The 100 Essential Directors Part 9: Victor Sjöström to Luchino Visconti

[28 August 2011]

By PopMatters Staff

In between Victor Sjöström and Luchino Visconti there is a glorious spate of international auteurs that range from cinematic innovators from the silent era to those who continue to push the limits of film in their contemporary work, carrying on the rich traditions of those who came before them and directly referencing these innovators in their work, re-interpreting the past for modern movie-going audiences, often brilliantly.

Victor Sjöström
(1879 - 1960)

Three Key Films: The Phantom Carriage (1921), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), The Wind (1928)

Underrated: The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

Unforgettable: Letty (a career-best Lillian Gish), shot in agonized close-up, as the sandstorm wailing outside the door of her shack threatens to tear both her and the entire place to pieces. Insidiously, her new environment has eroded her mind and in this moment, Letty goes from perfectly rational city girl on the prairie to wide-eyed madwoman lost in the eye of a monstrous Texas cyclone. Though The Wind is one of the final films of the silent era, this ghostly image is always the first that comes to mind when I think of silent film, for the very expressiveness of that violent moment defines what can be said onscreen without words.

The Legend: Sjöström is arguably best known to today’s cinephile crowd as an actor rather than a director, appearing in the key leading role of Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s melancholic masterpiece about aging, Wild Strawberries (1957), for which he was recently celebrated in PopMatters’ 100 Essential Male Film Performances as one of the classics that everyone should know. Even though his uncomfortability with the form’s transition into sound is allegedly what sparked his return to the theater and to acting, as a pioneering film director Sjöström’s contribution to cinema as both a visual storyteller and technician remains one of the most under-appreciated of the silent era.

Beginning in his native Sweden, where he made over forty films after leaving the theater and before being drawn to Hollywood by Louis B. Mayer, Sjöström honed his craft on films such as Sons of Ingmar (1919) and Karin, Daughter of Ingmar (1920). Though much of his early Swedish ouevre has been forever lost, Sjöström would come to be known for building poetic, surrealist paens to love, obsession, and brutality in the decade that immediately preceded the first sound films. Initially, his stylistically-innovative work was more than often dismissed by critics of the time as a pastiche of old conventions, of techniques that were quickly going out of vogue, from expressive, theatrical acting performances to the clean, clear moments of repetitive visual symbolism (think the wedding ring or the transposed, braying horses in The Wind). Thankfully, modern film critics have slowly but surely given Sjöström his proper due as one of the medium’s earliest and most influential artists to dynamically cross international borders as an actor, and most importantly, as a director who seemed to be in constant pursuit of technical excellence and innovation through pure artistic impulse and expression. Matt Mazur


Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone
(1946 - present)

Three Key Films: Platoon (1986), JFK (1991), Natural Born Killers (1994)

Underrated: Nixon (1995) and W. (2008). These two films, though controversial, are not as easy to argue about or as quick to ruffle feathers as JFK. And, though political, they don’t touch the same kind of raw, emotional nerve as a subject like the Vietnam War, like Stone did in Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July (1989). As a result, they’re both overlooked, a shame considering what Stone manages to accomplish in them: painting a human, even sympathetic, portrait of a figure that stands for everything he’s against personally. The two imperial presidents are cast in very different lights: Stone’s Nixon, in his quest for power, causes his own undoing, while his George W. Bush is almost totally powerless, haplessly flubbing his way through his own presidency. And yet Stone manages empathy for them both, and gets award-worthy performances out of Anthony Hopkins and Josh Brolin in the process.

Unforgettable: A crisp, dark power suit and diagonally-striped tie. Hair so thoroughly gelled you can still see the path the comb took. A giant, 1980s microphone. And then a speech: “Greed, for lack of a better term,” says Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), “is good. Greed is right. Greed works.” With Gekko’s speech, Stone gives voice to a powerful, yet nebulous enemy: American business. And yet, coming from Douglas, who cuts such a striking figure, it’s easy to see how the lure of big business can seduce young men and women who should otherwise know better. Wall Street (1987) is Stone’s takedown of the culture of the finance industry in the 1980s but, in typical Stone fashion, he makes his villain so interesting that it’s hard not to root for the bad guy, even though, without such a charismatic figure to cloud your judgment, you know that greed is not, in fact, good.

The Legend: Oliver Stone is not a timid director. His films, though not polemic, are unafraid to take a firm position on a subject—especially an unpopular one (even if it’ll land him in hot water with his fellow lefties). World Trade Center (2006) showed that he’d be one of the first to brave territory where wounds had not yet healed. Besides the aforementioned Nixon and W., the documentary South of the Border (2009), about Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, tries to tease out the most relatable characteristics of a figure who is often vilified. And he’s made a trilogy about his favorite cause: the consequences of the war in Vietnam.

