[top 100 movies part 4]
040. The Manchurian Candidate
One of the earliest martial arts sequences in an English language film with Frank Sinatra judo-throwing a guy over his shoulder. Not the reason this movie is on this list but it is a great thing to know.
John Frankenheimer’s Manchurian Candidate isn’t a conventional political thriller – it’s this very strange kind of found surrealism. Like, you’re never quite sure that the overheated tone of the piece is meant to be taken seriously (as there are laughs), or the imagery meant to be as hallucinatory as it is, or that the plot is meant to be straightforward rather than metaphorical. Frankenheimer is a genius director but Manchurian Candidate is the one of the two films in his repertoire that are non-representational, almost nightmarish (the other being the more obviously intentional Seconds). Manchurian Candidate is genuinely shocking in its weirdness at some points – sure the jarring nature of the ladies botanical club with full-on communist exhibition, the full-on playing card costume. But the one scene that destroys any semblance of normality is Maj Ben Marko (Sinatra) and Janet Leigh meeting on a train – while the story beats work perfectly fine, the actual conversation is almost in a different language. It has been said, and I agree, that Leigh is unlocking Marko’s own sleeper cell programming. Sinatra doesn’t play the scene as anything but sweating his way through exhausting gibberish, words he says but doesn’t understand what he means. Janet Leigh is so intent on his reactions – it’s not normal, whatever is going on. That secondary, embedded plot, that’s what rattles you as a viewer. Thats what sticks.
The Manchurian Candidate is all sorts of uncomfortable storytelling – as much about Raymond Shaw’s psychosexual relationship with his mother as the communists-destroy-us-from-within assassination plot. Never more one than the other. Too weird to not get stuck.
Sadly the only Verhoeven to make it to the list (Total Recall is a lot of fun but it ain’t as good as Predator or Terminator for Schwarzenegger wreckage). Robocop is the definition of having it both ways – equal parts overblown action shrapnel party and satire of the American action film at the same time. Outside of that everything is here – early Cronenberg-style gore, Lone Ranger jokes, Christ allegories. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is stolen from so often they brought Miller in to write the sequel, probably out of guilt. Verhoeven doesn’t fuck around when it comes to satire, he never does. Robocop is his best, a movie about corporatization consuming a city for profit, tied in with drugs, crime, and military weaponry. As fun to watch as Commando but smart enough to stand next to Dr. Strangelove as one of the great American satires. Robocop is funny, and its satisfying – burying the questions underneath.
If Verhoeven’s got one problem is that he’s too willing to indulge his audience’s base instincts even as he goes after them for it. Robocop is pitch-perfect, too dark to be taken seriously. It helps that he understands what makes a great action movie is the simple emotional beats, is shit getting blown the fuck up and rapists getting shot in the crotch, is the ED-209 squealing like a caged animal. Robocop is the best superhero movie because it questions the need of a superhero in the first place – because there is none beyond the power fantasy. Robocop solves nothing, even after he kills everybody – the corporation still has the city, and he works for them.
Verhoeven has said, Robocop is his American Jesus, reborn, indestructible, and fully willing to disavow the law in the name of justice.
Verhoeven films the gospel of Fuck Shit Up.
038. A Fish Called Wanda
I think Rob Reiner, being such a very nice disappointment that he is, once said that A Fish Called Wanda was the perfect combination of the Monty Python sense of humor with a straightforward American-style script. I don’t know if it’s as easy as that. Fawlty Towers is one of the definitive sitcoms, written by John Cleese and Connie Booth, and Wanda owes a lot more to that than Python. Wanda is co-written by Cleese and director Charles Chricton, and as much as I love Python (and I do), I think that this is Cleese’s greatest work. Cleese and Michael Palin are both great here – the two of them were always the best actors in the group – Palin willing to extra broad and manic, Cleese carrying so much dignity to even his most put-upon moments. Jamie Lee Curtis is funny here, like in Trading Places (essentially a version of the same role), but while the Python guys are the draw, Kevin Kline beasts this role. Like Steve Martin, he is an absolute genius at playing stupid – his ignorant gun-happy Ugly American stereotype is what we all wish we could be – I get the feeling that if I ever step foot on English shores I would start screaming his lines. Here is the greatest exchange in all of American/British dialog -
Cleese – “Are you totally deranged?”
Kline – “You pompous stuck up snot-nosed English giant twerp scumbag fuckface dickhead asshole!”
Cleese – “How very interesting… you’re a true vulgarian aren’t you?”
Kline – “YOU’RE THE VULGARIAN, YOU FUCK!”
USA! USA! USA!
