[14 August 2011]
Mid-way through our series, Day 5 is a glorious mishmash of international auteurist cinema. Beginning with Derek Jarman’s sumptuous visions and ending with three directors who might share a name, but have very little else in common. Today we go from saints and sinners, from Brookyln to Britain, from the beginning of time to the Dystopian future, and around the world and beyond.
Three Key Films: Caravaggio (1986), The Last of England (1987), Blue (1993)
Underrated: Sebastiane (1976) Jarman’s debut and the first film shot entirely in Latin is a marriage of Jarman’s greatest loves and concerns: history and homosexuality. Produced with a tiny budget (£25,000/$45,000) it was the first openly homoerotic British film and announced a fresh new voice for an ailing British film industry in the mid-‘70s. Through the tale of roman soldier and martyr Saint Sebastian, Jarman switches between the everyday life of the soldiers and vivid homoerotic encounters that celebrate unashamedly the male nude. Yet crucially he balances this visual feast with a complex portrayal of Sebastian’s journey towards spirituality, not reducing the story to its known conclusion but highlighting the multi-faceted nature and questions that arise from religious experience.
Unforgettable: Final moments of Blue. A luminous blue screen that never moves or changes, takes us back to the conception of moving pictures, the tradition and history that occupied Jarman constantly. With only a soundtrack to ‘move’ the film, the blue becomes a filter for our own images created behind or in front of the screen. Filmed months before Jarman’s death from AIDS, he was beginning to lose his sight and his vision became blurred by a blue tinge. The audio is narrated sections, spoken by various friends and actors, from his diary, revealing his poetical struggle with AIDS. Against sentimentality Blue is a rejection artifice and also a political statement against the AIDS epidemic. “ No ninety minutes could deal with the eight years HIV takes to get its host. Hollywood can only sentimentalize it.” The film ends with these lines, and remains the most moving scene in his work: “For our time is the passing of a shadow and our lives will run like sparks through the stubble. I place a delphinium. Blue, upon your grave.”
The Legend: A young man makes love to a black-masked fascist commando on top of a large Union Jack flag. This is one of the most memorable and symbolic scenes of The Last of England and a view into the nerve center of Jarman’s work and life. If given only two subjects that would occupy Jarman there is no doubt that these would be his sexuality and his country. Both aspects powerfully united on the British flag in The Last of England, defined by his discovery that he was HIV positive in 1986 and the political situation in England.
The Last of England, is an assault in many ways, asking the viewer to fight to find their own interpretation within the visual richness. It is an experimental film, a bricolage of old home movies, staged scenes from literature and art history and contemporary events thrust among a terrifying vision of the future.
Jarman is known best as one of Britain’s most controversial filmmakers. As experimental with the art of film as with taboo-breaking subjects, he was however caught between being a radical and a traditionalist.
Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman grew up on various RAF bases around England, his father a strict military officer who agreed to his son studying art only after he had pursued a degree in History, English and Art History. He went on to study painting, but his introduction to film came through his interest in costume design. After a chance meeting on a train from Paris with a friend of Ken Russell’s he was invited to design The Devils (1971) for Russell, giving him an insight into professional filmmaking. The costumes would remain with Jarman, the juxtaposition of different settings and moments in history fascinated him, leading to his avant-garde interpretations of many historical dramas. The first of which, Sebastiane, used history as the site for sexual investigation. A Renaissance man trapped in punk London, Jarman’s ideal project was Caravaggio, a chance to indulge in painterly light, artist struggles and complex relationships. Seven years in the making Jarman himself struggled with funding, becoming frustrated by the formalities he returned shortly after to the casualness of the Super 8 for The Last of England.
