[11 August 2011]
On our fourth day, this journey through who we believe to be the 100 Essential Film Directors continues to twist and turn in unexpected ways. From bold, opinionated Hollywood voices to those who essentially created the language of cinema, today will shed light on kings of genre like Samuel Fuller, through lions like the legendary John Huston.
Three Key Films: The Steel Helmet (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), The Big Red One (1980)
Underrated: Park Row (1952). Frank Capra called It’s a Wonderful Life his best film for decades before anyone would listen. Sam Fuller felt the same way about his newspaper epic Park Row, which has finally become available on DVD this year. Inspired by his years working in the cutthroat New York newspaper business—a copyboy at 12, crime reporter at 17—Fuller’s fondness for the industry is apparent. The plot and themes are basically the same as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Loveable underdogs take on corrupt institution, only here it’s a startup newspaper taking on a corrupt institution personified in Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), a classic Fuller brunette and coldhearted, greedy publisher whom the loveable underdog is more than happy to sleep with. Long-admired for his explosive camera movement, Park Row features one of Fuller’s most exciting fight scenes and plenty of sardonic wit, with just the right amount of heart planted firmly on its sleeve.
Unforgettable: From The Steel Helmet. The titles scroll, the camera resting on the dome of a helmet, smooth except for a single bullet hole piercing the right side. A grave, familiar image of wartime sacrifice. Only this isn’t WWII. This is Korea. And as the titles fade, the seemingly abandoned helmet suddenly rises to reveal the squinting, shifty eyes of an American soldier, hiding from the enemy. Stephen Frears would open The Queen (2006) similarly, humanizing our iconography by bringing what seemed to be a royal portrait to life.
The Big Red One (1980)
The Legend: Martin Scorsese said, “If you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema.” Samuel Fuller was told to cast John Wayne in the role of platoon leader in his epic and autobiographical war film, The Big Red One, he said he’d rather not make the movie at all. One need watch only a couple of Fuller’s pictures to understand why his response is no surprise. Though his scope was broad—he made war films, melodramas, westerns, crime noir, and odd things in between—Fuller’s trademark punchy dialog, exuberant violence and inventive camera work unifies the disparate settings and characters. Whether we’re shaking down a Japanese pachinko parlor in House of Bamboo (1955), or confined within a submarine in Hell and High Water (1954), the integrity of his vision is clear. We’re clearly operating in the same mental space. No, what is surprising about the story of making The Big Red One is that anyone would ask him to cast John Wayne to begin with. Trying to imagine The Duke in any of Fuller’s war films is like picturing Darth Vader in 2001. That’s not a knock on Wayne (or Vader), but they’re fictional characters, operating on the level of myth. Somehow, the surrealistic world of Sam Fuller manages to feel emphatically real.
His films didn’t always feel real though. Critics at the time complained that his tawdry subjects stretched credulity and disliked his left-of-center aesthetics. Similarly, viewers accustomed to a different kind of war film found many aspects of Fuller’s breakthrough The Steel Helmet quite unreal. An integrated platoon? An American shooting a POW? An intelligent commie? Many were outraged. They said the film was funded by Reds, and accused the real-life war hero of being anti-American. (Fuller’s WWII platoon landed in Africa, Sicily, and Normandy, earning him Bronze and Silver Stars.) Unfortunately, this sort of controversy plagued Fuller’s career. Several decades later, his film White Dog would be shelved by Paramount, who feared a threatened boycott by the NAACP. Never mind that the film was actually a sobering contemplation on the roots and results of racism, made by a director whose progressive record on race was abundantly evident in both his themes and his integrationist casting choices. Paramount would not release it. Angry, Fuller moved to France and did not make another American film.
Despite these battles, Fuller was not a provocateur. Instead he strove to capture a sense of reality that only he could see and, in doing so, redefined our expectations of cinema. What once seemed pulpy (The Crimson Kimono 1959), surreal (The Naked Kiss 1964), and outrageous (Shock Corridor 1963), now seems simply ahead of its time. As a result, his greatest legacy might be his influence. The French New Wavers, Spielberg, Jarmusch, Tarantino (and on and on) have acknowledged Sam Fuller’s direct impact on their work. In fact, you can hardly imagine their films without him. His idiosyncratic vision normalized what we value in cinema today. Joshua Ewing Weber
Three Key Films: Breathless (1960), Vivre Sa Vie (1962), Contempt (1963)
Underrated: Made in U.S.A. (1966): Godard’s movies are often imbued with political subtext, but Made in U.S.A. essentially eschews with the sub and simply makes the political discussion its blatant focus. It’s perhaps a little more obviously ideological than other Godard efforts, which might explain why it is in a position to be considered underrated. Either way, what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in seemingly spontaneous wit. Made in U.S.A. provides a rather intriguing conversation about politics and a careful snapshot of 60s France. Through the eyes and ears of Godard, it’s always a fascinating place to be.
