Thursday, 4 February 2016

A Year in Film (Part Two)


A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen


Marie Antoinette [Sofia Coppola, 2006]:



Coppola transposes her own story - that of a spoiled little rich girl thrust into a position of public notoriety that she cannot comprehend - to that of the title character. In doing so, she exaggerates the naiveté of the real-life historical figure; creating in the process a more piercing feminist commentary on the way young women are often made to suffer for the sins of the husband/father/brother/patriarch; picked on and destroyed (in the case of Marie), not for her own inherently adolescent "decadence", but for the poor decisions of her husband and the generally restricting environment that she's forced to endure. In the title role, Dunst gives one of the great performances of the last decade; maybe even the current century. Unlike so many of the thankless roles she's chosen to play, Marie Antoinette sees her as both natural and radiant; her interpretation of the character arc both subtle and multifaceted; the implications of her final scenes - including the dreamlike moment in which she offers herself up to the braying mob - are haunting and emotionally distressing. Likewise, Coppola's filmmaking is sensitive, full of passion and energy; less a Merchant-Ivory chocolate box piece than a film infused with the influences of Derek Jarman and Sally Potter; specifically films like Edward II (1991) and Orlando (1992). An anarchic, post-modern, but also romantic and painterly approach that like Pasolini finds the past through a reflection of the present (and vice-versa) in order to humanise the central character and to create a political connection to the modern world.


Pigsty [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969]:



Pasolini's most impenetrable film is also his most beguiling. The work of a true visionary, Pigsty is a film that blends hallucinatory scenes of prehistoric violence with the extended monologues of the bourgeoisie; creating a juxtaposition that suggests parallels between the past and the present, where the relationship between the two posit the idea of history - and more specifically, persecution, exploitation and corruption, essentially referring to issues of class and entitlement - repeating itself endlessly until oblivion. While difficult to know the true intentions of the filmmaker, the suggestion "a story about pigs to tell a story about Jews" - combined with the overlapping of the two conflicting stories and their different presentations of violence and brutality (physical vs. psychological) - hints at the same anti-fascist polemic of the author's later, more infamous provocation piece, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).


Force Majeure [Ruben Östlund, 2014]:



Östlund direction of the film suggests a genial, less hectoring Michael Haneke; the approach falling somewhere between The Seventh Continent (1989) and Caché (2005) by way of a European sitcom. Like Haneke, the filmmaking style is studied and controlled; rigid, but not inflexible. Colour, composition, editing and sound are impeccable, establishing a feeling of antiseptic middle-class anxiety; an empty "going-through-the-motions" depiction of modern life comparable to a film like Archipelago (2010) by Joanna Hogg. Here, the popular and often contentious "comedy of embarrassment" trope beloved by European filmmakers - from Bertrand Blier to Mike Leigh, etc - merges with the spirit of Buñuel; eviscerating the bumbling immaturity of its characters and their self-created problems of first-world malaise, without becoming too nasty or nihilistic.


The Tale of the Princess Kaguya [Isao Takahata, 2013]:

  

For the first time since Michael Mann's derided but exhilarating Public Enemies (2009), the experience of a film and its filmmaking suggested an almost reinvention of the very language of cinema. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but the purely sensory experience of seeing these images explode within the rich cavernous blackness of the cinema space was like moving towards something almost elemental; the imagery seemingly transforming itself from frame to frame, at once ancient and yet entirely modern. It is a style that falls somewhere between an image of a primitive cave painting brought to life by the light of a flickering flame, the 'late' formalist works of Pablo Picasso that embraced unfinished naiveté and the most current and sophisticated style of contemporary animation, which is beyond anything I've ever seen. Although the fantasy plotline is nothing remarkable (and nitpickers might note that the ending is an almost shot-for-shot copy of the final scene from Shyamalan's despised Lady in the Water, repeated here to great acclaim), the actual presentation of the image is beyond words! The moments where the film seemingly breaks free from reality, becomes entwined with the emotions of its central character and seems to soar or disintegrate before our very eyes, is both astounding and unique.


Ex Machina [Alex Garland, 2015]:



1. Part throwback to "mad-scientist" monster movies; with James Whale's classic 1931 variation on the Frankenstein story providing an obvious template. 2. Part 'Bergmanesque' psychodrama; where the intense scenes of two characters enacting a private crisis of existentialism on a secluded island could bring to mind everything from the Hour of the Wolf (1968) to The Passion (1969). Part 'Soderberghian' meditation on style and mood; the cold and clinical design, modernist spacing, intimacy of its performances and minimalist composition of actors and objects within a 2.35:1 frame is as much reminiscent in its filmmaking as the underrated Solaris (2002) as anything by the more frequently associated Stanley Kubrick. As contemplation of the line between man and machine, between consciousness and unconsciousness, Garland's film is up there with the best of Mamoru Oshii, such as Avalon (2001) and Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2004), as well as standards of the genre, such as Blade Runner (1982) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). A work connected to the concerns of the modern world, but propelled by themes that are timeless and emotionally germane.


