Retired: Blow-Up
(UK/Italy, 1966; dir. Michelangelo Antonioni; cin. Carlo Di Palma)
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A tempting but terrible habit for film critics is to pronounce with presumed authority on things we know nothing about, except via the movies we watch. Whether Blow-Up, then, offers an apt characterization of the swinging London '60s, either in literal or purposefully exaggerated terms, or whether the "swinging London '60s" are anything but a cultural mirage, cultivated at the time and cited and spoofed ever since...none of this is for me to say, though Blow-Up sure makes it all feel true. The concerts, the floating parties, the licentious verve of the fashion photo-shoots, the sexual exhibitionism and its surrounding cocoon of scopophiliac looking. Whether or not this strain of youth culture ever existed, it exists quite convincingly and entertainingly within the terms of the movie. The construction of this atmosphere is the connective tissue that binds the movie together, even as so many of its scenes feel loose, offhand, breathing easily.

Whether or not Antonioni's protagonist unwittingly takes a snapshot of a dead body in a public park is only one of the questions at the nucleus of the film. Another is what it would mean if this body, this stranger's body, this body that doesn't look sufficiently like a body and doesn't have the habit of staying put, really did turn out to be a body. What would change? What would it mean? But there is yet a further question, equally central, and it virtually neutralizes all the others: what if these narrative riddles and cryptic implications are shadows of some greater enigma, some secret life of objects that keeps emerging, deliciously but somehow troublingly, in all of Antonioni's shots and scenes? Unlike, say, L'Avventura or L'Éclisse, Blow-Up is not about spaces but about forms and hard surfaces: the photographic equipment, the images themselves, the parti-colored fashion ensembles over which Carlo Di Palma's camera pans and glides so silkily, the rustling backdrop paper in the photo studio, the mottled floor on which Sarah Miles and her husband make love, the plane propeller purchased from the antique store, the Yardbirds' hilariously absconded guitar. Even the objects that go missing from the frame—the body, the tennis ball—continue to define their surrounding spaces rather than the other way around, except perhaps in the final shot, where the photographer himself evaporates into the grass. The seductive aesthetics of the movie, Antonioni's way of photographing everything so that all of it looks fascinating as well as concealing, mark a direct prelude to movies like Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, which prompt a constant stream of questions quite apart from the putative concerns of the plot. And yet the movie also feels remarkably self-contained, an exceptional case within Antonioni's own filmography, and within the mid-'60s "swinger" cinema that I have otherwise found so enervating (Lester, Schlesinger). As in the movie's entrancing, impeccably shot and edited sequence tracing the photographic enlargements, the images in Blow-Up itself keep suggesting larger scales, darker ramifications, and its sublimity of beauty and terror is of course the greater for leaving these questions unresolved.

Retired: The Breakfast Club
(USA, 1985; dir. John Hughes; cin. Thomas Del Ruth)

Retired: Pretty in Pink
(USA, 1986; dir. Howard Deutch; cin. Tak Fujimoto)
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Restoring a little balance of power to the universe, and knocking me right off of The Piano Teacher's high-art pedestal, here are the two films from the John Hughes factory that double-double my refreshment every time I pull them off the shelf. I find it impossible to choose between The Breakfast Club, which Hughes directed from his own script, and Pretty in Pink, helmed by the otherwise dubious Howard Deutch. I saw The Breakfast Club when you're really supposed to, i.e., when you are roughly the same age or, better, just barely younger than the characters in the movie—from which vantage Hughes' empathetic grasp of high-school anhedonia is all the more rewarding and exciting, and also nicely tempered by a fair grasp of each character's naïveté and inadequacy. Gorgeously, and infectiously, the movie finds all of its adolescent leads in a gently embellished free-zone between the mess that real people are in high school and the stabler, frankly nicer people that Andy and Claire and Bender and the rest will palpably become later in their lives, given just a little bit of breathing-room to grow up and get over themselves. That said, I sure hope that Ally Sheedy's Allison, by far my favorite character, will forever continue to make her dandruff-derived objets and her all-carbs all-the-time sandwiches. Also priceless: Anthony Michael Hall's shambling diffidence, so hard-fought but so hilariously ill-concealed, and Judd Nelson's marvleous line reading of the single word "Claire," turning the name into some sort of insolent question.