Unforgettable: There’s a delightfully playful scene in Masculin, Feminin (1966) where main male character Paul is engaged in a conversation with a friend at a café. When a man enters the café to ask the worker for directions, Paul waits until he leaves and then stands up, strolls to the entrance, and essentially re-enacts the stranger’s brief action. After asking the same question as the man he is oddly impersonating, he sits back down with his dumbfounded friend, who questions what just happened. Paul explains that he wanted to experience the sensation of walking in another person’s shoes, before brushing off the experience as an underwhelming exercise. This moment epitomizes Godard’s love of imaginative observation and his desire to embrace originality while simultaneously shrugging it off with a smile.
The Legend: The brilliant master who helped open the floodgates to the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard is a true cinematic revolutionary. His movies are ablaze with a strikingly passionate spirit that fills every corner of the frame. The very act of entering his world is endlessly exciting because of the potent possibilities that are promised by his wide range of intriguing talents. There’s nothing quite like the world as seen through Godard’s eyes and his many movies (his filmography stretches far and wide) amaze with their originality.
Born in 1930 to a Franco-Swiss family in Paris, Godard grew up with Protestant influences and eventually sought education in both France and Switzerland. The 1950s brought his beginnings in cinema criticism and creation, which soon culminated with his hugely popular hit Breathless, released in 1960 and still regarded as one of Godard’s most famous and beloved films. From there, Godard embarked on a filmmaking journey that continues to this day. His incredibly fruitful period in the ‘60s (that portion of his career that is considered a part of New Wave cinema) concluded with Week End (1967), but he would go on to make many more movies in the decades that followed. In 2010, he received an Honorary Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Godard’s cinematic voice seems to speak an entirely new language, one of wonderful whimsy and vibrant vivacity. His words leap off the screen and the combination of adventurous editing, playful musical cues, daring dialogue, and succulent photography ensures that the very unique viewing experience provided by his movies is both visually and aurally intoxicating. There’s a dreamlike quality to his movies that is extended to invade our own reality. It’s all very self-reflexive and self-aware, with Godard often choosing to use his camera as a mirror in order to look back on the real world.
His approach to filmmaking and storytelling tends to be very imaginative and extremely energetic, but keeping up with his vision is always a delight and never a bore. His work doesn’t alienate, but rather draws us in with its fascinating blend of political satire and gender commentary. He refuses to take the easy way out and he enjoys challenging the audience in a rewarding manner. He is an iconic and incredible director who plays by his own rules. His movies are true treasures. Through them, Godard speaks to us with passion erupting and his genius flowing over. Aaron Leggo
Three Key Films: The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages(1916), Broken Blossoms (1919)
Underrated: Shot on the same trip as In Old California, the first film shot in Hollywood, Ramona (1910) ties together Griffith’s fascination for native and Latino history, his background as an actor and his developing skill as a director. He had been on stage as Alessandro, the Native American lover of Ramona, in 1905, and subsequently became enamored with the story, based on a novel by Helen Hunt Jackson. Ramona. His fondness of the story is apparent in the intimate framing of especially the burial scenes, and Ramona shows him experimenting with the balance between domestic settings and large-scale panoramic scenes that would be perfected in later works. His use of deep-focus shots and close ups ensured the emotional impact of the narrative on audiences, and perfectly captured the magnanimous California landscape. An early poignant reminder of both Griffith’s skill and the ambiguity of his racial politics.
Unforgettable: The iconic final ride of white hooded Ku Klux Klan members in The Birth of a Nation, led by “Little Colonel” Ben Cameron. The powerful imagery of the Klansmen galloping through a stream and across a ledge is given a sense of urgency by Griffith’s camera movements and parallel editing; the camera anxiously follows the horses down the winding forest road, while at the same time the personal space of the white characters is increasingly encroached upon.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Legend: “The time will come, and in less than ten years… when the children in the public schools will be taught practically everything by moving pictures,” David Wark Griffith predicted in 191“Certainly they will never be obliged to read history again.” The words are emblematic of the visionary behind them; Griffith had an unwavering faith in the potential of film, and envisioned this as extending far beyond the theatre.
The son of a farmer-turned-Confederate colonel, Griffith internalized his father’s racist ideas from an early age on. His childhood in rural Kentucky was characterized by poverty, only exacerbated by four former slave families that refused to leave the Griffith-land and that formed “four important factors in keeping the family poor.” Griffith’s father Jacob was decisive in shaping his thematic concerns, but the techniques that he remains universally lauded for were the result of his own determination. Credited with inventing both the catchphrase “lights, camera, action” and fake eyelashes, Griffith quickly revealed himself a multifaceted talent. For Biograph, he shot up to 3 films a week, but he dreamed of directing longer features and started independently. He pioneered techniques that have remained in vogue ever since, notably the high angle, the iris shot, cross-cutting, and parallel editing.