But his films aren’t just mouthpieces for his messages. Stone draws heavily upon his own personal experiences for his film. His life is not unlike a lot of Baby Boomers’: He dropped out of college to go to Vietnam, and returned passionate and disillusioned. His films became a vehicle for retelling Boomer history, covering Kennedy’s assassination (JFK), Vietnam (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll (The Doors) (1991), ‘70s paranoia (Nixon), and so on. Even Wall Street and its sequel come from a personal place, since Stone’s father was a stockbroker. So while yes, he tries to provide evidence for his personal view—and, in the case of JFK, perhaps overwhelming amounts of sometimes questionable evidence—he never forgets to filter everything through an emotional, human story.

Which is not to say that, since Stone draws on his own personal experiences, that his storytelling comes through the gauzy haze of personal nostalgia. Nothing is muted about his films. If he wants you to absorb the messages, he’ll get you to pay attention to what he finds important, attacking your senses with jittery jump cuts; shifts between slick, smooth images and battered, grainy footage; newsreels; slow-motion; and, when he needs to, even on-screen graphics. But while those elements certainly jazz up his visual style, he doesn’t depend on them to capture an audience. Chances are, given his ability to marry a strong viewpoint with an engaging story, the audience is already hooked. Marisa LaScala


Preston Sturges

Preston Sturges
(1898 - 1959)

Three Key Films: The Great McGinty (1940), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941)

Underrated: Christmas in July (1940) At only 65 minutes and riding a basic screwball premise all the way to the end, this most confectionary of Sturges’ films has left many critics underwhelmed. But, as is always the case with the comic master’s work, there is a complex spirit floating through the works. Here is a film that appears to be about a simple misunderstanding—a man is tricked into thinking he has won the lottery, hijinks ensue—but which is rife with social commentary about our generalized belief that wealth can equal happiness. Throughout, it is the illusion of wealth—not actual wealth—that leads our hapless hero to good fortune. Living as if he were wealthy—with all of the confidence that this apparently confers—is what allows him to win a promotion, get the girl, and find his happy ending. Of course, a final act switcheroo confounds the easy answers here, since this is a Sturges film after all. Breezy, funny, and always smarter than it appears.

Unforgettable: “But, with a little sex in it.” Sullivan’s Travels Anyone who has watched this film will recall being struck by the rapid-fire dialogue that drives the film, anticipating a couple generations’ worth of banter-laden comedies. No one has ever done it better than Sturges, and he never did it any better than in the opening scenes of his masterpiece. As the studio execs argue with Joel McCrea’s disenchanted screenwriter over making socially-conscious movies—“Who wants to see that kind of stuff? It gives me the creeps.”—McCrea builds to a crescendo, talking about answering Communism with “stark realism, the problems that confront the average man”, it’s the exec’s quick response that wins the day. “But, with a little sex?” A hundred years of Hollywood creative politics, summarized in a couple perfect lines of dialogue.

The Legend: Preston Sturges was raised by his bohemian mother, a singer and pal of Isadora Duncan, and her well-healed stockbroker husband. (What a wonderful contrast!) He enjoyed the weird childhood of a wealthy showbiz kid, flitting back and forth between America and Europe for a time in his early 20s, before finally settling on life as a writer for the stage by the mid-1920s. He made a successful transition from Broadway to Hollywood screenwriter by 1934 and director by 1940, but found himself smothered by the formulaic work he was asked to perform.

Indeed, trapped within the enervating confines of the code-era studio system with its restrictive statutes and directives, many otherwise talented and creative filmmakers wound up producing some pretty pedestrian stuff. But not Preston Sturges. Though each of his far-too-few films followed the rules in the broadest sense, they also took every possible opportunity to stretch, to push, and to subvert the confines of convention. A clear precursor to the great post-code auteurs the Coen Brothers (who reference his films in virtually all of their movies), Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson, Sturges took basic screwball formula plots and stuffed them to bursting with absurdities, snappy dialogue, surreal hijinks, and a sneaky dose of existential philosophy. And, just as would his acolytes, Sturges relied on a steady troupe of the same actors film after film, building up a steady community and sense of creative continuity between his pictures.

