The Great Movie List: A Theory of Everything

Cultural themes via great moving pictures, or programming ideas for the aspiring independent movie theater owner.

Top Ten Double or Triple Features

  1. America the Barbaric: Citizen Kane (1941), Do the Right Thing (1989), This is America (2018)
    The status quo great American metaphor might still be the “shining city on a hill”. Today we read more about actual fortified hilltop bunkers built by HNWI (high-net-worth individuals) far from big cities, as recently documented everywhere (Survival of the Richest, “Masque of the Red Death” from Radicalized by Cory Doctorow, Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich). Maybe the bunkers are built underground or in old missile silos. Maybe there are electrified gates and weapons of mass destruction aimed through old school embrasures. Maybe there are moats and drawbridges. Less a metaphor than an early warning alarm for the rest of us. The aspirational American Dream is now to make enough money to hunker down in New Zealand, accessible only by private helicopter.

    Here’s a new American metaphor: a great big hedge maze with some kind of prize at its center. A sports pitch for the class-based competitions of Hunger Games and The Maze Runner. The goal? Maybe to get to the center, but, alternatively, to get out. Neither is easy. Your starting position is where you were born; some very few start at the center, many more much further from the center. Then there are outsiders trying to get in. The trick to surviving in America, if it itself survives, may be recognizing and negotiating an economic and social labyrinth. Finding your way to the center is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible.

    … half of American adults have been “completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s.” Approximately a hundred and seventeen million people earn, on average, the same income that they did in 1980, while the typical income for the top one per cent has nearly tripled. ~ Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich

    This simplistic maze analogy is obscured by deeply-ingrained, simplistic myths. Capitalism. The free market. Bootstrap economics. But, this maze persists because of multi-generational owners maintaining their status as owners and multi-generational workers remaining workers, a paradigm established with slavery. We could say that the maze is constantly adapting as family money accumulates and dissipates and power dynamics change, and the paths through the maze must be continuously remapped, but the maze endures because of perpetual roles: the affluent 1% and everyone else. Systems like Rentier Capitalism keep most of us as close to poverty conditions as possible. The aflluent maintain institutionalized patriarchal and racist structures to generate an endless supply of working class. The affluent myopically build their bunkers, suburban enclaves, gated mansions, and corporate entities as bastions against the 99%. We intermittently and ineffectively rebel. The affluent respond by shifting the walls of the maze; changing the rules, creating new shell games, pushing dividend recapitalisations, allowing wages to stagnate while healthcare and housing costs rise, turning free labor into high-priced items, building up a police state, emboldening racists, escalating gun sales, disappearing immigrants, etc.. This all furthers the status quo.

    Donald Childish Gambino Glover’s This is America says all this in a few short minutes.

    Orson Welles and Spike Lee, a half decade apart and coming from not completely but still pretty much diametrically opposed origins, in many ways sketch the same America, a maze of extreme capitalism, or crony capitalism, or late-stage capitalism. An Econ 101 course could do far worse than make Citizen Kane and Do the Right Thing required viewing. The two films together paint a fuller picture of the complexities of America than either one alone. Welles and Lee build worlds highlighting insular American cultural scenes, create innovative shots and exaggerated compositions and edit elastically and play with conventions. And they both put an actor/director turn at the center of their films. Kane and Mookie, respectively, stand-out as trickster gods or agents of chaos in their stories, at least for moments, and in so doing delineate the elementary extremes of the societies filling their backdrops.

    Lee makes in-your-face introductions to more than a dozen characters, the owners and customers of a Brooklyn pizzeria, through the course of a very hot day in which tensions flare. Mookie travels between all these parties, negotiating the White rage of his employers and the Black outrage of his neighbors. Mookie plays both sides so that he can feed his family. We find him both diffusing fights with a humanistic camaraderie and ultimately lighting the fuse of the most significant blow to one of the neighborhood’s main examples of white hegemony. He’s joyous, intellectual and dignified, if a little benignly selfish, somehow surviving on a few hundred bucks a week while motivated by ambitions rooted in the American Dream, and Lee, positioning Mookie between Malcom X and MLK’s diverging approaches to social inequality, offers no solution other than malleable tenacity. All the characters have strategies but no one has answers. Economically-speaking, this is the view from the bottom 99% of our country looking up.

    The power dynamics of Do the Right Thing are fascinating. The white pizzeria owners are Italian American immigrants using the imagery of Italian American success to proclaim their authority. The other business owners in the neighborhood are Korean. In the context of the haves and have-nots of the neighborhood the newer immigrants are the haves. But from the point of view of tycoons in Manhattan skyscrapers looking out across the East River, everyone living in Brooklyn between 1941 and 1989, except maybe for the Larry Bird-loving gentrification bro, are outside the maze.

