I’ve made my own best of list!
Except for TV…
And just this year!
Here it is!
I’ve made my own best of list!
Except for TV…
And just this year!
Here it is!
Watching an Altman film is like wandering into a party filled with people you don’t know. Everyone is really cool and talking over each other. The jokes you get are really funny. The jokes you don’t get seem really funny to them. Altman was the 18th choice for director of the adaptation of Richard Hooker’s MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, and yet today it’s hard to imagine anyone else making this messy, brutal, hilarious, anti-war farce. Now, I’m an avid fan of the TV show that followed the film (Alan Alda easily delivered the greatest comedic performance of any decade) and I’ve always been a little hesitant about Altman’s style, but I was pleasantly surprised. Of all the movies he’s made, this is most certainly the most effective use of his style.
Why is this the best?
1. Because War is Messy, Confusing
There’s nothing simple about the way Altman makes a film. He frequently uses the dialogue from one scene while showing you the images from another, characters speak over each other. Hell, there are entire scenes of this film in which not a single character talks uninterrupted. People wander in and out of the frame, massively important things happen in the background. But Altman is nothing if not a spectacular chaos wrangler. Every single strange chaotic moment is perfectly orchestrated. Everything has it’s very meticulous purpose. In a lot of ways, this chaos is what made Altman so suited to make a war film. The beauty of MASH is that the horror isn’t in the for ground. They perform brutal surgery on victims of inhuman violence, but the camera stays focused on the their faces, their feet. They play poker while the body is carried away in a stretcher, in the background.
2. Because War is Funny, Horrid
There are many scenes in which the main characters of the film play pranks on the chief nurse. She’s a little bit of a stickler for the rules, and not the best judge of character, but the things they do to her are pretty awful. At first, they just say terrible things to her. Then they put the PA microphone in her tent while she has sex. Then they pull up a wall of the shower tent while she’s in it. And the humiliation she feels isn’t avoided. We see how terrible this whole thing is for her, yet we still laugh a little. On the surface, these pranks just make the main characters wholly unlikable, but there’s a deeper meaning to all this. Not only does Hoolihan represent the military authority. It’s also the only place where these doctors can really have any sort of control. It’s mean and it’s disgusting, but it’s a very human response to being sat on by a the big man. Sit on someone smaller.
3. Because war is Absurd, Childish
Beyond the famously strange concept of having a war film entirely about doctors, the only gun shot fired in the film is during a football game. The whole final twenty or so minutes of this movie is a football game. An entirely absurd game, where they hide the ball under someones shirt, they actually stick a syringe in an opponent and drug him. It’s utterly brilliant. This constant desire to escape, to turn away from all the horrors they have to face on a daily basis and revert to some childish, nearly sociopathic state of being, bubbles up in this final game. When the film ends you’re so happy they won, but after a moment, it occurs to you that it doesn’t matter. It’s all meaningless. And as your mind is filled with the horrific futile emptiness of it all, The “Suicide is Painless” theme kicks in and Altman smiles because he hates you.
In conclusion this film is easy to watch and makes its point without ever forcing it down your throat like a Ryan Murphy show or Green Day album. For me, watching this film was like eating a cake with a fortune-cookie fortune inside that reads “now you’re fat.”
In 1959, we were fighting a war. Except, there were no bombs and very little actual killing. It was the cold war. It involved a lot of posturing and mugging for the camera. But like all wars, it produced war heroes. Unlike durring WW2, these heroes were not crusty, cigar smoking bad asses, with rocket launchers and Bowie knives. The new brand of war hero was the spy. Replacing the rocket launcher with a pistol, the dirt with a well-tailored suit, and the Bowie knife with a sharp tongue. This cultural archetype congealed for several more years before birthing the most condensed form of masculine escapism to date:
But back in 1959 Hitchcock had already completely perfected and deconstructed the James Bond story in his film North by Northwest, three years before Doctor No came to theaters.
Why is this the best James Bond film?
Like any good Bond flick, North by Northwest features a fleeting sexual encounter with a beautiful, morally ambiguous, and possibly dangerous woman. As is typical in bond films, the seduction is rife with double meanings and intrigue. This melding of sex and animosity, of love and war, perfectly encapsulates the kind of gray area the cold was was fought in. Of course, it is as soon as the sexual encounter is over that North by Northwest and James Bond diverge.