As a screenwriter turned director—indeed, he is often credited with being the first such animal, though this is of course untrue—Sturges was always careful to let his dialogue take centre stage. He made movies so breezy that they often felt tossed off, and yet they were so meticulously well constructed that their whipsmart language followed you around for days. Amazingly, the entirety of Sturges’ best work falls within a four year period—1940-1944 saw the release of eight films, at least six of which are utter classics of the genre. From 1945 till his retirement in 1955, Sturges would make four more pictures, but each was a critical and commercial disappointment, suffering from a combination of studio meddling and his own loss of nerve for risk-taking. Apart from 1948’s mixed bag Unfaithfully Yours, there’s not much to be said for this era. Which, I suppose, only adds to the legendary status of those first eight classics. Stuart Henderson


Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino
(1963 - present)

Three Key Films: Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997) Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Underrated: Death Proof (2007) Since this was, and still often is, dismissed as a kind of vanity project, a bit of stunt filmmaking rather than a serious work of art, it isn’t hard to find self-professed Tarantino fanatics who’ve skipped Death Proof. But, what they’ve missed is without a doubt his most challenging, least rewarding, and possibly even his most experimental film. Virtually plotless, mostly action-free, and undeniably overrun with distracting “grindhouse” postproduction touches (jump cuts, fake scratches on the prints, continuity gaffes, etc), Death Proof is much cleverer than it gets credit for. It’s a cold, dark, terrifying bit of cinema, a truly uncomfortable riff on misogyny and sexual repression, and a fucking awesome collision of pitch perfect performances, impeccable set design, stirring musical touches, and sleazy atmosphere.

Unforgettable: Final Diner Scene, Pulp Fiction See below for my riff on Tarantino and tension, and then consider this scene, the final, extraordinary standoff in Pulp Fiction, a perfect example of his signature approach: Why? Two words: “Bad Motherfucker.”

The Legend: Quentin Tarantino was raised by his mother in the Harbor City suburb of Los Angeles. A consummate film fanatic, Tarantino learned his trade by watching movies incessantly while working at a video rental outlet in his early 20s—hence his famous quip “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘No, I went to films.’”—and broke into the industry by writing a couple of ultra-violent and dialogue-driven screenplays about mind-bendingly articulate psychopaths (Apparently, there was a market for that).

When people talk about Tarantino they generally mention his obsession with junky ‘70s exploitation movies, his love of cartoon violence, his passion for pop culture references, or his casual approach to American racial and sexual politics. And, no doubt, all of these aspects of his work have proven to be profoundly influential in the couple decades since his arrival on the scene. Imagine a voice so unique and impressive that a mere few years after dropping his first film people were already talking about something feeling Tarantino-esque, and people generally knowing exactly what that meant? It is perhaps once in a generation that a new talent will emerge with anything approaching that kind of a sudden impact. Part of the reason is, that beyond all of the other postmodern stuff, Tarantino simply, perhaps intuitively, grasps the grammar of film. No one does tension better than Tarantino.

While others do suspense—the long, carefully controlled lead-up to an apparent inevitability—Tarantino has always done something a little less satisfying and, as a result, somewhat more compelling (at least for this writer). His signature move has always been to ratchet up the violent possibilities, putting a bunch of dangerous people together in variations of a “Mexican standoff”, and then having them talk it out. But, while other filmmakers might play this for suspense (someone with a baby is about to walk into the middle of this standoff, and when she gets there all bets will be off!) he lets these scenes play out for amazingly long stretches of time, adding few new elements to build suspense. He just has them talk. And talk, and talk, and talk. As we get more and more uncomfortable, we get to imagine what might be coming next instead of being teased with suggestions about how it will end. And then, into this mix, Tarantino tickles us just enough with verbal wordplay, odd pop culture references, or shocking bursts of taboo language, that we begin to reel in the experience. This, above all else, is what makes Tarantino a genius. Stuart Henderson


Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Tarkovsky
(1932 - 1986)

Three Key Films: Andrei Rublev (1966), Stalker (1979), The Sacrifice (1986)

Underrated: Ivan’s Childhood (1962): Tarkovsky’s debut feature is a little more straightforward than his later, stranger, and ultimately more memorable movies, but since this is Tarkovsky, such a statement does not exclude Ivan’s Childhood from consideration as a masterpiece. The story of a young boy reminiscing about simpler times while struggling to carve out his personal place in war-torn Russia, Ivan’s Childhood is a gut-wrenching journey and an unflinching examination of youth harrowingly accelerated.

Unforgettable: After opening Stalker with a series of strange, haunting scenes presented in muddy sepia tones, Tarkovsky suddenly introduces a stunning shift in the color palette when we first enter the Zone, the fascinatingly mysterious location where the majority of the movie takes place. The bold, beautiful blossoming of colour signals the beginning of a bizarre journey that will soon solidify its position as one of the great landmarks in science fiction cinema.