The Breakfast Club is snappily written, crisply defined, and cleverly art-directed, and in terms of pacing, it couldn't work better. Even the precipitous couplings at the end, some of them real head-scratchers, actually help the movie: we don't leave with any false sense that anything has been fixed or made permanent, and the excitement of making right and wrong choices at the same time is preserved. Pretty in Pink, a much more sober film however poppy it also is, gets a similar boost from what seem like errors. Andie's romantic trajectory just isn't what we expect, and the widely circulated reports of last-minute script changes augment the climactic sense of compromise. But Andie's compromises were always what was most interesting about her, right alongside her winning and utterly believable rapport with her kindly burned-out dad and the limpid, hugely gratifying accessibility of Molly Ringwald across her whole performance. Pretty in Pink starts and ends in imperfection—nicely if unintentionally underlined by the fact that Andie's "do it yourself" prom dress, which occasions her happy ending, is actually, let's be real, quite unflattering. The movie is poignant even when it's funny, funny even when it's angry ("WHAT about PROM, BLANE??!"), and enormously embraceable. It lacks, mercifully, any Long Duck Dong instance of mean and boring stereotype, and in the hands of D.P. Tak Fujimoto—later a godsend to The Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense—the movie doesn't look bad, either. The Psychedelic Furs sound almost as techno-thrilling on the Pink soundtrack as the Simple Minds do on The Breakfast Club's. So riddle me this: why can't these movies get any respect?

Retired: Brother's Keeper
(USA, 1992; dirs. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky; cin. Douglas Cooper and Richard Hissong)
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Counting upwards on the list, my next three entries are all American independent movies, each of them restoring some meaning and marrow to the idea of truly independent film; whatever their evident compromises or flaws, they all encourage my belief that unexpected stories can still be told about improbable people in untested and illuminating ways. The first of these films, Brother's Keeper, was made by documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who later found greater fame for their two Paradise Lost movies (1996 and 2000). Those films chronicled how three Arkansan teenagers were accused of diabolical murder and were subsequently run through a scattershot judicial system that has all three imprisoned to this day. I prefer Brother's Keeper, however, for telling the less didactically driven and altogether more peculiar tale of the Ward brothers of Munnsville, NY, ranging in age from 59 to 70, all of them reclusive to the point of ghostliness, barely literate if at all, and subject to a real whopper of a media circus when the second-oldest brother dies in his sleep. When the coroner determines that he seems to have been suffocated, big questions arise. When "youngest" brother Delbert signs a confession of murder, despite outside claims that he couldn't possibly understand what he was signing, the plot thickens. When semen is found in the stomach of the deceased, things really fly off the handle.

Brother's Keeper is not a perfect documentary by any means. Berlinger and Sinofsky, as in Paradise Lost, are perhaps artificial in streamlining their complex scenario into gothic-thriller dimensions, after which they follow the reverse instinct of playing all too obviously into the side of the case they prefer. Nonetheless, Brother's Keeper is a pretty extraordinary document, not least because the surviving Ward brothers are such craggy, enigmatic, and fascinating subjects for the cameramen, who at least have the grace not to leer at them outright. Shuffling about at the pace of Galapagos turtles, and marked by the same habit of palpably retreating into their private shells, the Wards do not quite seem to fit the visions of the prosecution, but nor do they seem well-suited to the "local hero" status they acquire from a roused local populace who smell a legal feeding frenzy and are determined to safeguard this trio of virtual hermits. An extremely strange social dynamic emerges, one that confers poetic justification on the name "Ward," though the film's intimate tracing of their existence cannot disguise the fact that nobody, filmmakers included, seems to know quite what to make of them. Too, the possibility subsists throughout that the Wards know more than they ever tell, and despite sensationalist undertows, the film never succumbs to romanticizing their silence. While watching other documentaries, not to mention while living as their regional neighbors in upstate New York, I have often thought of the Wards and their appalling poverty, their almost total privacy, and afterward their vulnerability to legal and finally artistic forms of surveillance which they must never have envisioned. Formally steadier than Capturing the Friedmans and less grandiose in the scope of what it imagines, Brother's Keeper won a slew of prizes from critics' groups when it was released, but it deserves a bigger following.

Retired: George Washington
(USA, 2000; dir. David Gordon Green; cin. Tim Orr)
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David Gordon Green's George Washington, a rather awkward synthesis of stratified social realism and the lyrical sublime, is a movie I cherish even as it frustrates me profoundly. Its erratic slides between plausibility and affectation, between gentle rumination and self-indulgence, between some things borrowed and some things new, are somehow unified by a stylistic tranquility that often misserves the movie—though it also occasions some magnificent and touching sequences, and moreover, it's a powerful enticement to repeated viewings. On none of the four occasions when I have seen George Washington has it quite congealed into the movie that I wish it were, nor, more importantly, into the movie that its own most coherent passages suggest it wants to be. But then, who knows what George Washington wants to be? Its diverse allegiances and its unformed, almost fetal quality of fragile metamorphosis wouldn't feel the same if the movie felt more consistent, more bounded. What is special about the movie is its fluctuating ratio of breakthroughs and breakdowns. It's like a stumbling, amateur athlete who compels the sort of loyalty and encouragement that champions, veterans, and perfectionists can't attain, and whose flashes of brilliance are more precious for what they imply than for what they actually unite to produce.