Terminator is one of those films that works as a comprehensive argument for low budgets. James Cameron has become synonymous with excess – even before the obsessive “those leaves aren’t sharp enough” immersive overkill of Avatar, Cameron was about bigger and bigger, Titanic and True Lies and T2. Even his cut of Aliens is 3 hours long. So Terminator is actually not even a good indicator of James Cameron’s abilities to tell a story. It’s a one-off, something he’d never be able to duplicate again. We see almost nothing of the future that the Terminators come from, it’s created in brief moments, usually created by Stan Winston with less than no money.
Sarah Conner is shown to us as someone who’s life means nothing – she names her pets after tv shows, dates guys because of the car they drive, has a nothing job – her life is important only because of something she might do – have a child. The scary, it-could-be-you aspect of Terminator is that, the “would you kill Hitler’s mother” question. You don’t matter, but your kid does. Cameron’s whole thing was always destiny and inevitability against the way we choose to live our lives. In recent years its become hero’s journey garbage – probably both of the same impluses – there is a lot more ambivalence in Terminator, and it is all the better for it. The best aspect of Terminator is how the perfect solider fails miserably at killing the machine, and Sarah Conner is forced to do it on her own.
The exposition of Terminator starts at exactly 39 minutes in, a third of its runtime. About five minutes into a high-speed car chase. Prior to that there is absolutely no explanation of action, shit just happens. This is different from in media res, this is being thrown way in the deep end with no help until you are absolutely drowning. This is what having no budget means, it means having a script that can grab you by the throat for 40 minutes before you know anything. It is dialed in as a chase, made to pump adrenaline, constantly telling you that the only sane response is to run. There stakes are clear – death is coming, harsh and violent, and the only thing that continues upping is how horrible that death will be.
Cameron’s aesthetic isn’t brand new – plot jacked from The Outer Limits, style cribbed from John Carpenter (later Ridley Scott but here its all Carpenter). None of that matters because two things – the robotic skeleton walking out of the fire is a timeless image, one that came to Cameron in a fever dream – it is indelible. The other is that the script for Terminator is flawless. Not that its good, or the best, its not. But it is flawless – it’s a story so strong that it overcomes the flaws in the direction, not the other way around like 99% of debut films.
Scanners is David Cronenberg playing as straight as he could in 1981. His 70s were – apart from Fast Company which I’ve never seen – defined by sexually charged gore. Shivers is Night of the Living Dead if you replace the civil rights metaphor with the sexual revolution, Rabid is a slightly more complex take on the same material. The Brood was definitely a horror film in the same mode as The Omen and Its Alive!, but in far more disturbing manner. Until Videodrome, Cronenberg wasn’t an innovator the way we think about him today. All of his 70s horror films are genre pieces in response to whats popular at the time, although completely disinterested in the conventional scares as he provides them. Cronenberg, as a storyteller, is interested in very specific things – the body, disease, media theory, science fiction, astounding gore effects, and sex. Cronenberg’s trick has always been externalizing internal problems, not out into metaphorical obstacles like most science fiction but as deformations of the body. The obsession with sex, especially in Cronenberg’s early stuff – its evident at least up to The Fly – is visually apparent just in the way he shoots his films like exploitation/porno. Like a lot of post-liberation thinkers, Cronenberg has a lot of unconscious misogyny lurking underneath his sexual frankness. While he denies it, its hard to miss the way he consistently treats women as foreign bodies, even shooting them as oddities. It’s not as easy to reduce his aesthetic as “hating women”, and it would be stupid to do so, but it’s also easy to write off that undercurrent as knee-jerk and reactionary. Clearly for a man whose entire career has been spent intellectualizing the unconscious and the visceral – often to a fault if you’ve ever heard him talk about Videodrome or Crash at length – reconciling such an ugly impulse might be difficult. After Videodrome, Cronenberg’s voice came into his own – while The Fly, Crash, and Naked Lunch, etc are adapted from other sources they are purely created in his own aesthetic. The Fly is a movie about AIDS and abortion and cancer, using hoary monster movie cliché and scifi theorizing to make the argument for him, to use genre to speak about real things without ever tipping his hand, and still indulging his base impulse while he did it. It is a film that could not be made by anyone else, even theoretically.
What I like so much about Scanners is that it’s all of Cronenberg’s themes and tics buried underneath whats essentially a relatively smart thriller. It’s about psychics, and clearly sold on the back of psychic successes Brian De Palma’s films Carrie and The Fury. Scanners was a success because it was visually inventive, including at least one “you have to see this” scene that made it culturally referencable for most people. Unlike Videodrome, which is almost an artist’s statement of obsessions-over-genre, Scanners is an attempt at making a straight popcorn movie. The subject matter is clearly close to Cronenberg’s heart, and the friction between playing straight and letting his fucked-up impulses out to play creates such an amazing feel that nothing else he’s done since has captured.