Accattone [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961]:



At the time I couldn't find the words for this one; I'm not sure I can find them now! Suffice to say that a whole sphere of world cinema begins (and ends) with the film in question; more so perhaps than the supposed year zero of Godard's endlessly lauded new wave defining À bout de souffle (1960) (though JLG is still eternal). So many of the scenes, images, aesthetics, preoccupations and concerns presented in Pasolini's film can be found in the work of cinema's great modern masters; everyone from Coppola to Scorsese, Fassbinder to Jarman, Monteiro to Denis, Farrara to Haynes, etc have borrowed from Accattone and its singular approach to character, theme and setting As a first-time filmmaker, Pasolini emerged full formed; his whole notion of cinema as a means of reflecting the past by way of the present (and vice versa) finds an expression in the way he depicts the central character as both lout and loser, but at the same time imbuing him with the kind of spiritual conviction, sympathy and vainglorious nobility of a martyred saint. As such, the methodology of Pasolini, which so often is defined, misleadingly, as "neo-realism", places the author far closer to the spirit of a man like Caravaggio than any of his cinematic peers; an artist who found in the bodies and faces of his local thugs, destitute crones and harlots the most sacred of religious (and later historical) icons.


The Lone Ranger [Gore Verbinski, 2013]:



Pitched somewhere between the pure cinematic spectacle of The General (1926) and the political 'kill your heroes' cynicism of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Verbinski's film wrestle with complex themes, from genocide and corruption, to betrayal and unrequited love, all the while fashioning a big-budget action adventure extravaganza that far eclipses the simple pleasures of his earlier, more successful Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Placing his scenes of wily escapism within a context of inglorious American history (brought to life for a child who knows only of its "heroes" while the reality is something far more cruel) the results are both thrilling and affecting. A rare but perfect example of a Hollywood blockbuster committed to taking risks.


Clouds of Sils Maria [Olivier Assayas, 2014]:



Throughout the film, several layers of interpretation become intertwined. First, a deconstruction of the psychosexual politics of Fassbinder's early masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972); second, a Persona (1966)-like meta-drama about the difficult relationship between women (a stricken actress and her aide); third, a reiteration of Irma Vep (1996) and its playful "anti-Hollywood" rhetoric (replete with faux comic book style blockbuster-sequence occurring during the second act); fourth, a film about the "old wave" being replaced by the new (and through this a personal commentary on Assayas's own cinema); fifth, a film about filmmaking (with several personifications of the director); and finally, a documentation of a natural phenomenon (in this instance 'the maloja snake') that becomes an onscreen miracle analogous to the flickering flame of Tarkovsky's Nostalgia (1983) or the final sequence of Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray (1986). A masterpiece.


Goltzius and the Pelican Company [Peter Greenaway, 2012]:



This dizzying mix of multi-media phantasmagoria - à la Prospero's Books (1991) - and Brechtian dissertation on the nature of voyeurism - recalling remnants of The Baby of Mâcon (1993) - is also Greenaway's clearest and perhaps most personal statement on the nature of cinema and its roots in both picture-making and performance. With this in mind, the character of Hendrik Goltzius, the German-born Dutch painter, printmaker and engraver at the heart of this tale of intrigue and expression, becomes a prototypical-filmmaker, in much the same way that Rembrandt did in the earlier and no less fascinating Nightwatching (2007). He's also a potential surrogate for Greenaway himself, reinforcing the film's personal, crypto-autobiographical elements, wherein the character is presented as an artist struggling against financiers, critics and the scourge of censorship to achieve a vision every bit as daring, creative and revelatory as the film itself.


Medea [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969]:




In the title role, Maria Callas becomes a full force gale; her performance ably demonstrating a level of passion and pain that seems beyond conviction. As she stands rebellious in the flames of her wounded love, she defies the deceitful Jason (and by extension, the apathy of the viewing audience): "it's useless; nothing is possible now!" As a final epitaph, it captures both the sadness of a woman broken and betrayed by circumstances beyond her own control, as well as the overwhelming disappointment of the filmmaker when confronted by the corruption of a modern world closed off to the magic of myth and legend. As ever, Pasolini's depiction of pre-history is never about ornamentation or simply providing a backdrop to a dramatisation; his presentation of the past is more a reflection of the present. The vibrancy, the atmosphere, the jarring culture shock, each evoke a feeling of authenticity; it's as if Pasolini and his crew had actually ventured back in time to a particular period to record it with their handheld camera. However, this feeling of immersion is to ignore the intentional discrepancies, anachronisms and stylisations, all of which are intended to bring the story of Medea out of the world of Greek myth and into the Europe of the 1960s and beyond. The sad tale of Medea's exploitation and destruction by love, jealousy, political deceit and the cruel patriarchy (either as a character, or as a surrogate for something else), is one that continues to reverberate throughout history and in countless different guises. A powerful experience.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

A Year in Film (Part Three)


A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen


The Red Spectacles [Mamoru Oshii, 1987]:



Oshii manages to corral the influences of '60s Godard (post-modernism) and '80s Godard (poetic ennui) alongside elements of Seijun Suzuki and Jerry Lewis; finding a middle-ground between the pop-art sci-fi reportage of Alphaville (1965) and the comical-philosophical patchwork of Keep Your Right Up (1987) or King Lear (1987). For those that find the director's later (and for me no less essential) films to be largely humourless, self-serious ruminations on tired cyber punk concerns, The Red Spectacles is a work of genuine comic brilliance, both deadpan and slapstick; albeit, with a mystical, vaguely metaphorical climax that questions the nature of reality, existence, perception, etc. It also works as a fairly successful if academic experiment in cinematic stylisation analogous to what von Trier would attempt in films such as The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1988) and Europa (1991); in short, a gnomic synthesis between genre deconstruction, social commentary and self-referential critique.