Shortly before Caravaggio’s premiere Jarman took the HIV test. The discovery led to him abandoning conventional cinema and speeding ahead with experimental work. War Requiem (1988) the filmic interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s mass, followed within a year of The Last of England. His father died and with the money left to him Jarman bought a small cottage in Dungeness, in the shadow of a power station, where he became to cultivate a garden. Recording the fruits of his labor in The Garden (1990) love also blossomed for Jarman bringing him serenity in his later years. From 1990 to his death in 1994 he produced three films, Edward II (1991), Wittgenstein (1993) and Blue (1993). Blue, perhaps the most radical of all Jarman’s films, is an elegiac abstract of life and film and a testament to the visionary filmmaker who never stopped even when his sight began to fail. Jennifer Hamblett
Three Key Films: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955)
Underrated: A Face in the Crowd (1957). Andy Griffith made his film debut in this searing drama that examined the then-new medium of television and the power it has to manipulate the public. Budd Schulberg wrote the screenplay, and Griffith turns in an exhaustive, manic performance as “Lonesome” Rhodes, an Arkansas yokel who becomes a radio host and then a television sensation. Patricia Neal is the radio reporter who discovers Rhodes; Walter Matthau is the television writer who will compete with Rhodes for her affection, both performances that benefit from Kazan’s signature approach with his actors, a combination of filmic style and directorial restraint. The film is allegedly based on real public figures (Will Rogers? Arthur Godfrey?), yet it remains profoundly prescient in its topics, from the corruptive power of celebrity to the gullibility of the public.
Unforgettable: Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the waterfront crime boss, has given Charlie Malloy (Rod Steiger) an impossible assignment: He must either convince his brother Terry (Marlon Brando) to “dummy up” and refuse to testify against Friendly or he must give Terry over to be killed. The conversation takes place in the back of a car, and it’s surely one of the key scenes that changed film acting. Brando gets all of the attention as the former prize-fighter who “coulda been a contenda” instead of getting a one-way ticket to Palookaville, but Steiger is masterful as well, his pained expression telling the story of two orphans coming to tragic terms with hard bargains and lost fights.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
The Legend: In 1999, Elia Kazan received an honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Leading up to the ceremony, many protested the decision and others vowed not to applaud the 90-year-old film legend when the award was presented. When Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro introduced Kazan that evening, some applauded, some didn’t. The event was a striking reminder that, 50 years after Kazan testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, some key factions in Hollywood had still not forgotten nor forgiven Kazan, even when recognizing Kazan as one of the giants of 20th century cinema, a man who changed American filmmaking.
Kazan was born in what is today Istanbul in 1909 and emigrated to the United States with his parents four years later. Through his and his parents’ struggles in their home countries and the challenging opportunities in America, Kazan developed an ardent concern for social justice and a passionate appreciation for the American Dream, two themes that would recur throughout his film career.
He would make his first mark on the stage, joining the Group Theater, a coalition of actors dedicated to telling socially and culturally relevant stories of the time. It was with the Group Theater in the 1930s that Kazan directed his first plays, including Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
In 1947, Kazan founded the Actors Studio, which, with Lee Strasberg as director, would establish “method acting” and soon earn the reputation as the greatest finishing school for actors in the country, teaching the likes of Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Karl Malden. For the Actors Studio, Kazan would direct Brando in a new stage version of Streetcar, a pairing that Kazan would reunite in 1951 for the film version.
Kazan’s first film was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), which established the director’s concern for social issues, followed by Gentleman’s Agreement, a film that boldly took on anti-Semitism. The film, starring Gregory Peck would take home the Best Picture Oscar and win Kazan his first Best Director Oscar for 1947. Next came Pinky in 1949, one of the first films to thoroughly examine the effects of racism against blacks in the American south, as well as the phenomenon of “passing”.
In these early films, Kazan helped establish a new American realism in filmmaking. Taking his cues from the Italian Neorealism movement, Kazan preferred on-location shooting, natural light and sound, socially relevant stories of common citizens, the absence of clear-cut resolutions, and the use of relatively unknown actors. Often called an “actor’s director”, Kazan was, by all accounts, a masterful acting coach. As Brando would later testify, “He was an arch-manipulator of actors’ feelings.” In all, Kazan would direct 21 different actors to Oscar nominations and would establish the film careers of Brando, Dean, Malden, Warren Beatty, Julie Harris, Andy Griffith, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, and dozens of others.
In the 1950s, Kazan hit a creative stride that few have ever matched. In 1951, Streetcar was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, made Brando a major star, and popularized method acting in film. It was the first of three films that paired Kazan and Brando, followed by Viva Zapata! (1952), a biopic of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and On the Waterfront in 1954, arguably Kazan’s masterpiece.
On the Waterfront came two years after Kazan testified before the HUAC, eventually naming eight people who had, like himself, previously been a member of the American Communist Party. While Waterfront stands on its own, it’s difficult to watch the film without thinking of Kazan’s personal battle with his decision, as Terry Malloy (played by Brando) struggles with his conscience and ultimately testifies against his friends.