As a comics fan, its easy to look at Scanners in comparison to the X-Men – certainly it’s not the biggest jump to make. Patrick McGoohan’s fantastic explosion into psychosis during his death scene monologue should be jarring but in execution it feels equally like an Orson Welles or Marlon Brando “I’ll Give You One Take” walk-on and the overheated tone of the best Marvel comics dialog. The line McGoohan’s character feeds the cipher of a protagonist is that “the world hates and fears scanners because it doesn’t understand them”, just like Professor X. Evil mastermind Michael Ironsides talks about powers and world domination and supremacy, just like Magneto or Apocalypse, jazzed up with Oedipal flavor for good measure. Cronenberg doesn’t really buy into the adventure aspects of the premise and starts critiquing it almost immediately – the actual story is that McGoohan is selling scanners as weapons to corporate interests, and using his own sons against each other in the name of corporate espionage between two companies he founded. While there is a single scene where a pacifist Scanner underground cell appears they get killed off almost immediately, and McGoohan soon after – making the entire film about warring corporate interests. It’s cynical as hell, about manipulation rather than morality, and with Cronenberg that a good thing. Scanners is like Mark Millar’s Ultimate X-Men or Gantz – the more cynical it is about good vs evil being anything but a mindgame, the meaner it gets the more it works.
(Aside from story, Dick Smith’s special effects aren’t really discussed in the same hushed tones as Rick Baker’s, Tom Savini’s or Rob Bottin’s, but this is amazing work. And Howard Shore’s rough mix of electronics and gothic score is a response to The Shining, but its an untrained one, so there are missteps and found moments. Sure there are strange decisions – like the animal shrieks buried in the mix after the head explosion, but there are also pieces of strangely charged synths-into-symphonics like the piece at the film’s climax.)
But lets discuss the text of Scanners – where sex permeates the rest of Cronenberg’s output, here it’s sublimated into utter body anxiety. Seriously this is a film about the powers of the mind fixated entirely on the body, because Cronenberg places the body over everything There’s some very sick weirdness just under the surface of Scanners – the unborn baby scanner is the kind of easy telegraphing of plot that also jars the viewer massively. It’s a Cronenberg-only move, perverting something horribly just for the effect. It also makes sure the plot is a lot larger than just a handful of weirdos glaring at each other until they catch fire, it implies that there are thousands of scanners about to be created. And that’s (maybe an accidental) one of the great silent arguments of the film – that medicines are created and marketed almost accidentally, without foreknowledge of those creating and prescribing them. While the thalidomide scandal is probably the jumping-off point, the idea of drugs creating psychics going completely unnoticed by the government but drawing the attention of a private military defense company is pointed criticism. It’s almost cyberpunk, not even angry that there is an industrial capitalist force driving the plot rather than a heroes journey. The “misfit” scanners are people who can’t function in society, and not in an X-Men way. Actual misfits – violent, self-destructive, barely functional people. The first time we see Daryl Revok is on video of him in a mental hospital with a hole carved into his head with a pen and with an eye crudely drawn over it. Another Scanner is an artist specializing in deformations of the human body (wonder where he got that from). The protagonist casually tries to kill a woman for making fun of him in the opening sequence. These aren’t good people. The Dragonball Z-style psychic war climaxes with the unpredictable cipher consuming the cackling supervillain and taking over his body rather than beating him in combat. This is Cronenberg dumping the cathartic ending for the unnerving one. Scanners is the only thing Cronenberg has ever made that could be called an adventure film, except maybe eXistenZ which is extremely indulgent. Rather than make a movie about good versus evil, Cronenberg made a movie were there is no good or evil, there is just violence and corporate interest and a doomed future.
Scanners is a movie where intention means nothing, and the mind is only an extension of the body. Its fucked up. More than anything Cronenberg ever made about aborted maggot babies or talking cockroach typewriters or guns getting lost in newly grown vaginas, its fucked up on a very basic level – it believes humanity is worthless. Fuck “splatterpunk”. Fuck “body horror”. This is just straight nihilism with a brain, a hard-on, and blood all over its face.