Song of the Sea [Tomm Moore, 2014]:



A poetic, intensely lyrical family drama, which, like the greatest works of Studio Ghibli, has been sold as a conventional children's adventure story, but in reality seems a far more penetrating examination of deeply human concerns - such as bereavement, grief, abandonment and the end of childhood innocence - which will only be truly felt by an older, more sensitive audience. The imagery throughout is rich and magical, beautifully designed and animated with great imagination, but always relevant to the central story of the two children and their familiar disconnection. From the old woman transformed by the fearful children into the image of a great owl, to the lonely giant turned into a mountain by his sorceress mother so as to stop him from drowning the world in an ocean of tears, the flights of fancy only deepen the metaphorical interpretations of the work.


The Canterbury Tales [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972]:



Pasolini as the figure of Geoffrey Chaucer gives the film a more tangible through-line than his earlier, similarly picaresque but looser exploration of Boccaccio's The Decameron (1971). Here, the same medley of stories - which run the gamut from satirical swipes at politics and religion to bawdy "sexcapades" and Chaplin pastiche - are tied together by the presence of Chaucer as self-reflexive surrogate for Pasolini; casting his critical eye not just over a medieval burlesque but its reflection on the modern world. The films' third act depiction of Hell as a surreal Hieronymus Bosch-like fantasia elevates the work above the level of the "merely great" to the realms of absolute genius! One of the most bizarre and inventive sequences Pasolini ever filmed. Lyrical, funny and disturbing in equal measure.


3 Women [Robert Altman, 1977]:



Altman's strangest film. A pre-Lynch take on Lynchian themes of dissociation, identity, alienation, the blurring of perspectives. Nods to Persona (1966) escape the curse of empty "Bergmanesque" imitation by being delivered in Altman's unique and characteristic approach; the camera drifting nomadically across complex scenes; picking out startling shots, strange objects, moments that seems inconsequential but make sense on reflection. A haunting and hypnotic work that rivals the director's earlier psychological study, Images (1972).


Nymphomaniac: Vol. I & II (Director's Cut) [Lars von Trier, 2013]:



1. Joe fashions a story from the ephemera of Seligman's room. Why? Is she telling her own story or something else? The framing device gives credence to the more preposterous moments; creates a context for Joe to indulge in fantasy but also for Seligman to interject; to deconstruct the material. In this sense the film is not just a thesis on the themes herein, but a self-reflexive study on von Trier's own methodology. 2. Joe's story about the paedophile suggests hidden implications at the end. Why is she telling these stories to Seligman? What response is she looking for and does she get it? Is the film a chronicle of one woman's self-destruction/transfiguration through sexual experience or a cruel game of deception and entrapment? I would say both. The subtleties of the ending introduce a profound degree of potential reinterpretations. 3. A pornographic variant on The Princess Bride (1987) with all of the same self-reflexive dialogues about the relationship between 'author' (Joe as surrogate for von Trier) and 'spectator' (Seligman as surrogate for the audience). However, the film is also the clearest, most penetrating iteration of the filmmaker's recent themes; depression, self-destruction, gender identity, the cruelties of nature, etc. A revelatory masterwork for von Trier.


Mr. Holmes [Bill Condon, 2015]:



While the concept of a logical Holmes encountering the one thing beyond his understanding (actual human emotion) could have been played for cheap sentimentality, Condon's film hits somewhat harder. As an investigation into memory as an effort to understand what it is to be hurt by something beyond rational comprehension, the film ably touches on issues of war, genocide, failure and grief in a profound and hugely compelling way; deconstructing the notion of the procedural (or, more plainly, the detective story) until it becomes a penetrating and insightful rumination on age, memory, experience, repentance and the inability to let go.


Welcome to New York [Abel Ferrara, 2014]:



A fearless political commentary disguised as psychological examination. Ferrara uses his Strauss-Kahn facsimile as personification of both the financial crisis and the attitude of those in positions of power; here protected by laws that leave them free to use and abuse the lowest rung of society. The character, like the condition itself, becomes a wild animal; pawing and groping his way through the culture made flesh; consuming everything. The resulting arrest and trial is like an indictment against the city itself; that inbuilt corruption of money as something above the safeguarding of actual human experience that allows all other levels of corruption to be maintained. Anchored by Depardieu's grotesque, violent performance, and a series of penetrating dialogues that hint at the true circumstances at play, Welcome to New York is arguably Ferrara's most powerful and necessary work.