Kazan would go on to adapt John Steinbeck in the stunning East of Eden (1955), adapt Tennessee Williams again in the controversial black comedy Baby Doll (1956), make a star of Andy Williams in the media exposé A Face in the Crowd (1956), introduce Warren Beatty and revitalize Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass (1961), and adapt his own autobiography in America America (1963), among other films, totaling 20 in all. Indeed, despite Kazan’s political behaviors, it remains inarguable that few directors made more permanent contributions to filmmaking. Steve Leftridge
Three Key Films: Close-Up (1990), Taste of Cherry (1997), Certified Copy (2010)
Underrated: Through the Olive Trees (1994)
Unforgettable: The lingering, elusive final shot of Through the Olive Trees as Hossein (Hossein Rezai) chases his leading lady and love Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian) through the titular grove to hypnotic effect. Kiarostami’s camera, from a staggering panoramic distance, leaves the audience breathless, wondering if the girl has accepted his marriage proposal or not.
Certified Copy (2010)
The Legend: The complexities of human behavior, mainly when hidden in the ambiguous gray shadows of the interplay of simplicity, reality, morality, and specific geography, are a ripely showcased throughout Kiarostami’s filmography. A versatile artist, filmmaker, poet, painter, and photographer famous in his native Iran for many decades before his Cannes Film Festival break-out Close-Up, Kiarostami’s rise to prominence as a key figure of the Iranian New Wave made him the country’s most celebrated and watched filmmaker and cemented Iran’s artistic reputation in the international cinematic discourse. Close-Up was catapulted to international celebrity by champion endorsements from a diverse, supportive group of other essential directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, making Kiarostami the de facto leader of a formidable group of filmmakers that included his close collaborators Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi.
A master of both reflexive and self-reflexive styles, Kiarostami is best known for blurring the lines between what is reality and what is simply cinema, of tradition and modernity, and for his cultural and cinematic hybridity. Transitions are of the utmost importance in the director’s work, how people get to where they are going, which is often by car. New York Times Film Critic A.O. Scott wrote that Kiarostami, “in addition to being perhaps the most internationally admired Iranian filmmaker of the past decade, is also among the world masters of automotive cinema. He understands the automobile as a place of reflection, observation and, above all, talk.” The time spent traveling by car is not lost on Kiarostami, who reveals artistic possibility in the most seemingly ordinary locations and sets many emotionally-riveting sequences inside of the coach of an automobile, from Close-Up, Through the Olive Trees and A Taste of Cherry up to his most recent effort, Certified Copy. Starring iconic French actress Juliette Binoche, who took the Best Actress prize at Cannes last year for her magnetic work in Kiarostami’s technically-immaculate film, the director proves his verisimilitude yet again, as well as his commitment to constantly pushing the envelope and challenging himself when it comes to style, form, technique, and method. Matt Mazur
Three Key Films: The Decalogue (1989-90), The Double Life of Veronique (1991), Red (1994)
Underrated: White (1994) Nothing in Kieślowski’s oeuvre is really underrated since he produced so few films and all are heralded as masterworks. So, I have improvised here a bit, and chosen the only film he ever made that I think is less than perfect. This light, comic examination of the theme of equality (the blanc of the bleu/blanc/rouge thematic framework for the trilogy) works on almost every level for me, but is truly the only film of his that fails to hit me all at once, to stagger me into awed submission. Though Julie Delpy gives an admirable performance, I think it is the way she is directed that is my stumbling block here, and no scene exemplifies this more explicitly than the bizarre and surreal scene in which she performs a screeching orgasm as though she were a cat. Unlikely, deeply unsexy, and character-shattering, it is the only downright mistake in this utter master’s far-too-tiny oeuvre.
Unforgettable: The Recycling Lady, Red Throughout almost all of Kieślowski’s films, certain images and even characters recur. Indeed, part of the joy of re-watching his films is in recognizing how of a piece they all are, how interconnected and tangled up is their mythology, and how excitingly and satisfyingly poetic this feels. Overall, perhaps the most unassuming, but most poignant image to recur in his work is the tiny old Recycling Lady, struggling to get her bottle into the appropriate slot. In Blue, White and The Double Life of Veronique she is left helpless, pathetically failing to accomplish this most mundane of tasks, as each of the main characters see her but fail to act. It is only in Rouge that Irène Jacob comes to her aid. And, all at once, it is shivers and hot tears.