The Legend: “We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically.” These words from incomparable Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky hint eloquently at a fascinating collection of movies that generate profound sensations and emotions through a calculated commitment to imaginative imagery. There is nothing quite like the experience of watching Tarkovsky combine exquisitely executed shots with a deeply resonating tone that slowly traverses the space between melancholy and euphoria.

The son of a poet father and an editor/actress mother, Andrei Tarkovsky carried his early influences throughout his entire career. Born in 1932 in a town located approximately 500 miles north of Moscow, he spent his entire life under Soviet rule. A challenging place for a unique artist, Tarkovsky nonetheless pursued his passion for storytelling with significant success and has gone on to be considered one of the greatest Russian filmmakers of all time. His deeply determined approach and meaningfully methodical style are undeniably inimitable and influential.

Tarkovsky’s interest in time is prevalent throughout his movies. It’s a theme that he constantly explores both as metaphor and as a tool through which he can unravel the story at a very deliberate pace. The famous bell-making sequence in religious epic Andrei Rublev stretches on for more than thirty minutes and it feels long and arduous, but this actually puts us at ground level with the struggling characters and provides us with a  taste of their pain and suffering on the way to creating something incredible. It’s the kind of sequence many filmmakers may have opted to present with a time-condensing montage, but not Tarkovsky. There is a bold bravery in his attention to detail that is truly stunning.

In total, Tarkovsky directed 11 movies, which includes a few shorts, but his life was cut short at age 54, so the mystery of what may have followed looms over his filmography. Tarkovsky’s death is attributed by some to the hazardous Stalker shoot, which was located downstream from a chemical plant that was dumping toxic materials into the water. Contact with the stream was later blamed for the deaths of multiple cast and crew members, including Tarkovsky, who died more than eight years after that filming experience. If the Stalker shoot is indeed the cause of Tarkovsky’s passing, then it’s possible to say that he died for his art. But that seems like too clichéd a conclusion for a filmmaker who rejected the obvious and instead sought originality through personal expression in the name of metaphorical poetry. Aaron Leggo


Jacques Tourneur

Jacques Tourneur
(1904 - 1977)

Three Key Films: Cat People (1942), Out of the Past (1947), Night of the Demon (1957)

Underrated: The second collaboration between Tourneur and horror producer Val Lewton (following Cat People), I Walked With a Zombie (1943) is less a horror flick than a moody, supernaturally-tinged melodrama—not surprising, considering the story is loosely adapted from Jane Eyre. Tourneur’s trademark shadowy aesthetic fuels Betsy’s (Frances Dee) journey into a Voodoo underworld with an irresistible sensuality, and despite the tricky but inevitable fetishization of Caribbean culture, Zombie’s black characters are portrayed with groundbreaking depth and dignity—in particular, character actress Theresa Harris’ superior performance as the maid Alma is proof that she was one of the greatest unheralded talents of her time.

Unforgettable: A hot café in Mexico. Our protagonist is drinking away his frustration. From out of the sun appears the silhouette of a slim woman in a wide-brimmed hat, walks forward, takes a seat. Jeff Markum (Robert Mitchum), the antihero of Out of the Past, is instantly and tragically hooked, as is the audience. He, she, Tourneur, and the viewer all know this meeting will only end in violence and sorrow, but Jeff Markum and Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) eagerly collide into each other all the same, swapping a series of barbed exchanges before subtly establishing their next meeting place. This scene is film noir: the glamour of fatalism, the thrill of giving in, the irresistible allure of darkness…it’s all there in Kathie’s silhouette as she walks out of the sun and into the shadows.

A master of multiple genres and a sterling example of auteurist artistry working in tandem with the studio system, Jacques Tourneur is one of Hollywood’s great suspense masters, a craftsman of shadows fluent in the languages of horror, noir, action, and western. Born in Paris, Tourneur moved to the United States with his father (Maurice Tourneur, himself an important early film director) at the age of 10 and began working in cinema not long afterward, initially nabbing jobs as an extra or script clerk before eventually moving back to France with his father to work as an editor and assistant director. By 1934, he had returned to the States upon agreeing to a contract with MGM Studios; though he would be dropped by the company seven years later, he will also have met producer Val Lewton during this time, thus beginning the most significant creative partnership of his career.