Phantom of the Paradise [Brian De Palma, 1974]:



De Palma buries a personal commentary on creative freedom and the exploitation of the artist beneath a post-modern blend of Goethe and Leroux, camp B-movie horror and exaggerated glam rock. Peppered with additional nods to silent comedy, Hitchcock (naturally) and Welles - to say nothing of a frenzied, faux-reportage climax that deconstructs the line between fiction and reality, and reminds the viewer of the counter-culture experimentation of the filmmaker's earlier, much underrated Dionysus in '69 (1970) - the film works both as a vicious music business satire and as a dazzling phantasmagoria, full of heightened emotions, bold imagery and clever storytelling. The intelligent, self-reflexive soundtrack by Paul Williams is without question one of the films greatest assets.


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne [Walerian Borowczyk, 1981]:



Here, lurid exploitation meets art-house exploration, blending slasher movie tropes and soft-core/soft-focus sexuality with deeper philosophical questions regarding social identity, transgression and the 'beast within.' The atmosphere is evocative of the adult fairy tales of Rolin and Argento, such as The Iron Rose (1973) and Suspiria (1977) to name just two, but taken to a level of frenzied sexuality and heightened violence that only compliments the films' rich psychological themes. The combination of the baroque and the brutal is no less beautiful and atmospheric than in a film like Neil Jordan's later masterpiece of 80s meta-horror, The Company of Wolves (1984); another mesmerising and unsettling work of dreamlike psychosexual surrealism.


L'argent [Robert Bresson, 1983]:




A film less about 'money' or its power to corrupt or debase, than a film about actions and their consequences. A good man is very gradually turned into a criminal by the dishonesty and villainy of the world around him. As such, the man is less an individual than a reflection of his own society. Bresson's characteristically austere approach is perfectly suited to this story of dehumanisation; where even a third act atrocity is presented without sensationalism or melodramatic excess. As political commentary, the film very subtly communicates the ironies of criminality; that those who initiated the chain of events receive little to no punishment, while those on the bottom rung of society are forced to suffer a genuine humiliation, speaks volumes. More than anything, Bresson's masterpiece embodies the philosophy of Godard's 'Uncle Jeannot' character from his First Name, Carmen (1983); "when shit's worth money, the poor won't have assholes." A work of art.

Monday, 11 January 2016

A Year in Film (Part Four)


A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen


The Visit [M. Night Shyamalan, 2015]:



1. A scatological lampoon of dysfunctional domesticity; the gross-out depiction of a rural Americana as seen through the demented eyes of Nana and Pop-Pop recalling the uncomfortable suburban nightmares of Todd Solondz and (occasionally) David Lynch. 2. A mock-documentary fairy story that deconstructs its own conventions through the interaction between characters, further draped in the guise of a Joe Dante style children's survival drama, where serious things are stated without the need to become serious. 3. A semi-autobiographical 'film about filmmaking', in which the director splits his auteurist "id" between his two adolescent characters; the quiet and sensitive Becca, who sees poetry in the landscape and aims to make a film that will heal parental wounds, and the brash and narcissistic Tyler, who only hopes to see his name trending through social media. 5. A film about forgiveness of the "self" and Shyamalan's first masterpiece in (nearly) a decade.


Far from the Madding Crowd [John Schlesinger, 1967]:



Much of what makes the film astounding is not its translation of Hardy's text into cinematic narrative, but the depiction of a rural lifestyle that throbs with a pastoral, primal beauty. Scenes on the farm and the interactions between characters - either eating, drinking or enjoying the simple pleasures of life, the daily grind - anticipates something along the lines of Pasolini and his bucolic trilogy of life; more specifically, his masterpiece The Canterbury Tales (1972). Far greater than any conventional literary melodrama adapted from a similar source, Schlesinger's film becomes a hymn to the splendour of nature, colour and the drama of the changing light.


The Steel Helmet [Samuel Fuller, 1951]:



Few films on the subject of war are so brazen in their condemnation of the futility of conflict and all of its inherent prejudices, while still managing to pay tribute to the heroism of those that take part. Fuller's film might not compete with the spectacle of more recent efforts, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), nor the subversive satirical bite of a masterpiece like the Vietnam-eta Full Metal Jacket (1987), but the depth of its ideas and the sensitivity of its intentions are well beyond the level of contemporary example.


Cover Girl [Charles Vidor, 1944]:



A film about objectification, desire, ambition, regret, jealousy, the thrill of performance; about doing something for the love of it and not just for the fame. On-stage drama spills out behind the scenes; a sense of joie de vivre envelopes both audience and protagonists, finding hope in the hopelessness, beauty in tragedy; traces of Cocteau (as Kelly breaks the mirrored illusion of the surrogate screen to free himself of the "id") and pure romanticism lead to a visual spectacle far greater than anything in today's computer generated blockbusters. If nothing else, Cover Girl illustrates the lost art of "performance" as its own special effect.


The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Part 1: The Moab Story [Peter Greenaway, 2003]:



Every sound and image is presented as a series of layered reflections; depicting the surface (the conventional narrative, which is enthralling throughout) but also the subtext, and a deconstruction of the form. Actual history is interwoven with fact and fiction, fantasy and autobiography, as well as Greenaway's continual obsession with the various ephemera of lists and numerical miscellanea, all adding up to a vast but never alienating compendium of sights, sounds and cinematic textures all working in service of a funny and fascinating tale. The film, even without the benefit of its concluding chapters, Vaux to the Sea (2004) and From Sark to the Finish (2004), is nothing less than a total reinvention of the language of cinema.