The Legend: Born in war-torn Warsaw and raised in a shattered post-war and Soviet-influenced Poland, Kieślowski found his way into film almost by accident, his actual intention being to study movies so as to become a superior theatre director. Emerging from the same Łódź Film School that had produced both Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda, he turned first to making gritty documentaries about working life in a so-called “worker’s paradise”. By the mid-‘70s he was trying his hand at fiction, but his non-documentary films emphasized social realism and maintained a third-party perspective that helped to define his signature style. Kieślowski’s camera would focus on the mundane, everyday events and moments and activities, reminding viewers that though he was presenting a fiction, this fiction was grounded in real life.
In the post-Solidarity Polish political landscape, Kieślowski was able to produce more freely, and by the late ‘80s was working toward what would be his first major masterpiece, the ten-hour film cycle The Decalogue. Wildly ambitious, each of the ten films in this cycle were based on one of the Ten Commandments, and featured overlapping characters and overarching themes. Set mostly in a grey, brutalist apartment bloc, and exploring the most central moral and ethical questions in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Kieślowski’s film cycle was an unqualified success, and vaulted him to the attention of filmmakers around Europe.
Now able to secure funding from outside Poland, his next (and final) four films would be co-productions with Western studios, and would achieve the international attention they richly deserved. Indeed, energized by his sudden fame following the success of 1990’s The Double Life of Véronique, and the waves of adulation lavished upon that sensitive, haunting film, Kieślowski undertook another ambitious film cycle that would explore the three colours of the French flag, and the ostensible ideals each colour was meant to symbolize. As each of these films appeared in the early ‘90s, critical attention and popular interest in his work snowballed.
By the time of Red, the ultimate film in the cycle in 1994, Kieślowski was an international sensation. In one of those hopelessly tragic turns of fate, however, it would prove to be his last film. He died on the table during heart surgery two years later, while only part of the way through his next cycle of three films loosely based on Dante’s Inferno-Purgatorio-Paradiso. Throughout his films characters recur, scenes are replayed, ideas are discussed again and again, and nothing is ever really resolved. It is often said that he made the same film again and again, but it is more accurate to say that he made one very long film from several different angles. Each new perspective lends a new layer of complexity, of mystery, of revelation, of beauty. Stuart Henderson
Three Key Films: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Underrated: Full Metal Jacket (1987). A naturalistic tour into the dark heart of modern war, preceded by a disquieting tour into the darkness of the hearts that prepare our soldiers to survive there. The second section, on the front lines, a surreal sort of cinéma vérité, is more plodding than cathartic, which is probably the point. The first part of the film, devoted entirely to a group of Marine recruits at Parris Island, is a quicksilver tour de force—at turns riotous and harrowing. It is some of the most assured, affecting work of the decade: not too many movies can take you from hysterical laughter (the initial scenes where drill instructor R. Lee Ermey lambastes the boys is piss-your-pants funny) to disgust and, inevitably, despair. The blanket party scene, where the incompetent “Gomer Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio) is savaged by his fellow cadets lingers in the mind as one of the most disturbing scenes in movie history. It manages to illustrate a great deal about conformity, the military, the perceived necessity of truly breaking someone before they can function and what we must kill inside ourselves in order to survive. Most directors would inexorably play this scene for pathos; Kubrick films it matter-of-factly and his shrewd use of subtlety makes it many times more disturbing.
Unforgettable: Kubrick’s films are celebrated precisely for their myriad iconic moments, but if obliged to pick the single scene we could call “Kubrickian”, it would have to be the unforgettable sequence where “our humble narrator” Alex is given the Ludovico Technique. Presented as a revolutionary—and quite controversial—form of behavior modification, the subject is given a daily dose of medicine and obliged to endure scene after scene of depravity and violence. During one of the more intense treatments Alex—eyes forced upon with metal prongs—must watch Nazis marching while Beethoven, his favorite composer, plays on the accompanying soundtrack. He cringes and then screams as he realizes not only is he being “cured”, but listening to Ludwig Van (the one civilizing influence from his former life) will henceforth be verboten. The image is at once ironic, amusing and appalling, and speaks volumes about science, sadism and the ill-effects of cynical sociology. From A Clockwork Orange.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1964)
The Legend: Has any director covered more ground, stylistically and historically, than Stanley Kubrick? From Lolita (1962) to The Shining (1980) to Eyes Wide Shut(1999) he made movies from books few directors could—or would—even consider adapting for the big screen. Incredibly, he made movies thatarguably transcended the source material; however much viewers (or the original authors) loved or loathed them, they most definitely were not deferential reproductions of the text.