Perhaps the film's supreme accomplishment is one of its simplest: the faith and good sense that have directed Green and his collaborators to film characters, scenes, relationships, and locations that simply never arise in American films, even, for the most part, movies as off the beaten path as this one. The commencing scene, in which the emotionally precocious 12-year-old Nasia breaks up with her 13-year-old, bespectacled boyfriend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) is both jarring and heartwarming in its lack of irony. Beyond the fact that George Washington affords such generous time and space to pre-teen emotions, and beyond the extreme rarity of seeing African-American characters of any age depicted so warmly and lit so well in an American movie, the film really hits its stride when the young characters start criss-crossing with their elders, when the white kids and black kids reveal cliques and alliances that are just as mundane to them as they are surprising within our gentrified and color-lined national cinema. The only attributes that George Washington's characters share in common are the rural, weedy county they inhabit and their unenviable class position, which seems to account for why workplaces and domestic spaces blur into each other so imperceptibly, and why everyone seems to know each other so well (kids and adults, even relative strangers, all address each other easily by first name).

If it weren't so melancholy in tone and incident—the latter is Green's real stumbling block as a writer—George Washington would feel like a sort of Fanfare for the Common Kid, utterly non-judgmental in its embrace of unremarkable youngsters and shrewd in the way it highlights their various drab environments as, at least in their minds, emotionally specific spaces. So what if George Richardson, the central character, still ends the movie as a sort of symbol without a referent, and if the kids' conspiratorial, paralyzed response to an accidental death is less confidently handled than the same plotline is in Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher. George Washington never quite achieves what Nasia, its narrator, promises—the prospect of seeing all the way into the characters' hearts and skeletons. Still, very much to its credit, the film's idiosyncratic surface already feels more revealing than the excavated cores of many other films, and it does train its audiences to see new people, to watch and listen in a new way.

Retired: In the Mood for Love
(Hong Kong, 2000; dir. Wong Kar-wai; cin. Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin)
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Pardon me for a moment as I swan off to buy some noodles. From a street vendor. Dappled by a sudden spray of rain. In my cheongsam. Hair piled high. Accessorizing perfectly with my natty enamel noodle-pail. [Sighhhhh]

You know, as many times as I have defied the old homily and, indeed, "tried this at home," it never quite works out. I rocked a lot of ramen noodles in my years of graduate-student penury, but even with Michael Galasso's indelible theme surging through the kitchen and all the lights turned down low, trying to keep my elbow straight and my neck proud and my hips in a perfect pendulum, wouldn't you know that the elusive spark of sad, swollen Romanticism, of rue dans la rue, never came close to igniting. The only part I successfully conjured was "sad," and not even in the way I intended. Oh, but don't be laughing. Y'all know you tried, too.

As with The Crying Game, but working in an opposite direction, I have experienced a pretty notable swerve in my repsonse to In the Mood for Love. In this case, I have grown almost habituated, if such a thing is possible, to Love's rapturous mise-en-scène and its intricately woven sound elements, hypnotized and transported as I am by the miracle that is Maggie Cheung. I love the word "equipoise," but I wonder if it describes any single thing in the universe so well as it does Cheung's absolute and yet sensationally un-fussy control over the line of her body, the most minute calibrations of every feature, every lash. Sitting in a chair, casting her eyes over a newspaper, her posture is not an I or an S or an L, but some kind of sublime, pristine character missing from our alphabet. Her playing of scenes like Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow's evening out at a restaurant is suffused with an emotional urgency that is almost chemical, nowhere manifest and yet everywhere felt; by comparison, even such an accomplished telepath as Julianne Moore seems like she's doing handstands and flagging out semaphores in the somewhat analogous scenes in The End of the Affair. Other actors have dazzled in Wong's movies, though usually by sculpting themselves into ravishing emblems of cool like Brigitte Lin in Chungking Express or Carina Lau in Days of Being Wild, or black holes of devouring need like Leslie Cheung in Happy Together, or plaintive alter egos like Tony Leung in almost everything. But Cheung in In the Mood for Love exhibits an utter, respectful reverence for the art-object that Wong is creating around her, without ever seemingly merely ornamental or rooting herself into any one attitude or affect. She is sad, resigned, perceptive, aroused, a good neighbor, a rattled wife, a creature of new and sudden impulse, a pilgrim returned to former haunts, and in every one of these guises, she has the clarity and soft color of blown glass, but also the veins and arteries of a human person.