Hard to Be a God [Aleksey German, 2013]:



Falling somewhere between the immersive, mystical meditations of filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Tarr and the surreal, allegorical weirdness of Boorman's similarly satirical Zardoz (1974), German's long in production passion project is a film effectively about the nature of existence. More specifically, about the propensity of the species to find new and ever more cruel ways of decimating itself throughout the course history, only to then reassemble itself and repeat the same mistakes. Unsurprisingly, this is a unique, one of a kind film. At once frustrating, disorienting, profound, silly, revolting, even sublime! As director, German denies the audience everything one might find necessary to understanding his drama or identifying with his central characters; forgoing even the most basic of exposition and even allowing important narrative developments occur off-screen. Conventional ratings seem irrelevant here; love it or hate it, this is a truly immersive and original work; once seen, never forgotten.


Walker [Alex Cox, 1987]:



Anchored by a powerful performance from Ed Harris in the title role, director Cox's anarchic and imaginative political commentary on U.S. imperialism in Nicaragua has lost none of its satirical significance or relevance in the era directly following the Iraq war. Much of the film's blending of slow-mo Peckinpah inspired carnage and in-depth social discourse could be seen as precursor to a film like Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012), where post-modern lifts from cult genre cinema are used to create a self-reflexive parallel between the past and the present/fiction and reality/etc, but all delivered with a far greater level of intelligence, integrity and scope.


Grizzly Man [Werner Herzog, 2005]:



In the tragic tale of Timothy Treadwell, Herzog finds his archetypical "hero"; a man like Aguirre, Woyzeck or Kaspar Hauser driven mad by the modern world; losing himself a fabled landscape that seems as if disconnected from time; his insanity propelling him on a fated journey towards self-destruction. Herzog's innate respect for Treadwell and his refusal to condemn the man's actions or the course of events ensure that the film works more as a found-footage variant on the filmmaker's usual themes of man's place in the wilderness, survival and the nature of the "outsider" within society (as illustrated in the titles above) and less as conventional documentary intended to educate, critique or surmise. A fascinating and frequently heart-breaking look into the fragility of the human psyche and the mysteries of the natural world.


Pistol Opera [Seijun Suzuki, 2001]:



Suzuki is one of the cinema's preeminent formalists; a filmmaker capable of elevating even the most hackneyed of B-movie narratives to a level of audio-visual art. Here he turns in a psychedelic Rorschach test that could have been described as "modern Godard remaking '60s Godard" (to establish a prevailing if limiting cinematic shorthand), if only for the fact that the film itself is pure Suzuki; in short, a loose remake of the filmmaker's own new wave masterpiece Branded to Kill (1967). However, like late-period Godard, Pistol Opera is a work of genuine modern art; a movie where light, colour, sound, editing, design and composition are as essential to the expression as its baffling and labyrinthine plot.


Unforgiven [Clint Eastwood, 1992]:




The final statement of Eastwood as orator of the American west. His character here is like a cross-section of all his past protagonists, creating a sense of the concluding chapter of a career-long journey, from innocence into the abyss. From Rowdy Yates to "the man with no name", from Josey Wales to the Pale Rider, this is a man who has committed the worst violence and atrocity and found himself transformed by it; a man striving to find peace but gradually being pulled back into the brutality and the blood-shed. At its core, the film is a meditation on violence and revenge; the morality of murder as a cold-blooded act committed by cold-blooded people, regardless of how valiantly one might attempt to justify it as an act of vengeance. The morality of trying to maintain a semblance of "life" in the face of a death, and violence that leaves scars, both physical and mental. A monumental film.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Francis Ford Coppola - Part Three


A personal ranking of his greatest films


11. Dementia 13 [1963]


Image: A family facing death.  The unity of "the family" (pre-Mafia) and the spectre of death that comes between them.

For directors that don't find an audience until two or three features in their career (sometimes more than that), the critical reaction is often to reduce those early films to the level of vague curiosities; strange artefacts denied the right to ever be approached as legitimate films without comparison to the work that eventually followed.  How often is Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967) acknowledged as the first Scorsese?  The Delinquents (1957) as the first Altman?  Loving Memory (1971) as the first Tony Scott?  Hardly ever, if even at all.  The positive attributes of these movies - ignored at the time as the work of any other anonymous first-time "auteur" unworthy of attention or acclaim - are dwarfed by the success of later films, such as Mean Streets (1973), MASH (1970) and Top Gun (1986), where the cultural identity of the individual director was now apparent and fully formed.  The tragedy of this is that most first-features provide a skeleton key to unlocking the various secrets of a filmmaker's subsequent work; contextualising not just those films that were able to break through the barriers of popular culture and the vagaries of public taste, but also the perceived failures; the films that flew too close to the sun and as such were denigrated and defamed by critics for an assortment of subjective rationale.