Kubrick is famous—or infamous—for his meticulous, some might claim obsessive quest for “the perfect shot”; anecdotes abound of actors being forced to produce take after take to the point of exhaustion or distraction. His control freak tendencies may have had a great deal to do with the fact that he “only” made thirteen films over the course of a career that spanned five decades. On the other hand, it’s difficult to name many directors who made as many works that are today considered masterpieces, or a director who is cited more frequently for his innovation and influence. Detractors have claimed that his perfectionism resulted in films that were too cold or clinical; some find his work pretentious. Interestingly, if not revealingly, his work has aged well and seems to attract more converts (inside and out of critical circles) than detractors.
Is it even necessary to review the films? There are none that are not worth seeing at least one time; there are several that can be watched anytime, and there are a handful that must be revisited often, for all the right reasons. Is it possible to get tired of a tour de force like Dr. Strangelove? Understanding that Kubrick intentionally asked George C. Scott to add one “over the top” take for each scene (knowing full well that those were the takes he planned to use) causes one to further appreciate the perfection. Speaking of irony, how about the use of Rossini during a rape scene, or Purcell post-modernized as early—and eerie—electronica in A Clockwork Orange?
Special mention, of course, must be made for 2001: A Space Odyssey. As time passes and computers make special effects ever easier to produce (and less satisfying to watch), the scope of what Kubrick achieved remains hard to fathom. It’s one thing to reasses an older film and marvel at how impressive it was for its time; we can—and should—watch 2001 and still be astonished, today. It’s probably not possible, nor is it important to isolate Kubrick’s best film. His ultimate achievement, aside from the steady craftsmanship and originality, might be the realization that Dr. Strangelove had to be a comedy. The novel he adapted, Red Alert was a dead-serious potboiler; Kubrick instinctively understood how poorly that would play on screen (at least in most director’s hands) but also how crucial it was to satirize. The results,equally a tribute to the considerable skills of that remarkable cast, are a testament to Kubrick’s intelligence and vision.
Where so many of our most renowned directors cultivate a particular style, Kubrick—perhaps because of his fixations—made movies about so many different people and places it seems impossible (in a good way) that the same man was responsible for them all. Of course, there are the familiar nuances and compulsive touches that connect certain moments as Kubrickian. There is the long, disconnected stare (think Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Jack from The Shining or Leonard from Full Metal Jacket). There is the soundtrack music: aside from Scorsese, has any other director made more songs indelibly associated with specific scenes? There is, above all, the irony. Some see pessimism, but attentive viewers understand that Kubrick, for all his precision, always removed himself from the acting and the action. If his films have moments that are more aesthetically perfect than emotionally convincing, Kubrick could never be accused of being cynical. Like our very best directors, he consistently conjures up other times and places while offering profound comment on the here and now. Sean Murphy
Three Key Films: Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954)
Underrated:Red Beard(1965).Heavily criticized upon its release, this is one of Kurosawa’s most humane, beautiful films. The story of a crusty, older physician (Toshiro Mifune) taking as his protégé a young, ambitious doctor (Yuzo Kayama) who disdains working in a clinic serving the poor, the young man begins to change when he cares for the physical and emotional well-being of a young girl saved from a brothel. Some of the most moving scenes involve the young girl Otoyo caring for the young doctor when he in turn falls ill. A film filled with many heart-rending moments and featuring perhaps Kurosawa’s most extraordinary set, it was sadly also the director’s last with actor Toshiro Mifune, bringing to a close arguably the greatest director-actor collaboration in the history of film.
Unforgettable: The epic final battle in the pouring rain in Seven Samurai, as the villagers, led by the five remaining samurai, fight for their survival against a gang of bandits. Using between three and five cameras, Kurosawa pioneered in the sequence a host of cinematic techniques–shooting falling bodies in slow-motion, using telephoto lenses to create the illusion that the camera was right beside bucking horses, splicing cuts from two or three cameras to create a narrative image through editing. Despite no CGI and or special effects of any kind, it remains one of the great action sequences in cinema and the most impressive scene in one of the greatest films ever made.