Unlike in almost any Bond film, after he finds out that she’s betrayed him, he reacts like a real human being and gets pissed at her. As he basically slut shames her in a upscale art auction, she reacts with veiled heartache. The whole moment is very moving, while remaining shrouded in mystery.
See, unlike almost any Bond film, once she’s served her purpose as a errant sex object, she then becomes a relevant character with real human desires and believable motivations. If you’ll excuse the pun: she gets boned, then fleshed out.
Wanting a Femme Fatale and trying to avoid flagrant sexism is like wanting to have your cake and eat it too, but somehow North by Northwest succeeds where Bond fails.
While most of Doctor No and North by Northwest are intrigues, there is always danger, and eventually violence. In a lot of ways the films are similar in their presentation of violence.
Firstly, everyone is always very well dressed while they try to kill each other. Weather you’re having a fist fight on the side of Mount Rushmore, or Dodging a murderous plane, you better have a very sharp suit on. James Bond was known for looking dapper in the most dangerous of circumstances and Cary Grant wears one iconic suit for basically the whole film. It not only makes for excellent looking cinema, it also gets at the new kinds of battles that were being fought. Ones where you couldn’t quite tell who’s the good guy or the bad guy because there were no uniforms.
Secondly, the ways they try to kill each other are completely absurd. Getting a dude drunk and then driving him off a cliff is silly. Trying to kill someone with a plane is completely ridiculous. But, check out the Bond films, where they try to cut you in half with a laser or feed you to sharks.
But let’s look at how they diverge. As I already mentioned, Cary Grant wears one suit for the whole movie, but unlike in Bond, the suit and all it represents winds up becoming a sort of cage that he’s trapped in. A sexy spy act that he desperately wants to escape from because who would want to be trapped in a double life filled with murder and deception. It’s not until the mistaken identity plot wraps up that he finally gets a new suit. A new freedom where he can do what he wants.
3. The Cold War
The fact is that spies are necessary. A new kind of war requires a new kind of soldier and there’s no reason not to show the world what that new kind of soldier looks like. But let’s be honest, James Bond is a hired killer. He’s a patriot, who believes so blindly in his country, that he’s willing to murder people, regularly, for a higher purpose. At the end of every movie, James Bond’s rampant killing spree is justified by the reveal of a villainous master plan that he thwarts (typically by killing more people). While this does protect his character, marginally, it also leaves you with a questionable moral lesson. That the ends, in the case of the cold war, always justify the means. North by Northwest rejects this notion. By having Cary Grant’s story be one of mistaken identity, he is not bound by the patriotic brain-washing that your typical agent suffers from. And since the Femme Fatale is a turned informant, she too isn’t stuck in a spy’s mentality. They are both trapped by the cold war. Forced to play out this spy game for reasons that are completely beyond them (we never know what was on that microfilm). Every visual throughout the film drives this point home. The opening title sequence, the field, the maps, each of these use a grid as a sort of modernist spider web where Cary Grant is trapped in a war too new and massive for anyone to really fully understand.
Here’s Cary Grant escaping the United Nations Building (towering over him).
Here’s Cary Grant in a trap, that’s also a grid.
Here’s a moment from the opening titles where Cary Grant is literally in a grid.
I think you get the point.
When Cary Grant finds out that Eva Marie Saint is going off to almost certain death to protect her country, this is what he says: “If you fellows can’t lick the VanDamm’s of this world without asking girls like her to bed down with them and fly away with them and probably never come back, perhaps you ought to start learning how to lose a few cold wars.”
He is basically saying that the ends do not justify the means.
In conclusion, I love me some James Bond. It makes for lovely escapist fun and the occasional nifty mystery. But they are all inherently, ideologically flawed films (with the exception of some of the newer ones which at least attempt to address how messed up James Bond is). Hitchcock and Lehman encapsulated all the Cold War era intrigue and seductive spy thrills that Fleming did, but with a fine tooth comb, so detailed in their inspection that they created what was possibly the first and last great Cold War spy thriller.
There was a time, long ago, when there wasn’t such a thing as a summer blockbuster. Big budget actions and thrillers were released whenever. And no one cared. Then, along came Jaws and now we have 10 straight weeks a year of nothing but Battleship and John Carter. It’s not entirely accurate to say that Jaws invented the summer blockbuster, but it was released in the summer and it did earn half a billion dollars in theaters. At the time, that was utterly unheard of. So, suddenly every executive was sure that if they released their big budget thrillers in the summer they’d get their money back. Obviously, none of these executives were thinking if you just make the movie good you’ll make your money back. But alas, this created the rigid release schedule we’re all stuck with today.
