[2 August 2011]
Neurotic New Yorkers, Queer Mavericks, Swedish close-ups and the art of putting a microphone on every person on set are but a few of the themes explored in PopMatters’ first group of ten essential directors, Chantal Akerman through Bernardo Bertolucci. Please note that any perceived omissions were likely on purpose…
Three Key Films: La Chambre (1970), News from Home (1971), Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Underrated: Je Tu Il Elle (1972)
Unforgettable: Jeanne finds herself alone in her apartment with no chores to do, so she sits and sits and sits and stares and we sit and sit and sit and stare.
The Legend: If Laura Mulvey is the queen of feminist film theory, Chantal Akerman is its messiah figure: the one to make its theories compelling and cinematic and accessible and powerful and hot rather than cold and counter cinematic. The importance of Mulvey’s films is in their complete dismissal of a misogynist film form in an attempt to create a specifically female gaze, as in her unwatchable masterpiece Riddles of the Sphinx, but in the same year, Akerman took it a step further with Jeanne Dielman. In the film, made when she was just 25, Akerman co-opted the cinematic techniques of the Hollywood gaze and manipulated them to serve a female narrative, and ended up making one of the most important works in the European Cinema.
Jeanne Dielman is a widow who spends her days doing her chores, looking after her teenage son, and turning daily tricks, and halfway through the three days we spend watching her, everything falls apart methodically, building up unbearable suspense before its shocking climax. The film is about watching Jeanne as an object of the camera’s gaze, and also as an object of a patriarchal society, in which her every movement is made to serve the domestic space, her clients, or her son. In the film’s entirely fixed shots that meander on for as long as it takes for her to complete her tasks, we watch Jeanne as she moves throughout her tiny world. Akerman creates claustrophobic suspense along with boredom, and our unconsummated desire for visual action forces us to empathize with Jeanne as her madness and our frustrated detachment elevate side-by-side. It is an overwhelming work that goes beyond feminist film theory and emerges on the other side; that is, it creates a compulsively watchable film as visually thrilling as Hitchcock and as textually complex as Godard.
Though Akerman reached her peak with Jeanne Dielman, her other works from the 1970s lend us our understanding of her intentions. During her stay in New York, Akerman exposed herself to the Anthology Film Archives and its screenings of the structural films of Michael Snow, Andy Warhol, and Joyce Weiland, all of whom inspired her singular presentation of narratives in manipulated real time, best exemplified by her short La Chambre, which, like Snow’s best films, used real time, a fixed camera technique (here, the 360-degree pan) to present a detached viewership of a space and the actions of its inhabitants. And in her first feature, Je Tu Il Elle, Akerman adheres to a strict three-act Hollywood structure to present a young woman’s feminist dilemma. It is in her simplification of the familiar—in both subject and technique—that Akerman reaches the profound and unspoken. Austin Dale
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Three Key Films: Annie Hall (1977), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Underrated: Stardust Memories (1980) This reimagining of 8 ½ has been unfairly maligned for everything from pretentiousness to navel-gazing. But, the thing is, even if it is guilty on both counts, this is also among Allen’s most personal, and most intellectually satisfying films. And the look Charlotte Rampling gives while lying on the floor listening to an old jazz record is his second most unforgettable moment.
Unforgettable: The final scene of Manhattan (1979) The devastating ending to Allen’s best out and out romance is so effective because almost nothing can prepare us for the rawness of the scene. In a lengthy back and forth, we watch as Allen’s love affair comes to an end, and we watch as he realizes that it is entirely his fault. Nothing is sentimentalized, and nothing is stylized. The immediacy is simply riveting. As he comes to understand just what he is about to lose, he begins to beg, to plead. “Why couldn’t you have brought this up last week?” is her heartbreaking response.
The Legend: Allen Stewart Konigsberg was born in New York City in 1933. Though a rabid sports fan as a kid, and apparently a pretty good baseball player too, Allen was drawn to performing magic and comedy as a way to overcome his troubled home life. His folks fought incessantly, and he had a hard time getting his head around the idea of why anyone would ever stay in a bad marriage—anyone who’s seen any of his films probably guessed this? By his late teens he was writing gags for money under the handle Heywood Allen, and had become pretty successful. It wasn’t, however, until he began studies in the film program at New York University that he began to develop the signature Woody Allen style that has come to animate so much of his best work: that ineffable tangle of high-art references and low-brow vaudevillia, like Ingmar Bergman by way of Groucho Marx.
