; their romantic ideas of personal glory, nationalism and transcendence. Psychologically, we watch as the bond between the three men both deepens and deteriorates: it’s a phenomenal study of masculinity (Max von Sydow and Sverre Anker Ousdal are both tremendous in it). But in Troell’s films there is none of the usual separation between man and nature—the horror outside could just as well be the horror within and viceversa—and this movie is also a singular vision of strange, forlorn Arctic terrors. This is the North Pole of our nightmares. The shapelessness and abstraction of the images—giant vanishing suns; blinding shimmering surfaces; random blood stains on the ice—suggest an encroaching, otherworldly winter. The threat of endless pitch-black darkness gives the movie a real sense of uneasiness and a metaphysical dread. We keep hoping that somehow humanity will not be extinguished, but our rational mind tells us we’re in inhuman territory. This masterful film has a slow beginning and it’s only near the end that you realize the magnitude of its achievement: how this epic on discovery, exploration and the search for new horizons is really an epic of self-discovery. The tragedy of the explorers isn’t that they failed in their quest (which was foolish to begin with): the tragedy is how they’re able to locate the limits and the breadth of their humanity only in the face of extinction. This movie is the full vivid picture of isolation—of the void as mirror for the dying, deluded Romantic man. (The film was restored by Svenska Filminstitutet in 2017).
Terence Davies’ literate, articulate take on the private life of Emily Dickinson has some rough early scenes but is elevated by a great central performance and the director’s responsiveness to its every mood. As the posthumously celebrated American poet, Cynthia Nixon gives a performance of sustained sublimity. She plays Emily as a passive observer of life, but her powers of observation make her come alive, and there’s beauty to her spirit. Her almost trembling admission of familial love suggests a rather frightening depth of feeling. Too sensitive, too soulful for her time (for any time), she begins to suffocate. This is a psychological study on how deeply sensitive natures self-destruct. Too often—from Hawthorne onwards—we get to see the American Puritan as a prejudiced fraud; as a moral hypocrite whose sense of superiority shields him from judgment. The tragedy here is how greatness deteriorates and turns on itself; how this intelligent, rebellious, freethinking woman is undone by the purity of her vision. Hypocrisy and moral chastisement disgust her, yet she is transformed into the most stringent moral overseer of all: an embittered, paranoid judge of vice and virtue. Human nature cannot meet her standards so she punishes it at every turn. Nixon’s performance reveals the ugliness, the rage, the agonizing moments of lucidity. Isolated and unsung, she finds transcendence through her art, but it’s a meager comfort. Even with its flaws, this is as incisive a character study as you can hope for—and a rarely seen slice of the American spirit.
Forty years after seminal classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston made his masterpiece: this faithful (in the best sense of the word) adaptation of James Joyce’s iconic short story. The movie has the simplicity of a master who has nothing left to prove. Set in Dublin in 1904, it’s about a small gathering of friends and family during one bitter winter night. But inside there is great warmth. The setting is specific (there is talk of conservatism and Irish nationalism; emerging socialist rallies, etc.) but the feel is timeless: this could just as easily have taken place in some remote hut in the Middle Ages. The people gathered conjure the lost pleasures of hospitality and tradition. In Huston’s interpretation, they are not fakes—they’re not the petulant frauds of Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeouisie, unable to leave their table. Their enjoyment, their love of interaction and conversation, is genuine. But just when nostalgia seems to close in on us, something remarkable happens. You begin to see the human cost behind this ancient ritual, behind the idea of contentment and home. These people, with their broken dreams and hopes, their recollections, their laughter, their songs, with all their merriment: these are the dead. This world—this homely prison—is all they know. Anjelica Huston is superb as the beautiful middle-aged woman who still clings to the memory of young love, which is more real to her than the present, more real than anything. Her longing threatens to undo her. Life has eluded her, as it has each and every one of them… and most will go into their graves without even this realization. There is a sense that the burgeoning world outside is no longer compatible with the warmth of the hearth. A movie of great compassion, it has equal affection for the young and the old, for the rebellious and the traditional, for the women who wither away in the name of servitude, for the monks who consume themselves in prayer. For the living and the dead… if there is such a distinction. This film is an old master’s passionate plea for vitality.
