“The best films are like dreams you’re never sure you’ve really had. I have this image in my head of a room full of sand. And a bird flies towards me and dips its wing into the sand. And I honestly have no idea whether this image came from a dream or a film.”
[Top 100 movies list part of 7]
I don’t know if you asked me about Terry Gilliam I’d say “he’s one of my favorite directors”. I don’t know that I think of him as the kind of voice I did at one point in my life. Because there was a time when Gilliam was better than Kubrick to me. While talking about 12 Monkeys I did say that lumping Gilliam in with Burton and Juenet is too easy, it’s not like they haven’t followed in his footsteps every step of the way. John Cleese’s big criticism of Gilliam from the beginning was that he was too concerned with the visual, and that he let everything else suffer, is apt. In his worst films, that is exactly the problem. Of course, when I watch Brazil, I can see why I would feel that way.
Brazil is one of those movies, like The Shining, where you find yourself comparing real life to it constantly. Brazil is partially about fantasy and reality fighting in this man’s mind, but it is also the perfect encapsulation of how modern life is nothing but an endless and pointless bureaucratic nightmare. You spend 3 days straight filling out forms just to find out you were talking to the wrong department? You say “this feels like Brazil”. Gilliam and Stoppard’s script is about the space between hellish reality and ridiculous fantasy, about lying to yourself in order to get through the day, about throwing yourself into a romance that exists almost entirely in your head, about being so lonely and sad that your fantasy life starts to take over your day, about suddenly changing your life for no rational reason. The climax of Brazil is both overheated Jungian nightmare and wish fulfillment, and Gilliam’s mission statement for all his work before and after – that no matter what happens or how horrible life gets, they can never get you as long as you have dreams. Which is a trite, cheesy summation unless you think about how very important narrative is in our lives, and escapism sometimes isn’t a term used to insult, sometimes it’s a desperate need.
Also Robert DeNiro’s finest performance full stop.
009. A Fistful of Dollars
A Fistful of Dollars is the definitive example of stealing as art – Kurosawa once said of Fistful of Dollars “It is a very fine film, but it is my film” and for a long time partially ow
ned the rights (there is another legend of Kurosawa’s silent exchange with George Lucas after the release of Star Wars, but lets not go into that). Dollars is a movie that draws the borders to Leone’s style – everything he did afterward existed in the lines drawn here. The “hero” of A Fistful of Dollars, The Man With No Name, is the western hero completely shorn of the rules of the American western. For all of Eastwood’s eventual smartass one-liner rep, here he barely speaks and when he does he only mutters short statements. Half the time they are acidic forced pleasantries and the other time they are threats. The hero is reflective of the world, and the film – Kurosawa’s take on this material is highly moral and deeply rooted in character motivations. Leone’s world and characters are flat – he works on the surface, making the top layer of Kurosawa’s work into a work of its own. The west is a place not exactly tethered to real history, sliding towards the mythic. There’s a reason that each successive film in his series became more epic, and it’s the widening of that disconnect to take these characters and have them play out on a mental plane rather than a physical one. But yeah – Leone’s world is flat but it is immediate. Watch a hundred film that stole from Dollars (Yes DOLLARS, not Yojimbo, is the one they steal from) and tell me one that ever etched itself into your brain this way. The browns and grays, the blue sky at the end, Eastwood’s battered face lit by distant flames. Actually that’s the one thing that Leone picked up from Kurosawa more than anything – he knows how to shoot faces. The low stakes but high tension standoff at the end, peaking when the gorgeous deliberate locked camera tilts loose and becomes pov in an instant. Fistful isn’t as well made as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the story isn’t as good or as narratively brilliant as For a Few Dollars More. But when speaking about Leone its the film I go directly to – its a ripoff that transcends by completely investing itself in style and approach, and ultimately wins the argument that any cover version created by an artist with a significant point of view, becomes personal. Sure, it’s never as simple as that, but this one time it was. Dollars is what happens when one genius copies another.