By the mid-1960s, Allen was among the most successful comics on the Greenwich Village scene, had found some success as a playwright, and was busily working toward a career as a screenwriter. But, his ambition was to get behind the camera, to free himself from the influence and meddling of others. Following a few collaborate efforts in Hollywood with mixed results, by 1971, Woody Allen the writer-director auteur had arrived. The most prolific major American filmmaker still in the business, the diminutive Allen has since crafted an astoundingly broad body of work. A student of human nature, and an obsessive chronicler of the neuroses that complicate our relationships (both to others and to ourselves), Allen has always been at his best when he could find the sweet spot where philosophy, psychology, and existential absurdity intersect.
In his most affecting films—including his nearly uninterrupted run of masterworks from 1977-1992—Allen could limn the contours of a failing love affair with a humour, grace, and intelligence that remains the envy of urban auteurs the world over. Though prone to the criticism that many of his films are mere re-stagings of the same story with new titles—or, that his filmmaking “style” is really just a vast homage to Fellini, Bergman and other giants he admired in his formative years—this has always seemed to be a misapprehension of the degree to which his films have always been, unavoidably, his own.
Allen’s playfulness, his audacity, and his unfailingly goofy sense of humour, lent an urbane American wit to those sometimes stilted European approaches. Indeed, few filmmakers of the past 50 years have developed such an immediately identifiable signature. Allen’s Midnight in Paris, now in theaters and his all-time biggest financial success, is further proof of the director’s command of the medium. Stuart Henderson
Annie Hall (1977)
Three Key Films: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006)
Underrated: The Flower of My Secret (1995). Coming on the heels of his controversial Kika (1993), The Flower of My Secret is almost its antithesis in theme and tone. Where much of Almodóvar’s previous work pushed the envelope, particularly sexually, this film is more focused on family relationships and their complexities.These relationships are especially centered on those amongst women, a theme Almodóvar would go on to explore to great acclaim in later films. Here the story follows Leo, a romance writer, whose relationship has recently ended, throwing her into a deep depression that leads her to seek out the comfort of her mother and sister. The film serves as one that would lead to more mature films focused on women and the complicated relationships they have with one another, as well as offers a more restrained film palette and style.
Unforgettable: Agrado’s impromptu monologue in the theater when Huma Rojo is unable to perform may be one of Almodóvar’s most unexpectedly moving moments in all his films. It is a scene that has Agrado, a transsexual prostitute, dissect herself and her choices with such matter-of-fact poignancy that is stands out in a film that is already filled with Almodóvar’s best work. It is a striking moment that only Almodóvar could pull off.
All About My Mother (1999)
The Legend: Pedro Almodóvar’s films have ranged widely from his early outrageous stories and flashy cinematic choices to his more recent more mature stories focused primarily on women. He has run the gamut between shocking audiences to moving them in surprising moments. He is a gifted storyteller who uses film in bold, unexpected ways—his use of color is especially striking—and one who’s themes of romantic entanglement and obsession, as well as the complex relationships between women, has grown increasingly more nuanced and affecting.
Almodóvar’s reactionary early style has more recently given way to a more thoughtful approach in his stories and characters.The beginning of his film career was marked by the newfound freedoms in the arts for a post-Franco Spain and in turn, Almodóvar took full advantage by creating films that went to the extremes. The director has worked in comedy and melodrama, oftentimes combining the two with ridiculous, over the top plots that somehow still manage to delve into deeper themes and relationships (notably in Law of Desire  and Bad Education ). All the while, he has always stayed true to his own unique vision and approach.
As not only the director, but the writer or co-writer of all of his films, Almodóvar has an especially meaningful connection to the material. His films have played with sexuality, religion, love, and family in ways that highlight his affection for outsiders and the fringes where they exist. His characters never shy away from actions that shock or offend simply because they shock or offend. There is a realness to the outlandishness that makes his work more universal than one would expect. Films such as Talk to Her (2002) and Broken Embraces (2009) simply highlight this.
It is Almodóvar’s All About My Mother that stands as his greatest film precisely because it is a culmination of much of what he had been exploring in all his previous films. The relationships between women, particularly the ways in which they function as mothers or nurturers, are at the heart of the film, but in a way that rejects Hollywood tropes and clichés. Instead, it establishes an unlikely group of women who come together through various strange and unforeseen ways to create a wholly believable story and Almodóvar’s most affecting film to date (the director even daringly challenges the category of “woman” itself). The film would go on to win the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, as well as a slew of other awards, ensuring international attention to his future work on such essential films as Volver and Broken Embraces.