Seven Samurai (1954)
The Legend: The importance of Rashomon’s winning the Golden Lion at the 1951 Venice Film Festival cannot be overstressed. It simultaneously resurrected the career of Kurosawa—whose previous film was deemed a major setback to his career—and signaled to the West that there were directors in the rest of the world who were the equal of any in Hollywood or Europe. His success in Venice led to a contract at Toho where he immediately made two films that are not merely among Japan’s greatest, but masterpieces of world cinema: Ikiru, about a petty bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) dying of cancer who overcomes a host of obstacles to oversee the building of a children’s playground, and Seven Samurai, his hugely influential and widely-imitated film about a group of samurai who save an impoverished village from bandits.
After Seven Samurai, Kurosawa would make a string of masterpieces such as Throne of Blood (1957), The Lower Depths (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo(1960), and High and Low (1963). But with television cutting ticket sales for movies, after Red Beard Toho ceased funding Kurosawa. Also, for reasons still not fully understood, Kurosawa decided to no longer use Toshiro Mifune in his films. This loss dramatically weakened the acting in Kurosawa’s later films; many have wondered how much better Kagemusha (1980) or Ran (1985) might have been had Mifune been used in the lead for each.
In the remaining 33 years of Kurosawa’s life after 1965 he was to make only seven films due both to a constant struggle to find funding for his films. In contrast, he had made 23 films in the first 22 years of his career. Several younger Hollywood filmmakers who considered themselves his disciples, such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, helped Kurosawa obtain more reliable funding and he was able to make some memorable films, in particular the epic Ran.
But it was his earlier period that has proven so hugely significant for filmmakers around the world. The technique he developed using multiple cameras to capture the action from different angles has proven especially influential. Kurosawa’s would use two to three cameras equipped with telephoto lenses to capture a scene. The cameras would be so far away that the actors would be unaware of them, so that they would act not towards the camera but towards one another. The gains are enormous using three cameras: a more natural acting style, more continuity in editing, and a decrease in the time needed for shooting scenes, since fewer set ups were required. His use of slow motion has also been used by countless filmmakers, especially action directors.
By any standard Kurosawa is both one of the most important and most entertaining directors in the history of cinema. His films are not loved only by cinephiles, but by everyday filmgoers. As an example, as I type this Seven Samurai is ranked #13 by viewers on IMDB.com. No film above it on the list is as old and no subtitled or foreign film is ranked higher, a testimony not just to the enormous power of the film, but of Kurosawa’s films in general. Robert Moore
Three Key Films: Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006)
Underrated: Mo Better Blues (1990). Coming on the heels of the explosive Do the Right Thing, Mo Better Blues, a Denzel Washington vehicle about the mercurial but troubled career of a jazz trumpeter, couldn’t help but come off as a tamer, safer Spike Lee film. Yet the film marks Lee’s venture into a more mature, measured style of filmmaking, and he coaches his actors into some of their all-time best performances, none more so than Washington, whose depiction of Bleek Gilliam is profound and multi-layered in his charismatic self-sabotage. The film is emotionally epic, as Gilliam negotiates a destructive love triangle, his all-consuming love of his music in the face of diminishing crowds, his aging father, a rival musician played by Wesley Snipes, and the gambling debts of his friend and manager, played by Lee himself. It’s a first-rate story of real heft and sweep, all of it bolstered by an ace soundtrack written and performed by Branford Marsalis. Lee came under heat from the Anti-Defamation League for the portrayal of Jewish nightclub owners (played by John and Nicholas Turturro), a reflection that the director had not lost his readiness to head straight into to race relations’ tricky waters.
Unforgettable: Mookie throws the trash can. After the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of New York City police, angry crowds close in on Sal and his sons, owners of Bed-Stuy’s pizzeria. Radio Raheem, along with his friend Buggin’ Out, had been protesting the lack of African-American photos on Sal’s “Wall of Fame” on the restaurant wall, a protest that spills into violence and eventually Radio Raheem’s murder. Sal’s young black employee, Mookie, played by the director, picks up a metal crash can and hurls it through the large front window of Sal’s, immediately prompting a full-scale riot and the burning of Sal’s to the ground. Spike would later say that “Why did Mookie throw the trash can?” was a question that only white people asked him.