To use a more recent example, the current ideological approach to the films of M. Night Shyamalan is to view each new film as a kind of competitive sequel to The Sixth Sense (1999).  Audiences go into these films looking for something that plays to the conventions of a recognisable genre (there, the supernatural mystery) when it would be far more beneficial to see the work as a continuation of the same semi-autobiographical thread that was forged in his very first feature, Praying with Anger (1992); a naive "confessional" in which the young filmmaker exposed his deepest passions and fears, while at the same time creating a drama that was rich in sensitivity, pathos and wit.  A film where the influence of the supernatural was both cultural and spiritual, and not just there to placate classifications of genre.  The same is true of a film like Dementia 13; a beautifully shot gothic horror story that works to the influences of Clouzot's Les diaboliques (1955) and Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), while also introducing several themes (such as the thread of familial dysfunction, as well as the line between passion and insanity) that would continue throughout the director's subsequent work.  For instance, here the struggle of three brothers against the experiences and expectations of a woman from the outside initiated into this strange domestic unit provides a blueprint for the filmmaker's era-defining landmark The Godfather (1972), while the generally macabre atmosphere and the film's fevered stylisations would in turn infiltrate the subject-matter and approach of both Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) and Twixt (2011) respectively.

While frequently dismissed as little more than cheap schlock - especially in light of Coppola's later acclaim - Dementia 13 is no less a "complete" film and an entirely compelling one.  The gothic ambiance is stylish and otherworldly, the story is interesting and genuinely engaging, while the psychology of the mysterious killer is well developed and fascinating in its inevitable revelation.  More so, the film is significant (in my view, at least) as a precursor to the sub-genre of Italian murder mysteries known internationally as the "giallo" (or "gialli", as plural).  For many critics, the first acknowledged giallo was Mario Bava's excellent Hitchcockian thriller, The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963).  However, with its flashbacks to a tragic event as expressive of the killer's tortured psyche, as well as the more conventional presentation of women in peril and characters who seem compelled to become amateur sleuths in an effort to solve the crime, so much of Dementia 13 seems to set a template for the later films of Dario Argento, such as Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), and his masterworks Deep Red (1975) and Tenebrae (1982).  While less refined or as technically grandstanding as Argento's classics, Dementia 13 is no less a remarkable achievement from the very young Coppola; a film that succeeds as a visually captivating and often chilling murder mystery, but also provides a much needed element of psychological depth.

____________________________________________________


12. The Rain People [1969]


Image: The characters divided; unable, physically and metaphorically, to connect.

Coppola's return to low-budget independent filmmaking following his Hollywood excursion with the flawed and forgettable Finian's Rainbow (1968) is a stripped back, minimalist character study that seems to anticipate a certain kind of movie that would become more popular during the ensuing decade.  Shades of everything from Five Easy Pieces (1970) to Bleak Moments (1971) to The Sugarland Express (1974) to Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) to Blue Collar (1978) can be found in the film's unflinching observation of tortured, inarticulate characters at war with themselves and those closest to them.  It's that same spirit of disenchantment that propelled a film like Easy Rider (1969) to investigate the broken heart of the American dream from the perspective of those most burned by the disappointment of its empty promises.  But while Easy Rider was a film looking out at a country lost and delirious, Coppola's characters are trapped by their own circumstances; bound by their bodies and their limitations and their relationships; the personal and private struggle(s) becoming less of a commentary on the state of the country in the final throes of the turbulent '60s than a personification of it.

It's a film I haven't seen in many years - first discovering it at around the age of fourteen and being surprised because (in those pre-IMDb days) I'd mistakenly assumed The Godfather (1972) was Coppola's debut - but the sense of bitterness, the conflict and the discontent that eats away at these characters and pushes the drama towards an accumulative air of hopeless desperation has stayed with me, even if many of the broader or more central elements of the plot have long since faded from view.  I remember my initial disappointment that the film wasn't shot in that hallucinatory, illusory Coppola style (made familiar through his subsequent work on Apocalypse Now, Rumble Fish and Dracula; all personal favourites at the time), but on reflection I came to see its fragile, withdrawn, subtle and naturalistic approach as a precursor to that of the filmmaker's later masterpiece, The Conversation (1974).  There as well as here, Coppola evokes a feeling of characters too brittle and self-conscious to survive in a world so harsh and impersonal; the sense of drama resulting less from their natural human instinct to connect than their inability to reach out, to find a happiness in the embrace of someone else.

In re-watching short clips of the film in preparation for this post, I was reminded of so many things that impressed me when seeing the film at a younger age.  The vulnerability of the central character - her proto-"feminist" search for identity; to find a place of her own - is hugely compelling, in part because of Coppola's unsung talent as a dramatist, capable of translating complex thoughts and emotions into images and scenes, but also because the character is brought to life so vividly and sympathetically by the actress Shirley Knight that her journey - emotional as well as geographical - connects to whatever feelings of disappointment or frustration that might be carried by the viewing audience.  Here, the experience of the film and the perspective of its central characters is beautifully defined by its poetic and evocative title.  The Rain People (as opposed to "the sunshine people") because these are characters battered beneath a black cloud, forever grey and dismal; but also in the sense that these are characters, like the rain, somewhat intangible or elusive; there one minute, gone the next.  As characters, they become like the drips and puddles left behind in the wake of a torrential storm; the only physical reminders of an all too brief yet tumultuous existence.

