Netflix for Maura

In the past year or two, I have weened myself from my habit of recommendation. I still burn albums for friends when asked and circulate my copy of Killer of Sheep among my cinema buds like a samizdat, but I now realize that almost no one likes to be told what to read, watch or listen to, and those that seem to tolerate it rarely take you up on your offers. Although pushing art seems like a natural consequence of heavy consumption, recommendation does little but exacerbate your image as pretentious and pedantic.

That’s one of the great things about keeping a blog: it’s cathartic. I read for nine hours today, about Watteau and 18th century portraiture, about arch-pianists Liszt and Chopin and their tenuous relationship, and about a very convincing (and necessarily difficult) refutation of some particularly damning things Wittgenstein had to say about the philosophy of art. (I usually leave my house, but I had an extravagant 35 euro dinner last night that will set me back for a few days). With so much intake, I need to have some sort of product, and one that doesn’t drain the patience of my friends. I can prattle on here about Schubert lieder, Francis Bacon, Brakhage and Gettier problems and never feel guilty about retarding human interaction the way such subjects seem to when broached in casual conversation.

But the scattered links I provide aren’t an explicit recommendation; like I said: I’m on the wagon now. . . But I can’t help it if I’m baited! I’m like a withered old Ukrainian beggar-witch: I will do no harm unless beckoned. And now my friend Maura, southern belle, polyglot, and New York underground rock figure du quartier, has come to me on the day my daughter’s to be married and asked for a few titles to add to her Netflix queue.

Here are ten films. I’ve tailored the list to my perception of Maura’s taste and interest, and also to what I know and suspect her to have seen, which is why there’s no Godard or The Third Man. I’ve included alternatives for each film in case she’s seen them. My aim isn’t didactic or obscure; I’m not playing at, ‘Maura, every serious film lover should see this,’ or, ‘Isn’t this ironic, Maura?’ Nor did I try make the list diverse: I am unabashed sucker for quiet films about sad men. Also, some films have been disqualified because they simply should not be seen on DVD. If I were a legislator, I would make compulsory watching Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern, Mallick’s Day of Heaven, and every Tarkovsky film on the largest screen available. Although I’m not ready to declare that the cinematic experience is without exception inferior on the small screen (especially for digital films like Inland Empire), some films, if not seen on the big screen, might as well not be seen at all. Seriously.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi. Jacques Becker, 1954. Jean Gabin as brooding, blasĂ© gangster trying to keep the Parisian underworld’s hands off the tiular grisbi (‘loot,’ ‘booty,’ apparently, even though I’ve yet to meet a French person that knows the word) he needs to retire. This is one of the classic ‘one last job’ heist movies, with a great soundtrack, and Gabin here gives perhaps the suavest film performance ever. Grisbi rejuvenated his career, and started those of Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura. On the rare occasion someone offers me a drink before noon, I always steal Max’s line: ‘Never in the morning.’ (Alt. Rififi: same setting, less subtle)

The Killing. Stanley Kubrick, 1956. I switched this for Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past at the last second because it’s more fun and Sterling Hayden is, in my book, at least as cool as Robert Mitchum. This was made well after the heyday of film noir proper, but Kubrick maintained the cynicism, if not the cinematography, of the classics, with an especially dark performance by Timothy Carey, one of the greatest character actors ever. I’m obviously not unhappy with the turn Kubrick’s career took after this film, but I wish he had made a few more genre pictures. (Alt. Asphalt Jungle: another classic Hayden noir with a young Marylin Monroe)

Killer of Sheep. Charles Burnett, 1977. I didn’t see this until this year when it arrived in theaters, gloriously, after years of unavailability. I want to say that Burnett encapsulates the Black Experience, but I’m not sure what that means, because I imagine the Black Experience, if it exists, depicts more than the moral, professional and existential grief of a young father in Watts (perhaps the equally insufficient, White Experience corollary would be Death of a Salesman), so I’ll just say that it’s pitch-perfect and deserves to be considered among the highlights of the medium. (Alt. Bicycle Thieves: Burnett was a neo-neo-realist)

High and Low. Akira Kurosawa, 1962. I know that this film has a sterling critical reputation, but I’m convinced that most people haven’t seen it. Seven Samurai is supposed to be the greatest Kurosawa film because its scope is the most sweeping (and I doubt many people have seen it, either). Yes, its humanism and pathos are admirable and appropriate for an epic, but in general I prefer subtler films like Throne of Blood and, especially, High and Low. The film succeeds on several levels: as suspenseful proto-procedural, for introducing one of the most intriguing villains yet to appear in cinema (a young Tsutomu Yamakzi, decades before Tampopo), visually (including one of Kurosawa’s best shots, the graphic above; look familiar?), but the film is most effective as class commentary. The polite ‘high’ and ‘low’ of the title literally translate as ‘Heaven and Hell’. Is the life of a lower denizen worth less than one of the elect? Takashi Shimura (you know, the guy that makes this face in every Kurosawa film?), Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai (my favorite) and the rest of the Kurosawa crew are all in top form. (Alt. Grand Illusion: the other great, non-British film on class)

The Parallax View. Alan Pakula, 1974. Okay, enough of this pussy art shit: Warren Beatty vs. the Government! Several Watergate-era films pit paranoid truth-seeker against shadowy, suited Washington figures, often with unsavory outcomes, and this is my favorite. It’s about eighteen times more fun than Pakula’s next, more renowned film, All the President’s Men, and about as subtle as its secret serviceman’s shotgun blast. Beatty is always bad-ass, but Clyde Barrow never said anything half as cool as this androgynous prelude to a bar brawl: ‘Don’t touch me unless you love me.’ Also features a classic, film-within-the-film montage. (Alt. Klute: Pakula’s previous film)