Of course, that isn’t to say that Dollars can even pretend to be as good as Yojimbo. Because it can’t.
From its iconic opening shot – a shot so often jacked that you can probably turn out a slideshow of all the classics that have stolen it – Yojimbo is Kurosawa’s masterwork. Ran is a stunning achievement, sure simply for the scale of it. High and Low is more furiously inventive. Throne of Blood more visceral (and metal). The Bad Sleep Well is so much more mean. Ikiru is more spiritually troubled. Hidden Fortress more childlike in its search for adventure in the classical sense. Sanjuro, the sequel to Yojimbo is so much lighter than its predecessor it would be easy to see it as a misstep. But the final shot, where a delirious romp suddenly gets very real – where violence isn’t fun anymore because the main character is covered in another man’s blood and walking away from this foolishness. Kurosawa’s career is a catalog of how a true artist engaged with story. Always with his heart firmly embedded in the core of his characters – Kurosawa’s films are moral, and not in a narrative, literary way. But also not in an easy polemic way. Kurosawa didn’t make message movies even though his movies have messages. Yojimbo is Kurosawa making a film about the reality of the world we live in. Taking the other films I’ve written up so far, High and Low sees good and evil as absent concepts in a world where a million other factors drive our choices, Ran shows morality meaning nothing in the face of destiny, and Seven Samurai says that the greatest heroism is effort not fighting against evil. In Kurosawa’s statement on Yojimbo, he’s pretty direct. He says that Yojimbo is about what real morality is, evil fighting evil endlessly and us trapped in the middle. Sanjuro is a character who stands for something when everyone around him cowers to omnipresent bad shit. Unlike Leone, this town actually seems to be populated by people who are living under this horrible position. This is an actual problem for these people, not a stage to play out age-old conflicts in a stylish way. Leone, for all his achievements feels like he’s telling you a story he overheard. Kurosawa feels alive, fully realized and lived in.
You can’t discount the most important thing about Yojimbo – and that its a BRILLIANT action movie. Its slower than Dollars, and a lot less flashy, but paced to make the action explode whenever it occurs. Eastwood gets his ass handed to him, but you fear for Mifune’s life he’s beaten so bad. I don’t know if its Kurosawa’s intent or simply feeling for this guy more, but its impossible to engage with Yojimbo only on an intellectual level. Action speaks to the gut, Kurosawa to the heart. No matter how good Leone was, I would never say that about him.
007. The Royal Tenenbaums
The thing is, it was never just Wes Anderson. It was always Wes Anderson AND Owen Wilson writing as team. Their work together, rather than Anderson’s work with other writers, hits closer and harder. There is a tenuous difference between their work as a writing team and the still quite good Wes Anderson films that came after. Life Aquatic rocks, but there is nothing in it that is as beautiful as any one scene in Tenenbaums (and this film is beautiful. not just shot beautifully, it is full of moments of actual beauty – Margot getting off the bus to Nico, Ritchie’s flameout on the tennis court, the massive tapestry shot at the end, the Ramones-set Margot’s past montage).
This cast is amazing. Gene Hackman of course, is great in whats essentially his last great performance (everything after was him on autopilot). Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover and Bill Murray are all great, like always (it should really say something that I mention Hackman over Murray). Owen Wilson is great at how politely he goes off the deep end. Ben Stiller’s a coiled ball of resentment in a track suit but his eyes are so full of pain that even as cartoony as he gets its always rooted in sadness. Stiller losing it and chasing Owen Wilson through the house shows how imposing a physical presence he is. Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow, though – they’re the real stars here. Neither of them were ever this good again, I doubt that they could be. Luke Wilson, he’s probably not interested in getting this raw in a film again. It is hard to watch him in this movie, in almost every scene, let alone in the suicide attempt and afterwards. In the scenes after where he has no guard up, no armor, those are the hardest to watch. Paltrow’s minimalist, all image performance – it’s not that she was never this good, she’s never been good in any movie but this one – she’s stylized on film but she’s also a person that’s isolated herself down to almost nothing. The trick of the film is that these characters all have that problem – they’re all cartoons of themselves, all affectation and style covering up real damage and pain. Any criticism towards Anderson’s work as all surface , I don’t know how they can say that when he makes films that are about the emotions under the surface.