Almodóvar’s next film, The Skin I Live In, starring regular players Antonio Banderas and Marisa Parades, bowed at Cannes to great acclaim this year and will premiere stateside Fall 2011. Needless to say we wait breathlessly… J.M. Suarez
Click here to read Matt Mazur’s exclusive 2009 PopMatters interview with Almodóvar.
Three Key Films: McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), Short Cuts (1993)
Underrated: The Long Goodbye (1973) The classic Phillip Marlow character of film noir lore was resurrected in this early 70s gem, but not everyone was happy about it. In Altman’s hands, the wisecracking gumshoe of classics like Murder, My Sweet became a mumbling, paranoid, chain-smoking Elliot Gould in need of a shave, while the complex plotting took backseat to a series of increasingly surreal and unlikely scenarios. A woozy, very post-counterculture experiment in reimagining a familiar genre, The Long Goodbye is not for purists, but it remains endlessly entertaining in its subversive approach to the expected grammar of noir, like a proto Big Lebowski or, perhaps Altman’s own The Player. Featuring a standout performance from old noir stalwart Sterling Hayden as a drunken Hemmingway-esque blowhard, and a very young Arnold Schwarzenegger as a blonde guy with lots of muscles.
Unforgettable: The opening shot of The Player (1995) Lasting seven minutes and 47 seconds without a single edit or any other post-production trickery, making respectful reference to both Hitchcock’s Rope and Welles’ Touch of Evil (both of which had employed absurdly long shots), introducing the whole studio-artist-capitalist complex of Hollywood into which we are about to be tossed, and featuring an astoundingly complex degree of choreography, comic timing, lighting magic, and general technical wizardry, it’s hard not to be impressed by this most overtly bravura moment in Altman’s oeuvre.
The Legend: Robert Altman’s strict Catholic upbringing and military service (he flew bombing missions in Asia during World War II) would have powerful and lasting influences over his life, and his art. Following the war, Altman dabbled in film, working on industrial documentaries and other such projects before stumbling into a feature film teensploitation picture in the mid-1950s. Eventually catching the attention of no less an authority than Alfred Hitchcock, Altman did some work on the old master’s television program in the early 1960s before heading back to Hollywood for a string of mostly forgettable pictures. It wasn’t until the tail end of the 1960s that Altman discovered his gift for subversion, and his unmistakable knack for capturing effortless, naturalistic dialogue.
In fact, the story goes, part of the reason he was able to harness these gifts was that few were really paying much attention to what he was doing with a little-loved script (it had been passed over by a dozen other directors) for a film called M*A*S*H (1970). So, Altman decided to throw everything he had at the story of a few zany, disaffected, and profoundly frustrated Army medical officers in a long-ago Korean War that looked unmistakably like the then-raging American War in Vietnam. From this moment, Robert Altman can be said to have finally arrived. Indeed, he largely reinvented the genre picture in his first run of films in the early 1970s. From M*A*S*H (war) to McCabe and Mrs. Miller (western) to The Long Goodbye (noir) to Nashville (musical), Altman was the greatest iconoclast in a generation of iconoclasts. His re-imaginings of these revered genres were almost never reverent in any obvious way. They didn’t look back for inspiration, but rather for idols to tear down, to reconstruct. His genius was frustrating and sporadic, however, and he spent a solid decade in the wilderness through the 1980s, releasing few worthy pictures. It wasn’t until a string of near masterworks (and one unimpeachable work of perfection, Short Cuts) in the 1990s that Altman regained his form.
Often referred to as a filmmaker’s filmmaker (one of those phrases that appears to mean something, but no one can be sure what), Altman has frequently puzzled audiences and annoyed critics. But, his singular style and persistent attention to the paranoid American conscience marks him as among the most important voices of both his best periods in the 1970s and the 1990s. Stuart Henderson
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)
Three Key Films: Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood (2007)
Underrated: Punch-Drunk Love (2002) Single-handedly reinventing the romantic comedy with outbursts of anger, pudding snacks and a dramatic Adam Sandler, Punch-Drunk Love was an exercise in restraint from a director whose two previous films averaged a 172-minute running time. In a subtle nod to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddysey, Anderson employs a discarded harmonium as his obelisk, a device to signify transition for Sandler’s emotionally-stunted Barry Egan. The rest of the film is spent learning how to make music from what he’s been given. For a movie so comparatively small in scale to his other offerings, Punch-Drunk Love nonetheless captures the essence of all Anderson’s work: emotion.