The culmination of the greatest period for American movies that began in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde. Coppola pushes the medium to its limits, and there are passages where the movie flies too close to the sun, when its genius threatens to self-destruct. In 1959, the Japanese director Kon Ichikawa released Fires on the Plain, his vision of war as hell and the human being as cannibal. Coppola takes these notions further and uses them in the context of the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now begins as a demonstration of Western moral hypocrisy. We watch as hypocrisy turns into crippling physical and spiritual corruption. (The degeneracy is so surreal that it’s comical.) Humanity is reduced to an idea; heroism is impossible; life itself becomes as irrational as death. But this anguished existentialism doesn’t begin to explain what the movie is about. This is a journey to the underworld, to the underbelly of primitive human seediness and horror. As we go deeper into the jungle, Coppola puts us face to face with an “otherness” that turns out to be no stranger at all: he confronts us with our own tribal nature. The condemnation is so complete that it makes our ideas of civilization and even evolution seem like a farce. And the only way to cope with the madness, as Brando’s Colonel Kurtz puts it, is through godless indifference. In Fires on the Plain humanity had devoured itself; in Apocalypse Now it eats itself and claims godly rights for doing so. This, Kurtz seems to be saying, is the natural state. Vittorio Storaro’s feverish cinematography suggests a world that is burning alive. And there are fascinating, unanswered riddles, like the lone tiger in the heart of the jungle, or the Buddha’s disquieting calm. (Has he gone into exile or is he watching us?) This movie has mythological power: it’s a true modern epic. American movies diminished in size after this, almost as if sensing Apocalypse Now had gone too far. It’s a perverse, flawed, uncomfortable near-masterpiece.
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola / 1979 / US
A near-masterpiece of abandon. Luca Guadagnino, possibly the most exciting Italian director in decades, conjures a period when European movies had yet to become uglified, realist “testaments” to cultural and moral decadence: Call Me By Your Name is as luminous as Renoir’s A Day in the Country; it reconciles Jan Troell’s love of nature with the hedonism of Bertolucci—bodies moving in the ruins. These are not the ruins of L’Avventura, where the half-dead met on a desert island to proclaim the Death of Europe. In Call Me By Your Name the ruins are alive, rife with promise. An ancient statue emerges from the water as if supernaturally summoned to the surface, its beauty catching us off guard. Far from an archaeology lesson, the scene offers the authentic pleasure of discovery and a feeling of rebirth. Guadagnino isn’t interested in crystallizing history; he doesn’t care for sharp contrasts or oppositions (Antiquity vs. Modernity, etc). History for him means living, breathing experience.
The movie takes place in Northern Italy during one fateful 1980s summer. It’s a love letter to the bond—lyrical, sexual, intellectual—between 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and an older foreigner, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Chalamet’s performance as the restless, hyper-cultured Elio is one for the ages: half-aristocratic, half-bohemian, deceptively angelic and full of dazzling natural arrogance. (Oliver’s “coarseness” is a sort of aphrodisiac for him.) Elio’s father is an admirer of Praxiteles and his sculpting of the human form, of the human bodies “daring us to desire them.” Guadagnino’s Italian summer has bodies of its own, and they move nimbly in the landscape—a type of premoral Eden. This is the rare film where there is almost no tension, no “drama” of the standard kind, but a steady flow of discovery and, finally, transcendence.
For the movie to invoke the great pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus is no small gesture. (Plato is omitted, left to his cave, same as the later Greek and Christian moralists.) Heraclitus’ doctrine of eternal change knows no martyrdom, no morality, no mawkish lamentation: and in one exultant close-up, as Elio looks into the Heraclitean flames, loss and bliss are unified, indistinguishable from each other. It’s a movie rich in feeling and free of tragedy: a love story that elevates the individual and his understanding of the world, one that gives pain and joy their equal due.