Why is this the best?
1. Steven Spielberg
Spielberg is a unique director. He’s not like Kubrick, meticulously laying out his frames like a disturbed 8th grader laying out candid photos people didn’t know he was taking of them (sleeping), or Coppola, trying to draw a parallel between the way he shoots a severed head and the dangers of capitalism, or Scorsese, really figuring out which image will bring the audience closer to the depths of human misery. Spielberg doesn’t really think about his images that much. His shots rarely represent anything grandiose. The direction in Spielberg films always seems effortless. Like it just rolled off the tongue and landed on the screen.
Someone like Coppola of Scorsese wouldn’t have been able to make a film about a shark attack. The fact is, it’s a really simple tale. It makes no grand statements about society. It’s a human story. The moments that pull you in are human moments. People getting drunk and cutting open a shark, a child imitating his father’s stress. And it’s the human fear that’s so chilling. Not the Animatronic great white shark. It’s the sound of a woman being eaten alive, having no idea what’s tearing her apart. The pain and futility.
2. The Unknown
The fact is, you don’t see this fucking shark until like at least halfway through the film. Mostly, it’s just POV shark or seeing the stuff that’s attached to the shark, racing through the water towards the characters (barrels, half a dock). It’s this use of the unknown, the unseen, that makes Jaws such an effective thriller. Because, nothing is as scary as unseen death. And that’s what the ocean is. A giant murky shadow that you swim in. Fuck. The ocean sucks.
3. Effortless Exposition
The fact is that every character in this film is introduced in the most bare bones possible way. In under a minute, we learn that Roy Schneider is a new police chief on an island community near Boston, and he’s from New York. The film is so economical about exposition, never wasting a second. Using the least amount of words possible. Quint’s introduction: he scrapes his fingers on the chalk board and says “You all know who I am,” and right away, you fucking know who he is. He’s a fucking crazy shark hunting bad ass. It’s obvious.
In conclusion, this movie is far better than the crazes it began. The revival of the creature feature, the tent pole, the summer block buster, any of the Jaws sequels (which are about as entertaining as stabbing yourself in the eye with toenail clippings), these all owe their existence to Jaws and for that I will never forgive Spielberg. But, in a lot of ways, the summer blockbuster is dying. Films like The Harry Potter series, Avatar, Twilight, even the new James Bond film, are all obviously studio tent poles, costing lots of money and drawing record smashing amounts of profit, yet none of them came out in the summer. Each one appeared during fairly quiet times of the year where they could make money simply by the lack of competition.
So it’s the end of an era. Also, sharks are awesome.
In a lot of ways, the story of Sylvester Stallone is a more inspiring and schmaltzy than Rocky could have ever dreamed of being. From homeless, to soft-core porn, to B-rate thug, to Oscar nominee in about 6 years. Sylvester’s improbable jetpack ride into super stardom is something out of Horatio Alger. With half his face paralyzed, grimacing like a melting sculpture, slurring his words, he walked into a studio with a script, was given 1.1 million and walked away earning a cool 225, mil.
It’s almost hard to believe. What’s harder to believe is that the script he gave them wound up spawning five more films before landing on AFI’s top 100 films of all time.
Why is this the best?
1. Training Montage
So that was it. That was the famous montage that spawned a thousand parodies. It’s an odd experience to wait 24 years before seeing this scene for the first time. And I have to say… kind of underwhelming.
I’m sure at the time it was novel, and inspired, but it’s aged about as well as… well, Sylvester Stallone. What was once a new and gloriously crooked face in a sea of Robert Redfords and Paul Newmans, has become a very dated joke.
I was so ready for this final fight. I mean, so many iconic lines, like “you gotta cut me,” and “Yo, Adrian!” And I loved these lines. I didn’t even know who Adrian was. I’d always assumed he was an evil space alien and Rocky shouted that right before jamming a grenade in his mouth, then kicking him into an active volcano, or something like that. Regardless, I was super pumped for the final fight. I finally busted out the pop corn, hunkered down and… That was it? IT WAS 10 MINUTES! One fight at the end of the film, and it’s only 10 minutes long, and he loses. And the last line of the movie is “I love you.” What the fucking fuck. I thought this film was about people punching each other in the face!