Anderson’s direction is encompassing, and stylish – he shoots Scorsese if he was in the French New Wave or Richard Lester with a more potent artistic voice. His use of music is, and I don’t say this lightly, the best in all of film. His skill, when he’s writing with Wilson, is so much more powerful than apart – The Royal Tenenbaums is the two of them at their best. While Rushmore is closer to me personally, it isn’t this good. It isn’t this hard for me to watch. Very Little is.
006. Millers Crossing / Barton Fink
I love the Coen Brothers like I love few things. In the whole Kubrick/ Kurosawa dichotomy I’ve been talking about is bullshit because The Coen Bros are the thing that destroys that artificial comparison by being as prolific and personal as Kurosawa and as precise and merciless as Kubrick.
“I will show you the life of the mind.”
There’s a real honest, nasty physicality to the way the Coens shoot action, and Millers Crossing is definitely the best action sequences of theirs. Tom hopping out the window and running after Bernie barefoot in the hotel is brief but completely tactile. The more famous, ended-up-in-Kill-Bill micro bravura move of the Tommy Gun fight set to Danny Boy, is gorgeous. Millers Crossing is, oddly enough, an action movie with the guts of a serious drama. Two things that Tom Reagan says in Miller’s Crossing – “Friendships got nothing to do with it” and “You do things for a reason.” That second one – the Coens’ big theme throughout all their work is that some actions/events have no easy explanation. In some of the films this is referenced as the divine, other times its genre specific weirdness (the UFO in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the angel Hudsucker in Hudsucker Proxy), or specifically about the absence of those things in the face of the inexplicable (No Country For Old Men, Blood Simple). In Millers Crossing that unexplainable element is Tom Reagan. Why he does what he does is the questions you ask – sure the plot is kind of Dashiell Hammet/Yojimbo thing but not specifically. There is an easy way to say that Tom is gay and has feelings for Leo, but I think the film is more complicated and ambivalent about it – the feeling in Millers Crossing is that the kind of masculinity that noir, westerns, the John Woos and Michael Manns of the world spend a lot of time on has homoerotic elements. I like to think that Tom is as ambivalent about it as the film is – he’s a complicated man and no one understands him, something something. Tom isn’t as sure of anything, at the very least what he feels about Leo. His scheme at the end of the film is so damn ramshackle and tenuos, its clear he’s spending all his time hoping that he can pull this off. Tom’s self-destructiveness, and the way he flips one Bernie (“What heart?” is the coldest answer in film history) – Tom is unsure of his actions moment-to-moment.
Barton Fink is a completely different thing – written in the middle of the Millers Crossing writing process, specifically because Millers Crossing is too damn straightforward for them. Here’s the deal, The Shining isn’t on this list, because Barton Fink is a lot like The Shining only explicitly about writing and writers. It’s The Shining only with the ambiguities turned up too far in the red to be metaphors. Of course this movie is the result of writers block, it is exactly the same as experience “writers block”. Of course, Barton writes something! The thing is, writers block isn’t really “not being able to write”, it’s that Barton pours his heart out on his script – and writes the exact same thing. Thats the sick joke that the Coens are telling – yes, this film is about the history of real writers going out to Hollywood and losing it (Faulkner), hell, the underworld (Chet!), the devil, being Jewish, the anxiety of World War 2 on Hollywood (and if my friend Mark Masterson is right, Barton Fink is the real author of Millers Crossing) – but its about being a writer. The Coen Bros get that yes, writers are worthless pieces of shit. Writers are tourists, pretentious fucks, drunks, socially malajusted man-children with no morality. Barton is the kind of writer who says that he understands the common man and then doesn’t leave his room for 8 days. Writers are assholes. Parasites. Liars.Barton Fink talks about writing from his gut and writing from the street. The last thing Charlie says to Barton is “You’re just a tourist with a typewriter, I live here”.