    Citizen Kane is all top down. Welles’ Charles Foster Kane, like Mookie, is a scoundrel with a gentle disrespect for cultural customs. While Mookie is trapped by economic limitations, though, Kane is trapped by his seemingly-destined role as white hegemony personified. Race, of course, is not a significant component of Citizen Kane, but class certainly is. The film basically tracks the tragedy of the richest man in America, “America’s Kublai Khan”, a William Randolph Hearst stand-in, who abandons his principles. Kane in his youth uses yellow journalism to attack Wall Street, the hand that feeds him, and to “look after the interests of the underprivileged”. His newspaper’s first issue runs his “Declaration of Principles”, directly written with the citizens of neighborhoods like Bedford–Stuyvesant in mind. Years pass and we find him using the principles as empty campaign promises. Kane plays both sides, too, to ultimately fuel a brittle ego. “He never believed in anything except Charlie Kane. He never had a conviction except Charlie Kane in his life.”

    In the hierarchy of archetypes defined by Do the Right Thing, Kane is kind of Lee’s pizzeria owner Sal, or Sal’s more racist son Pino, i.e. the figures at the top of the food chain, so to speak, but maximized, elevated from neighborhoods and tenements, and from owning and running or inheriting a pizza joint in an under-served community, to inheriting and running a newspaper empire and living in walled-off estates. The young Kane mirrors Mookie’s joy, a carefree and self-satisfied joy that basically embodies the American Dream, but like Sal and Pino his ambitions come with a lucky inheritance, a particular racial profile and thus realizable opportunities. Welles carefully reveals the course of his industrialist’s life from poverty to excess through a reporter’s interviews with the people who got trapped in his wake. As Kane gets more powerful, he destroys more people. He strays from basic humanism as consumerist urges corrupt his soul.

    Citizen Kane is a propaganda tool, though. It serves to pacify the masses. It says the winners are miserable; the American Dream is a lie; if you’re losing don’t worry about it because the ability to accumulate whatever you want represents a maze with no center, a labyrinthine meaninglessness. The classical Greek labyrinth was a prison designed to hold the Minotaur, an additional deep-rooted negative connotation of a place you don’t want to be trapped within. And Citizen Kane opens and closes like a horror film, with Bernard Herrmann’s musical compositions akin to those found in Universal monster movies, with creepy noir montages of a castle, the black smoke from the cremation of a mystery object and the death rattle of our protagonist as a monster.

    It’s an entirely superficial premise. In real life industrial capitalists enjoy the best this world has to offer and can eff off to their vacation bunkers when the world they’ve been slowly destroying finally comes crashing down. And what we find, in actuality, all around us, and in the cartoon agitprop of Do the Right Thing and This is America, is an ever more evident control state and Grifter Capitalism’s many many victims.

    Victims, but also angels, the creators of one of the true American art forms. “… at the center of culture but the edge of society…” as author Alex Ross writes about Arnold Schoenberg and Viennese Jews on the eve of Nazism in “The Rest Is Noise”. Samuel L. Jackson’s Mister Señor Love Daddy lists the accomplishments:

    WE LOVE ROLL CALL, Y’ALL! Boogie Down Productions, Rob Base, Dana Dane, Marley Marl, Olatunji, Chuck D, Ray Charles, EPMD, EU, Alberta Hunter, Run-D.M.C., Stetsasonic, Sugar Bear, John Coltrane, Big Daddy Kane, Salt-n-Pepa, Luther Vandross, McCoy Tyner, Biz Markie, New Edition, Otis Redding, Anita Baker, Thelonious Monk, Marcus Miller, Branford Marsalis, James Brown, Wayne Shorter, Tracy Chapman, Miles Davis, Force MDs, Oliver Nelson, Fred Wesley, Maceo, Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, George Clinton, Count Basie, Mtume, Stevie Wonder, Bobby McFerrin, Dexter Gordon, Sam Cooke, Parliament-Funkadelic, Al Jarreau, Teddy Pendergrass, Joe Williams, Wynton Marsalis, Phyllis Hyman, Sade, Sarah Vaughn, Roland Kirk, Keith Sweat, Kool Moe Dee, Prince, Ella Fitzgerald, Dianne Reeves, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, Bessie Smith, Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, Steel Pulse, Little Richard, Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Wilson, Cannonball AND Nat Adderley, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye, Charles Mingus AND Marion Williams. We wanna thank you all for makin’ our lives just a little brighter here on We Love Radio!