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13. Peggy Sue Got Married [1986]


Image: Peggy Sue Through the Looking-Glass.  A vision, trapped between dream and memory.

Besides the contentious Jack (1996) - a film that even I dislike! - the wistful and innocent fantasy of Peggy Sue Got Married seems perhaps the most vehemently dismissed and debated of all Coppola's films from that difficult period, roughly 1984 to 1997, wherein the filmmaker worked simply to pay off his debts.  While subsequent efforts like Gardens of Stone (1987) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) are largely ignored or passed over - with the no less controversial The Godfather: Part III (1990) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) appealing mostly to their respective cults - the film in question is too often seen as a vague triviality; a trifle unworthy of Coppola's greater stature.  I think this is unfair, since the film is genuinely entertaining and enlivened by Coppola's always interesting stylistic experiments and his very genuine engagement with the predicament of the central character.  While it would have been very easy for Coppola to play the film as tongue in cheek - presenting its nostalgic view of the 1960s as an "aww shucks!" time capsule, where everything is fine and dandy - the screenwriters, Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner, instead make the character of Peggy Sue self-aware enough that she is able to recognise (with the hindsight of an adult-life) the real concerns and calamities that - in our formative years - dictate the type of person we eventually become.

In contrast to a more successful film, like Back to the Future (1985) by Robert Zemeckis, where the reconstruction of the 1950s seemed like a pastiche of an old TV sitcom (with only a few jarring incongruities used to provide ironic laughs), the façade of late '50s/early '60s Americana is here transformed by the central character's ability to see through the lies and promises that her teenage-self once blindly accepted to be the foundations for a successful, well adjusted life.  As a result, there are genuine pangs of both sadness and regret that weave their way through the romantic comic-fantasy; where the anxieties, disillusionment and disappointment of the middle-aged Peggy Sue is projected onto her surroundings, exposing the youthful idyll for what it really is.  In this regard, the film is operating on two separate levels.  On one, it presents itself as a conventional fantasy, in which the character is genuinely transported back through time in order to glean some greater understanding that will work to alter the course of her more fruitless existence in the present-day (creating a modern parallel to both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz), while on the other level presenting an appropriation of the past as an extended psychodrama; where everything that happens on screen is essentially confined to the parameters of the character's own unconscious mind.

The audience is free to create their own interpretation, however, for me, it's the opening shot of the film that makes obvious the intentions of the filmmaker and his immense love for the illusory aspect of cinema, and in particular its ability to transport the viewer, emotionally, geographically, or in this instance, through time!  Rather than depict the central character gazing into a mirror as one might conventionally approach it, Coppola looks back to the pure artifice of his earlier One from the Heart (1982) and composes a very obvious trick shot, in which the actress, Kathleen Turner as the titular Peggy Sue, faces the camera in a cut-out mirror façade, while a body-double with a similarly coiffed wig sits with their back to the camera, mimicking the actions of the star.  The effect is immediately obvious as the actions do not synch up, but this seems intentional, as Coppola draws the attention of the audience to the idea of pretence and imitation; where the presentation of a "magic mirror", able to depict not a reflection but a projection, becomes a shorthand for the cinema itself.  This self-reflexivity gives the film an added dimension, as its later scenes of the middle-aged Turner playing her own teenage counterpart becomes an obvious "performance", in the theatrical sense, albeit one that carries the same sensitivity and weight of actual feminist sentiment as Coppola's own fragile and reflective drama, The Rain People (1969).

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14. You're a Big Boy Now [1966]


Image: The woman objectified, displayed.  More a symbol than a character.  A personification of the movement itself.

The first scene - the first image, in fact - takes place in a cavernous study hall.  The austerity of the setting, the lack of colour, already communicates the obvious; this is a place of routines, conformity; the inertia of academia, writ large!  As the camera pushes in - moving with a rigid Kubrickian determination along a central corridor created by endless rows of desks - the audience is compelled to observe a student body incapacitated behind text books; the occasional cough and restless shuffling of bodies becoming their only conceivable protest against the stifling silence of the space.  Regardless, the camera continues its journey.  When it reaches the double doors at the far end of the room it stops, and in time with the first reverberating guitar chord of 'Girl, Beautiful Girl' by The Lovin' Spoonful, the doors erupt with a burst of colour, sexuality and astonishing rock n' roll energy.  Here, a gorgeous young waif in a bright yellow mini-dress struts confidently down the allies between tables, as the sound of swingin' pop invades the soundtrack.  This woman - this vision, radiant, resplendent - looks like she's stepped off the pages of a high-end fashion magazine, as chic, modern and fashionable as the image itself.  It's a total counterpoint to the asceticism of the location; to these kids with their faces buried in books.  In a single moment, Coppola has shaken the very foundations of the establishment.