All of these can be found in The Birth of a Nation, which also demonstrated Griffith’s aptitude at staging battle scenes of an unprecedented scale. As the themes of his productions are often regarded as distinctly American, his foreign success can be attributed mostly to these technical feats and directorial skill. Indeed, The Atlanta Constitution cited the “excellence of presentation” as the main attraction for Birth when it estimated in November 1916 that over twenty-five million people had seen the film outside of the U.S. But after Birth, Griffith felt betrayed by the negative audience response over the film’s racial content. He filmed Intolerance as a response, but his post-Birth endeavors never enjoyed more than modest success. Social commentary concerning race and class remained integral to his work, and was not as black-white as Birth would lead to believe; in times when public opinion dictated otherwise, he emerged as a defender of Native- and Chinese American rights, and did not hesitate to incorporate this into film. Broken Blossoms, a 1919 production again starring Lilian Gish, is perhaps Griffith’s most intimate and powerful film and a case in point.
While his legacy is tainted by the blatantly racist content of some of his productions, Griffith’s prophesies turned out to be self-fulfilling. He singlehandedly paved the way for innovations in presentation (such as a professional orchestra and in-theatre facilities) that completely transformed the movie-going experience. As such, he persuaded an entirely new demographic—the middle class—to frequent the theatre, and the heterogeneous, national audience that flocked to see Birth would define and feed the industry for decades to come. Appreciating D.W. Griffith thus means understanding him as a product of his time in societal ideas, while at the same time acknowledging that he was light-years ahead of his time in technique. The significance of his work remains two-pronged, functioning as a time capsule on the one hand, and as a blueprint of Hollywood on the other. Suzanne Enzerink
Three Key Films: Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), The Last Supper (1976), Strawberry and Chocolate (1994) Underrated: Up to a Certain Point (1983)
Unforgettable: The tour-de-force of black comedy in the eponymous scene of The Last Supper is surely the most unforgettable moment in a Gutiérrez Alea film. Set in 1795, in Spanish colonial Cuba, the film details the last days of the Havana sugar cane plantation in the face of the famous slave revolt of the same year. In a desperate attempt to quell the rising revolutionary fervor, the Master of the plantation decides to invite twelve of the slaves to share in his Easter festivities. The supper scene begins with a rather defensive monologue from the Master on the fundamentals of Christianity. The Master’s goal is to explain his ecumenical right to power over the natives and African slaves in Cuba; however, his condescending message is lost in the confusion between Christ’s transubstantiation and cannibalism. The similarity between the two is humorously ridiculed by the slaves, whose laughter and intelligence of the matter shocks the Master into a bumbling, drunken stupor from which he falls unconscious in mid-sentence. With the Master doubly humiliated and subdued, the rebellion can finally begin.
Strawberry and Chocolate (1994)
The Legend: Gutiérrez is the most internationally lauded filmmaker from Cuba and consistently produced a variety of film objects that contradicted and enlightened the outside perspective of the island nation. Among more than 20 features, he has tackled issues of social and political criticism via genres and styles as diverse as documentary (This Land of Ours, 1959), romantic comedy (Up to a Certain Point, Strawberry and Chocolate), experimental (Memories of Underdevelopment), melodrama (Survivors, 1979; and Guantanamera, 1996), and black comedy (The Last Supper and Death of a Bureaucrat, 1966).
The director learned the art of filmmaking abroad in Italy, under the masters of Neo-realism. However, the techniques he learned from De Sicca, Visconti and Rossellini seem only to be the foundation of his audacious style. His most popular film, Memories of Underdevelopment, is a collage of neo-realist tropes and new wave flair but eludes the pretensions of both styles. Set in the years between the revolution’s end and the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film presents us with a society ready to make it on its own; the protagonist’s tastes for capitalist culture end up driving him into a ghostly existence… just a memory of the country’s underdevelopment. Apart from making films, Gutierrez Alea founded a filmmaking school in Havana and mentored many young directors into strong careers. Towards the end of his life, he found himself in ill health and unable to assume full directing responsibilities, but the collaborations he did with his former student Juan Carlos Tabio are some of his best films. Strawberry and Chocolate exposes and gently tries to negotiate a discourse of homosexuality in Cuba. Rather than the standard fare of the doomed relationship, however, the film is a sexy, breezy rom-com that managed to garner the first ever Academy Award nomination for a Cuban film.