Alternately its like Todd Alcott said – Millers Crossing is about hats. Barton Fink is about heads.
005. An American Werewolf in London
Rick Baker is a godlike genius who will never be given the respect he deserves, American Werewolf is his Guernica. Wait… yes, that. But to describe American Werewolf in London as just a masterpiece of special effects would be short-selling it. American Werewolf is one of my favorite film scripts of all time – in fact, if we’re just discussing scripts and not how they’re directed, it is my favorite film script.
It took John Landis 12 years to make this movie. He wrote the script in 1969 when he was 19, and after the big successes of Animal House and The Blues Brothers, finally got the chance to make it. It is a finely honed work, understanding the genre of horror in a comprehensive way, and still delivering a film that feels like a comedy. Landis didn’t create the hybrid horror-comedy but he surely perfected it. American Werewolf never feels like its serving two masters, it is both a very funny movie and a terrifying, visceral experience. Landis as a writer was never this good again, not once. Neither as a director – there is a clarity and artistry on hand that Landis always employed, made razor-sharp (and Landis’s few references were real art – sure, the characters talk about The Wolfman, but his direct lifts are from Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Repulsion). The soundtrack is kind of ignored, but its a crucial stepping stone between Scorsese and Lucas’ use of needle drops and the Tarantino school of complex layers of sonic irony within scenes (see Fincher, Wright, PTA, Wes Anderson, etc). Landis can direct suspense – the subway station sequence can go blow-for-blow with any great horror/suspense scene you’d like to mention, and tops it. Its all class and the reveal of how massive the wolf is in the long shot down the escalator is the pivot point the entire film rests on. If that shot doesn’t shock you, the film doesn’t work, and it will freeze you in place. After that, one of the funniest scenes in the film, of David running around the zoo naked, relieves the tension. Most of it, but now we know that while this is a fun movie that thing is still going to kill someone, as soon as it get the chance.
It’s very important that American Werewolf is a movie that most men watch when they are teenagers, and their experience with it on vhs or on broadcast tv is wrapped up in puberty – seeing Jenny Agutter naked for the first time. Edgar Wright, when presenting this film at the Beverly cinema with Landis, mentioned that almost immediately (this is a director whose entire career has its roots in this film, and even he has to go – well I this movie stuck with me because of this actress). Landis wrote this movie as a teenager, and one assumes that the ensuing years he dug into the scripts themes and subtleties and deepened them. The werewolf myth is in a lot of ways about puberty and change – and while the story isn’t solely dedicated to the dangers of sexual adulthood its smart enough to imbue most of the scenes with sexual charge (storywise the change always occurs after – the first time after David sleeps with Alex, later at the porno theater). Rick Baker’s fully lit full body transformation is one of the great scenes in film history, and its happens while David is naked and alone.Even the standard horror dream sequences are imbued with his childhood – localized to David’s (read – Landis’) jewish-american upbringing. Yes, there’s the running in the woods after the deer scene, but there is also the demon nazi squad that shows up at his house, kill his whole family and cut his throat.
It’s not all an adolescence metaphor, American Werewolf was inspired by the real life difference between modern sensibilities and ancient superstition – while on the set of Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia he watched a gypsy burial with rites to make sure the man didn’t return from the grave. His interpreter laughed and Landis realized that if something supernatural actually did happen they would have absolutely no way of dealing with it. Horror is usually a realistic take on what happens when the supernatural intrudes on the everyday, and American Werewolf is a paragon of that. Here’s a story about how the only thing we know about a world different than ours is stuff we learned in crappy movies we watched as a kid.