The visual metaphor - this symbol of conservative middle-America; the university as bastion of the new status quo electrified into consciousness by a new (European) sensibility - is also a prelude to the plot in miniature; the seduction of the audience as precursor to the seduction of the central character.  In addition, the sequence is also a commentary on the state of American cinema, as a kind of self-aware critique.  In the image of this study hall - which, in presentation, is more like a museum; a place where dead objects are laid out as a reminder of a life no longer lived - Coppola is personifying the contemporary America cinema as a place numbed into a sedate oblivion.  The woman, with her confident attitude, high style and air of exotic inaccessibility, is like the invading cinema of Antonioni, Fellini, Bertolucci, Godard, etc.  In pursuit of this character, the protagonist becomes a mirror to Coppola himself, whose early passion for American theatre was energised by his discovery of these comparatively more daring, exciting and provocative filmmakers emerging from France, Italy and Japan.

In attempting to meld the conventions of the traditional all-American love story with the foundations of the then-contemporary European "art-cinema" movement, Coppola is once again showing himself to be an innovator.  While Dementia 13 (1963) can be seen as a prototype of the Italian "giallo" - its blondes in peril, amateur sleuths, sympathetic killer and flashbacks to a tragic event informing everything from Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) to Deep Red (1975) - and The Rain People (1969) created the foundation for a decade's worth of penetrating, intimate or observational character dramas, like Five Easy Pieces (1970), Two-Lane Black Top (1971) and Scarecrow (1973), the film in question finds Coppola uniting an American tale of boy meets girl with a cool and stylish European surface a full year before the greater success of landmark "new Hollywood" movies Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (also '67).  However, what defines the work more than its unsung position as precursor to the counter-culture renaissance of American film, is its sense of vivacity and colour.  The film is a tremendous joy throughout, capturing in its simple tale the escapism and creative freedom that one associates with both the spirit of youth and the pop cinema of the 1960s, but with a biting undercurrent implicit in the filmmaker's questioning of the tangibility of these impossible dreams against the all too reassuring (and achievable) reality.

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15. Dracula [1992]


Image: The Count returning from battle; already haunted by his lost Elisabeta.

On the surface, this is a problematic film.  Problematic in the sense that its tonality is inconsistent.  The performances range from the wooden to the histrionic.  The dialogue is frequently clumsy, the delivery even worse; a combination of stilted English affectation and garbled Eastern European hilarity.  The pacing is rushed; scenes blurring into one another, stumbling between moments, fighting for attention.  The entire thing becomes more like a confused reverie than something that takes its time to breathe, to settle; to allow the audience to savour the atmosphere that Coppola so vividly creates, the imagery that he so meticulously evokes.  And yet it's a film that remains entirely fascinating, thrilling and often quite affecting.  This is the reckless and hallucinatory Coppola of films like Apocalypse Now (1979), One from the Heart (1982) and Rumble Fish (1983) let loose on a story that is rich in imagination, magical realism and an air of the fantastique.  A story that allows its author to unleash an arsenal of filmmaking techniques, trick shots and expressive stylisations, to create a feeling of the supernatural unleashing its influence across every aspect of the film.

To find an emotional centre to anchor this explosion of theatrical decadence and flamboyant mise-en-scène, Coppola and his collaborators approach the film, not as a more conventional horror movie (although the lashings of violence and the hideous creature effects play well to the requirements of the genre), but as a romantic melodrama.  Here, the intensity of the imagery and the violence of its sexuality are each intended to express the psychological wounds of the central character, destroyed and turned monstrous by the loss of his greatest love.  In this conception, the obsessive courtship between the mysterious Count Dracula and the English belle Mina Murray becomes an attempt by the antagonist to reclaim, in part (from the image of Mina), the memory of his lost Elisabeta.  From this, the film is something of a precursor to the director's later work, Youth Without You (2007), in which another aging European cheats death by becoming young again, and finds in his courtship with an enigmatic woman of inexplicable origin a reminder of a long lost love.  In Dracula, it is this loss that drives the film, defined as it is by an amazing prologue, in which the Count, returning from battle to find the aftermath of Elisabeta's betrayal as pitiless suicide, rejects Christ and turns to darker, more elemental forces, which consign him to a living death (his ensuing pursuit of Mina, as such, becoming more a chance at redemption than another insidious or supernatural possession).

Ultimately the film is more successful as a meditation on obsessive or undying love - or the idea of lovers finding a reflection of one another through the ages; see also Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) - than as a faithful adaptation of the Bram Stoker text; but there are additional ideas here that are equally compelling, and in a large way recompense some of the film's more glaring weaknesses.  For instance, one of the more interesting innovations of the film (and one not often brought up in discussion) is the way Coppola equates the arrival of Dracula with the various advances in late nineteenth century technology; the cinema included.  Through this, Coppola and his screenwriter James V. Hart posit the idea of Dracula as somehow representative of these greater changes (which would - in the course of time - usher in new and exciting ways of looking at medicine, psychology, travel, art, religion, anthropology, sexuality, etc).  If the influence of these greater changes would impact on the development of the twentieth century then the depravity and carnality of the Dracula character likewise work to infect and eventually destroy the puritanical, deeply superstitious Victorian society of the film's setting, thus making possible the more progressive attitudes of the subsequent age.