    Long live Radio Rahim.

    More: What is Rentier Capitalism?, Survival of the Richest, Radicalized by Cory Doctorow, Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich, The Enduring Urgency of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing at 30, The Shadow: A hundred years of Orson Welles, Citizen Trump: What the Donald’s love of Citizen Kane reveals about him, Citizen Kane and the meaning of Rosebud, Citizen Kane on Criterion, Do the Right Thing: Walking in Stereo, Little Known Story Behind Do the Right Thing, Roger Ebert on Do the Right Thing, Props, Things and Do the Right Thing, `Do The Right Thing` At Least Takes a Stab at Complexity, Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ video is a beautiful nightmare, Winking at Excess: Racist Kinesiologies in Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”, ‘This Is America’: Breaking down Childish Gambino’s powerful new music video, Childish Gambino shows pop music can be powerfully political despite censorship, Why White People Stay Silent on Racism, and What to Read First, Anti-Racism Bibliography Google Sheet, Victoria Alexander’s Anti-racist Reading List on Twitter, The Rise (and Fall) of Citizen Kane As the Greatest Movie Ever Made

  2. Generation Meditations: The Tree of Life (2011), Yi Yi (2000)
    The Tree of Life is Terence Malick’s most refined version of what has become a career-long experiment in his own brand of cinema. Most of his work shares commonalities with the cinéma pur movement and with city symphonies, films like Ballet Mécanique by Fernand Léger (which includes similar shots to The Tree of Life), Emak Bakia by Man Ray or Koyaanisqatsi, discussed below, characterized by a concentration on environment, light, abstract composition, camera movement and soundtrack over characters, name-brand stars, and narrative. Malick’s vision includes everything, of course. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt speak lines of dialogue, if barely. Malick takes a minimalist approach to capturing their characters, allowing a tragic event, the fragments of their thoughts in voiceover, subtle delineations of time passing, and the audience’s intense participation through a kind of abstracted compassion, to suggest a story rather than declare it explicitly with exposition. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s perhaps only through a viewer’s personal reflection on the choices of edits, and the elided shots of unexplained visuals, that meaning forms. Characters stare off into space, presumably either haunted or comforted by their memories. They are perpetually hunted in Tarkovsky-like long takes by an always drifting camera, as if new thoughts are reaching them from out of the ether. Various clues both visual and aural lead us to wonder about a parent’s fears or grief, about a boy’s impressions of his parents, about the parents as representations of Grace and Nature, about the evolution of Earth and the Afterlife.
    It’s quite beautiful and rewarding as a viewing experience if you’re invested in translating its mysteries. The Tree of Life is probably often described as pretentious. The same people will completely write off all poetry, though. The film is poetic at all times, specifically tonal, monumental, gorgeous, heartbreaking, and at times overwhelming. The lightest touch is taken to the history of the universe, filtered through a few years in the lives of a simple suburban Texan family. Somehow we are also witness to one dinosaur choosing not to kill a rival, and another dinosaur apparently admiring a sunrise. It could all mean nothing, depending on your point of view, but clearly it’s meant to mean everything, at least about the Pitt-Chastain family. The history of the universe results in one mother’s love for her children which, when you think about it from her point of view, seems like a miracle. Or, in other words, as Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady puts it:

    Alfred P. Doolittle: What’s half a crown after all I’ve give her?
    Friend: When did you ever give her anything?
    Alfred P. Doolittle: Anything? I give her everything. I give her the greatest gift any human being can ever give to another. Life. I introduced her to this here planet, I did, with all its wonders and marvels. The sun that shines, the moon that glows. Hyde Park to walk through on a fine spring night. The whole ruddy city of London to roam around in, selling her blooming flowers. I give her all that. Then I disappears and leaves her on her own to enjoy it.