Here, check out this sweet Pie Chart I made in MS paint.
It was while watching the fairly underwhelming training montage that I noticed something interesting about Rocky.
To my surprise, most of this movie isn’t at all about boxing. It’s about human misery. Which makes me really happy. See, Rocky is a dumb, has-been, tough guy, who just wants to date his buddy’s cripplingly shy sister and keep a roof over his head. He’s resigned himself to being a debt collector, because he knows he’ll never amount to much, and he’s accepted that. Then he’s plucked from obscurity to fight Apollo Creed for the heavy weight championship of the world and suddenly he’s being interviewed by reporters, his friends are trying to exploit his fame for money, for another chance at greatness. Suddenly everyone wants something from him and everyone has an agenda. And the real tragedy here is that he’s just smart enough to know that’s what’s happening. This half-child half-man who just wants to say “hi” to his girlfriend on TV winds up the center of a national shit storm. All he really wants is some modicum of self worth. And the saddest part of it is he knows he’s going to lose, and he doesn’t care. He’s so resigned to failure that all he wants is the opportunity to get his face bashed in on national television. He spends the final scenes talking about how his shorts are the wrong color in the poster, his robe is too baggy, what’s that on Apollo’s head? Because he knows he can’t win, and it doesn’t matter. There’s something profoundly sad about the whole story and profoundly sympathetic. Rocky is the great American tragedy: Too dumb to make a better life for himself, but just smart enough to know a better life is out there.
In conclusion, Rocky isn’t the movie I thought it was. Most of the film is Rocky mumbling his way through daily living in the country’s most depressing city, asking a girl on a date through a closed door, imparting advise to an ungrateful child, shouting at the heavens in impotent rage. So, while it makes for a lousy boxing movie, it’s a riveting tragedy.
I know you are all waiting with baited breath for some words on Rocky. But I’ve been super busy making my own movie (I know, ridiculous).
Anyway, here’s the thing. I can’t make this film without your support. I’ve started a kickstarter http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1336875269/abduction and I’m asking for small donations to help the film get made. If you think I’m funny or insightful or pathetic and bad smelling, please donate. I think you’ll like the movie we will make.
Watching this film is like watching a steam-powered wooden vibrator. Sure it was cool 100 years ago, but for fuck sake, the splinters! (these things are real btw. They were called “hysteria machines”)
Anyway. This film came out in 1925, so not quite 100 years ago, but boy does it feel old, even older than the other famous Chaplin flicks. I think Chaplin wanted to make a more pensive slow boil of a comedy, which I’m sure seemed really hip back then, but in 2012 it is actually the most boring thing I’ve ever seen.
Why is this the best?
1. Black Comedy
In some ways, The Gold Rush is one of the earliest black comedies. It’s a comedy where a guy dies at the 2 minute mark. There’s a double homicide at 14 minutes (of two police men), then another death at the 25 minute mark. A bulk of the movie tries finding the humor in starving to death. There’s a wonderful scene where Chaplin tries desperately not to be collateral damage in a fight over a shotgun. And that’s not even the depressing part. The movie’s second act is mostly Chaplin having his heart broken.
2. Special Effects
It can’t really be overlooked that, for the time, the effects in this film were unheard of. The film features a pretty awesome rocking house scene that was surely the “Inception Hallway” of 1925, which now looks a lot like “Babies first after effects project.” Though, I’m quite sure I have no idea how they did it. But then again, I’m not sure how the steam powered dildo machine works either. Doesn’t make me want to use it.
In conclusion, I have a suggestion to make. This film is available, streaming, on Netflix. If you find yourself overcome with the desire to be more cultured and watch this film, do yourself a favor: turn off the audio (unless you really like that ragtime song so much you’d like to hear it seven billion times). Make your own soundtrack playlist. I would suggest “Call your Girlfriend” by Robyn and “Submerged in Boiling Flesh” by Cannibal Corpse for starters, but to each their own I guess.
And now, without further adieu…
“The Hysteria Machine”
I’m sure you’re all dying to hear about The Gold Rush, but instead I’ve written you a very true story about my experiences as a robot. Enjoy!
While I’m on the subject of dissecting various “Best of” lists I recently wrote an article for another blog about Television. Check it out.