Lewton picked up Tourneur in the early 1940s to direct several micro-budget horror features for RKO Studios—the first of which, Cat People, became an instant classic that singlehandedly saved the company from financial ruin. A surreal amalgamation of romantic melodrama, early noir, and supernatural horror, Cat People concerns the fatal exotica of Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a young woman who develops a fantastical but damning kinship with felines, eventually bodily succumbing to her panther alter ego. This hybridization of the body can is also a motif in I Walked With a Zombie, Tourneur and Lewton’s follow-up to Cat People, which grapples with spiritual possession and the intermediary spaces between life and death. I Walked with a Zombie, and later features like Night of the Demon , once again posits the body of a beautiful young woman as the vessel for exploring the occult, intangible, and deadly.

Naturally, this fascination with the lethal power of the feminine makes Tourneur ideally suited for the femmes fatales of film noir, and indeed, the greatest achievement of his career is Out of the Past, a pitch-black voyage of the damned and inarguable pinnacle of the noir genre. Emphasizing mood, characterization, and nuance over plotting and narrative trickery, Out of the Past follows former private investigator Jeff Markum (Robert Mitchum, never better) and his reluctant involvement in a final case—a particularly personal piece of unfinished business that incorporates every noir staple: a gun, a girl, an exotic location, innumerable thugs and one huge helping of doomed passion. Out of the Past has the narrative trajectory and heft of Shakespearean tragedy, but it’s how Tourneur and his performers tackle the material that makes the film so uniquely harrowing. True to his pulp roots, Tourneur disregards overt allegorical or intellectual interpretation in favor of a more emotional approach. When a gun is drawn, our stomachs clench, when the same gun is shot, we can smell the blood: everything else is merely supplementary. The result is noir at its most pure: Out of the Past is no moral inquiry, it is a howl of rage and sorrow. Lee Dallas


Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut
(1932 - 1984)

Three Key Films: The 400 Blows (1959) Day for Night (1973), The Last Metro (1980)

Underrated: The Soft Skin (1964). The story has been told a million times: a married man (Jean Desailly) begins an affair with a young woman (Francoise Dorleac) and tragedy ensues. Upon its release, this film surprised critics and audiences who had become used to Truffaut’s picaresque style in films like The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim (1962). Inversely The Soft Skin is a dark tale lifted straight out off newspaper headlines. He recurs to an almost documentary-like approach which makes the doomed romance all the more painful to watch because of the intimacy the camera achieves. Perhaps inspired by the work of his former colleague Alain Resnais, the film’s sensuality transcends the screen and its resolution remains one of the most haunting moments in 1960s cinema.

Unforgettable: When you think of Francois Truffaut you usually think of Jean-Pierre Léaud, and with reason: the underrated actor was the director’s muse. He worked with Truffaut in seven films and was the main star of Truffaut’s most famous series: the Antoine Doinel movies. Playing Doinel in five films, shot over almost two decades, Léaud became Truffaut’s alter ego of sorts (so much that in an interview the director mentions they began looking like each other).The Doinel series began as an autobiographical experiment in which the life of a rebellious Parisian boy takes an almost Dickensian turn as he faces time in a center for troubled youth. It is here where one of Truffaut’s most iconic scenes takes place as Antoine is interviewed by an unseen psychologist. The child’s responses and natural qualities in front of the camera are magical and most surprising of all is the realization that most of his work was improvised.

The Legend: Few filmmakers have loved the movies like Francois Truffaut. It might sound like an exaggeration, considering he was part of the French New Wave: arguably the greatest artistic movement powered exclusively by cinema geeks. Yet as you become immersed in his life and eventually in his filmography, you discover a man whose work equals pure cinematic joy. Truffaut’s childhood was defined by his rebelliousness, he grew up with his grandmother and moved i with his parents only after her death. He was expelled from several schools and decided he’d become self-taught. His education consisted of becoming a film omnivore. As a teenager he started his very own film club and through this met André Bazin, the co-founder of the legendary Cahiers du cinéma after working as a film critic in the magazine he decided to try luck making his own movies.

His first feature film, the autobiographical, The 400 Blows, was a critical success earning him a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Truffaut was an essential part of the New Wave, along with his Cahiers colleagues they redefined how movies were being made and consumed by worldwide audiences. Even after beginning work as a film director, Truffaut was faithful to his writing and his essays on cinema are some of the most insightful pieces on the medium. He’s usually attributed with the creation of the “auteur theory”, which proclaimed that directors are the authors of their work. He based most of his theory on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, who he greatly admired to the point that he made an entire book about him. Reading it you can feel the great admiration he had for other filmmakers and his fanboy-ish qualities are obvious in the way in which he referenced other films and genres in his own work. From the noir-ish tragedy of Shoot the Piano Player (1962), to documentary-by-way-of-Kipling feel of The Wild Child (1970), his influences are notable but never intrusive. Two of his greatest works deal almost directly with cinema: the Oscar winning Day for Night, gives us a glimpse of the misadventures of a film crew (Truffaut himself plays the movie director) and The Story of Adele H (1975), his biopic of Victor Hugo’s mad daughter, feels like a 19th century documentary about artistic creation, romantic obsession, and disillusionment.