  3. The Horror: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Begone Dull Care (1949), Powers of Ten (1977)
    The essential audacity at the core of 2001 is twofold. First, its four part structure, where each of the four short stories, “The Dawn of Man”, “Moon Mission”, “Jupiter Mission”, and “Jupiter and beyond infinity”, share truncated, unresolved endings and very loose, somewhat imperceptible, links to each other. Typical movie-goers, having expectations defined by classical cinema, must reorient themselves at least four times, starting with the very first frame, right from the jump, thrown into a prehistoric landscape when all the posters show spaceships. What do primitive man-apes, a reoccurring black rectangular slab (which isn’t always visually identifiable in the frame and creates a kind of negative space in the celluloid), and a long, abstract animation to close out the picture have to do with each other? It’s all completely unpredictable, and that Star Gate sequence comes so out of nowhere that it overwhelms your sense of what came before. It acts like a memory wipe. Kubrick provides no info dumps. The viewer is invited, or challenged, to tease out the connections for themselves. And, in the end, Kubrick’s aim is not to explain. Secondly, the film contains perhaps the most seminal edit of two filmed images. As critic Annette Michelson described, “Kubrick’s transformation of bone into spacecraft… inscribes, within the most spectacular ellipsis in cinematic history, nothing less than the entire trajectory of human history, the birth and evolution of Intelligence.” A simple, spectacular decision. Kubrick uses this choice of montage and his overall four episode structure to sketch out the existential horrors of metamorphosis and scale.

    2001‘s vast influence on all science fiction since rarely includes the film’s profound dislocating weirdness. Spielberg translated the shapes, colors, and score of the Star Gate sequence into all the different spaceships in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Nolan used aspects of the Star Gate to inform the black hole sequence and the four dimensional library of Interstellar. 2001‘s sound design, the creepy heavy breathing effect, the orchestral soundtrack, all repeated in Alien, along with elements of the spacecraft and spacesuits. You’ll also find its computer displays and sound effects in Blade Runner and an almost identical set and costume design — with neon lights, reflections and everything — in the Tie Fighter interiors and Tie Pilots of Star Wars and The Force Awakens, as well as the protracted flybys of spacecraft of their opening shots. 2001‘s Escher-like playfulness with autonomous zones of gravity can be found in Inception, Gravity and Dr. Strange. But most of these films strive for clarity, for classical narrative structure and a standard emotional resonance. None of these films attempt to bend the rules of what a movie is supposed to be to the degree attempted by 2001. Even the novelist behind 2001, Arthur C. Clarke, clearly didn’t understand what Kubrick crafted from his work, or he wouldn’t have approached his abomination of a sequel, 2010, by over-explaining all which is left obscure in the original. The choice to present the head trip that is the Star Gate sequence without explanation proves the absolute essentialness of preserving mystery. Created in part by Douglas Trumbull, adapting a process of photography called the “slit screen” first developed by experimental animator John Whitney for the title sequence of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the sequence clearly represents some kind of involuntary and evolutionary metamorphosis of astronaut into Star Child. As Alex Ross points out in “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” (2007), Kubric opens his film with the mass appeal of Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” but closes it with an experimental composition by GyOrgy Ligeti. Which means what exactly?

    Kubrick retains a quality of the unknown by not only choosing a specific technology but also a sphinx-like, never-explain aesthetic previously employed almost exclusively by artists in the field of experimental cinema. These art film filmmakers, the artists that animated abstract shapes before a camera or drew directly on the celluloid, include Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, Oskar Fischinger, and Len Lye. John Whitney and his brother James Whitney invented early computer-aided animations to achieve similar goals. Jordan Belson relied on layered light effects created by home-made machinery. Some aimed to create “visual music”, some had different concerns. Kubrick must have watched plenty of these films. No doubt he was aware of the cosmically-aligned work of Jordan Belson, whose Allures (1962), Re-entry (1964), Phenomena (1965), and Samadhi (1968) all contain proto elements of the Stargate sequence. The group might be epitomized by Norman McLaren, whose more approachable works were produced under the umbrella of the National Film Board of Canada and are free to view or download on their website. Perhaps McLaren’s best film, directed alongside Evelyn Lambart, is Begone Dull Care, a drawn-on-film mini-opus choreographed to the bebop of The Oscar Peterson Trio. The film is doing more than simply visualizing a piece of music, however. We’re watching scratches and paint become a painting in motion. We’re watching a representation of pure evolution, of metamorphosis, similar to the aims of the Star Gate or, perhaps, like a sped-up proof of Darwin’s theories, or the moment a sentient AI becomes a serial killer. It’s an ethereal/otherworldly/alien experience that creates a very pleasurable impression of dislocation. In kind, Kubrick’s career modus operandi is subtle disruption, always breaking from norms in hopes of discovering the new, especially if it leads to horror. In 2001 he does this by using these color abstractions to enhance the inherent disturbance of the enormity and deadliness of space. He took many cues from another National Film Board of Canada production, 1960’s Universe. Kubrick hired the artists behind the animations of planetary bodies in that film, hired the narrator to voice HAL, duplicated elements of the pacing and musical score, and, of course, expanded on the suggestion of interstellar travel.