Unforgettable: Frogs fall from the sky in Magnolia. In conveying the literal extension of Exodus 8:2, Anderson rains a plague of frogs on his beloved San Fernando Valley, and in the process gives us a visual equal to his filmmaking ambition. The unexplained phenomena is a reflection of the everyday cataclysms we create in our own lives when we refuse to let go of that which holds us down. It’s also a moment that indicates Anderson’s storytelling ethos at the time: relationships are messy and answers hard to come by. In a movie that throws any sense of tradition out the window with urban legends, cast sing-alongs (“Save Me”) and a ribald Tom Cruise, Anderson’s use of frogs takes the cake for pure audacity. It’s as if he decided to throw in every trick in the bag before turning to the economic filmmaking of Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Legend: “I really do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.” This line from Magnolia’s “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) sums up the rationale for Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. Though there’s an astounding amount of technique at play in all his films, the heart of Anderson is truly on display in the unchecked emotion of the seekers that populate his screen; here is a director who feels on film.
Much has been made of the parent/child relationships that permeate his screenplays. In fact, Anderson’s father was a mini-celebrity in his own right. Ernie Anderson was an actor and voiceover artist that played a vital role in Paul’s filmmaking beginnings, introducing him to the world of Hollywood and his first video camera. To this day, Anderson’s own production company is named after one of his father’s characters, “Ghoulardi”. Regardless of his affection for his father’s work, the fictional parents in his films often play destructive parts. From Dirk Diggler’s spiteful mother to Daniel Plainview’s clinical stewardship of young H.W., sons and daughters are often left to find a surrogate family. Whether Anderson is commenting on his own parents is an open question, but there can be no doubt that the exploration of that core relationship remains a pervasive theme.
What defined Anderson as a filmmaker early in his career was his ability and ambition at such a young age. Upon the release of Hard Eight in 1996, a 26-year-old Anderson was already preparing his breakthrough opus, Boogie Nights, a film that would see him immediately and often compared to his idols, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. Instead of flaming out like Orson Welles, Anderson has developed from a mere wunderkind to a singular voice playing in the sandbox big themes: love, self-destruction, family and death.
Perhaps most astounding is his recent creation of Daniel Plainview, a man who stands alone in There Will Be Blood but also in the larger context of Anderson’s oeuvre. His misanthropic use of Manifest Destiny ends up eating him alive. Plainview embodies the direct consequence of not finding an outlet for love, a vacant man left only to gasp, “I’m finished.” If Blood is any indication, Anderson is only at the beginning of a new phase in his career, exploring scope through the use of restraint. Tim Slowikowski
Three Key Films: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1963), Lucifer Rising (1970-80)
Underrated: Rabbit’s Moon (1950). Combining classic fairy tale images (a fake forest filled with paper foliage), elements of mime, a harlequin and a ballerina, and enough doo-wop songs to send PBS directly into telethon mode, what we have here is one of Kenneth Anger’s most gorgeous jokes. Using a single series of images to illustrate his title object—a cartoon moon coming closer and closer to the camera—and a series of mannered turns from his foreign cast, there is commentary on the cruelty of nature and the incompleteness of emotional bonds. There is not much storytelling. All we see are costumed statues playing dress up in a place that recalls friend and mentor Jean Cocteau at his most fascinatingly flamboyant. As the ‘50s music melds with the images, we wind up with a tale told by inference. The lyrics seem to describe the action, but the overall experience is gradual and fragmented. No one can deny Anger’s way with a lens, his camera creating a stream of unconsciousness quality that sells the dream theater extremes present.
Unforgettable: The chrome and crotch adoration/idolatry in Scorpio Rising. Along with the often indescribable Kuchar Brothers, Kenneth Anger was at the forefront of bringing gay ideals, sensibilities, and aesthetics to the emerging post-modern cinema. He fetishized the male form, took elements of the growing subculture (bikes and leather) and gave them a formidable flashiness. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the various motor boy montages that fill up the majority of Scorpio‘s running time. Like a wake-up call to a still slumbering suburbia, these scenes challenged the conventional conservative wisdom and laid the foundation for the experimentalism (individually and artistically) of the ‘60s.