The Legend: If Spike Lee combustible storytelling and visionary filmic style seemed to arrive fully-formed in the late ‘80s, such talent sprang from an upbringing in Atlanta and Brooklyn that infused Lee with a deep-rooted education in art, literature and jazz music at the hands of his parents Jacquelyn, a teacher, and Bill, a jazz musician. Spike, though, had a robust mental alacrity all his own, a personality that led his mother early on give him is nickname.
Spike’s interest in movies began to peak in the 1970s, although the maverick directors of the era failed to capture the American black experience, a void that Lee was himself driven to fill. Lee attended New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, where he earned his master’s degree and made the student film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, which won him the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Student Academy Award in 198The film showcased Lee’s complex character building and marked his first collaboration with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson, who would help establish the visual dynamism of the Spike Lee style.
It would be Lee’s next three films that would solidify him as a major new voice in American cinema. She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s first full-length “joint”, put a comedic spin on the entanglements of gender and race, introducing the Mars Blackmon character that Spike would make pitchman for Nike’s Air Jordan shoes. It was a film that also foresaw a revitalized Brooklyn. Next came School Daze, a quasi-musical about Spike’s college experiences in Atlanta. It was a film that pushed racial buttons harder than his previous films did, bringing his first national controversies for the film’s depiction of what some saw as racial stereotypes both among students and in the failings of black colleges. Still, reviewers admired the film’s spark, and film observers everywhere were talking about Spike Lee.
In 1989, Lee accumulated all of his cinematic skills and firebrand leanings into a single thrilling film. Do the Right Thing was the year’s most discussed film and earned Lee his first Oscar nomination. Through his use of vibrant color sybolism, a continuous soundtrack of jazz and hip-hop, a whirlwind ensemble cast, and an inexhaustible eye for dazzling camera technique, Lee set out to make a film in which every shot and every scene were a study in film composition. Set on the hottest day of a summer in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, Lee catalogued a series of conflicts: Men vs. women, whites vs. blacks, old vs. young, fathers vs. sons, Lakers vs. Celtics, police vs. citizens. The film even ends with conflicting quotes from MLK and Malcolm X, a fitting end to a remarkable film that offers provoking questions, the kinds that come with no easy answers.
Lee continued on a commercially successful streak in the ‘90s with urban dramatic films, such as Mo Better Blues, set within the contemporary jazz scene, and Jungle Fever, a powerful portrayal of interracial love and lust. But it would be 1992’s Malcolm X, the biopic starting Denzel Washington as the title civil-rights leader, that would find Lee reaching another creative peak. The film, beset by production and budget difficulties, along with the kinds of controversies that would follow Lee throughout his career, had long been Lee’s dream project, and the director pushed through to achieve one of the decade’s most critically acclaimed and enduring films.
If Lee hasn’t matched the heights of his astonishing first decade as a filmmaker, he has often come close and has continued as a prolific writer and director of broadening versatility, whether poleaxing media depictions of African-Americans in 2000’s satirical ringer Bamboozled or peeling back the moral complexities of sexual, racial, and class relations by way of the plot-twisty bank-robbery caper Inside Man in 2006. Throughout a career of highlights, Lee has refused to kiss a square inch of Hollywood ass, making news by speaking his mind, yes, but more important, letting his camera and his pen do the talking, sparking crucial conversations at every step. Steve Leftridge
Three Key Films: Naked (1993), Topsy-Turvy (1999), Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
Underrated: All or Nothing (2002). A contemporary drama released between Leigh’s two stunning “period” films Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake (2004), All Or Nothing slipped through the net; indeed, the movie has been described by Leigh and Lesley Manville as “the one that got away”” Dismissed by some British critics as grim and interminable, this raw ensemble drama about the fortunes of three families on a South London council estate is in fact a rewarding, involving and, finally, quietly affirmative piece of work: “I feel that this film is entirely about redemption,” Leigh has said. With superb performances from Manville, Timothy Spall, Ruth Sheen, James Corden, and, in her first role for Leigh, Sally Hawkins, All or Nothing combines Ozu-like intimacy with an oddly epic scope; it’s ripe for rediscovery.
Unforgettable: The meeting between Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) and Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) in the diner in Secrets and Lies, shot in one brilliantly sustained long take, encapsulates the film’s brand of humor and heartbreak, as Cynthia moves from denial and amnesia to the recognition that the young woman sitting beside her is in fact the daughter that she gave up for adoption years before.