As for the film, I must admit to wishing that the coda at Angkor Wat didn't feel quite so monumentalizing of what is, at heart, a gorgeous empherality. In general, I sometimes feel about Wong that, if this makes any sense, he makes movies for people who read magazines that I wouldn't like—the shimmering sheen, the insistent motifs (both visual and sonic), the lingering sense of a fold-out centerfold spread, are all, at times, a little much. In short, I do love Wong, but I do have to be in the mood. Happy Together is my favorite of his films, partially because it's the most willing to rip itself open and trace some real edges in the material, without losing the power to stun us with unexpected elegance, artful caesuras. Still, even more than that film, In the Mood for Love concocts such a potent aura of feeling, deepening and darkening its flavors with each re-viewing, that my lingering disputes with Wong's aesthetic all but float away while I'm watching. It's cinema as absinthe.

Retired: Masked and Anonymous
(USA, 2003; dir. Larry Charles; cin. Rogier Stoffers)
IMDb // My Full Review

Everybody and his brother seems to have a Bob Dylan project in the works these days, yet nonetheless, rarely do you hear a kind word (or, indeed, any word at all) about this freewheeling, epigrammatic, and carnivalesque project that Dylan himself brought to the screen a couple of years ago. Since I have reviewed Masked and Anonymous in full, readers already have a stronger sense than usual of what I like so much about the movie. And this is probably just as good a time as any to acknowledge that, especially by comparison to my Top 100, this list of Personal Favorites skews heavily contemporary—an honest reflection of where my enthusiasms lie these days, even if it turns out that the ardor cools in the next couple of years. I'm as fickle as they come, I suppose, but then, so is Masked and Anonymous, which only fully commits to a small handful of its characters (Dylan's, Bridges', Goodman's, Lange's, and maybe Luke Wilson's) while mostly preferring to pinwheel among first impressions, quick interludes, musical bridges, and defiantly self-contained episodes that obscure as many of Dylan's creative intentions as they reveal.

It's no wonder that Masked and Anonymous—whose title proudly proclaims its refusal to be known—isn't everyone's cup of tea. For what it's worth, I personally can't get enough of the way it plays such a mean game of three-card monte with our expectations and even our recognition of what we're watching: is Dylan "playing himself" or playing some alternative jam-meditation on the theme of himself? Is it okay to take seriously the movie's ramshackle vision of a tumbledown, Third World America, even as the major characters appear to joke and smirk about it? What do we make of the way that the screenplay's wry, aphoristic dialogue and allegorical figures hail straight from the lexicon of Dylan's own songwriting, and yet, minus the reassurances of melody and reputation, these same aesthetics feel even more inscrutable than usual? And does that make it easy not to respond to the roustabout humor that is all over Masked and Anonymous, fighting a worthy duel with the heartbroken sadness and the confessions of failure that infuse so many of its scenes? Are the actors in the movie simply flailing about without a flight manual, or is the free-verse, improvisatory style of these performances—beyond the immediate pleasures in turns as witty as Lange's or as crafty as Bridges'—germane to the message the movie is trying to convey? And what is that message, or is there no message? On the largest scale, I'd stick my neck out to say that Masked and Anonymous is a bright but scathing future-vision of the United States after only a few more years of the entertainment industry's profit-mongering and empty self-congratulations, not to mention of the impotence of modern liberalism and the factionalizing effects of a hubristic, hawkish, but increasingly shaky government. (In its tacit way, it's also one of the few American movies to presage a future of the country where Latino and Hispanic cultures come to permeate all levels of society, culture, and public provenance.) On the narrowest level, Dylan offers a kind of perversely private apologia for his own lapses as an artist and a man—which, the film seems well aware, is not fundamentally distinct from the other narcissistic enterprises that are suffocating the power of art even as, in many cases, they provide its steadiest fuel. No coward from paradox, this film.