    In the end Universe isn’t as mind-bending as the Eames’ Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero which, like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Contact after it, effectively visualizes the scale of our imperceptible little planet to that of the solar system, galaxy and universe beyond. Both Universe and Powers of Ten, like 2001, in repositioning human life as a mere blip in time and space and malleable to the whims of forces beyond our ken, either accidentally or purposively conjure up the horrors of the unknown at the core of existence.

    More: Pauline Kael Eviscerates 2001: A Space Odyssey, Roger Ebert Loves 2001: A Space Odyssey, Annette Michelson via Artforum: Bodies in Space: Film as “Carnal Knowledge”, Douglas Trumbull: Slit Scan Photography, 2001: A Space Odyssey at Fifty, How 2001: A Space Odyssey Has Influenced Pop Culture, 50 Years Later, Behind the Scenes of the Strangest Blockbuster in Hollywood History, Happy 50th, HAL: Our Favorite Pop-Culture References, How Stanley Kubrick Broke the Rules of Classical Hollywood Cinema, Something Bold, Something Pure – The 50-year Long Legacy, What It Means, and How It Was Made, Sometimes a Broken Glass Is Just a Broken Glass, Typeset in the Future, 10 Great Films that Inspired Steven Spielberg, Scratches in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interpretations of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Senses of Cinema: Begone Dull Care, “The absolute and ultimate manifestation of the power of the mind over technology”: Gaspar Noé talks 2001: a Space Odyssey, Prelude to the space age – the 1960 film that inspired ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

  4. Cruel Rules: Age of Innocence (1993), The Thin Red Line (1999)
    Two great war flicks.

    Martin Scorcese’s Age of Innocence is a masterful display of adaptation and collage. Wondrous, brutal exposition from Edith Wharton’s novel are carefully translated visually. The three leads—Pfeiffer, Ryder, Day-Lewis—deploy subtle timing choices and interpretations of posture within the frame of Scorcese’s dynamic camera and compositions to recreate the otherwise missing layers of meaning. The film is always a few steps ahead, too. The moment you catch up to what a character might be thinking, multiple motivations materialize. Grace and desire brawl within a ring of invisible societal rules where financial ruin is ever on the periphery, a lurking ruthlessness is the most powerful weapon, and the domination of souls is the ultimate trophy. Editor Schoonmaker balances languor and momentum to such a degree that you might feel you’ve watched an epic battle instead of a love story. The influence of Visconti’s vibrant, if extremely melodramatic, Senso is everywhere, from the operatic impulses of the characters to the sweeping opera house environment, from the massive aristocratic homes to the camera’s attraction to the opulent furniture, glassware, and tapestries found inside, as well as to Alida Valli’s chromatic gowns, veils, scarves, and gloves, and even to the treatment of fonts in the title sequence.

    The Thin Red Line is an almost equally unconventional war film.

    Terence Malick makes movies with abstract meanings. Visualize window curtains blown and twisted by a gust of wind, obscuring the view inside, animated by the arbitrariness of nature. Malick likes to just show hints of the details of that interior. In The Thin Red Line, Nick Nolte’s standout performance as Lt. Col. Tall is one of Malick’s obscuring agents. Nolte goes off, chewing all the scenery, deserving all the awards, with a mini character arc that becomes central to noticing the greatness of the film. This dive into genre is set on Guadalcanal, an island in the South Pacific, host to an absolutely furious military campaign in 1942. Tall escalates from professional soldier to mad king and then, at the apex of crazy, and abetted by Elias Koteas’ Capt. Staros, discovers in himself a glinty sliver of humanity which plays like a miracle, not least because Malick’s approach is to let all the big and small moments flow together. This struggle for reality, a fight for the dominion of big ideas like greed, nature, civilization, and compassion, where the miracle of a simple epiphany is positioned as essential to the outcome of World War II, provides the central narrative for other ideas to permeate. Sean Penn’s brooding Sgt. Welsh slips in between the two commanding officers, always unsure of what he believes, stuck in the middle like most of us would be. Jim Cavaziel’s Private Witt floats through with a laid-back coolness, playing some kind of angelic archetype, surveying the edenic island as it descends into chaos. Hans Zimmer’s compositions reflect all these extremes, where descending strings are countered with the occasional rising harp notes. All the clichéd character tropes of typical war films are replaced with shards from a psychological distillation of war’s traumas. The very young, haunted faces of Thomas Jane, Jared Leto, Adrien Brody, Ben Chaplin, Miranda Otto, John C. Reilly, among others, provide Malick abstract graphics with which to improvise a mythical ode to existence. However, when the regiment is ordered to storm an entrenched enemy protected by steep terrain, the filmmaking shifts from slower, existential thought to brutal documentation. As troops navigate a shooting gallery, as their lives are pushed right up to the line where they are forced to contemplate the end, complex, more-or-less historically accurate military maneuvers take over with hypnotic, palpable intensity.