Unfortunately, only a paltry few of his films are available on home video in the US. But luckily they are among his best. Do not hesitate to see any of these! Corey Briscoe Gates
Three Key Films: Funny Games (1997), Cache (2005), The White Ribbon (2009)
Underrated: 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994) The final part of Haneke’s Austria-set “emotional glaciation trilogy” has never gained the amount of attention given to its predecessors, The Seventh Continent (1989) and Benny’s Video (1992). But this subtle and provocative film is among Haneke’s most resonant works. As its title suggests, the film is an elliptical account of numerous events involving disparate characters (a homeless Romanian boy; a student; a bank security guard and his wife) who are finally connected by a random and apparently motiveless act of violence. A precursor, in both content and structure, to Code Unknown, the movie’s withering critique of the mediatization of experience is encapsulated by the ending, in which we see a complex and multifaceted event diminished and packaged as it takes its place in the endless parade of TV news images.
Unforgettable: The film ‘rewind’ in Funny Games. In a rare moment of one-up-(wo)man-ship against the family’s two captors, Anna (Susanne Lothar) shoots Peter (Frank Giering), only for his accomplice Paul (Arno Frisch) to grab a remote-control and rewind the film’s action from within the diegesis, subsequently “replaying” the scene to prevent Peter’s murder. Functioning as a self-reflexive disavowal of the ‘catharsis’ of the retaliatory violence expected from a suspense thriller, the scene is one of the most startling moments not only in Haneke’s oeuvre but in all of contemporary cinema.
The White Ribbon (2009)
The Legend: “Cold”, “detached”, “theoretical”, “didactic” and “sadistic” are some of the words that invariably appear in discussions of Michael Haneke’s work. While a superficial engagement with Haneke’s cinema might make all of these terms seem apt at various points, none of these reductive descriptions truly does justice to the power of Haneke’s work and the density of its inquiry into the complexities of living and interacting in the contemporary world. Calculated to provoke and disturb, it’s certainly true that Haneke’s films can be grueling experiences, but they seldom fail to reward one’s patience and commitment. Watching Haneke’s movies, the viewer always feels in the grip of a controlled, discerning intelligence, that of a filmmaker who is intensely preoccupied by some of the most pressing social and ethical questions facing us today.
A German-born Austrian, Haneke studied psychology, philosophy and drama at the University of Vienna. He worked as a film and literary critic before beginning his directing career in the German theater and in television. His first cinematic feature, The Seventh Continent, appeared in 1989; the story of an Austrian family going through their daily lives in a series of ritualized routines before calmly undertaking an irrevocable decision, the film established some of the key aspects of the director’s spare, measured, understated and elliptical style. It was followed by two more films, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments of A Chronology of Chance, that also explored what Haneke would call the “emotional glaciation” of Austria. The trilogy was followed by a made-for television adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle (1997), and then by Funny Games, still perhaps Haneke’s most notorious film, a Brechtian deconstruction of the “home invasion” thriller that critiques the concept of violence-as-entertainment but was accused by some critics of employing precisely the kind of shock tactics that it sought to attack. Since then, Haneke has gone on to make more ambitiously-scaled films, often employing European star actors: Juliette Binoche in Code Unknown and Cache; Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher (2002) and Time of the Wolf (2003). He has also continued to engage in a subversive manner with genre conventions: melodrama in The Piano Teacher, disaster film in Time of the Wolf, suspense thriller in Cache. His most recent film, the Palme d’or-winning The White Ribbon, was a foray into period drama, a chilling account of mysterious, violent happenings in a north German village just before World War I.
Deeply concerned with the ethics of spectatorship, Haneke’s work frequently explores the ways in which the proliferation of images in contemporary culture may serve to reduce rather than intensify the viewer’s sense of reality. As Catherine Wheatley has argued, Haneke believes we are living in a time in which “people have become inured to the experience of real life through the medium of television (and film), which divides brute reality into neat segments and packages it between commercials, insinuating it into the daily routines of consumer life.” Screens-within-the-screen, frames-within-the-frame, thus form a recurrent motif in his cinema, which attempts to forge an alternative relationship to the spectator, engaging him or her as a discriminating, thoughtful participant rather than a voracious, unthinking consumer.
Indeed, watching a Haneke film the viewer often feels drawn into an intense, all-too-rare state of alertness, challenged to puzzle out the significances that seem “hidden” in his often static and painstakingly-composed frames. Clearly, there’s an element of didacticism in Haneke’s project to make us “see better,” but ultimately his cinema is one of open-ended questions rather than fixed, final answers. Wider allegorical resonances in his work emerge subtly, almost subliminally, and despite his engagement with a range of contemporary panics and paranoias—around race, immigration, sexuality, power—his work never feels issue-led. Finally, an unsentimental compassion and concern underpins the invigorating moral seriousness of Haneke’s film-making, with its urgent inquiry into what we watch, how we live, and the relationship between the two. Alex Ramon
Three Key Films: Bringing Up Baby (1937), The Big Sleep (1946), and Rio Bravo (1959)
Underrated: Ball of Fire (1941) Hawks retells the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as a group of cloistered scholars writing an encyclopedia. While Gary Cooper is miscast as an academic and not terribly convincing as Prince Charming, Barbara Stanwyck in the title role does what she did better than any other actress in the history of film: play the bad girl gone good. Not Hawks at his best, but still enormously entertaining.