On every scale, I admit that Masked and Anonymous keeps me perpetually grasping at straws, and perpetually eager to keep on grasping. Abstruse as it can get, the movie is also hugely entertaining, engagingly shot, and, at least in its early and middle stretches, very cleverly edited. The music can't be beat. And I'd sure rather take this kind of dense, cryptic, and wholly personal missive from one of our most challenging popular artists than the kinds of anodyne and awkward biographies that any outside-observer in the book can throw together. Here in late 2005, I'm still perplexed about what I'm supposed to make of Ray Charles, Howard Hughes, J.M. Barrie, Che Guevara, Alfred Kinsey, John Kerry, and Ramón Sampedro. Even Mario Van Peebles' Baadassss!, which by all rights should have felt as radical and self-determined as this film does, has precious little of its idiosyncratic spark. If Masked and Anonymous has any close parallels among recent biographical pictures, it's probably Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, except that Dylan's back pages of shock, self-performance, and secret complicities have more complex harmonies than Caouette's, and they are also more persuasively our own.

Retired: Network
(USA, 1976; dir. Sidney Lumet; cin. Owen Roizman)

The MGM lion has hardly stopped roaring when Paddy Chayefsky starts, in the chattery, clenched opening of Network—quite well directed by Sidney Lumet, but still Chayefsky's movie through and through. The first character whose acquaintance we make is Peter Finch's Howard Beale, a fantastically depressed anchorman who will hardly go softly into that good night, and who in fact teeters with drunken abandon on the lip of a total breakdown. Apropos Howard, our unknown narrator confides that in 1970, "His wife died and he became a childless widower with an 8 rating and a 12 share." We haven't even hit the opening titles yet when an offhand comment from Howard's friend and producer Max Schumacher gives him the idea that, were he to blow his brains out on air, seated right at this newsdesk, the network would score at least a 50 share. The next night, Howard pledges to do just this: "Since this show was the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself." Peter Finch, as Howard, delivers the lines with almost jocular aplomb. No one in the sound booth or at the editing console even notices, at least not right away.

Network wastes no time barreling right into its scabrous satire of an abscessed national media, of middle-age panic and youthful zealotry, of sensational diversions that conceal the corporate racket, of how a graduated mid-life apoplexy, perhaps outright insanity, nonetheless passes for messianic enlightenment in a world that's this far gone. Network remains prescient, urgent, hilarious, and relevant today, almost 30 years after its debut, and it's of course profoundly sad that this is the case. It's easy to lament the fact that post-Y2K television has promulgated so many programs that would have slid quite nicely into the deranged rubric of The Howard Beale Show. Bill O'Reilly is scantily less crazy than Howard Beale, speaking only of his contempt for corroborated fact and his perpetual state of spoiled-child ire, not about his politics. The endless procession of Survivors and Idols and Models and Millionaires are even more vapid than Sybil the Soothsayer, the rumored but never-heard Vox Populi, and other Guignol series and spinoffs that Chayefsky devises for his fictional UBS. More harrowing is the fact that Network actually strikes much closer to the angry red iron of what's really going wrong—the transnational corporations duping their own senior staffs and worshipping the dollar in a quite literal way—than do the endless contemporary editorials about the atrophied content of today's TV. Content is just a symptom. As Faye Dunaway's brazenly cloven-hoofed Diana Christensen yells at a Marxist, terrorist-affiliated demagogue-for-hire, "I don't give a damn about the political content of the show!" So little damns are given in this movie, I feel sure I'd have spotted one, had the occasion ever arisen.

What Network does give a damn about is the entire plane of mid-1970s wrongdoing and woe, one that explains and forever exceeds the ideological malfeasance we're seeing in the network offices and on their screens. Depression, recession, civil wars, White House corruption, balkanized liberal dissent, skyrocketing oil prices, racial ghettoization, white-collar auction blocks, conveniently blurred lines between bureaucratic divisions like "News" and "Programming." In synthesizing these trends, if only by angrily, commodiously tatting them together in furious unison, the movie far exceeds the kind of simple "Will TV tell the truth or won't it?" provenance of a sleeker, shallower film like this fall's Good Night, and Good Luck. Meanwhile, Owen Roizman's camerawork, careening into Weimar-era, M-style canted angles in the establishing shots on the network offices—and again during the immortal, mid-film "Mad as Hell" interlude—draws its own implicit analogies about where the country is heading.

Having said all that, Network is not a perfect movie, and is in fact consistently overrated. Chayefsky's fascination with his own highbrow vocabulary declaws as many scenes as it assists. The film's worst judgment has always to do with the William Holden's Max, whose banal and moony marital transgressions never feel like more than an excuse to give Dunaway something else to act besides her possession by the Nielsen demons. The root network of Holden's scenes mostly subsist of the chauvinist and youth-phobic moral favor Chayefsky quite arbitrarily cedes to him over Dunaway, and also the script's quavering unwillingness to recognize that Howard is actually right about individual lives and personal qualms being utterly, almost comically irrelevant to the kind of world Network so sagely describes. At some point in my viewing history, Network has passed from a movie I admired without liking to a movie I enjoy tremendously without quite admiring it so much as I used to. Over-the-top, out and proud, even when it could stand to hold back or trim down a little, Network does what Dunaway tells us Sybil the Soothsayer does: the film oraculates. Still, the fierceness with which it both demands and holds our attention, all these decades later, makes it always worth another re-run.