    More: Roger Ebert: The Thin Red Line, The Thin Red Line: No 10 best action and war film of all time, Absence of Malick, Let There Be Light: The Thin Red Line, Universal Soldier? The Emersonian Combat Experience of Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’, Terrence Malick’s ‘The Thin Red Line’: The Traumatic and Poetic Journey into the Heart of Man, The Age of Innocence: Savage Civility, Martin Scorsese’s Film School: The 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film, His Girl Friday: Thelma Schoonmaker Cuts Things Down to Size, Senso and Sensibility, Luchino Visconti: Count Zero

  5. Bartertown: Seven Samurai (1954), Deadwood (Episodes 1-4, 2004)
    The TV Tropes website calls Seven Samurai the “trope maker” of “Avengers, Assemble!”, a narrative device going back to at least La Grande Illusion (1937). We love to watch characters find companions, create little units, achieve, or at least try to achieve, difficult goals they couldn’t otherwise accomplish alone. Seven Samurai wrings the most pleasure possible from the basic act of the marshaling of heroes, with additional comedy relief from Toshiro Mifune’s fool. The team forms, they travel to the location of the final showdown, the plan forms, the tension escalates, the action climaxes. It’s perfection. Deadwood‘s first four episodes also offer a seminal, and nuanced, lesson in the introduction and aligning of larger-than-life characters, with standouts like Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen and Robin Weigert’s Calamity Jane spouting long but fuckin’ incredibly creative fuckin’ exposition that fuckin’ zigzag from fuckin’ trauma to hilarity to surprising longing for a second kiss with fuckin’ inventive and plentiful placements of the word fuckin’. Both works revel equally in historically precise details, from sets to costumes to customs, establishing two worlds operating without governing institutions and thus defined by primitive cultural attitudes. They both heighten their realities, too, with either Kubuki-like caricatures or Shakesperean-level soliloquies. Both are mired in dirt and grime and mud and barbarism but also frame small acts of kindness. Deadwood ran for 3 seasons and a movie (37 installments, 2004-2006 and 2019), and it’s all worth watching, from bursts of Wild West carnage to scenes like a joyous bicycle ride that ends in tragedy, from the continuously interesting configurations of chaotic good and the lawful evil adults to the walk of innocent children to school that quiets these townsfolk.

    Here’s a great video about the use of movement in Kurosawa’s compositions versus the lack of moviemaking craft in The Avengers (2012):

  6. Life in Turmoil: Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Solaris (1972)
    Mainstream movies focus on pleasure. Sentimentality, jolts of fright, the momentum of action, the relief of laughter. They deal in escapism. They assail you with regulated thrills. Movies are clockwork mechanisms, relatively easy to engineer. And they typically steer clear of any troubling metaphysics that often result from looking at human life. Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Reggio and Fricke’s Koyaanisqatsi share at least one thing in common: neither is that type of movie. They were both engineered for a different purpose, to unnerve, i.e. to freak you out intellectually.

    Koyaanisqatsi is the artiest of art films, exemplifying Andre Bazin’s term “montage of attraction”, leaning on no other narrative tools. As Bazin describes in “What is Cinema?”, “montage by attraction… may be roughly defined as the reenforcing of the meaning of one image by association with another image not necessarily part of the same episode”. The montage of Koyaanisqatsi consists of slow motion and time-lapse shots of urban landscapes colliding against the immense canyons of the Four Corners and other natural wonders, accompanied by an incessant Phillip Glass score, creating a hallucinatory and purgatorial view of our world. Koyaanisqatsi is a city symphony about North America, but an America as a stand-in for Dante’s Inferno.