Scorpio Rising (1963)
The Legend: There are really two Kenneth Anger’s running around in the new millennium—three if you add in his current crusade as a certified pagan, supporter of the works of Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey, and advocate of Wicca. Many might know him from his famous show biz tell-alls, Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II, terrific pre-tabloid tomes that exposed many of Tinsel Town’s tawdriest secrets. But for the chosen few who have followed the careers of such motion picture mavericks as John Waters and David Lynch, Anger is an idol, an experimental underground filmmaker who forged a specific celluloid identity out of his experience with old school studio films, a complicated childhood, and his emerging homosexuality. By the time the ‘80s rolled around, he had contributed more to the fringes of the full blown independent movie scene than any other artist from his time.
From the obvious name change to a youth surrounded by conflicting influences, Anger would never be an easy individual to pin down. He once claimed to be friends with famous child stars like Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple and long insisted he was the Changeling Prince in the 1937 film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). During these tender years, he was doted over by his mother and grandmother, each one dominated and driving his love of performance. With his family’s camera and some leftover film, he made his first ‘feature’, a take on the classic fairy tale Ferdinand the Bull (1937). Along with several other efforts he helmed in his teens, it is now considered “lost” (though it has been reported that in 1967, Anger destroyed most of his early work in a fit of rage). It was also in his adolescence where he would discover two things that would forever change him—his love of the occult and his love of men.
While attending USC and experimenting with drugs, he made his first major film, Fireworks (1947). It got him arrested for its blatant gay content. It also caught the interest of sexologist Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who Anger befriended and aided over the years. Throughout the ‘50 and ‘60s, he continued to indulge his passions, living in Paris and Rome, meeting up with mentor Jean Cocteau, and eventually penning the first of his sizzling, scandal filled books. The 1961’s Scorpio Rising, he found a modicum of mainstream notoriety, the movie being banned, and challenged, all over the country.
From then on, he continued to combine his love of ancient mythology, Golden Era Hollywood, the supernatural, alternative culture, and the hallucinogenic effects of his newfound passion—LSD. With the counterculture came celebrity and acceptance, something that seemed to drive Anger further into himself. As his expressions—Invocation to My Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising (1970)—became more fragmented and indebted to Satanism, he decided to retire. In the late ‘90s, however, he announced a kind of comeback, hitting the lecture circuit and even dabbling in directing again. Yet it is his early work that remains a celluloid cornerstone, linking the past to the present in a way that was both prescient and very personal indeed. Bill Gibron
Three Key Films: L’Avventura (1960), Blow-Up (1966), The Passenger (1975)
Underrated: Zabriskie Point (1970): Legend has it that when Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni came to America to make his second English language film (after the monster success of Blow-Up), he was shocked by the backlash his production received. There was never any doubting of his ideals—the filmmaker was as left leaning as the turbulent times allowed—and his planned film was to take on all aspects of the debauched Western (read: US) culture. But with local law enforcement accusing Antonioni of everything from inciting riots to corrupting the morals of youth, the counterculture’s latest auteur was heading for a faceoff with the most conservative of stateside Establishments—and it really wasn’t a fair fight. As a result, many consider Zabriskie Point to be a failure. They see it as a kind of compromise, a version of Antonioni’s philosophies foiled by a time when the ‘60s was dying and no one was around to eulogize the corpse. Antonioni wanted his ethereal encapsulation of the entire Peace Generation to be a strong and unswerving statement. What he got instead was a tantalizing tone poem, a masterpiece that makes its point in symbols so obvious and complaints so calculated that one just can’t imagine his message would be so simple.
Unforgettable: Thomas the photographer discovers a crime… or does he? Though director Brian DePalma would rip it off (and then refine it) for his narrative copycat Blow Out, the moment when David Hemmings discovers that he may have captured a murder in his otherwise giddy glamour shots of London remains Blow-Up‘s most powerful statement. Along with the openness toward sex and the final bit of mime madness, Antonioni’s desire to push perspective (and perception) to the forefront of his narrative turns an otherwise story of casual pop cool into a study in angst and personal sanity. Thomas takes the discovery in his pictures to obsessive ends, leading the entire narrative to question what it real, what is fake, and where the fine line between both concepts end—or merge.
The Legend: As with many Italian filmmakers of his era, Michelangelo Antonioni got his start in journalism. After a childhood of privilege and precocious talents (it is said he was a marvelous violinist by age nine), he fell in love with cinema. Indulged by his overprotective parents, he has free reign to explore all aspects of his impending muse. It was during his time at the University of Bologna when he first developed an affinity for the “lower” classes. He found them more alive and vibrant than the staid and stiff members of the pre-War bourgeoisie. After graduation he struggled as a film journalist, went back to school to study the artform, and eventually found a job with the official fascist publication of the subject (run by dictator Benito Mussolini’s son, Vittorio). After a stint in the army (where he helped other future filmmakers with their efforts), he fell back in to his favorite form, using his time in the military to create documentary style neo-realistic takes on everyday Italian life.