Retired: Shame
(Sweden, 1968; dir. Ingmar Bergman; cin. Sven Nykvist)

Across all of the arts, I think that the most urgent and sophisticated depiction of war is the one Bertolt Brecht constructs in his play Mother Courage and Her Children, in which the rumbling of military convoys and the cracks of artillery are mostly offstage echoes. The focalizing character is Anna Fierling, dubbed "Mother Courage" for both laudatory and facetious reasons, who strains to make a living for herself and her three bastard children while trudging through the muddy, scabbed grounds of the battlefields and surrounding towns, selling her second-hand wares to whomever, on whatever side, of whatever nationality or political persuasion, is willing to part with a buck, or a mark, or a krona, or a pair of boots, or whatever. Brecht helps us to understand war as a series of dark negotiations with one's own ethics, with one's own being, and with the competing ways of construing oneself as a communal figure: as a partner, a parent, a patriot, a pragmatist, a profiteer, a bystander, an objector. No one now living—at least no one paying any attention—can doubt the continuing relevance of this viewpoint, and the need for its proclamation: war, when it is happening, and it is almost always happening, is never "over there," it is always here, in its reverberations, its roots, its dollars and cents, even in the most isolationist refusals of war's reality.

Ingmar Bergman's 1968 film Shame presents itself in as un-Brechtian a style as it possibly could, but the intelligence and the inclusiveness with which it examines war as a social and human condition are very nearly on a par with Brecht's. In Bergman's Persona, made two years previously, Liv Ullmann reacts with mute shock and terror to televised images of martial atrocities in Southeast Asia, and to the horrifying conviction of a Buddhist monk setting fire to himself in protest of man's inhumanity. War provides a crucial context for the vicious psychological retrenchment that Persona subsequently explores, particularly via the Ullmann character, but Shame confronts the issue in a much more direct and thorough-going way. Eva and Jan Rosenberg (Ullmann and Max von Sydow) are married concert musicians who live out a rustic existence on a Scandinavian island—farming and raising chickens, struggling to get the radio and the truck engine to work, ferrying to the mainland for necessities and the occasional luxury indulgence. In Shame's first scene, Ullmann and von Sydow wake in their beds (not, crucially, the same bed), and as she rather brusquely dresses and washes her face, he forlornly recounts a dream of the previous evening. An undeniable chill, if not quite a hostility, exists between these people, though its relative severity will rise and fall through the first half of the film, sometimes warming to an optimistic intimacy, sometimes tumbling into a scary antagonism. Meanwhile, we learn quickly that whatever unnamed country of which the Rosenbergs are citizens, albeit quite secluded ones, has been rent for several years by civil war, whose armies might invade their own environs at any moment. In many films, even ones by Bergman, these dual narratives would serve as metaphors or reflections of each other: the on-and-off combat within the Rosenbergs' marriage and the literal war that, for now, is only visible in the processions of military trucks and the low-flying jets that occasionally pass overhead. The genius of Shame, though, rendered with stomach-turning immediacy and realism, is that we experience all of this as one narrative. The gnawing discontent between Eva and Jan is directly conditioned by the war; it is one of the thousands of tongues through which the war speaks. She expresses contempt for his tearful, paralyzed anxieties; he doesn't understand how she can listen to so much more of the radio coverage than he and yet reflect so much less sensitivity and fear in response; she wishes he would fix the fucking truck, partially so they will have a means of escape if marauding armies do appear, and partially because he's such a goddamned procrastinator in general. About a half-hour into Shame, with a speed, a potency, and a plausibility that are equally hard to bear, the martial conflict explodes at the Rosenbergs' very own door, frightening them to their cores, annihilating their privacy, and serving to draw them back together but also to make them scowl even more deeply at each others' shortcomings. Again, these personal clashes are not sidebars or collateral effects of the war: they are part of what war is. As circumstances deteriorate even further in Shame, so too do the relations between the Rosenbergs.