Godard is fun as hell. His films are really criticism-as-film, Tarantino named his company after Bande Apart for a reason, and while Godard is a name synonymous with theory you’ve really got to admire how each of his best films are generally just him dancing around ideas. The problem I think, is that the best Godard film is the first one you see, at least for me. It’s probably going to be one with Anna Karina, and it’s probably going to be how much you fall in love with her as much as the filmmaking. The filmmaking its amazing, it breaks absolutely everything a film should do – the logic of everything is snapped but in exactly the right way for it to still work. But Karina is whats really important, shot by Godard so lovingly that she’s almost an object. Which creates friction because Karina is so amazing as a performer, it is impossible to just write her off as a hot girl in a movie. In every one of her collaborations with Godard she is equally present but in a completely different way. All with her eyes. Of all the French New Wave directors, Godard is the only one who I have been able to get into, while he’s ideas-over-story, he also seems to be the most committed to making movies as an end unto itself. A director doesn’t dick around like this unless he loves film above everything else.
The plot of Alphaville is straight out of the Lone Man playbook – guy comes into city, sneers, kills his way through, has sexually charged non-relationship with a gorgeous woman, and leaves. The city of Alphaville is Paris, marking Alphaville as paragon of one of my favorite mini-genres – the no-budget science fiction film. Like Repo Man and La Jetee – Alphaville creates a vision of the future by shooting the present. It is therefore closer to what my conception of science fiction is – science fiction is a tool to metaphorically examine the world outside through a metaphorical approach. All science fiction is about the time its written in, all real science fiction anyway. So Alphaville could easily be described as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, simply because it captures the space between today and tomorrow by shooting modern office buildings and hotels as an alien landscape. Godard even makes this explicit by having the guttural computer stutter “But no one has survived in the past and no one will live in the future. The present is the form of all life. This quality cannot be changed by any means.”Alphaville hits me the hardest probably because its so much about that effect, that defining science fiction approach, more than any other argument.
Part of what Alphaville is about is the difference between philosophy and science, in theory and application. Part of it is about the failure of film to come up with any ideas about a workable or realistic future. About transitional space, about outdated ideas and new ideas being equally unworkable, about 1940s cynical noir and 1960s failing futurism. About an aging grizzled detective/spy and an ingenious beautiful mad scientist’s daughter. Between Einstein and Orwell’s dual influence on the world, where words could be removed from their meanings and time was relative. Originally it was supposed to be called TARZAN VS IBM.
“IMPOSSIBLE, PRINCESS. YOU MUST GET THERE YOURSELF.”
The Fifth Element is the opposite of Alphaville – it as science fiction could give a shit about the world today. 5th Element is a comic book movie without actually adapting anything. Sure, there are similarities to Incal and Valerian, but that’s because Moebius and Mezieres worked on the movie. The eurocomic, Metal Hurlant school of thought, which inspired Blade Runner and Alien and Dune and Star Wars, never made it to screen as a whole until this. Probably because this film was exorbitantly expensive, and designed within an inch of its life. The Fifth Element is the only film with these colors, these character designs.Even when you get into animation, really only Akira has gotten this detail-intense.
Bruce Willis, he’s really good in this but it’s hard to talk about his performances once you’ve mentioned Die Hard. Basically he’s good when he’s understated – and he’s understated here. Chris Tucker’s performance is as big as it needs to be, but it can get grating at times. Ian Holm is always amazing. It’s a Gary Oldman performance again, that owns it. Zorg is the exact opposite to Stansfield, he’s all about talk, and what he says means nothing. Jean-Baptiste Emmaneul Zorg is a salesman, with the gift of gab and a short temper. Where Stansfield’s best moment is guttural rage of “EVERYONE”, Zorg’s best moment is the childlike on-the-verge-of-tears “They’re not here”.
I might prefer Besson’s previous two films intellectually, he’s the only one who built on John Woo, but emotionally there’s no contest. The Fifth Element is a whole universe captured on film, all of one artist’s hand. When I mentioned the blood on Leons hand as an artistic signature for Besson, the whole of the Fifth Element is like that. There should be a million of them, but there’s only this one, and Besson will not be making any more. It’s too bad really, but this is enough.