For his first feature film, however, he avoided such “truth” to experiment with form and style. Cronaca di un amore (1950) and efforts like Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) and Il Grido (The Outcry, 1957) would balance a working class mentality with his newfound obsession—social alienation. It was this socio-psychological malady that made up most of Antonioni’s seminal work. From L’avventura (1960), and through the rest of the so-called “trilogy” it begat—La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962)—he attempted to match his directing approach to the subject matter he was exploring. Long takes—soon to be an Antonioni trademark—and compositional complexities took over, as did a desire to allow character and situation determine pace and the needs of the production. After switching over to color with Red Desert (1964), he made the great leap to English with the classic ‘60s statement Blowup (1966). In the West, the rise in respect for foreign filmmaking turned Antonioni into an instant icon.
From there, the rest of his output was spotty, if still sensational. Zabriskie Point (1970) was dismissed as a ode to hippy hedonism (wrongfully, one might add) while his work with post-modern method superstar Jack Nicholson The Passenger (1975) was equally critiqued (again, unfairly). By the time the ‘80s rolled around, Antonioni was playing around with the technical aspects of the medium, making movies in collaboration with new formats (video, as in The Mystery of Oberwald, 1981) and other filmmakers (Wim Wenders, Steven Soderbergh). While his output was severely diminished, his importance to the artform continued to grow. Today, many look at Antonioni as the artist who lifted Italian cinema out of the poverty and decay of Di Sica and early Rossellini and toward a more open and aesthetically complex conceit. With his openness to try anything and his experiences on both sides of the social structure, Antonioni became a filmmaker for everyone—and the ages. Bill Gibron
Three Key Films: Irma Vep (1996), Clean (2004), Carlos (2010)
Underrated: Summer Hours (2008) Subtlety, especially in terms of subject matter, isn’t really Assayas’ bag, so Summer Hours was probably fated to be deemed a “minor work” before anyone even saw it. Charting the emotional trajectories of a French family as they determine what to do with the possessions of a recently-deceased matriarch, the film sounds a bit like an art history lesson: numerous scenes of wealthy people sitting around discussing the relative value of furniture and other artifacts, their emotional contours sketched slowly and discreetly… that’s a far cry from corporate moles gunning each other down to get their hands on 3D porn. But Summer Hours’ quietness and humility is also its charm: Assayas’ focus on intimacy allows the viewer to empathize with every member of this fictional clan, from apathetic grandson to dutiful and laconic maid, and their confrontations and reconciliations glow with realism and compassion. For a film about death, aging, and transience, Summer Hours is shockingly non-condescending, and its disarmingly moving coda is a staggering piece of art unto itself, a nearly-perfect sketch of the relationship between youth and age, persons and objects, permanence and impermanence.
Unforgettable: The film-within-a-film that closes Irma Vep (1996), Assayas’ loopy meta-narrative breakthrough feature, has an untraceable power and depth; it is a missile of pure cinema that both heightens and extinguishes the entire feature that came before it. Silent except for an occasional soundtrack of static, filmed in shaky antique blank-and-white to resemble the 1915 series it is allegedly based on, the sequence pares the art of filmmaking down to its basest elements: shape, sound, rhythm, movement; a beautiful and mysterious figure in danger. Maggie Cheung, surely one of the screen’s greatest icons, dons a black leather jumpsuit and jumps from rooftop to rooftop, chased by (or perhaps dancing with) circles, lines, crosses, squares. You cannot turn your eyes away, though you’re not quite sure why. When the “film” ends on a zoom into Cheung’s eyes, you feel different than you did when it began. Such is cinema.
The Legend: With an oeuvre of thematically disparate films and a serpentine career trajectory beginning in the 1970s and still shaping itself today, Olivier Assayas is a tricky figure to discuss on a broad scale. His work situates itself between highbrow and genre, academic and artfully hip, linear and experimental, Paris and Hong Kong; he seems equally indebted to influences as diverse as Cahiers du cinema (for which he wrote in the early ‘80s), the Chinese new wave, and punk rock.
His forays into filmmaking began with a series of shorts made in tandem with his critical writing for Cahiers du Cinema. These projects show an early synergy with music and indeed seem to function as music video prototypes; later feature works like Disorder (1986) and Clean (2004), which are concerned with the personal and professional lives of struggling rock stars, continue this thematic trend.