But all of that – the gore, the metaphors, how funny it is, that’s just talk. What truly makes American Werewolf in London one of the greatest films of all time is the porno theater scene. David and the rotting corpse of his friend Jack watch a completely godawful porno – a guy walks in on a couple screwing and starts saying “how could you do this to me” and the woman responds “I’ve never seen you before in my life” he says “Oh I’m sorry” and then leaves. David turns to Jack, “Good movie”. That’s genius to begin with, but then the absurdity of a man and his dead friend, and seven other dead people all discussing ways for David to kill himself as the guy in the next row plays with himself. The joke of the second transformation happening and appearing to be David playing with himself is just a bonus. That scene, and the picadilly circus-destroying rampage of destruction that follows skirt the line between slapstick and grotesque, being too horrifying not to laugh at a little and too chaotic to take seriously. Its one of a kind, even after 30 years of attempts at imitation, nothing was this smart.
There are stories of Ridley Scott showing up on the set of Alien screaming about how he wanted to make a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. On Ridley Scott’s second time out he made the film that pretty much everyone agrees is his finest work. I may love Blade Runner more, but Alien is so cohesive that he basically ensured himself a career in his own shadow. Alien, for everything else that it is, has one important element. It is a masterpiece in world-building. Ridley Scott didn’t shoot like anyone else – these environments that are completely immersive. He came from commercials, but he also drew constantly. Ridley Scott understood what production design could do – he had artists working in two separate camps – HR Giger and Carlo Rambaldi designing the Alien, the ship, the Space Jockey; Moebius Roger Christian, and Ron Cobb designing the space suits, the ships, the interiors. It is therefore the only science fiction film that’s built out of special effects (other than Blade Runner which is a different beast entirely) that has verisimilitude. As in, this is actually the drastic difference between two unrelated cultures. Nothing looks alike, this is the only film I’ve ever seen that understood something as basic as that. The unity of vision of something like Star Wars, which is probably the biggest and best world-building exercise barring Alien, is ultimately the vision of one artist – Ralph McQuarrie. That works in Moebius comics where one man is drawing the whole thing – but in films you need realism even in the most fantastic works. It has to look believable, that it is happening to people (which Star Wars certainly does). By showing two separate, fully whole worlds you believe everything is real on a subconscious level. Of course, you need Ridley Scott, who has an obsessive, detail-oriented artist’s eye for composition to shoot two complete worlds. The many directors which attempted at this scope – their stuff is like playsets. Toyboxes. Even Terry Gilliam and Luc Besson – Gilliams stuff tends towards the fantastical, the hallucinatory. Besson’s work is trying to be Moebius. He needs it to look as if it was all crafted by the same hand. Ridley Scott just needs to shoot with an eye for composition (seriously there are shots with actors all posed and lit for supreme effectiveness. This is an absolutely gorgeous film, lens flare and blinding cuts. Watching it on dvd is an amazing experience if you grew up with this stuff on vhs and tv – suddenly all the backgrounds are drawn in, all the lens flares show up.
The cast – the best ensemble ever in a horror movie – Signourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Motherfucking Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt, Ian Holm? Sheeyit, its the Nashville of gore flicks. Everyone here is better than they ever were again.Ian Holm, for all his sweetness and humanity in his other roles, will always feel sticky and unnerving.
Alien is a ten-little-indians slasher flick set in space. Alien is about body anxiety, while Scott was talking about the violence and immediacy of Texas Chainsaw Massacre the other film that Alien brings to mind is Eraserhead. HR Giger’s designs are what the word “techno-organic” was coined for. Everything in the alien ship is shaped like a sex organ (and Ridley being the genius he is, he had small children in oversized space suits walk into a gigantic vagina), the Alien itself has all this anxiety about childbirth and rape, and it pops out of Kane’s stomach shaped like a penis. Ash the android’s head is knocked off in a coating of sticky white goo. Ripley, a woman whose role has mostly been perfunctory the entire film, can only defeat the monster after she exposes her body to it. I don’t think it’s specifically body horror, but this is a horror film fixated on the frailties of the body and deformations of reproduction I find it really limiting to think of Alien as either a horror film or a science fiction film because it is one of the purest examples of both (like American Werewolf it doesn’t force the genres to compete it just succeeds in both) – but I identify Alien more as a film about the horrors of sex than I do about humanity’s future.