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, the Thai cinematographer (of Uncle Boonmee fame), is essential when it comes to capturing this free-flowing communion between man, man’s feelings and nature. The days and nights impress themselves on us. At one point there is a blackout, and the camera lingers in the shadows, finding a strange sort of familial warmth in it: Mukdeeprom welcomes the dark into his canvas. There is a smell of Greek leisure in the air. (So often is leisure used as a subject of decay in modern movies that it’s shocking to see it treated as a much-needed ground for human growth.)
As a coming-of-age movie, it rivals Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también, though Call Me By Your Name is aloof in its timelessness. Guadagnino sees no distinction between emotions and intellect: his ideas are sensual, free of posturing. Elio’s mind-body disconnect is only a temporary source of anguish before Oliver, an Italian girlfriend and a peach come to the rescue. The magic is such that there seem to be no contradictions between the old Hellenic values and 80s pop music. In his devotion to an ever-vital present Guadagnino discovers what may be the most fertile form of remembrance. This movie is purged of all decadence. The ruins are part of the dance.
EPISODES 1 & 2 SPOILERS!
Those expecting the bucolic, incongruously funny piece of small-town Americana with a jazzy perversion underneath—that genius mix of soap opera, comedy and horror that revolutionized 90s television—are in for something of a shock.
From the opening scene of the first episode—an unsettling montage of old and new footage centered on the titular town and the faraway echoes of Laura Palmer’s murder—Season 3 brings with it an entirely new vision. (You get the feeling the town is haunted, stuck in a loop.) It’s 2017, and evil, much like BOB, has spread all over the country: there are scenes in Las Vegas, South Dakota and a memorable segment in an alien-looking New York. A guy in his 20s stares soullessly at a glass box, waiting for something to happen, clueless as to why he’s even waiting: when sometimes finally materializes, it eats away at him. The scene is more frightening than almost anything in horror movies. It seems a violation of reality, both within the show and outside of it, and it has a scarring effect. Right from the onset, Lynch questions our ideas of what’s real, and a new paradigm is set: there are no comfort zones in this Twin Peaks. We might fall into NON-EXIS-TENCE at any second.
Peak Scenes in Episodes 1 & 2
Bad Coop terrorizes Darya: Eliciting a revelatory performance from Kyle Maclachlan, this scene is the tangible reminder that this is still Cooper we’re witnessing, not merely good old BOB. It’s Cooper’s hyper-rational side, his superior intellect and intuition stripped of everything else—fixated on coordinates, on tracing crucial information. It’s the Cooper who wants to stay alive at any cost (“I don’t need anything; I want“) without the full Cooper’s characteristic love of life. The antagonizing duality of the two agents sets the stage for the metaphysical epic to come.
In South Dakota: Potential murderer Bill Hastings and his horrifyingly suburban wife Phyllis face off in an despairingly long take, the camera almost inside their faces: the scene is the deranged offspring of the soap opera undercurrents of the original show, a display of emotional ugliness so heightened that it’s all-out hilarious. As Bad Cooper tells Phyllis, “you’ve followed human nature perfectly.” Lynch turns inevitability and repetition into comedy.
Inside the Red Room: Coop and Laura reunite in the Black Lodge. Sheryl Lee brings a new sadness to Laura’s aging broken soul, but her mischief is ongoing.
In Twin Peaks: A frail-looking Log Lady returns in a poignant scene with a mission for Hank. Andy and Lucy are still adorably lost. Sheriff Truman is missed. And we get a small glimpse of James and Shelly, still visitors of the Bang Bang Bar.
Inside Laura Palmer’s house: The defining moment so far. Sarah Palmer (the unparalleled Grace Zabriskie) has a new flat TV that seems bigger than her living room. She’s dropped soap operas for wildlife documentaries, and we watch as the images of animals devouring each other’s faces engulf both her and the house, and the mirrors in the room duplicate the horrors being projected. The scene embodies with masterly simplicity the essence of the new Twin Peaks: a mood of paralyzing stillness and recurring reciprocal violence (Sarah invites the horrors into her house: they don’t come unwanted.) And just as Sarah’s living room is taken over by wild beasts that aren’t there, reality itself is being overrun, no longer recognizable. Rarely has a scene of everyday domesticity felt less homely and more alien.
As the Log Lady warns us, “Something is missing.”
TO BE CONTINUED…