Pop psychology at large has consistently shaped Assayas’ output: his “breakthrough” film of sorts, 1996’s Irma Vep, concerns the struggles of an aging director, a Chinese actress, and various crew members to create a film of the same name. This film marks the first of two important collaborations with Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, whom Assayas will marry and divorce between Irma Vep and their later collaboration Clean. Cheung, playing herself in Irma Vep, is explicitly exoticized by both on- and off-screen filmmakers, and yet she is clearly the most sympathetic “character” in the film, perhaps the only one with whom the audience can actually identify. This duality of representation is another significant and slippery trope in Assayas’ greater oeuvre: the issue of subjectivity, linearity, and narrative legibility, especially vis-à-vis the world of media at large, dominates our relationship with the protagonists of Demonlover (2002) and Carlos (2010), and even infiltrates the more straightforward narratives of projects like Clean and Summer Hours (2008).
Demonlover is a hyper-kinetic, globe-trotting neo-noir revolving around Diane (Connie Nielsen), a ruthless corporate spy navigating a bizarre and dangerous pornography underworld. Scored by Sonic Youth, featuring an eccentric troupe of performers including Gina Gershon and Chloe Sevigny, Demonlover is pulp at its most disorienting and damning, and a mélange of Assayas’ most off-the-wall motifs: rock ‘n’ roll, the toxic glamour of media, the prickly relationship between Europe and Asia, narrative disorientation and eventual annihilation. It’s less a movie than a blueprint, an extended dreamscape we are invited to wander through alongside its conniving criminal protagonists. Other efforts like Summer Hours have a warmer, less chaotic quality, but show similar concern for fluidity of time and space, explored through the clashing perspectives and agendas of multiple characters. His latest project, Carlos, takes these topics and posits them on a grander, more historical scale, which allows his themes to expand beyond the realm of fiction and into an even stranger no-man’s-land between “real” and “unreal”. Assayas’ quick turnaround rate—cineastes can look forward to a new release around every two years—ensures that his thematic universe will only keep growing in the coming decade. Lee Dallas
Click here to read Matt Mazur’s exclusive 2009 PopMatters interview with Assayas.
Three Key Films: Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1972), Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Underrated: Shame (1968) In North America one could say that most of Bergman’s films are underrated. Ask the average film fan to name five of his movies and they will be able to do it comfortably. But ask them to name another five and it’ll get tough. Which, as any Bergman fanatic knows, is proof positive that as famous and revered as the Swedish auteur might be, much of his best work is still under-seen, underexplored, and underappreciated. And it’s in that tier of films below the world-famous ones that we’ll find films like Shame, Bergman’s extraordinary treatise on the unimaginable suffering and destruction endured by civilians in war zones. Using a fictionalized civil war on an isolated island as a stand in for any of the global conflicts then raging (though I have always imagined this as a statement on the American War in Vietnam in particular), we watch as locals struggle to figure out who is the enemy. No one knows why the war is being fought. No one knows how it will end, or what it will have accomplished. Bergman ends the film with among his most uncomfortable, searing, and unforgettable images, survivors in a boat adrift on a fog-enclosed sea, bumping into bodies, bodies floating everywhere.
Unforgettable: The chess scene from Seventh Seal (1957) As a metaphor for our always futile but nevertheless persistent battle against the inevitability of death, few moments in film history have been so effective. A medieval knight, alone on a windswept beach, looks up and sees Death who tells him it is his time to die. Refusing this as absurd (for what is more absurd than a sudden death sentence?), the knight challenges Death to a game of chess for his life. He will lose. We know it, Death knows it, and maybe the Knight knows it too. But, he has to try. That’s all we can ever do.
The Legend: Ingmar Bergman was famously described by his acolyte Woody Allen as “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera”. Though almost equally revered in his native country as a theatre director, Bergman’s work behind the camera remains his greatest contribution, though his work remains criminally under-viewed by a global cinema audience that remains uncomfortable with his refusal to sentimentalize the darker aspects of human experience. A tireless artist with a truly frighteningly efficient work ethic, Bergman produced dozens of extraordinary films over his career (from 1946-1982 he would make a film most every winter, before spending the summer producing and directing (and sometimes acting in theatre!).