I think that’s what the sequels, though I love the direction in both Aliens and Alien3, missed. That this? This was a movie about fucking.
003. The Conversation
“He’ll kill you if he gets the chance.”
Anyone ever notice that Kubrick stole shots from this for the The Shining? Shit like that blows my mind. Anyway…
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED by Francis Ford Coppola. Not a script he rewrote while shooting, not an adaptation, not a movie he made for money to pay for all he lost during One From The Heart. This is it. The only original. The only one where you can feel everything he had in him as an artist in every single frame of film. Apocalypse Now is the greater feat, the Godfather 1+2 are more iconic. But those were jobs. This isn’t. Coppola is damaged goods, that’s the sad thing. He should have been the Kurosawa of the movie brats and everyone knows it. But his post-Apocalypse career is bland and pointless, full of movies no one gives a damn about after 4 (arguably 5 if you count Rain People) masterworks of american cinema. Coppola and Scorsese should have been dueling throughout their careers but it never happened. He had it in him, and no one can say that he didn’t, even if he made that Outsiders bullshit.
Gene Hackman, he’s a genius. The stress on his face as it ratchets through this film until the end where he can barely deal with it by the end. This is what paranoia, real paranoia not the “they’re coming to get me the men in black” looks like. This is what loneliness feels like. Isolation. Obsession. Uptight. Guilt. Harrison Ford’s performance as well – this is in the running with Blade Runner, only it’s so much more subtle. It is a fantastic performance. John Cazale – goddamn I miss him. The sadness and guilt in his face, his little smile. Guy is stunning. Robert Duvall is barely onscreen - but its Robert Duvall.
The Conversation is the kind of film that its easy to admire because its a lesser-known work by a major artist – and I guess with me mentioning Sisters instead of Scarface and THX1138 instead of Star Wars, I am exactly the kind of asshole who would think like that. But in my defense I would say that The Conversation is so good that it bypasses that urge. This is the best thing Coppola ever made, the kind of movie that revels in being a movie. The plot, about the combination of sound and image, and what its interpretations and delineations can mean. About memory and perception. This is a story that needed to be a movie, that says a lot about what level Coppola was working on. The way Harry Caul experiences the tapes he makes in the opening scene of the film – changing from indifference to empathy to horror, emotionally moving with the work the way you do when either watching a film or making one. Walter Murch – the sound design/editing genius behind THX-1138 and Apocalypse Now, while THX is more of a sonic mindfuck this movie is brilliant for how he takes the repeating moments first on tape and then later threads them into the soundtrack as if it was narration – this sounds like memory, of someone else’s words repeating in your head. Finally when he hears it playing in the room for real you can’t tell if its in his head or not. Then the horror happens.
You freeze when you see what happens in the bathroom, you’re heart stops. No matter how often you see it. The neck-snapping turn it takes in the last minute, the sudden knowledge that you didn’t know what you were looking at and its changed now. You never understood it in the first place.
002. A Clockwork Orange
I was thinking for a long time about getting an “I was cured, all right.” tattoo.