Unforgettable: No one does dialogue better than Howard Hawks, so of course Hawks’s most iconic moment features people talking. Slim (Lauren Bacall, in her screen debut) reduces the tough guy Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart), whom she calls “Steve”, to a quivering mass of jelly:
Slim: You know Steve, you’re not very hard to figure, only at times. Sometimes I know exactly what you’re going to say. Most of the time. The other times… [sits in his lap], the other times you’re just a stinker. [Kisses him].
Steve: What’d you do that for?
Slim: Been wondering whether I’d like it.
Steve: What’s the decision?
Slim: I don’t know yet. [Kisses him again, long; after a while she stands up and walks to the door]. It’s even better when you help…You know you don’t have to act with me Steve. You don’t have to say anything and you don’t have to do anything, not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.
Bringing Up Baby (1937)
The Legend: Many critics, even while ranking him as one of the two or three greatest directors of the studio era in Hollywood, nonetheless denigrate Hawks as a director. Many regard his work as too entertaining to be serious cinema, not like what you get with Bergman or Fellini. Certainly Hawks did not regard himself as an artiste (though Jean-Luc Godard has in fact called him “The great American artist”).
Howard Hawks was born in a financially well-to-do family in Goshen, Indiana, and later went to Exeter and Cornell, making him one of the more urbane Hollywood directors. While not an intellectual, he was friends with writers like Faulkner and Hemingway. An avid flier—he flew in WWI—and briefly a race car driver, Hawks drifted into the movies in the twenties, first as a writer before becoming a director.
Although in many ways a man’s man, Hawks’s films explore the complexities of gender to a degree unusual in his era, so that Hawks is one of the most heavily studied directors by feminist theorists. His women typically want to be with men, but seeking romance was not their primary goal in life. Not terribly demure, the Hawks woman often takes the initiative. In Bringing Up Baby, it is Katherine Hepburn’s Susan who pursues paleontologist David (who was, in one of the many mildly dirty jokes that Hawks enjoyed, looking for his bone, literally; in fact David’s first line in the film is a confession that he doesn’t know where his bone goes), not David who pursues Susan. In the same film David (Cary Grant), trying to explain to Susan’s aunt why he is dressed in a woman’s dressing gown, shouts, “I just became gay all of a sudden!” perhaps the first open use of the term in pop culture.
No director in the history of film mastered as many genres as Hawks. He directed one of the greatest gangster films in Scarface (1932). Though only a few of his films were strictly speaking comedies (though all of his films contained both a great deal of humor and darkness), he is easily one of the two or three greatest comedy directors cinema has known. He is the second most important director of Westerns after only John Ford. He directed (uncredited) the first alien invasion SF film, The Thing From Another World (1951), and made several great war films, a musical, and a truly great detective film in The Big Sleep.
Hawks reputation continues to rise and the reason lies in the films. Few directors ever made so many good ones (Hawks defined a good movie as “Three great scenes. No bad ones.”). The great British critic Robin Wood, while insisting that choosing “The World’s Greatest Film” was a silly enterprise, nonetheless put forward Rio Bravo as his candidate for the title. David Thomson not only names The Big Sleep as his favorite film but claims that if he had possession of the world’s great movies on a sinking ship, but with time to save only ten, they would be: Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River (1948), I Was a Male War Bride (1949), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and Rio Bravo. All directed by Howard Hawks. Robert Moore
Three Key Films: Safe (1995), Far From Heaven (2002), Mildred Pierce (2011)
Underrated: Superstar as a whole. Produced in 1987 and withdrawn from public screenings in 1990 due to licensing issues, the film investigates Karen Carpenter’s rise as a star and descent into anorexia with utmost humanity. Haynes does this through the use of Barbie and Ken dolls, with an intricately whittled away Barbie in the Karen Carpenter role. The 43-minute film has seen the light of day via Youtube and Google video, and even in this lower quality one can sense the pains Haynes took to elevate the oft-ridiculed Carpenters, revealing the human tragedy underneath.
Unforgettable: I’m Not There (2007), one of the boldest films in recent memory (as well as a revolutionary take on the biopic) was also one of the most ignored. Many critics wrote it off as cluttered and over-indulgent, overlooking Haynes’ ambitions and his success in achieving them. Even those who found I’m Not There a bit too wide in scope must concede that Cate Blanchett’s Dylan incarnation is head-scratchingly uncanny in the best sense. Everybody remembers this bold transformation and gender reversal.
Far From Heaven (2002)
The Legend: Todd Haynes is a stylist with no signature style. Each of his films have indelible looks and leave stunning traces on the brain, but—a few key elements and recurring actors aside—his films rarely look like they have been made by the same person. Some—think debut feature Poison (1991) and Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There—don’t even look like the same film from beginning to end. It is no small chore to put out a glam-rock fantasy that takes narrative cues from Citizen Kane then follow it up with a homage to the melodramas of yesteryear, but Haynes did just that, with Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, respectively.