John Woo’s massive improvement on/tasteless remaking-in-his-own-image of Le Samourai, depending on your opinion. Me, I’d go for the former as The Killer is something I’m writing about and Le Samourai isn’t, but your opinion probably differs. John Woo is a more affecting director than Melville is, and that’s what I like about him. As I said with Hard Boiled, Woo makes melodrama and is up front about it – he may fill them with 20-minute slomo gunfights and homoerotic masculine relationships, but hey that’s what he’s interested in, and he’s really the definitive voice on the subject matter. Hard Boiled dances around it more, so do the A Better Tomorrow films, but the Killer is Woo blurring the line between cop and criminal. The difference between the two are negligible he says, as long as the both operate under the same moral code. The code of course, is unspoken. As are the relationships between the two protagonists. Hard Boiled goes all out, and is willing to commit to insanity in the name of setpieces. The Killer is a lot more intuitive in its shit-blows-up pacing. The Killer has a woman both these men love, sure, but the real story is between these two men and how they grow to understand that they are the same. One is morally right and the other is morally wrong, until the two fo them are in a gunfight alongside one another. Then all that matters is the other one having their back. The Killer doesn’t end with the best gunfight (of all time, that’s still the one at the end of A Better Tomorrow II), but it is the one where you care the most when Danny Lee and Chow Yun Fat get shot. Has to count for something.
032. No Country for Old Men / The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly’s best aspect is that its title means nothing – here are three guys who have no moral ground except when compared to each other. The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly are all men who bounce off each other like pinballs all trying to attain a mythical wealth against the backdrop of the Civil War. Leone’s trick is that he stages this massive mythic story about good vs. evil and then fails to place anyone either good or evil in the film. There’s only these three guys, all of which aren’t doing anything but going after the money.
No Country For Old Men is the same story, the same three characters, transposed to modern America. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is an argument for mythologizing the west – using it to tell a classic story that speaks to America – thats an epic. Leone’s perspective on the worldis one where small actions result in big one – you can feel the sweep of history happening around these guys. In No Country, the ending makes it pretty explicit that there is no sweep of history, and that America has been a land of savagery since its inception.
The mythical wealth that defines both films – all great American epics are about a sum of money so large it can change lives – in No Country its made clear that the only way to acquire such a sum would be through human suffering, in this case drugs. It does not belong to you, and the chase of No Country isn’t for the money it’s for survival. The money is the catalyst for violence. Here we are really faced with good vs evil, and good is lost and unsure, the ugly is a paranoid ex-pat with a nagging conscience, and the bad is an inhuman unstoppable psychopath who brings death to everything he touches. The war it takes place against is Vietnam, and its long over (you could probably dig up a drug war parallel but that’s lazy thinking).
The Coen Bros, who have spent their entire careers making films about the inexplicable and its relationship to a world where god can’t be felt – well it never got any more godless than No Country. This is an epic, an
American epic, because it deals with massive themes in a uniquely American space.
The difference is, Leone makes his characters great, timeless figures who remain mortal. The Coen Bros don’t try and trick you, these characters are mortal, that’s why they’re running. No Country For Old Men always gets compared with Blood Simple, there’s a reason for that.
They’re both horror movies.
031. Kill Bill vol 1 and 2
Kill Bill is Tarantino full-fledged. This is what he does. Kill Bill is genre film fantasia, made out of the component parts of all the great directors Tarantino was ever interested in. Kill Bill is Tarantino training himself to be as good as Spielberg and Woo and Leone and De Palma and Kurosawa like an arts student, training himself to make the same motions as he copies masterpieces. Kill Bill is shouting GREAT ARTISTS STEAL from the rooftops. Kill Bill is about fetishizing everything, about making Bruce Lee and Charles Bronson thing it would be okay to masturbate to. Kill Bill is criticism, its film history retold with a trash bias, saying that the greats are the same to the unknowns by stealing from both equally. Kill Bill is about how Dario Argento helped write Once Upon A Time In The West, how Leone stole from Kurosawa, how Psycho was remade a thousand times in a thousand different genres, how John Woo loves Le Samourai and One Armed Swordsman equally. Kill Bill is about localization and adaptation, about how changing any element of anything to suit your purposes makes it your own. Kill Bill is about Marvel Comics-style mythology and samurai films operate on the basis that the audience can learn the rules without them ever being spoken out loud. Kill Bill is Tarantino burying his search for the divine under so much artifice that it would be impossible to find without a map (there is a great piece of writing on it, even if it gets a bunch of things wrong, it gets the most important things right). Kill Bill is a prism, and a cultural lodestone. Kill Bill is the greatest con job ever pulled off, style not going over substance but replacing it. It is Tarantino cohering everything that made him a director int he first place. It is a work of unparalleled love of cinema and everything that cinema can be, if a single traditional canon is replaced with a celebration of multiplicity, with an acknowledgement that the ripoffs can sometimes outdo the originals, that beauty is only not reserved for accepted geniuses. Kill Bill is Tarantino, it is all of these actors’ careers, it is Bruce Lee, it is the history of action cinema remade as the history of cinema.
It is… really fucking good, is what I’m saying.
- Sean Witzke August 2010