I think that Tarantino is right about Clockwork Orange – that you’re meant to get off on the reprehensible first chunk of it, and that Kubrick did too. Kubrick’s critical bywords for years were “misanthropic” and “clinical”. Kubrick approached cinema as a way to examine humanity with the precision and hatred of an ER surgeon. He understood. Really understood, what humanity was capable of. How awful we could really be, how simple and stupid our urges and desires are. There’s a reason I place Kubrick as the polar opposite to Kurosawa. It’s not because Kubrick is an amoral director, far from it. No one could make Paths of Glory or Lolita or Clockwork for that matter who didn’t have a moral stance on people. It’s just that Kubrick’s work is so much bleaker in its assessment of humanity. Kurosawa forgave us our horrible decisions. Kubrick couldn’t he couldn’t allow a world like the one he saw without showing back to us. So yes, the opening of Clockwork where Alex and his buddies fight, destroy, fuck, squabble, get fucked up, posture, rape, and eventually kill isn’t something that’s simply there as an example. No, he enjoys it. He wants you to enjoy it. Because – and this is the important part – Alex enjoys it. Alex is charming and impossible to write off as just savage. Alex is an individual, certainly, but he represents what is to be a teenager. You want to fuck and kill everything in your path, you have no morality to speak of, except that which is forced on you by society. Clockwork prefigured punk by almost a decade. He saw the end result of the change in youth culture ending with disenchantment and savagery, not peace and love. Kids don’t get high to expand their minds they get high because they want to get high. Sure, they love Beethoven, but Kubrick points out clearly – taste and culture mean nothing, he’s just a monster with a fantastic soundtrack. There is no high culture that can change the innate awfulness of a person. The new is horrifying, speaking in argot and denying all you understand as sacred (literally, with Alex’s tapdancing Jesus statue). Kubrick’s argument is that we are like this – you, watching you are like this. If you could, you’d be doing what he does.
Like Straw Dogs and Taxi Driver, Clockwork is a movie about the critique of violence in cinema as much as it is a narrative. And like those films, it is so much more than that, a personal defining statement of its creator. It’s no accident that all three of those films are their director’s finest work. Anxiety between what violence on film is for, what purpose it serves, and how each came to drastically different conclusions. Kubrick was always with showing, and really helping his audience experience, true violence. Kubrick is completely okay with shooting a rape scene with the same glee as he does the joyride, something that might be – well, something that is – problematic to many many people. A cops says “violence makes violence” in the scene that follows, but Kubrick doesn’t agree with that either. Violence simply happens. We have to deal with it somehow – the second, third, and fourth acts of Clockwork Orange (there are five) are a completely different approach entirely. The Prison changes Alex’s actions but not his mind. The experiments change his body’s reaction to violence, then the experiences of constant attack finally change his thought. The nasty trick of Clockwork is that final scene where Alex is “cured”.
The experiments, the entire act, says that a viewer’s reaction to violence, sex, war – essentially the subject matter of almost all film – should be revulsion. The joke (and Clockwork is a comedy, having more in common with Strangelove than anything else in Kubrick’s filmography – there are gags like Mr. Deltoid drinking denture solution and the call-and-response entry into prison) is that they have to physically force Alex into hating what he innately responds to through drugs and conditioning – by showing him films. Brugess’ argument was that morality must come from within, it has to be a choice to be a good person. Kubrick knows that is horseshit – he believes that people are the way they are. There are no character arcs in Kubrick’s films, not conventional ones anyway (maybe Eyes Wide Shut). The changes which his characters do experience are often immediately moved backwards. People – or at least protagonists – don’t change, Kubrick changes the world around them. Clockwork is the best example of that – the character comes closest to change as he can, and then reality rights itself. Them happy ending to Clockwork is disgusting in how good it feels. Steven Spielberg, discussing Clockwork talked about how in that scene he was sure that when Alex gets out of that bed he’s going to go and kill his parents, his friends and anyone who gets in his way and that there was no question about what happens next. Alex’s scattered and disturbing answers to the psychiatrist’s test certainly indicate that. But the scene that follows, where the Minister makes Alex a public spectacle and he’s hinted at a future career in politics, the two men manipulating one another and Alex gaining the upper hand within seconds. Alex, you see, is finally going to be given an opportunity to operate a level he was born to work. Sociopathic tendencies in day to day life have their place, it’s just simply better applied to things like cities and countries. Kubrick knew you can lecture him about violence on screen all day but I doubt anyone even batted an eye at that, the real nastiness. Violence is more than rape and murder on a movie screen, and this is how monsters are born. VIDDY WELL, Alex says to camera, the pov lens warping around him. VIDDY WELL.