From his early chamber dramas in the 1940s through to his elaborate, ornate, and utterly enchanting Fanny and Alexander in 1982, Bergman explored every facet of the emotional, spiritual, physical, and psychic complex that makes us human. Through an astonishing string of harrowing masterpieces between 1957’s The Seventh Seal and 1973’s Scenes From a Marriage—a period which includes such stone classics as Persona (1966), Cries and Whispers (1973), Through A Glass Darkly (1961), Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960)—Bergman redefined the “art film”, and set the template for the thoughtful, penetrating drama of a generation (or two, or three) of high-minded filmmakers to come. His unflinching attention to the harshest realities of existence—pain, disease, death, fear, anxiety, dread, depression, and loss were his favoured (overlapping) themes—was only matched by his careful cinematic focus and vision.
An inspiration to scores of artists of every description, and the basic premise behind every foreign film course at every film school you can think of, his films are impeccably constructed, and frequently boast some of the finest performances one might ever hope to see. How Bergman was able to so consistently achieve such vertiginous heights remains one of the great mysteries of film. He died in 2007, at the not-so-tender age of 89, the same day as fellow cinema luminary Michelangelo Antonioni. Stuart Henderson
Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Three Key Films: The Conformist (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), The Last Emperor (1987).
Underrated: Partner (1968). Although neither as visually stunning or politically incisive as his later films, Partner is the most explicit example of Bertolucci’s debt to the French New Wave—most specifically to Godard’s more political films—which he would maintain a relationship with even after this film (Agnes Varda wrote the French dialogue for Last Tango in Paris). A loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Double, the film follows Giacobbe, who returns home one day to discover his double sitting in his room. The double, though, proves to be a much more assertive and charismatic version of Giacobbe and together they set about various political activities, including a large avant-garde theatre performance with Giaccobe’s theatre class.
The political content and visual style are both more stated and less precise than in Bertolucci’s later films. This makes Partner a particularly interesting part of Bertolucci’s catalogue, though, not solely because of how it differs visually from his later films, but also because the politics that would be central to almost all of Bertolucci’s films are present here in a never-again-seen undiluted form.
Unforgettable: The climactic, forest-set scene in The Conformist. With little but the sound of the wind blowing in the background, and scarce dialogue throughout, Bertolucci creates tension and drama almost solely through proficient yet gorgeous camera work and incredible editing. Featuring the use of every tool at their disposal—from close-ups to handheld camera work—the sequence is the best example of what Bertolucci and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, were capable of with the camera.
The Last Emperor (1987)
The Legend: Bernardo Bertolucci emerged in the 1970’s as a strong figure in Italian cinema. Starting with Spider’s Stratagem (1970) and, in particular, The Conformist, Bertolucci set himself apart with a thematic and visual style of his own.
The beginning of Bertolucci’s career is marked by a sustained interest in the rise and fall of Fascism in Italy. Not happy to simply demarcate those who cooperated with Mussolini as evil, Bertolucci repeatedly used his films to explore why so many ordinary people were willing to stand by and often aid a manifestly unjust government. His pivotal movie in this respect is The Conformist, in which the main character is a government official who, merely because of his desire to fit in and his unwillingness to fight against the status quo, becomes an agent for the Fascist regime.
Bertolucci never failed to recognize that those acting in concert with the fascists were acting unethically. His films, though, bravely confront the unfortunate truth that, in too many cases, there was no conscious desire to do wrong, and that the human tendency to conform, whether it be to a job’s requirements in The Conformist or to social and class expectations in 1900 (1976), makes the Italian case not an anomaly but a warning of what any society is capable of turning into.
In these same films, Bertolucci became equally famous for his visual style as for the politics of his films (which, in the case of 1900, sometimes brought him controversy instead). All his films—and particularly those featuring cinematographer Vittorio Storaro—feature an unmistakably theatrical and grand visual style. Bertolucci was as capable of perfectly choreographed long takes with graceful camera movement as he was of gorgeous, meticulously framed still shots. The Conformist astounds for how each frame looks like a painting that should be hung on your wall.
Starting in the mid-1970s, Bertolucci’s films increasingly focused less on Italy. Last Tango in Paris explores the free love mantra of the 1960s through the affair between a older widower and younger woman. The Last Emperor, for which Bertolucci won an Oscar, details the life of China’s last emperor as the country turns into a Republic and then a Communist dictatorship. Then, beginning in the late 1980s, Bertolucci’s films began to reflect a conscious turn from overt political messages. Due to the nature of his past films, though, this absence in his later work in the end makes its own political point. Nevertheless, regardless of the topic or locale, Bertolucci’s films remain unmistakably his: poignant, nuanced, critical, and majestic. Tomas Hachard