There are always films that fall through the proverbial cracks in every filmmaker’s viewing library, well-known and applauded films that we have claimed to have seen but actually have on our I’ll-eventually-sit-down-and-watch-it list. We all have these lists, myself as much as anyone.
Which is why last night, thanks in part to the wonderful advent of Netflix, I decided to start crossing a few films off the list with weekly double features of missed works. It certainly didn’t hurt that my girlfriend was out of town and I could unapologetically choose which films to watch.
I’m approaching these posts as impressions more than appraisals. I’m not going to write up synopses or review the filmmaking. The films that I’m going to watch are classics that have just passed me by — I’m choosing the ones I’ve heard are magnificent, and it follows that they are going to deliver on the promise. For this first week’s double feature, I chose to kick things off with a triple feature: Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.
I liked Badlands, and I think what hit me most was stealing a glimpse of Malick before he became the enigma. The early work of filmmakers is encouraging because you’re allowed to see how their styles and obsessions developed.
The tactile, film-school shooting style of the opening looks and feels like a great microfilm: taking a tiny plot and carefully, almost invisibly inverting it to create a macronarrative. All three of the films I watched did this (in very different ways). This is the quality that most student films (which this technically was, since Malick began it while still at the AFI) strive for but miss. In fifteen minutes, a (believable) romance is sealed. Well done.
The film is the most perfectly crafted vision of a nightmare. Malick never goes for the easy blows that most horror films relish; there’s more terror in following the inexplicable to its inevitable end. Martin Sheen’s Kit is a maniac who manages to sound like he’s giving real common sense advice every time he defends himself. Sissy Spacek’s Holly is bizarrely, horrifyingly, passive. What’s best about the film, is that it never injects any morality or ethos into the narrative.
I wasn’t crazy about Holly’s voiceover. (I can hear the objections being screamed now.) I cannot say that I know anything about the making of the film, but I felt it as tacked on at the last minute. Whenever a character pontificates or meditates on the past events, beginning a sentence with “Little did I know…”, it reads as two-dimensional and clichéd. The voiceover improves through the film, and works for the ending. Still, Malick’s wonderful voiceover in Days of Heaven leads me to appreciate his learning curve.
As with every Malick film, the acting is wonderfully understated, especially in the moments that normally permit chewing the scenery. Warren Oates! Best actor of the beginning of the 1970s. This film along with Two-Lane Blacktop seals the deal. And I’ll be honest: I’ve never really liked Sissy Spacek before, but I thought she was great here. Martin Sheen, pre-Apocalypse Now, plays the best sociopath written into a film to date, most convincing when he shows the slightest bit of uncertainty and then overcompensates for it.
It’s not Malick’s masterpiece, but, like Polanski’s Knife in the Water, and Scorsese’s Mean Streets (which premiered along with Badlands at the 1973 New York Film Festival), it’s a great first film.
I didn’t intentionally set out to watch two films from the same year. Scarecrow is a small gem. It’s Old Joy thirty years ago, only with arguably deeper and more interesting characters. Two losers hitch their way across the country: one’s a meek, make-em-laugh personality (Al Pacino’s Lionel), the other a strong douchebag with a permanent chip on his shoulder (Gene Hackman’s Max).
The first ten minutes are mindblowing. The film opens with a long shot of Max walking through a field, climbing through a barbed wire fence, falling down an embankment, and coming to the side of the road. He meets Lionel waiting there for a hitch, and as friendly as Lionel is, Max doesn’t want anything to do with him. No cars come, and they’re waiting there all day. We see all of this in less than fifteen shots.
Pacino playing comic relief is a rare sight and he does it flawlessly; and his slow progression towards disillusionment and tragedy makes for a great performance. Hackman plays angry while avoiding all the normal tropes, and the film passes quickly. It’s never hunkered down with larger-than-life emotional scenes. It is a good note for directing actors: remove an actor’s conventional reactions to common situations and you have something instantly interesting.
The last thirty minutes are very “and now, the bad stuff happens”. I’m not going to talk about the last thirty minutes in detail because we live in the society of spoiler alerts and the surprise of events should carry an emotional burden. I will say that everything that happens with Lionel’s family in Detroit, his chance to reconnect with the young son he’s never met, is earned and warranted. The prison sequence after Max gets them both arrested, on the other hand, feels forced, although it’s both powerful and raw.
Gosford Park (2001)
Can we talk about how unflinchingly pitch perfect this film is? There is never a moment of dialogue, never a shot, never a prop, never a reference, never a song, never a casting choice, never a sound cue that’s out of place. This is easily Robert Altman’s best film.
The comparisons to Renoir’s The Rules of the Game are both apt and warranted– although I don’t believe, as some of the critical chatter out there suggests, that Altman, Bob Balaban (so marvelously deadpan in every role), and the inspired Julian Fellowes set out to create a remake. Yes, both films rest on a shooting party consisting of wealthy aristocrats as plot, the eve of World War II as setting, and the aristocracy’s relationship to their servants as subject–but the films differ in how they employ the shared content. The Rules of the Game is concerned with what’s happening outside of the shooting party, while Gosford Park explores its characters and careful plot within the confines of the shooting party.
Every actor–not to sound hyperbolic–is perfect. I recognize I’ve said that about each film, but Gosford Park wins the award for best ensemble (which, as it turns out, it did quite a few times during the awards season). There’s no weak link. It is a dream team of English actors: Clive Owen, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas, Charles Dance, Kelly Macdonald, Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry.
[A brief side note/tangent that I have to get off my chest: has anyone else in the world seen the 1996 sci-fi epic Space Truckers? Charles Dance plays a weird half-human/half-robot guy in a really bizarre sex scene that involves electronic appendages. It all came rushing back to me in an unfortunate Proustian moment when I recognized the actor.]
Anamorphic cinematography can be so beautiful and seamlessly integrated into a film. The anamorphic in Gosford Park is anti-Wes Anderson. Anderson’s gorgeous films are shot so that every image bends to cram painstakingly arranged subjects. It’s intentional and arranged. Here, you almost forget about the cinematography; every scene was filmed with two cameras, simultaneously, so that actors never played for a camera. Everyone was simultaneously recorded with wireless microphones. Nothing seems arranged, but the anamorphic lenses allow enough information into every frame and set-up (not to mention light to allow for deep focus) that the dialogue and plot fits into it. It would have been very easy to let this film slip into a theatrical talk-fest. That’s a mumblecore choice, where the formal filmmaking takes a backseat to the talking. Not so here. It’s quintessentially cinematic thanks to great editing, superb direction, and wonderful cinematography.
The only thing I can hold against it is the extent to which Stephen Fry’s Inspector gets pushed to the side. I streamed it on Netflix, so perhaps there were more Fry-heavy scenes on the DVD that were cut from the finished film, but I felt that once the Inspector arrived he disappeared just as quickly.
* * *
That wraps up this first installment. I have no idea what I’ll be watching next, so leave some suggestions in the comments and if I haven’t seen them I’ll check it out.