Along with how it pervades our personalities, slips under our very skins, the other vile and best-kept secret of war is its shapeshifting ability. Like a flammable liquid, it pours itself into any space or vessel, and is prone to ignite anywhere. The second half of Shame, now that the Rosenbergs realize how immersed they are in the crisis, shows how arbitrarily they are pawned between the opposing factions, how their friendships and their enmities become hopelessly confused, how in a very Brechtian fashion—if not, again, in a Brechtian idiom—war becomes a marketplace for terrible barters, including sexual ones, which give onto their own cycles of self-defeating revenge. If I'm making Shame sound like harrowing viewing, then I'm doing it justice; few films are so excoriating in their images or their trajectories. But there is nothing abstruse or reductive or inaccessible about it: it doesn't need manichean figures of good and evil like Platoon does, or peekaboo movements in and out of the maelstrom like Saving Private Ryan does, or even the ornate and remote meditative koans of The Thin Red Line. Ambitious and indispensable as Malick's movie is, its motivating quarry is the philosophical knot of war, whereas Shame draws the rutted map of war's psychology, in bold and grievous strokes recognizable to any audience, and liable to frighten and humble them all. Ullmann, exquisitely forceful and believable in her role, has exactly one Bergmanesque soliloquy about the states and layers of being and suffering, but even this builds to a ringing, legible, and haunting conclusion. Imagining the war-torn world as the collective nightmare of humanity, of a global conscience in a restive, inattentive sleep, she asks herself, "What happens when the person dreaming all of this and all of us awakes, and is ashamed?"

Retired: Swept Away
(Italy, 1975; dir. Lina Wertmüller; cin. Ennio Guarnieri)

Having endorsed the Psycho remake earlier in this bracket, I'm not going to push the envelope. In this case, I do mean the Wertmüller original, not the Guy & Madge update from 2002, even if, truth be told, I didn't think that version was so bad. Doesn't matter anyway, since defending Wertmüller's own reputation takes enough energy these days. My, but world film culture can turn against its rising female auteurs! After the hat trick of Love and Anarchy, Swept Away, and Seven Beauties in the mid-1970s, Wertmüller made a string of flops, at least as regards their performance outside of Italy. These days, you barely hear a kind word even about her career-makers. (Jesus, it's like she and Jane Campion really are soul sisters—and Sofia Coppola, you'd best watch your back from here on out.)

Swept Away, for all the jewel-toned lusciousness of its cinematography, is not designed to go easy on any scenery-seekers who wander in. The sparkling blue water, gleaming boats, and paradisical isle of Swept Away are among the first mirages of the "natural" that get slyly absorbed into the demagogic rattle-bag of the script, which appropriates as many capitalized Concepts as it can before giving them all an earthy, vigorous shake. Even better and more boldly, Wertmüller conceives characters who are as directly and constantly aware of these concepts as she is, and who invoke them with a shrill obnoxiousness that the film is willing, even proud, to assume as its own. "How sad to imagine this paradise full of shit, the sea a big, open sewer," pronounces Mariangela Melato's spoiled aristocrat, reaching new acmes of braying superciliousness. Here is a woman who looks at the ocean and the horizon and can't not think of them as hers, can't not think of them as somehow encroached upon by some unwashed someone somewhere. Even as the film strokes her with buttery light it slaps her around with sharp, arhythmic edits that only emphasize the way she herself brings up everyone and everything short. "You ludicrous, vain black midget!" she screams at a ship's crewman (Giancarlo Giannini, inevitably), who counters back with his own stampeding herd of epithets, of which "You dirty, social-democratic prickteaser!" is a roundly typical example. The collision of warring social vocabularies is never louder in Swept Away than when someone's insulting someone, which is often. Beyond the film's pugnacity in keeping up this bruising war of words, consider the achievements of Giannini and especially Melato, who have to preserve but also modulate this pitch of invective for more than an hour, well into their joint marooning on an uncharted island. This is the point when the script really shows what audacious stuff it's made of, countering her social Darwinism with his brutish misogyny, and then turning them both on to each other.

