The trouble with highlighting only the “greatest hits” of each week is that all the movies I programmed are “greatest hits.” Nevertheless I shall endeavor to do so. (I listed the movies I watched during the second week at the bottom of the article, with movies that I added to my “Favorites of All Time” list in bold.)
I started winter break off strong with “The Seventh Seal,” arguably the most recognizable masterpiece by Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman.
At surface level, “The Seventh Seal” is an engaging story about a disillusioned knight who attempts to cheat Death by beating him in a game of chess. Looking deeper, however, “The Seventh Seal” is a philosophical treatise on the nature of war, mortality, religion, friendship and evil. (Yes, Bergman accomplishes all that in 96 minutes.)
What’s most astonishing about the film isn’t merely its concision. “The Seventh Seal” strikes at its audience with visual poetry. There is a visual unity throughout the work: From the opening coastal shot of Death’s unfurling cloak to the final shot on the hill, Bergman communicates his philosophical themes through visual poetry rather than purely through dialogue. We have to remind ourselves that cinema is primarily a visual medium. If one can convey doubt in God through production design (which Bergman does), the dialogue explicitly stating the doubt is augmented tenfold. I guess you can call Bergman’s visual poetry “concision.” As the popular adage goes: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” 4.5 stars (amended to 5 stars upon second viewing).
Visual poetry segues smoothly into my next highlight: “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) by early cinema pioneer Georges Melies (fictionally immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”). Perhaps because of its limitation in sound, the film excels visually. Exuberant and memorable imagery make this film a must-watch. Come on, it’s less than 20 minutes! 5 stars.
My next highlight is the 2001 masterpiece “Mulholland Drive” by David Lynch. My journey with Lynch started not with “Twin Peaks” but with his directorial debut “Eraserhead,” whose utter bleakness gave me an actual physical headache. It says something about the power of a film when it can physically affect you to this degree. And no, I didn’t dislike it at all. I was enthralled by the sheer creativity of David Lynch. After “Eraserhead” came “Blue Velvet,” and after that came …
“Mulholland Drive.” At 146 minutes, it’s a long film. It’s also incredibly hard to describe succinctly, but I’ll try my best: “Mulholland Drive” is basically about an aspiring actress who befriends an amnesiac woman with a bag full of money. Got it? Well there’s more. A lot more. Lynch takes us through dreams, subplots and character reversals to culminate in a genre-bending film that could be described as a mystery, thriller and neo-noir all at once.
Without revealing too much about the plot, let me just say that “Mulholland Drive” consumed my headspace for the next week. Understanding the significance of the entity behind the diner, the Cowboy and the blue-haired woman in the Silencio club is a tall and impossible order. I’m sure there are manifold theories on YouTube, but what’s the fun in that? The mystery is there for you to solve. So what are you waiting for? 5 stars.
On the very same day as “Mulholland Drive,” I watched “Persona” (1966) by Ingmar Bergman. I didn’t intentionally pair these two together, but immediately after watching both I noticed some striking similarities between the films: both are about pairs of lesbian women whose irreconcilable differences and crises of identity force them apart; both are rule-breaking films in the fullest sense of the term, and both are often considered the pinnacle of their respective directors’ filmographies.
To this day, I can confidently characterize “Persona” as my favorite Bergman. It has emotional resonance (I’m not afraid to say I cried a few times during the film). And what’s more, it features two of the greatest performances ever committed to screen (Bibi Andersson and the inimitable Liv Ullmann, who hardly utters a word in the film).
But. My favorite aspect of “Persona” is its rule-breaking nature. One of my favorite rule-breaking techniques that Bergman uses in “Persona” entails the subject of the camera facing us, with a second subject in the background also facing us. In the hands of a lesser director, these scenes might have been filmed using an over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot. However, the feeling that we are being watched is so much more powerful than a simple OTS. From the opening montage to the time splice in one of the final climaxes, “Persona” relishes in reminding its audience (often violently so) that what they are watching is a film. Bergman’s use of the famous photographs depicting the Warsaw Ghetto boy’s surrender and Thích Quảng Đứ’s self-immolation also underscores his grasp on the emotive power of images. 5 stars.
Now to address the two elephants in the room: “Citizen Kane” and “Psycho.” One is the perennial poster boy for “greatest movie of all time,” and the other a Hitchcock paradigm.
Given the hype around Orson Welles’s directorial debut “Citizen Kane,” I thought I would be disappointed. After viewing, I thought, “Yes, I do think it deserves the title ‘greatest movie of all time,’ but I don’t think it belongs on my Favorites list.” Then I let it marinate for a few days. What makes the film so especially great? It turns out … a lot of things. The novelty of flashbacks and unconventional camera placements. The towering performance by Welles. The legendary circumstances surrounding the production of the film. I decided to put “Citizen Kane” on my list after all. 5 stars.
On the other hand … “Psycho” was disappointing. Perhaps I hyped myself up for it too much. In any case, it wasn’t a bad movie at all. But as a Hitchcock virgin, I expected more from the Master of Suspense. Although Anthony Perkins’s acting delivered, for me the horror ultimately did not. 3.5 stars.
The penultimate highlight for Week 2 is “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) by Werner Herzog. The strength of this film comes from Herzog’s control over atmosphere. In this film, we’re especially cued into why the camera is showing us what it shows us. The first shot promptly transports us to the unforgiving wilderness: a wandering procession down the craggy mountainside of the Amazon accompanied by hauntingly angelic music by Popol Vuh. Although we meet our “protagonist,” Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), relatively late, he exudes an aura of menace that never recedes.
“Aguirre” also exhibits the first use of the “Kinski spiral,” a method developed by Herzog in which the camera films seemingly empty space when suddenly the subject (Klaus Kinski) spirals into frame facing us. Every time it occurs in Herzog’s work, I get instant chills. It’s such a powerful effect. 4 stars (amended to 5 stars upon second viewing).
Finally we come to a classic: “The Apartment” (1960) by Billy Wilder. The titular building is the living space of Bud Baxter, who lends it to his bosses whenever they wish to conduct extramarital affairs. Meanwhile, Baxter falls in love with Fran, an elevator girl who is implicated in one of these affairs. The film is full of laughs, sobs and sighs (of fulfillment). I think its tagline captures my feeling best: “Movie-wise there has never been anything like ‘The Apartment,’ love-wise, laugh-wise or otherwise-wise!” 5 stars.
Next time, look out for: KUBRICK and KUROSAWA!!!
Week Two Watchlist (Nov. 30 – Dec. 6)
The Seventh Seal (4.5 → 5)
A Trip to the Moon (5)
Mulholland Drive (5)
The Elephant Man (4.5)
The Virgin Spring (4.5)
Citizen Kane (5)
Children of Men (5)
American Beauty (5)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (4.5)
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (4 → 5)
The Apartment (5)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (5)
The Maltese Falcon (3.5)
*bold = added to Favorites of All Time list