We all have stories from our youth. Their veracity is usually up for debate, but the stories are there, napping in the shadowy parts of our brains. Amarcord — a Northern Italian phrase for I remember — is Federico Fellini’s story. It has a small town, and fascists, and befitting the frenzied concupiscence of teenage boys, a coterie of beautiful women serving as little more than objects. Looking backwards in time is a finicky venture, and for Fellini bears out all manner of misremembrances in service of his dark comedy, which is often about the way those inevitable misremembrances make our stories better.
Category Archives: Classics
The plot of Help! is absurd and absurdly simple: An eastern cult can’t perform its sacrificial rite without a gaudy ring that, as it turns out, was sent to Ringo and is now stuck on his finger. Led by a screw-eyed Swami named Clang (Leo McKern), the cult hunts the Beatles and the ring around the globe — whenever possible, tomfoolery abounds. It’s a story made for a 20-minute cartoon, yet Director Richard Lester, in his second outing with the boys, somehow found a way to stretch it into a full 92-minute feature.
Way back in 1982, Vertigo debuted on BFI’s Sight & Sound Poll of Best Films at number 7. Since then it has slowly ascended, finally summiting the list in 2012, displacing the oft-thought irreplaceable Citizen Kane. No list is gospel, but the collaborative nature of the Sight & Sound, along with its tenure and visibility within the world of film lend the list a weight that few can counter. Which makes Vertigo a legitimate contender for the throne—the protean, elusive, much debated Best Film of All Time. Except, here’s the thing: it’s not.
Only recently has the bond between war and honor begun to fray. For millenia men have treated that most basic equation as gospel, but we’ve reached a point where the anti-war proselytizing, the media exposure, and the blurred lines between right and wrong have engineered a far more nuanced view. The realities of war have been planted deep into the fiber of our consciousness, allowing us to ponder the ways that it can adversely alter a man, even degrade him, without the interference of combat’s putative virtues. T.E. Lawrence is a man changed by war, and this volatile metamorphosis from intellectual dandy to merciless leader of desert warriors lies at the center of David Lean‘s arresting classic, Lawrence of Arabia.
While plenty of Alfred Hitchcock‘s films deal directly with death and murder, Rebecca is far subtler, exposing the auteur’s affinity for meticulously composed tension and manifest paranoia. Joan Fontaine plays the film’s endearingly naive protagonist, an orphan working as a companion to a haughty socialite (Florence Bates). When she meets the tall, dark, and handsome Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the two fall into a whirlwind romance and an impromptu wedding, before journeying to Maxim’s sepulchral Manderley estate in the south of England. Here, happiness is impossible, as the new Mrs. de Winter can’t enter a room or open a drawer without uncovering evidence of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca. Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter is a meek innocent, trapped by love and a hostile housekeeper—played with thrilling eccentricity by Judith Anderson— craving nothing but the affection of her mysteriously distant husband.
Rebecca is a laborious tale that unfolds like a film noir, while releasing a steady drip of anxiety that maintains the essence of a thriller. It profits from a strong script and a bevy of grand performances, but is, first and foremost, a Hitchcock film; languishing in the sort of visceral angst that thrives in our everyday fears.
Singin’ in the Rain is not a complicated film. Like a circus or a carnival or a baby’s birthday, it bathes you in its technicolor glow with the sole purpose of bringing a smile to your face. Gene Kelly (a remarkably spry 40-year-old Gene Kelly, at that) plays Don Lockwood, a silent film A-lister unsettled in his success and longing for love. He bounces and grins and sings his heart out, enchantingly dedicated to creating a world where three friends doing an animated musical number at one in the morning is perfectly ordinary. And the result is astounding, as Singin’ in the Rain remains, all these years later, a paradigm of pure, effusive joy. The trio of Kelly and co-stars Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds compliment each other beautifully, with each player’s standout talent given its moment in the spotlight, and each performance as effortlessly executed as it is technically incredible. O’Connor is Cosmo Brown, Lockwood’s cartoon of a best friend and fellow Hollywoodite, and a 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds plays Kathy, the doll-faced innocent whose talent and general abundance of personality (relative to 1952) ensorcel the romantic Don Lockwood.