Wanting to do it all when it came to movies, Truffaut also excelled as an actor, his supporting performance in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) earned him a BAFTA nomination. Despite his tragic death at age 52, Truffaut’s legacy is undeniable. He once said “cinema is an improvement on life” when the truth is that his work was an improvement on cinema. Jose Solís Mayén


Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant
(1952 - present)

Three Key Films: Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Milk (2008)

Underrated: Mala Noche (1986). Self-financed by Gus Van Sant for a mere $25,000, Mala Noche would become a pioneer film of new queer cinema and remains a fascinating work full of the director’s fascinations and thematic elements. Like many of his films, Mala Noche is set in the street world of Portland, featuring on-the-margin characters. Walt (the film is based upon an autobiographical novel by poet Walt Curtis) is a scruffy store clerk, played by Tim Streeter, in a ratty T-shirt and trench who unabashedly falls hard for Mexican drifter Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). Like many of Van Sant’s films, it doesn’t wallow in the despair of those in impoverished circumstances nor does it attempt to be political—many political themes besides queerness could be discussed here, including racial fetishism—instead, he lets the story play out organically, with voice-over narration, and sparse dialogue (characters often misunderstand each other and deride each other in their native languages). Shot in black-and-white on 16mm, Mala Noche has an arresting mood and grimy texture which captures the lives of its characters well. It’s quite impressive as a debut and oft-forgotten but really shows Gus Van Sant’s strengths as a filmmaker.

Unforgettable: The porno magazine display in the My Own Private Idaho (1991). In a seedy little Portland store, the covers of gay porn mags literally come to life with their muscular young men of various types moving slightly and then beginning to converse with one another. “I never thought I could make it as a real model,” a never-better Keanu Reeves intones from Male Call. With its bright yellow cover and headlines like “Ready to Ride” and “Homo on the Range,” the visual establishes a punchy, homoerotic subversion of the traditional Western. The actors were simply filmed behind sheets of vinyl-lettered Plexiglas with different backgrounds. It’s a thrillingly extravagant little scene that encompasses the literal entrapment and yearning of Van Sant’s characters, his visual talents, and his adventurous spirit. My Own Private Idaho owes much of its heartache and power to River Phoenix’s stirring performance, including a poignant campfire scene, but the film is peppered with many different moments like the magazine display which give it an unpredictability and distinct texture.

The Legend: Gus Van Sant continues to show remarkable versatility as a contemporary filmmaker. Unlike some of his pictures, in documentaries and interviews, Van Sant is a bit laconic and endearingly low key. He began in the visual art world and was exposed to experimental and avant-garde cinema at the Rhode Island School of the Arts. He moved to Los Angeles and then to Portland where he financed Mala Noche and showed continued interest in marginalized characters and street culture.
His films are often set in the Pacific Northwest such as Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho, and the verdant Washington wood of Last Days (2005). His films are distinctly American: the rich and poor neighborhoods of Boston in Good Will Hunting (1997) and New York City in Finding Forrester (2000) to the emotionally desolate suburban high school setting in Elephant (2003). Even his most conventional and financially successful films such as Good Will Hunting and the powerful Milk (2008) have a unique stylistic flair, a rough-around-the-edges atmosphere, and compelling insight into character. He is known to take bold risks. After the financial success of Good Will Hunting, including an Academy Award nomination, he infamously attempted a nearly shot-by-shot of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Van Sant’s version is a curiously inert oddity but shows his boldness as a filmmaker. His films may share similar traits but rarely does he make the same movie twice.

Stylistically, Van Sant employs a lot of visual detail and experimentation. His breakthrough Drugstore Cowboy is a reference point to the style that Van Sant continues to develop. Color is often important (his only novel to date is entitled Pink) as it is in Drugstore Cowboy where green abounds. Usually a color denoting life, green in Van Sant’s film suggests death. The color is mentioned in that context by the mother of drug-addicted Bob: “… never knowing when there’s going to be a knock on my door telling me my baby’s dead—green, with an overdose.”  Another stylistic stamp are his time-lapse clouds—gorgeously on display in Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho. They not only symbolize the smallness of his characters under the sweeping passage of time but often reflect a sort of modern flair in rural landscapes.

