Thursday, May 26, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "Film Theories"

To be completely honest, the list of films that I watched for Film Theories is a fairly rudimentary list for such a class. The purpose of this class was to introduce students to major strands of film theory, such as Soviet montage, neorealism, semiotics, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, and postmodernism. All of which are important theories, certainly, and for an introductory class it certainly makes sense to link psychoanalysis with Hitchcock or genre theory with The Searchers. But with only a handful of exceptions, the screening list left a little to be desired.

Not that there aren't great films on this list; there's a reason why these particular films have stood the test of time. I, personally, just hoped for more curveballs like the final two films on this list.

Links go to corresponding articles that I've previously written on the film.

Battleship Potemkin (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

Eisenstein's film remains a landmark of Soviet montage and is a masterclass in how editing creates meaning. But, truth be told, Potemkin works better as an introduction to the ideas of montage and propaganda filmmaking. Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) is a better example of everything that editing can accomplish.

The Bicycle Thief (dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1947)

Often viewed as the quintessential Italian neorealist film, De Sica's tale of an ordinary man (Lamberto Maggiorani, a first-time actor) desperately trying to recover his stolen bicycle in post-war Rome nevertheless still tugs the heartstrings. It's a sentimental film that is never too saccharine or syrupy.

Imitation of Life (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1959)

Though I will admit that, upon second viewing, my estimation of Sirk's classic melodrama has waned, Imitation of Life is still a fine example of Hollywood's ability to produce cathartic films that are as emotionally manipulative as they are extravagantly constructed. No matter how over-the-top the performances go, Sarah Jane's (Susan Kohner) goodbye to the mother (Juanita Moore) she always denied nevertheless brings on floods of tears.

More after the jump.

Caché (dir. Michael Haneke, 2005)

Caché may very well be Haneke's masterpiece. The film follows a privileged Parisian family - Georges (Daniel Auteuil), Anne (Juliette Binoche), and their son Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky) - as they attempt to figure out the purpose of the mysterious videotapes being left outside their home. The answer has something to do with Majid (Maurice Bénachou), a figure from Georges' past. At once an allegory for the violent history of French-Algerian relations, a taut thriller, and study in digital filmmaking (at a time when the format was still relatively new), Haneke's film is fascinating and important.

Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

In a career full of voyeuristic films, Rear Window may be Hitchcock's most obviously voyeuristic. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly make a fine pair of dysfunctional amateur sleuths, behaving like an even more neurotic Nick and Nora. The big reveal is no big surprise, but it's worth watching for some of Hitchcock's most playful direction.

The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956)

The quintessential John Ford/John Wayne Western: the breathtaking vistas of Monument Valley, the swelling score, the rugged performance from Wayne, and the uneasy racism inherent in the "cowboys versus Indians" conflict. The Searchers, however, is a stealth tragedy, depicting the toll the oater life takes on its "hero" and the consequences of trying to tame such an inhospitable land. It may not be Ford and Wayne's best collaboration, but it is certainly their most complex.

Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)

Ridley Scott wasn't the first filmmaker to combine science fiction with film noir, but he arguably perfected it. Harrison Ford's movie-star performance is outdone only by Rutger Hauer's magnetic (and oddly attractive) intensity, while the film's visual palette is strikingly modern and nostalgic. Though the theatrical cut's voiceover is in tune with the noir elements, the director's cut's ending feels more natural for the film's thematic content. Both are worth seeing.

Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Whether or not you've ever seen Psycho, you know Psycho. The name Norman Bates matched with Anthony Perkins' boyish face. Bernard Herrman's shrieking string score. The infamous shower scene and Janet Leigh's terrified visage. "A boy's best friend is his mother." Do yourself a favor, if you haven't seen it, and watch. There's a reason you already know it.

Mulholland Dr. (dir. David Lynch, 2001)

I'm now at least five viewings in on Lynch's masterful head-scratcher, and I am no closer to understanding what the film is about. And you know what? That's okay. Mulholland Dr. works best as a puzzle that can't totally be solved, inviting viewers into the dreamlike world in which fresh-faced actress Betty (Naomi Watts) helps amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring) figure out who she is and director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) experiences several horrible days. Frustration is part of the fun; let your senses guide you through the film. And if you think you've figured it out? Silencio!

Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009)

The first time I saw Avatar (check that link for my review), I was pretty high on it. So much so that I declared it "the Star Wars of our time," apparently naively believing that no one would ever make more Star Wars movies (I didn't understand how money works, I guess). Subsequent viewings have not been kind to my previous assessment, even if they confirm many of the kind things I said about it in 2010. Yes, the film is a visual feast, proving Cameron's mastery of spectacle and digital creations. Yet, if you're not seeing it the way it's meant to be seen - on an enormous screen in 3D - then it just doesn't captivate. This is a film that's designed to be immersive, not simply watched. That's its greatest strength and most glaring flaw.

The Act of Killing (dirs. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous, 2012)

Oppenheimer, et. al.'s bone-chilling documentary about the perpetrators of the anti-Communist genocide in Indonesia in the 1960s is a triumph of nonfiction filmmaking. By allowing the perpetrators to tell their own stories, the film holds them accountable for their actions by allowing them to recreate their killings in Hollywood styles. The film's main subject, Anwar Congo, proves to be a terrifying and fascinating subject, a perfect entryway into this horrifying event. The film - and it's  victim-focused follow-up, The Look of Silence (2014) - are essential viewing.

Ten (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)

Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami has made several films over the course of his career that confound audience expectations and question filmic veracity: Close-Up (1990) and Certified Copy (2010) are among his most famous films. Ten is closer to the former than the latter. Shot on a digital camera placed inside of a car, the film is told in ten vignettes and focuses on a driver (Mania Akbari) as she argues with her young son (Amin Maher) and picks up various passengers. At once a fascinating narrative experiment and an examination of the female experience in modern Iran, the film is an engaging experience of the possibilities of cinema.

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