Watch and look and pay attention because this is it, Kubrick is saying. This is real.
001 (tie). Blade Runner
I’ve written, and will continue to keep writing about Blade Runner. Its the movie I watch constantly. The movie that shaped most of what I’m interested in, what I think looks good – earthbound science fiction, euro-sf comics, cyberpunk, memory, cities, the body, PKD, immersion and world-building, huge synths, what a villain was, what language is for, what humanity is, what attractive women look like (I saw this for the first time before I was ten, and to this day I still have a thing for girls who look like Rachel or Pris), detectives, synths, logos, rain. I’ve talked before about Blade Runner as a movie with its own ghost hanging over it. You can say that about most director’s cut films – but Blade Runner is especially a film with so many imperfect versions all of which have their better points – really you watch the Final Cut and remember the good parts of the voice-over, pretend that Roy says “I WANT MORE LIFE, FUCKER” instead of “Father”, maybe watch the deleted scenes where Edward James Olmos says “I spit on metaphysics”. This is a film about memories (there’s a theme here – body and memory. Christ I’m repetitive.) and memory implants, the need for a past, dreams and signifiers. Blade Runner is Ridley Scott’s masterpiece of worldbuilding – literally this is a city of the future (Beijing 2010 – Los Angeles 2019), corporate and multiethnic, overcrowded, hugely stratified. Roy Batty’s monologue at the end of the film is my favorite film dialog and it was improvised on the day.
I… listen, Blade Runner is everything to me. I don’t know what else I can say about it.
001 (tie). Rushmore
I always hated Holden Caulfield. Always. Matt Zoller Seitz called Max Fischer “Holden Caulfield as a type-A personality”. I like to think of him as Holden Caulfield if he listened to the Who all day. Holden Caulfield with commitment. Here’s the thing, this movie is and was, a big deal for me.
I got kicked out of a very rich catholic school the year this movie came out. I was (and still am) a huge fuckup.
Max Fischer is a genius who secretly was a fuck-up. A guy who couldn’t study, didn’t do well in school. But he was aggressively intelligent, lateral thinking. Max got in his own way.Max lied about being rich because he went to a rich kid’s school. Max got obsessed with things, chased after a woman he had absolutely no chance with. He got depressed. He got angry. He got his ass kicked. He talked a lot of shit (“I like your nurse’s uniform, guy.”). He didn’t have a single friend his own age. He acted like an adult in all the ways that didn’t matter. Max is clearly going to grow up to do something, but that something might be a complete failure. Herman Blume, played by my favorite actor Bill Murray – in his first real straight-man role. He’s someone who’s a real success but going through the point in his life where he realizes he just doesn’t give a shit about anything anymore. They try to fuck each other over because of a woman.
Wes Anderson was French New Wave Scorsese, Hal Ashby with balls. Cranking the Kinks and the Who (jesus fucking christ the “A Quick One While He’s Away” montage tops Scorsese and Tarantino and everyone else at needle drops in a movie, full stop), going all-out with captions and chapter sections, this was a movie that actually spoke to me in a way that all the action adventure sci-fi bullshit didn’t, that wasn’t “about me” but actually was talking about the garbage I was going through and would continue to go through for the next well, up to now that’ll be 11 years. I’m not Max Fischer, no one is – he’s obviously an exaggeration, a cartoon character. The real thing isn’t that I got kicked out of school or that I was a weird kid who waas too smart to be screwing up as often as I did, it was that there was a movie about that – that could still blow my goddamn mind. It’s a gateway movie for me, one that shaped what I like as much as Blade Runner did but in very different ways.
You fuck up, you keep going, you make something, you write – because you have to, and you try to make sure to not be an asshole to the people around you. You might change, but just a little. Hopefully instead you learn something. That’s all.
And you listen to the Who while you do it.
- Sean Witzke September 2010