As the movie barrels forward, Raffaella and Gennarino change their view of the island from a simple haven to some kind of prelapsarian utopia, but go ahead and laugh at them—as long as we don't only laugh at them. The muscular systems of class and gender, no matter how socially constructed, nonetheless abide in such a way that wherever humans go, so go they. The inexplicable presence on this island of some kind of bunkered chapel is a sign that no terrain is untouched, but unlike Raffaella, Wertmüller doesn't recoil from this notion. Exploring ideas in such a way that they are never abstracts, provoking her own sense of their limits and their linkages, Wertmüller almost takes a perverse pleasure in the world's ugly power plays, since they sure give her a lot to say and plenty of buttons to push, in formally controlled and gorgeous images that she underlines and italicizes without making them into polemics. Precious few directors hand their films over so openly to ideologies when they aren't billboarding for one of them. In Wertmüller's case, I'm not sure if she is committed to none or to all of the positions that get espoused in this film, but certainly not to just one. Meanwhile, I'm not the only person with questions, for I think Wertmüller has some, too. At its heart, Swept Away is a melodrama, at moments even a tender one, asking whether people have outlasted landscapes as the last sites for romantic possibility, whether people can break out of conditions and into genuine novelties. "We're not on the yacht anymore," Gennario reminds Raffaella, but in truth we probably always are on the yacht, just like we're always actually in Kansas, Toto. Still, the movie tests the fantasy, in brilliant Technicolor, even when we privately know or at least suspect what's real.

Retired: Within Our Gates
(USA, 1919; dir. Oscar Micheaux)
IMDb // My Page

The most famously racist movie in American cinema is D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, a film whose boundary-pushing visual grammar and sophisticated devices for managing parallel narratives are deservedly celebrated, and yet whose white-supremacist mythomania is so overt and passionate that actually watching the film is invariably worse than anything you might hear about it in advance. Until you have beheld the Ku Klux Klan riding valiantly to the rescue of an imperiled white lily of Southern womanhood, you have not experienced the full, gobsmacking force of the racist musculature behind early American visual culture. (Wasn't it kind of me to say "early"?)

Enraged by what he saw in The Birth of a Nation, African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux rode to his own rescue and filmed Within Our Gates—one of his two most famous films (the other is 1925's Body and Soul), but nonetheless obscure to most moviegoers, even those who retrospectively recognize the fundamental disgraces in Griffith's movie. This circumstance actually speaks to another American problem, wherein we have better memories for Faustian masterpieces than for exemplary acts of redress. Indeed, Within Our Gates was deemed lost for many years before it resurfaced just over a decade ago, in mislabeled film canisters in a vault somewhere in Spain. Knowing the severe obstacles this film has faced for decades just trying to get itself seen—not to mention the obstacles you'll encounter trying to see it, unless you live near a university library, or unless TCM is having an especially emancipated day—only adds to its blunt force once unveiled. Rather than a white actor in blackface chasing a histrionic Mae Marsh, Within Our Gates sports a harrowing sequence in which Sylvia Landry, its African-American protagonist, is not only beaten and sexually aggressed by a white man, but by one who comes to realize amidst this very encounter that he is her father—speaking not just to his brutishness in the present moment but to an entire history of disavowed sexual violence and natal alienation. Just as thunderous, both in its anger and in its bold execution, is a long flashback sequence that details the lynching of Sylvia's family, a passage which was customarily excised by craven projectionist even when Gates played to American audiences in 1920. The desperate physicality of the actors in these sequences, as well as their comportment in the more serene but equally interesting passages of the movie, are a succinct rebuttal not just to American memories of its racial past but to the dominating aesthetic of American silent features, which usually opted for a gentility and a stylized theatricality that Micheaux frequently eschews. Lead actress Evelyn Preer, a bright light of the African-American stage, has a soft but womanly poise that offers key counterpoint to the willowy fragility with which Griffith tended to shoot Lillian Gish. Furthermore, Micheaux, who worked without a credited cinematographer, is a cunning visualist, alternating abstract and realist backgrounds behind characters in seemingly straightforward dialogue scenes, so as to comment subtly on the varying moral depth of their points of view, their relation to or else their avoidance of the world they mutually inhabit.

Within Our Gates is full of surprises, following a multitude of characters and plotlines without settling into predictable allegiances. Micheaux's critiques of bad habits within the African-American community are as lucid as his indictments of white-supremacist ideology. The film wholly avoids a Manichean division between black saints and white predators, and the introductions of romance and religion among the film's active concerns do interesting things to our views of several characters. The closing scenes are unforeseeably optimistic, and Gates has taken its licks over the years for making this turn, though it seems to me that the thinly motivated dissolve amidst the final shot squares it quite self-consciously in the realm of fairy tale. Of course, the most delicious surprise in Within Our Gates is that it exists at all, against the odds of America's post-WWI self-deification and despite Micheaux's omission from too many debates and film texts where he rightfully belongs. One particularly succulent reward came in 1992, the fourth year in the cycle of National Film Registry inductees, when Within Our Gates entered the Library of Congress' most esteemed collection of American films right alongside The Birth of a Nation. In the national archives at least, but hopefully in other places too, Micheaux can call Griffith's bluff in perpetuity. There is more than one way to write history in lightning.

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