His films are not all about style. One of the few openly gay directors, Van Sant’s characters are sometimes overtly and sometimes ambiguously queer. Van Sant has an extraordinary gift of making films with compelling antiheroes, misfits and outcasts. Whether they are the hustlers and drug addicts of his early films to the psychotic weather girl in To Die For (1995) to the skateboarding teen in Paranoid Park (2007) to the brave activists and the repressed, frustrated assassin in Milk, Van Sant films often go within the lives of characters rarely portrayed in cinema. His films neither moralize nor glamorize terrible things, which make his works both so human and starkly ambivalent. Jeffery Berg


Agnés Varda

Agnés Varda
(1928 - present)

Three Key Films: Cleo From 5 to 7 (1961), Vagabond (1986), The Beaches of Agnés (2008)

Underrated: The Creatures (1966) Varda’s under-appreciated film boasts excellent performances from Michel Piccoli and Catherine Deneuve as an enigmatic couple, a writer and his mute wife, on the beautiful island of Noirmoutier in Western France. Controversial at the time, the film’s genre blur—it combines elements of fantasy, comedy and suspense thriller—now seems integral to its strange and singular fascination.

Unforgettable: Distressed about the imminent results of a medical test that she fears will confirm a fatal condition, the singer Cléo (Corinne Marchand) receives a visit from her composer and accompanist, Bob (played by Michel Legrand), who presents her with a new song, “Sans Toi”. Moved by the lyrics, which seem to refer to her predicament, Cléo’s performance of the song becomes a highly emotional, dramatic and expressionistically staged interpretation that marks a turning point in the character’s journey towards self-realisation. This scene alone is enough to make you understand why Madonna once set her sights upon starring in an American remake of this movie.

The Legend: Encompassing fiction, documentary, photography, essay film and, latterly, installation art, Agnés Varda’s diverse output is connected by a wonderfully inclusive curiosity about the world: about people, animals, places, buildings and objects. Born in Belgium, Varda studied Art History at the Ecole du Louvre before becoming the official photographer to the Théâtre National in Paris. Those two disciplines have informed Varda’s pioneering approach to film-making, which began in 1954 with La Pointe-Courte. Shot on location on a tiny budget (with Alain Resnais as editor), the film was stylistically ahead of its time, combining documentary footage of the fishermen of a French village with the story of a couple breaking up. La Pointe-Courte is now recognized as the first New Wave film, although Varda belonged more precisely to the Left Bank wing of the movement, which included Resnais, Chris Marker, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras.

Throughout her career Varda’s work has been characterized by experimentation with film form. She has moved fluidly between documentary and fiction film-making; indeed, perhaps the most striking and innovative aspect of her work has been her blurring of the boundaries between fiction and documentary. Her masterpiece remains the classic Cleo From 5 to 7, in which a pop singer whiles away two hours in the shops, cafes, streets and parks of Paris as she anxiously awaits the results of recent medical tests. But Varda’s filmography is full of riches, surprises, delights. These range from the gorgeous textures and dark heart of Le Bonheur (1965), one of the most visually splendid yet subtly disturbing “family” films ever made; the feminist coming-of-age saga One Sings, The Other Doesn’t (1977); the gritty homelessness drama Vagabond (1985); Jacquot de Nantes, her moving film about her husband Jacques Demy; and the extraordinary, life-enhancing documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), which explores the practice of “gleaning” from its depiction in 19th century art-works to the actions of contemporary scavengers, who salvage discarded produce in order to survive and to denounce the excesses and waste of consumer capitalism.

In addition, Varda has made short films on a variety of topics—from cats and potatoes, to the Black Panthers and widowhood, sculpture to the Côte d’Azur—each offering a witty and profound discourse on its theme. A deceptive lightness of touch characterises much of her work, but her movies go fathoms-deep. Witness her most recent film, the eccentric and entrancing cine-autobiography The Beaches of Agnés, which ranges over episodes from her childhood and career, and features Chris Marker in the guise of an animated cat. What’s especially heartening is the centrality that the concept of “play” clearly retains in Varda’s concept of cinema. In her 80s now, this director continues to make movies with what can only be described as unfettered glee. “I don’t want simply to show, but rather to convey a desire to see,” Varda has claimed.. This commitment is evident in the way her films work to sharpen the viewer’s perception of the world, heightening our awareness of what can be noticed, appreciated and—ultimately—loved within it. Alex Ramon