An openly gay filmmaker born in California in 1961, Haynes is one of the most notable progenitors of the Queer Cinema movement of the late 1980s/early 1990s, even though pigeonholing him as such—no matter the import of that pigeonhole—overlooks such qualities as his knack for effortlessly illustrating rock and pop myths and tragedies. Haynes often aims to champion society’s outcasts, be they lost gay boys, subversive and contravening artists, suburban black men living in the ‘50’s, or successful women living during the Great Depression.
“I’ve always felt that viewers of film have extraordinary powers. They can make life out of reflections on the wall” Haynes has said, and Haynes has always ensured what his viewers are watching are indeed reflections. He does this via the use of hyperbolic dialogue (the “horror” portion of his first feature, Poison), nods to older cinematic styles (Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven) and the mutability of his actors (I’m Not There with its six Bob Dylans).
If not always successful, Haynes’ risks are at least easy on the eyes. For all its inconsistency of plot, Velvet Goldmine has just enough glitter to appeal to glam rock fans without descending too far into camp. Far From Heaven offered a misleadingly beautiful depiction of another era long before Mad Men, and for all its unease, his 1995 breakthrough Safe‘s sense of foreboding and barren take on suburbia keeps the viewer gripped. No matter where Haynes goes, his fans are ensured a most blissful sensory overload as a result. Maria Schurr
Three Key Films: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1974), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Grizzly Man (2005)
Underrated: Stroszek (1977). A stark, disconcerting and unforgettable experience, Stroszek is not a film one returns to for fun. It remains one of the most efficient and ruthless appraisals of the American Dream myth while managing to be amusing, touching and ultimately demoralizing. Using his infallible instincts, Herzog has non-actor Bruno S. embody the unlucky, exploited Stroszek. Fleeing Berlin for what they assume will be the warmer and more prosperous U.S.A., Stroszek and his companions end up in the frigid, desolate landscape of Wisconsin. The final scene, after things have gone predictably off the track, features Stroszek on a ski lift holding a frozen turkey. Beneath him, in coin-operated cages, a duck plays a drum with his beak, a rabbit “rides” a wailing fire truck and a chicken dances while the soundtrack features the ebullient harmonica woops of Sonny Terry. Arguably the most surreal, and satisfying, commentary on the human condition ever filmed: once you’ve seen it, it stays seen.
Unforgettable: After enabling an entire crew, including his daughter, to die during a doomed expedition to the legendary El Dorado, Aguirre is alone. Having watched his group slowly succumb to disease, drowning and Indian arrows, Aguirre is nonchalant when dozens of monkeys swim aboard his raft. As the creatures scramble and scurry, he snatches one and holds it in front of his face. “I am the Wrath of God,” he declares, and the sweeping Amazon suddenly turns claustrophobic. We know Aguirre is near death, and his final disintegration offers an austere commentary on ambition and conquest. The close-up camera angle swirls backward and circles the raft from above, like a silent and definitive judgment from Nature itself. From Aguirre, The Wrath of God.
The Legend: Few artists in any genre are as closely associated with the work they do. All of Werner Herzog’s films are to a certain extent autobiographical. It’s not merely a matter of how much of himself he invests into each project; it’s the nature of the projects themselves. Herzog has long combined creative restlessness with spiritual obsession and the results are often compelling, occasionally awe-inspiring and never less than interesting. He was the quintessential critical darling for entirely too long: he made movies that people admired, but he was anything but a household name. Never seeming to care—and certainly not one to covet notoriety—he quietly plugged along, keeping busy and remaining relevant. During the last decade his genius, and superhuman work ethic, have finally been recognized and rewarded.
It was not always thus. Herzog is possibly the ultimate underdog who inevitably got the acclaim and approbation he deserved. Herzog is undeniably a legend based solely on the stunning body of work he has produced. The real legend, of course, is his life and the excitement, misadventure and barely believable anecdotes it has inspired. There are too many to list, but a handful should suffice in order to convey what a unique force of nature Herzog has always been.