Five Easy Pieces. Bob Rafaelson, 1970. The less pretentious, less cynical (more ‘American’?) counterpart to Antonioni’s The Passenger. This is the genesis of the agitated anarchist character that defines the first phase of Jack Nicholson’s career (Cuckoo’s Nest, The Last Detail). It’s a modest film, with a cogent structure (listen for five easy pieces), one iconic scene, and a perfect ending. (Alt. Autumn Sonata: a much more devastating film, also about a musical family)

In the Realm of the Senses. Nagisa Oshima, 1976. I used to get my hair cut at Sei Tomoko, a Japanese salon in New York. Some of the stylists there speak better English than others. During a particularly challenging communication, I turned to reciting the names of Japanese films I had seen (the movie listings in Paris always include the original title in romanji) and seeing whether or not my stylist recognized them: Nora inu?’ No. ‘Ugetsu monogatari?’ Heard of it. ‘Tokyo monogatari?’ Yes, very famous. ‘Ai no corrida?’ You have seen!? I blushed, recalling the images we were now simultaneously conjuring. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Kind of. . . vulgar.’ Up to now, her vocabulary had seemed limited to, ‘long,’ ‘short,’ ‘layered,’ and instructions regarding the posture of my head. She responded, earnestly, ‘Not vulgar. . . erotic.’

What is pornographic and what is erotic? The French director Catherine Breillat listed Ai no corrida as her favorite in the prestigious 2002 Sight and Sound film poll: ‘I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to make Romance. It made me understand that an image is not pornographic in itself, it’s the way we look at it that renders it pornographic. . . The image doesn’t exist in itself, but is deciphered through our emotions.’ Indeed, the images of the film are devoted to little but graphic sex, fluids, folds and all. I’ll write later about the film at length (it’s one of my favorites, too) but Oshima’s accomplishment in the film is seducing the viewer into seeing traditionally ‘vulgar’ images and acts of brutality as mere progressive expressions of passion. It also contains (and this is a major declaration) my favorite shot in cinema: the lord, awaiting the return of his mistress and now dressed in her colorful kimono, wanders through a narrow street against the current of a drab rank of marching soldiers. As she consumes him physically, he slowly cedes his masculinity, and the juxtaposition of him struggling, so delicately clad, against a file of virility incarnate is, well, I hope that I’m remembering it right, because it stands in my mind as the most powerful, convincing portrayal of a sexual relationship in film. (Although that grunting kitchen quickie in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is probably the most reflective of the modern domestic sexual encounter.) The second most educational and visceral film I’ve seen after Brakhage’s autopsy footage. Don’t watch either with your mother. (Alt. this)

In the Line of Fire. Wolfgang Petersen, 1993. John Malkovich’s finest film performance. He’s an assassin bent on taking out the president and Clint Eastwood is the crusty old secret serviceman that never forgave himself for Kennedy but now he can make it right by stopping Malkovich. The plot is tidy and somewhat formulaic (although the historical fiction aspect is fun), but the film manages to transcend standard Hollywood action with Eastwood’s tight lips (Malkovich: I have a rendezvous with death, and so does the President, and so do you if you get too close. Eastwood: You have a rendezvous with my ass, motherfucker!) and Malkovich’s perversity. Dylan McDermott, Rene Russo and Tobin Bell all contribute, but the scene where Malkovich is hiding in plain sight from Eastwood, disguised as a half-wit wobbling on a street corner, well. . . Only Malkovich. Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich. (Alt. Air Force One, same deal but substitute Gary Oldman)

Serpico. Sidney Lumet, 1973. I had always doubted this film for a few reasons: (1) Outside of The Godfather, I don’t think much of early Al Pacino. In Panic in Needle Park and Scarecrow, his antics, which are meant to endear us to his character, repel us. And his fidgety intensity Dog Day Afternoon is just cloying. (The only redeeming part about that film for me is John Cazale.) (2) For every awesome Sidney Lumet film (Network, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) there are a handful of duds. (3) Max Fischer’s stage production in Rushmore made me assume that Serpico was fetishized film dork humbug. Wrong. I just saw this last week, and it’s so good: the Greenwich Village loft parties, the wise guy back-and-forths at the precinct, and every ridiculous piece of clothing or facial hair Pacino sprouts. How can you not like this from Pacino, teary-eyed in a hospital bed: ‘What’s this for? For bein’ an honest cop? Eh? Or for being stupid enough to get shot in the face?’ (Alt. Night Moves, exceedingly grim neo-noir with Gene Hackman as detective)

Zardoz. John Boorman, 1974. I know I said I wouldn’t include any film ironically, and I know you don’t like getting stoned, but how else are you supposed to approach a film where giant, floating head proclaims, ‘The gun is good! The penis is evil!’ before vomiting weaponry on Sean Connery, who is dressed like this? (Alt. Jodorowsky, although Boorman was apparently genuine)

So, Maura and others, let me know what you think when you get around to watching them. (The title of the post is an allusion to Flowers for Algernon, by the way.) Enjoy!


~ by ohkrapp on February 17, 2008.

One Response to “Netflix for Maura”

  1. thank you! wow. i guess i should have expected this kind of response. i’m so excited. (trivia: my favorite teacher was named after gabin’s character in pepe le moko. yeah, his name is pepe.)

    it is a real shame i can’t see these at action christine or le quartier latin, but that time will come.

    thanks again, old friend.

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