Luchino Visconti

Luchino Visconti
(1906 - 1976)

Three Key Films: Rocco and His Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963), Death in Venice (1971)

Underrated: The Earth Trembles (La Terra Trema )(1948). Visconti’s great salt-of-the-earth fable. Adapted from Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia (“The House by the Medlar Tree”)(1881), Visconti’s film follows the lives of a family of fisherman on Aci Trezza, off the eastern coast of Sicily, where the way of life has remained unchanged for centuries. Shot in black-and-white, the mise-en-scène has a gritty, brooding timbre, with the sense of impending doom about to befall people who try to defy an entrenched system. This is the Neo-Realist answer to The Grapes of Wrath. Visconti’s socialist convictions comes through in this film which depicts a family where the men live a precarious existence on the seas, fishing and selling fish through wholesellers, who reap most of the profits themselves. Certain scenes having a haunting quality, like the image of the fishermen’s wives, clothed in black hoods standing on the rocky cliffs with the wind blowing in their faces, waiting for their husbands to return, that’s epic and Greek in its sense of tragedy.

Unforgettable: The final waltz in The Leopard. Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster) dances with his nephew Tancredi’s new-money fiancee, the ravishingly beautiful, albeit, slightly coarse and lusty, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The ball that is been taking place, in endless rooms of mirrors and chandeliers, served as a moving tableaux for Prince Don Fabrizio to reflect on the fragility of his own life, aging, the changes in a new, independent Italy with the end of its old, aristocratic order and the rise of its new-moneyed, unscrupulous class of merchants. As the Prince takes up Angelica in his arms, he has come to terms with the fate of these events and he takes whatever pleasure he can from what’s around him. The waltz is stately and graceful, but all throughout it, he is eyeing Angelica lustily. He’s admiring her brazenness, and envying Tancredi for what he’s about to enjoy. The Leopard is Visconti’s greatest film. Its significance lies in its sensuality and its palpable sense of surfaces and sensations—glistening shine of cream silks and taffetas, the smell of lemon groves, the burning white heat of the sun in Southern Italy. It’s an iconic Italian movie in every sense of the word.

The Legend: Count Luchino Visconti di Modrone was a film director of an entirely different era, like Jean Renoir and Erich von Stroheim. Aristocratic, vaguely decadent, and a bit of a tyrant on set. His career has been varied, ranging from gritty Neo-Realist films in the 1940s, to sumptuous costume dramas during the 60s, and finally to his lurid, somewhat Eurotrash, German-themed soap operas of the 1970s. Visconti always had a sharp eye for operatic drama and scale, where costumes, sumptuous interiors, and classical music coalesce with heaving emotion. The Leopard, Death in Venice, and The Damned all work as “operatic” cinema. Visconti’s “Italian-ness” is one that emphasizes his need for boldness and melodrama, somewhat of the opposite of Bertolucci (one can only wonder what Visconti might have thought of the deliberate disjointedness of Last Tango in Paris).

Visconti was a notorious perfectionist, like David Lean, and was known to micro-manage every detail of production from the actor’s staging and expressions, to floral arrangements, to the type of wine served during a dinner scene, to the precise trickle of blood across a corpse (Coppola was known to do the same in The Godfather films). The movie existed already in Visconti’s mind and he had merely to recreate every minute detail for the camera. In spite of this exacting nature, Visconti was said to be very attentive and accomodating to actors. Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Dirk Bogarde, and Charlotte Rampling, gave some of their best performances for Visconti, and the maestro seemed to know, intuitively, how to coax something out of the them that was poignant and fleeting. Visconti believed that, more than being an Italian, or a European, that he was a man-of-the-world, making large films of the spirit. His best work, The Leopard and Death in Venice, both meticulous adaptations of literary masterpieces, are nuanced and beautifully modulated through the actor’s performances, which brings the material to life in ways that the source material can’t always do. The same can also be said of Senso (1954) and Rocco and His Brothers.

A Visconti film has come mean the sophisticated cinema of longing and suffused passion. It’s paved the way for the sort of European films made over years with Jeremy Irons and Ralph Fiennes. We probably wouldn’t have The English Patient if it weren’t for Visconti, and last year’s I Am Love with Tilda Swinton was utterly Viscontian. His great films are rich and full of unexpected new turns, and even his more “uneven” problematic films, like The Damned and Ludwig (1972) give us a sense of his remarkable thought-process, and his fascination with riveting, doomed characters. Farisa Khalid


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