He stole his first camera, an act he considered less a matter of theft than necessity. On the set of his 1970 film Even Dwarfs Started Small (a wonderfully Herzogian title, and concept), after a few near calamities he promised the crew he would jump into a cactus patch if the rest of the filming was completed without incident (it was and he did). During the filming of his first masterpiece Aguirre, The Wrath of God he dealt with the mercurial Klaus Kinski in a fashion that would set the tone for their subsequent collaborations: after Kinski, during one of his typical tantrums, threatened to leave the set, Kinski pulled out a gun and swore he would first shoot Kinski, then himself unless the actor got back to work (it worked). In the mid-‘70s, in an attempt to inspire his friend Errol Morris to complete a project, he agreed to eat his shoe (the project was completed, the shoe was cooked and eaten, and the occasion was filmed for posterity). The filming of his film Fitzcarraldo (inspired by a true story) involved moving a 320 ton steamship over a mountain—without utilizing a single special effect. During the filming, one of the Peruvian natives on the shoot, exasperated by Kinski’s histrionics, offered to kill him; Herzog was tempted but declined because he needed the actor to finish the movie. In 2006, while being interviewed for the BBC, Herzog was (inadvertently?) shot by an unknown assailant with an air rifle. Naturally, he continued the interview and, after showing the stunned reporter and film crew the wound, calmly remarked “It is not a significant bullet.” (This footage, thankfully, survives for posterity.)
It is, of course, the work that endures and it seems likely that Herzog has amassed a filmography that will inspire and be studied so long as people are making moving pictures. It is difficult to isolate, or even describe what aspect(s) of Herzog’s style makes him so original and indelible. Certainly his penchant for improvisation can be attributed to a desire for emotion over refinement. His brave, if unorthodox decision to utilize unknown actors (or non-acting natives) speaks to his compulsion for authenticity. His challenging, occasionally unfeasible choice of projects and locations illustrates a recalcitrance that has always translated into integrity. Equal parts Joseph Conrad and Percy Fawcett, Herzog obliterates all clichés and encomiums: he is the Sisyphus who refused to fail, embracing tribulations to prove—to the medium, to himself—that they can be overcome. If Herzog did not exist, he would need to be invented, and then filmed by a director like Herzog. Sean Murphy
Three Key Films: Rebecca (1940), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960)
Underrated: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) The only film Hitchcock ever remade (officially, that is, since he certainly re-imagined The 39 Steps as North by Northwest), one would be forgiven for assuming that this first go around must not have been much of a success. If it had been a triumph, then why would Hitch have rolled it back out 20 years later, rewriting key sequences and drastically expanding the plot (and runtime)? But, the surprising thing is that this first version is a crackling thriller, and is every bit as interesting as the other films from this period (though it also suffers from many of the same limitations). Though not necessarily a wholly successful picture, the first Man Who Knew Too Much still features a few undeniably bravura set pieces. The unforgettable climax of the film—the attempted assassination during a concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall—demonstrates every facet of Hitchcock’s genius at roiling an audience up to a frenzy of anticipation. Just before the bullet is fired, the screen dissolves into fog. We begin to lose our focus as well. Where is the shooter? Where are we in relation to the impending violence? Will the bullet find its mark? Then, suddenly, a scream.
Unforgettable: The Bus Explosion, Sabotage (1936). Sabotage shocked audiences with one of the most astoundingly suspenseful sequences that had yet been committed to film. As we watch a child carry a bomb across London, all of us knowing that the thing is set to go off at one o’clock, Hitchcock cuts back and forth between shots of the boy with his terrible package and clock faces as they count out the seconds. As we begin to fear that—my god—he may actually be blown apart, Hitchcock allows the time to pass one o’clock, to go two minutes over the deadline. And then, suddenly, appallingly, just as we have started to sense that the device is faulty, that the boy will make it through after all, it detonates. The kid does not stay in the picture. Hitch once referred to this extraordinary scene as “a terrible mistake”. “I worked the audience up, and then I let the bomb go off,” he told Dick Cavett in a famous interview from 197“I had made the mistake of not relieving them [the audience] at the end of the suspense. In other words, if you put the audience through the mill like that, you must relieve them. The bomb must be found.” And yet, this “mistake” (he even claimed he would undo it if he had the chance) remains for me one of the most important sequences in his oeuvre.
The Legend: Alfred Hitchcock was raised in a strict Catholic household by difficult and highly punitive parents. (There’s a famous story of his father sending him down to the local police station with a note asking the cops to lock him up for ten minutes as punishment for some trifle he had committed at home!) An unhappy child, Hitchcock would find solace in his creative side, and would eventually turn to the new medium of film to exercise his frustrations. By 1920 he was working for a London film studio, making his way through the ranks toward the helm of his first major picture 1922’s Number 13. But it wasn’t until 1926 and The Lodger, a thriller, that Hitchcock really found his voice (not to mention his audience).
Transitioning from silent films to “talkies”, Hitchcock continued to steadily develop his reputation in Britain into the 1930s, and with each film he generated more attention overseas. Finally, in the late 1930s Hitchcock was successfully courted by American heavyweight producer David O. Selznick, and made the move to Hollywood where his career and reputation would reach unparalleled heights in short order. Ultimately, it seems likely that there will never be another filmmaker like Alfred Hitchcock. Just imagine: this is a man whose career spanned almost 60 years, who survived the complex shifts from silent to talkie and black and white to colour, who worked as an auteur and a studio hack (sometimes simultaneously), who experimented with an array of original techniques (a real-time feature, a one-set film), and who managed to develop some of the most complex characters and arresting images ever committed to film.