Don and Kathy harmonize their way to a happy ending, and Singin’ in the Rain certainly charms its way into your heart, but the biggest takeaway for a modern audience has to be the joy of watching such deftly executed schmaltz. Like a few other Hollywood relics, this is a high point of an entirely extinct era of film, and remains a thoroughly delightful and utterly timeless flick.
The “hero” as a concept or storytelling device is, and always has been, fluid. Some of us prefer the pure altruist—the Superman who does right simply because he knows what right is. Others need their heroes to be flawed or tragic, like Hamlet—angling for the light even as their blemishes define them. Others hanker for antiheroes, preferring Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, a psychotic knight in rusty armor. Indiana Jones is enigmatic in his heroism; vacillating between all heroic traits, occasionally embodying all at once. His position as an archaeologist leads him to scour the globe in the interest of saving and protecting precious antiquities. Yet isn’t the quest for history-defining curios inherently a quest of self-triumph? Dr. Jones, over the course of his story, is at once selfless and selfish, motivated one minute by his moral compass, and the next by the fame and glory latent in uncovering history’s secrets.
By 1930, “Talkies” were a Hollywood staple; a game-changing technology that slowly but surely eclipsed the landscape of film. Yet in 1936, Charlie Chaplin released Modern Times, an antediluvian “silent” film, and moreover, a thinly-veiled critique of the country’s capitalist devotion to industry; for the times, a brazen choice. Of the decision to avoid recorded dialogue Chaplin said: “Action is more generally understood than words. Like Chinese symbolism, it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation.” While not terribly poetic, this devotion to action effectively reveals Chaplin’s philosophy as a filmmaker. And it certainly jives with Chaplin the Performer, who spent years winning over audiences with his balletic pratfalls and boozer’s grace. As for Modern Times, it is a beautiful depiction of Chaplin’s one of a kind “action,” depicting an artist and performer deeply in his prime. For those of us more familiar with contemporary cinema (i.e. more talking in our movies), Modern Times is a wonderful introduction to a bygone era, and the waddling genius who will forever be associated with it.
For my part, Paul Thomas Anderson is the most exciting director working today. I’ll even go so far as to say that he could end up one of the best directors of all time. Now you and I both know how absurd it is to make this claim about any director, and that it’s nothing more than an opinion. Still, it gives a pretty clear indication of my feelings on the man and his work. In fifteen years, P.T. has directed five features; one a solid genre flick which nobody has seen, another holds the clear frontrunner for Adam Sandler’s best performance of all time, and the other three are Oscar nominees, the last of which won two, despite losing Best Picture. It’s hard to appreciate this sort of success while still in the heart of a man’s career, but assuming the trajectory holds we’ll all surely be talking about it years from now. Anderson may fly a bit under the radar of the standard film goer; he doesn’t have the recognizable aesthetic of a Wes Anderson, or the Tarantino excess of personality. But there’s no denying that these are his contemporaries, and making a case for P.T. as the best of the bunch isn’t terribly difficult. That case would surely begin with an examination of Boogie Nights, Anderson’s dark and hilarious pornographic melodrama. In the shadow of his later, better films, Boogie Nights is only slightly less fantastic, less impressive, less finished. Nonetheless, it is an alarmingly great flick from a sophomore director, and properly kicks off the career of our generation’s Martin Scorcese.
Though quantifying “cool” is and will always be more guesswork than anything, we seem to nonetheless know it when we see it. Certainly people knew it’s presence in Steve McQueen, the penultimate “cool guy” of the late 60s/early 70s. McQueen was nonchalant and effortlessly charming both in his films and real life, and with his affinity for cars and bikes, became the figurehead for celebrity leisure. Like James Dean before him, McQueen seemed to get by mostly on not giving a fuck, though McQueen’s mellow aloofness seems more natural than Dean’s cultivated independence. With Bullitt, McQueen and Director Peter Yates seem intent on bottling this charm and pouring it in large doses over the entirety of the film; a style that works pretty well, until you start worrying about those pesky little nuances like plot and character.