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).
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
Patricio Guzmán’s 3-part film on the fall of legitimately elected President Allende and the rise of Pinochet’s (partly US-funded) military dictatorship is no standard documentary. The camera is never still; there are no elegantly framed interviews recounting the facts; there is no remembrance. This is filmmaking in the present tense, and Guzmán takes you right into the streets, the factories and the country, everywhere where there is tension and reaction—that is to say, where politics takes place. The stance is Marxist, and the film is explosively alive, like a more grounded Potemkin. Inertia is sinful: it’s for buildings and the bourgeoisie. Though the film could be considered a piece of propaganda, it’s too great to be dismissed as only that. It shows the beginnings of a new form of organized solidarity that feels humanly truthful. It captures the seething discontent of a whole country, a state of anger mixed with euphoria for what’s to come. (Neither conservatives nor socialists are spared.) And in the scenes of the communist rallies, Guzmán’s camera zeroes in on the tension between the individuals and the groups they’re part of. Isolated, these faces express contradictions that exist outside of any manifesto. But gradually, in Parts II and III especially, we watch as these groups develop and strengthen, fueled by the semi-religious conviction that their time is ripe, only they do not sit around and pray for the rapture. This is an amazing document on a 20th century phenomenon that’s rarely explored in fiction: the masses becoming acutely aware of their own power. It’s a tragedy with no pathos: Salvador Allende is shown to be a great man and leader, but his death is interpreted as historically inevitable, a rallying cry for a “true government of the people” that would never materialize.
Dir. Patricio Guzmán / 1979 / Chile
Lee Chang-dong’s movie about an elderly woman who takes up poetry lessons just as she begins to lose her memory and her grasp on verbs and nouns. Nobody (least of all herself) understands why she’s taken up the course. She inhabits an unintelligible world, replete with sullen, half-mute teenagers who can barely enunciate a word, let alone sort out their feelings; bodies of girls who wash up ashore for unexplained reasons and an entire system determined to shrug it all off. Mija works as a maid to be able to sustain her grandson and herself. But her professor preaches that there is potential beauty in everything, so Mija starts looking at things—starting with her kitchen’s dirty dishes and an apple—trying to see them for what they really are for the first time. (She ends up just eating the apple.) Whether her search for beauty begins as purely selfish escapism is up to the viewer to decide, and there’s a great comic desperation to her enterprise that is both pitiable and admirable. There is a magnificent scene where the old woman goes to the country to meet the mother of a girl who was raped, and she loses herself in the sensual radiance of the bright summer day. She picks up a fallen peach, sensing its “pain”; she feels it was “yearning” to be eaten. In this scene she is childlike, like a young poet for whom even pain is beautiful. She is so caught up in the purity of the moment that when the memory of the unsavory business that brought her there re-enters her mind, it nearly destroys her: beauty comes crashing down under the weight of reality. No other movie expresses the link between beauty and oblivion with this kind of devastating clarity. And there’s a shift. No longer content with just beauty, she now aims for the truth, too.
Yun Jeong-hie’s performance is a masterpiece of intuitiveness and self-discovery. Hers is the most original movie heroine of the 21st century: a poet in a world that’s done with poetry; a victim of Alzheimer’s who refuses to forget (or to even be a victim); an ignored old woman who finds empathy to be a source of infinite personal pleasure. (She might be to this century what Umberto D. was to the last.) One of the most amazing films to come out from South Korea, it has a love of life that’s almost heroic.
Dir. Lee Chang-dong / 2010 / South Korea
In 1933, right off the heels of Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo had the power to do just about anything she wanted in Hollywood. So she decided to take on the infamous Swedish queen Christina, lover of the arts and lover to her female servants. And though Robert Mamoulian’s MGM retelling isn’t historically faithful (ie. she isn’t an outright lesbian), its spirit isn’t very far off. Its peculiarities help make it one of the most exhilarating entertainments to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Greta Garbo remains the most amazing creature to ever be captured on film: what happens between her face and the camera is inexplicable alchemy. But in Queen Christina one also sees a great artist at work. She plays a utopian philosopher-queen, using her very Swedish thoughts as an escape; an imperial war commander; a lover of literature, an aesthete taking amusement in Molière and Calderón; a Romantic muse and tragic figure; a comedienne unafraid to make a fool of herself; and, most tantalizingly of all, a man (a “bachelor”, as she puts it.) In the famous tavern scenes where Christina disguises herself as a Swedish man and drinks with the boys as if she were one of them, discusses life with them and then proceeds to sleep with “another man” (a Spaniard) in the same bed, the movie is vibrantly, tangibly subversive. (It would have been impossible to make in the years that followed, when censorship became harsher.) Garbo, a physically imposing Swede, carries herself with a masculine swagger in large portions of the film, not just when in disguise: she exudes an authority that defies genre. And whenever she dissolves into a woman again, the effect is deliriously erotic: her femininity is equally in charge. (There is a great post-coital scene where she memorizes the room where she made love, taking in the physicality of every object.) But these distinctions become altogether meaningless: no one has so blurred the lines between “masculine” and “feminine” as Garbo does here, in all her androgynous greatness. She is in a state of flux, like a deity so bored with human trappings that she cannot wait to move on to the next thing. (She won’t weep much for her lover, either.) Garbo’s Christina is escaping the world and herself.
Like Garbo, the movie is many things—a historical picture, a comedy, a romance, a tragedy—and none of them. The charmingly literate screenplay is full of surprises and high spirits; so is Mamoulian’s direction, decidedly inspired. There isn’t a dull moment to be found in this winning film, both ahead of its time and very much a product of it.
Dir. Robert Mamoulian / 1933 / US