    Definitions of the Hopi word used for its title include “life of moral corruption and turmoil”, or perhaps corrupted existence, or chaotic existence. “Crazy life”. “Life in turmoil”. The film opens with a cave pictograph of an alien visitation, followed by the fire of a space shuttle launch, then moves on to the savagery of nature: volcanic activity, desert dunes, massive cloud formations, oceanic chaos. But it’s the man-made, from industrial construction to the multitude of cars, bombs, military craft, and buildings, and buildings being demolished, to assembly lines of office workers, engineers and food, people churning through Grand Central Station, speeding cars turning into streaks of light at night, and big-wigged Las Vegas ladies, that the crazy life of the 20th century is rhapsodically portrayed. It all goes by in a fast 80 minutes. And it ends brutally, with an unedited stock shot of the 1962 Atlas-Centaur rocket exploding after liftoff and spinning, like a dancer, in a fiery free-fall, supplemented by Glass’ requiem mass “Prophecies”. This particular mission was un-manned, but after well-documented NASA failures it’s easy to picture manned. Put yourself in the place of a 12th century Hopi Native American Indian (known as “The Peaceful People” by the way), living on the Mogollon Rim escarpment, which sounds like it once was a very Edenic portion of Arizona, lost in thought, gazing at the sky, trying to imagine what a “crazy life”, an existence of corruption or nonsense, would look like. Human beings shooting themselves into space and falling back to Earth on fire, or, for that matter, any aspect of the New York portrayed in Koyaanisqatsi, might be it.

    Or the space station of Solaris, too, positioned over a roiling, sentient alien ocean far from the green pastorals of Earth, either attacking, or trying to communicate with, the visitors above with corrupted visions. Solaris is a means for Tarkovsky to record his own haunted thoughts on the meaning of life. He steers straight for the metaphysical, building on the doubling tactic found in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where the existence, and murder, of multiple versions of a person make you question your own definition of what’s real. In this quasi-science fiction adaptation of a Lem novel (without an easily available, decent English translation yet), relying on fairly amateurish but sort of quaint special effects, Tarkovsky marries long, inert scenes with heavy passages of dialogue that all eventually coalesce into a kind of dazzling, glittering arabesque about love, memory, reality, and reasons for being. Solaris is actually a fun watch in the end. It’s not the opaque slog of The Mirror‘s memory palace, nor Stalker‘s talky allegorical journey through the decaying, and clearly toxic, infrastructure of the Soviet military industrial complex, two other Tarkovsky mystery boxes often cited as masterpieces that don’t provide much incentive to crack open. Solaris‘ narrative aims are straighter, and it also achieves a palpable horror, if a more intellectual than visceral one. As Kurosawa said of the film: “Sheer fearful emotion this film succeeds in conjuring up… It truly somehow provokes pure horror in our soul.” Lots of dangerous questions arise, like gangplanks cantilevered over oblivion. Tarkovsky doesn’t pretend there are any easy answers, although he lets his main character, Cosmonaut/Psychologist Kris Kelvin, accept a few for his own brittle sanity. “Don’t turn a scientific problem into a common love story” one of the smarter characters says, completely in vain, to Kelvin. Our hero, like a typical cinema-goer, ignores him and turns to what he knows.

    It’s a simple warning also unheeded by many recent, potent, technically extraordinary but surprisingly sanctimonious sci-fi films, all determined to provide a semblance of closure. Nolan’s Interstellar immediately comes to mind, informed by rigorous scientific fact but ultimately built for a sentimental notion of the power of love. Or there’s Villeneuve’s Arrival, Cuarón’s Gravity and Chazelle’s First Man, breathtaking films that, in exploring interstellar travel, language and technology, open up a ton of potential lines of inquiry about the meaning of life but ultimately serve a singular purpose, to provide one character the grief counseling they so desperately need. Instead of allowing this big old universe of chaos, complexity and mystery to change everyone’s perceptions, these directors adhere to simple cornball themes rooted in pop psychology. On the other hand, in Andrei Rublev Tarkovsky has his characters quoting a bit of scripture: “In much wisdom there is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow”. So maybe Tarkovsky wouldn’t wish his dark thoughts to creep into the heads of the buzzy directors above. Like Tarkovsky’s Cosmonaut, better to be guided by their hearts and ignore the oblivion.

    More: How The Qatsi Trilogy Gave RaMell Ross a New Way of Seeing, Cinema Sounds: Koyaanisqatsi, Koyaanisqatsi on YouTube, Watch Koyaanisqatsi in Reverse, Akira Kurosawa on watching Solaris with Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris: Inner Space, Lost in Space: Tarkovsky’s Solaris, The Clone Returns Home: Solaris-ishness…, A Drop in the Ocean: One Scene from Solaris, On Both Page and Screen, Polish Master Stanislaw Lem Makes You Question Reality, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris Shot by Shot: A 22-Minute Breakdown of the Director’s Filmmaking, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong Bio-Pic Is an Accidental Right-Wing Fetish Object, Neither Right- Nor Left-wing, First Man Plants Its Flag in a Troubling Ambivalence