At his peak, Hitchcock was averaging almost a film a year—in the most extraordinary example of his industriousness, he made seven movies (including at least three stone classics) between 1953 and 1956! Unable, or unwilling, to compromise, he was famously stubborn and pigheaded. He was also frustratingly sexist, blind to racial politics, and prone to armchair psychology. He had a black sense of humour and a soft spot (or was it an obsession?) with blondes. He wondered if anyone could ever truly be called “innocent”; he mistrusted bureaucracy and the very rich; he had a thing for gay subtexts. He hated death, but was drawn to it, as are we all. He helped to create the modern horror genre, the modern thriller, and the modern black comedy. He changed film, even as he was inventing new ways to approach it. Stuart Henderson
Three Key Films: The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), The Dead (1987)
Unforgettable: “If you’re the police, where are your badges?” The response to this question, asked by Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, is one of the most famous in movie history. Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya’s incredulous amusement at this silly American, daring to question his authority, has implanted itself in our cultural consciousness. “Badges?” he asks. If you’ve never seen the film, the lines that follow are a bit different than you expect, but it’s still exhilarating to finally understand what everyone else seems to know.
Underrated: Fat City (1972). Long attracted to characters living on the margins, it’s little surprise Huston would choose to adapt Leonard Gardner’s novel about amateur boxers, migrant workers and alcoholics living in Stockton California, a town painted so bleakly by both Gardner and Huston that it seems ready to slide off the margin altogether. A hit at Cannes, the story centers around the chance meeting between a washed-up boxer who never made it (Stacey Keach) and an aimless young boxer who never will (a shockingly young Jeff Bridges). Plenty happens to the men. Nothing happens to the men. Susan Tyrrell is unforgettable as a majestic and domineering drunk. You might expect the prominently featured soundtrack of established hits by Kris Kristofferson to date the film, but the old vet Huston recognized something enduring in the songs. Their gruff sadness and Huston’s tender naturalism make for a moving portrait of modern squalor.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Legend: Talkies have been around for over eight decades. John Huston made indisputably great films in more than half of them. He made big Hollywood pictures with A-list actors and big budgets, shot quite literally around the world. And yet he was prolific, directing almost as many films as Roger Corman, the king of fast and cheap. He won Oscars in Directing and Writing, and was nominated as an Actor. He called acting a cinch, and writing came so quickly to him that he temporarily quit it for more challenging pursuits. Before deciding at 31 to finally take his film career seriously, Huston had spent periods of his life in vaudeville and journalism, rode with the Mexican Cavalry, and fought as an amateur boxer. He didn’t always drink beer, but when he did, I’m sure John Huston preferred Dos Equis.
If directing provided Huston with that yearned-for challenge, it’s hard to tell. His directing feels effortless. By using the camera to mirror psychology rather than merely to capture action, Huston brilliantly elevated the intensity in his films from the very beginning. His first film, The Maltese Falcon, was immediately declared a classic and has only grown in stature since. Like Orson Welles, he shared the novelistic sense that a plot is only a set up, and that the real thrill comes in seeing how the characters will react. As a result, Huston was the kind of director who turned actors into stars. The stories were tightly wound masterpieces, but the characters were the feature.
Huston showed remarkable ability to evolve. Maintaining his central philosophy—to simultaneously examine and excite—demanded he must. Employ an innovative technique or stylistic angle too often and it quickly becomes stale. But Huston had a nose for expiration dates. Though 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle had just complicated and reinvigorated the film noir, 1953’s Beat the Devil immediately attempts to declare the genre dead, and inadvertently invents a new genre (camp) along the way. This sense of restlessness defines Huston’s career, and is only surpassed by the magnitude of his achievements. Many call The Maltese Falcon the greatest detective movie ever made, and The Treasure of Sierra Madre the greatest adventure. The African Queen (1951) is the gold standard of romantic comedies. He was always ahead of the game, even beating young bucks like Lucas and Spielberg to the revivalist serial punch with 1975’s sprawling epic, The Man Who Would Be King (1975).
Famous for his uncanny ability to edit in his head, Huston shot only what would be used in the cut (as opposed to the standard method of shooting everything and letting the editor figure it out). His intellectual and aesthetic accuracy is such that even his misses manage nobility. His troubling and meandering The Misfits (1961), for instance, is also an epic ensemble showcase, a graduate seminar in screen acting. And the Razzie nomination he received for Annie (1982) is easily tempered by the bold willingness of a legend to take on his first musical at seventy years old. Plus, he still had greatness in the tank, making both Prizzi’s Honor (1985) and The Dead just before his death. He was one of the best filmmakers who ever lived, but he worked until the very end as if that wasn’t good enough. Joshua Ewing Weber