The Legend: “Directly, objectively, yet compassionately [Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs] puts on the screen the great, hard, real adventure of living and surviving from day to day and from year to year, the experience of ordinary people …” Mike Leigh’s praise for Olmi’s film stands as a very apt description of Leigh’s own work, which has, from the very beginning, concerned itself with “the experience of ordinary people”: working, raising families, dealing with loss and illness, trying to communicate and connect. Howie Movshovitz defines Leigh’s output as a sustained attempt to “capture the texture of real life” and terms such as “social realism,” “kitchen-sink drama” and “naturalism” invariably appear in discussions of the British auteur’s work. However, none of these terms seems quite adequate in capturing the very distinctive brand of humane insight and uproarious social comedy that characterizes Leigh’s film-making. As the director states, “no work of art is truly naturalistic. Art is not real life and has to be organized, designed and distilled because it’s dramatic.”
Leigh’s very particular process of “organizing, designing and distilling” his material remains one of the most original and commented upon in contemporary cinema. In recent years, the director has become somewhat more open about discussing elements of his method—even while keeping the more “esoteric” aspects firmly behind closed doors. Famously, Leigh’s projects begin with no script, starting instead from a basic premise that is developed through lengthy improvisation sessions with his actors, who initially base their characters on a person—or various people—that they know. The months of rehearsal result in Leigh’s composition of a bare-bones shooting script, which is refined, distilled, and finalized after more improvisation, by the time shooting commences. The process is organic, finely detailed and highly collaborative; small wonder that many actors (including his unofficial “repertory company” of performers: Alison Steadman, Timothy Spall, Lesley Manville, Ruth Sheen, Imelda Staunton, Peter Wight, Phil Davis, the late Katrin Cartlidge and, more recently, Martin Savage, Eddie Marsan and Sally Hawkins) have frequently described their work with Leigh as among the most rewarding and fulfilling of their careers.
Leigh’s idiosyncratic methods were initially developed in his work for the theater. However, it was a viewing of John Cassavetes’ seminal Shadows (1959) that first alerted him to the possibility of “creating complete plays from scratch with a group of actors.” His first film, Bleak Moments , a devastating anatomization of English reserve and failures in communication, appeared in 1971, but it would be another 17 years before his next feature film, High Hopes was made. In the intervening period, Leigh dedicated himself to working for television, producing a string of memorable dramas for the BBC’s celebrated ‘Play for Today’ strand, including Hard Labour (1973), Nuts in May (1976), The Kiss of Death (1977) and Abigail’s Party (1977). Following High Hopes and Life is Sweet (1990), the turning point in Leigh’s career came with Naked, an epically-scaled and often brutal drama which tracks its garrulous anti-hero, Johnny (David Thewlis), from Manchester to the streets of London, exploring his fairly vicious relationships with women; the film’s confrontational approach was likened by one (hostile) critic to “a mugging”. Naked was followed by the equally extraordinary Secrets and Lies, perhaps the quintessential Leigh film in its subtle, immersive drawing together of a group of extended family members, colleagues and friends. His camerawork characterized by what David Thompson has called a “detached, medical watchfulness” Leigh often bases his scenes around social engagements, with their ensuing dramas, revelations and embarrassments; the climactic, emotionally charged barbecue sequence in Secrets and Lies is, in many ways, the Leigh scene par excellence.
Leigh has broadened his scope to encompass period drama with Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake (2004), bringing his distinctive aesthetic (and most of his favorite actors) to bear on these projects, which subtly challenge the conventions of heritage cinema. Sometimes prone to caricature and over-emphasis, Leigh’s weaker films can be obvious and schematic, occasionally relying too heavily on broadly-drawn contrasts between characters and taking a rather judgmental attitude towards the protagonists. His best films, in contrast, work to change and challenge the audiences’ pre-judgments about characters, and cast a sharp yet sympathetic eye upon human frailty and resilience. According to Andy Medhurst, the director‘s skill lies in “making moving (in both senses of the word) pictures that evoke the horrors and humors of being English.” For all the national specificity of his work, however, it is, finally, Leigh’s sustained engagement with “the great, hard, real adventure of living and surviving from day to day” that makes his films resonate so profoundly for audiences across the world. Alex Ramon