    Schrader diagrams the artistic movement of filmmakers away from normative narrative in three different directions, showing Reggio outside the “Tarkovsky Ring” ~ From Lynch to Kiarostami to Ozu: See Where Your Favorite Directors Fall on Paul Schrader’s Chart of Non-Narrative Cinema
  7. Unreliable: Rashômon (1950), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
  8. Relentless Pleasure: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
  9. Haunted Forest: Throne of Blood (1957), Princess Mononoke (1997)

    I want to thank Stanley Kubrick for the war room in “Dr. Strangelove,” Billy Wilder for C. C. Baxter in “The Apartment,” Kurosawa for the death of the king at the end of “Throne of Blood,” Martin Scorsese for panning a camera down an empty corridor in “Taxi Driver,” Joel and Ethan Coen for the last scene between Marge and Norm in bed at the end of “Fargo,” Paul Thomas Anderson for the deafening of H. W. Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” Bergman for the visit of Bibi Andersson to Liv Ullmann in the dead of night in “Persona,” Francis Coppola for the killing of Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather II,” David Fincher for the first scene in “The Social Network,” Bob Fosse for the audition sequence at the beginning of “All That Jazz,” Quentin Tarantino for Christopher Walken’s speech about the watch in “Pulp Fiction,” Woody Allen for the fireworks over “Manhattan,” Clint Eastwood for making it rain at the end of “Unforgiven,” Michael Powell for the moment Moira Shearer steps into the ballet of “The Red Shoes,” David Lynch for the car journey with Frank Booth in “Blue Velvet,” Mike Nichols for Benjamin in the swimming pool in “The Graduate,” François Truffaut for the moment the boy looks into the lens at the end of “400 Blows,” and Wim Wenders for the moment Harry Dean Stanton sees Nastassja Kinski after all those years at the end of “Paris, Texas.” ~ Sam Mendes, quoted in Sam Mendes’s Directorial Discoveries

  10. Planet Surfer: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), Encounters at the End of the World (2007), Fata Morgana (1971), Lessons of Darkness (1992), Grizzly Man (2005), The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)

    Those to whom no distant horizons beckon … for whom no challenges remain … though they have inherited a Universe … they possess only empty sand! ~ Stan Lee, Silver Surfer # 1 (August 1968)

    How can you, after all, authentically fathom a man embracing an imminent magma death, or the Amazon, or Antarctica, or a caged animal, or the schizophrenic, the megalomanic, the hypnotized? Isn’t building a life out of these kinds of mysteries what art is for? ~ Michael Atkinson, “Werner’s World”, Aug 6, 2019

    Werner Herzog filmed his travels to the far outposts of a “forbidding world”, where he sought out and unearthed oddities both hidden and mysterious. And he revels in that strangeness. He fills the frames of his many documentaries with mischievous and murderous landscapes: the horizontal limbs and torsos of the Sahara Desert in Fata Morgana, an inhospitable Antartica with its nomadic culture of scientists in Encounters at the End of the World, the hellish post-Gulf War Kuwait oil fields in Lessons of Darkness. But he maintains a wonderful, expressive, poetic fascination with the world by taking the point of view of an alien, newly arrived on our planet, awed and perplexed by the details in the surroundings and humanoids he meets. Like Terence Malick, Herzog builds Wagnerian-size worlds from his captured visuals, spoken texts and soundtracks. Like Luis Bunuel’s Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Panhe, Herzog searches for opportunities to misinterpret. As an oil well firefighter, silhouetted against an inferno in Lessons of Darkness, pantomimes inscrutable directions, the director narrates “White mountain ranges, clouds, a land shrouded in mist. The first creature we encountered tried to communicate something to us.” The alien is also enthralled with mirages in Fata Morgana, capturing the reflections or refractions bounced into one environment from somewhere else miles away through temperature transference, perhaps reflected multiple times to arrive in the filmed location. The “heated strata of air that function like a mirror” puts a science to ghosts, ghosts manufactured by a planetary machine. Epitomized in Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the alien seeks wanderers, the lost, transient artifacts, experimental juxtapositions, and harsh environments threatening untimely death. He braves both extreme elements and dialogues with potentially unhinged subjects, and most importantly abstains from judgement. The world feels too small in his confident body of work, too limited by classical physics. If Herzog had the means for interstellar travel, he’d be the Silver Surfer, due to a penchant for slow fly-overs of insane landscapes, of course, but also a similar morose and ultimately doomed nature. More: Werner’s World, Ecstatic Truth: ‘Ferocious Reality’ Dissects Herzog’s Doc Aesthetic, J. Hoberman: Werner Herzog’s New Direction