Sunday, July 13, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies: 5 - 3

It's been awhile since I posted on here, so in lieu of a really long post about my top five favorite films, I will just post the top three for now, and then save the top two for tomorrow. Also, I have been real busy this week, so there shall be more blogging this week (mostly because Tieryn is gone for three weeks, so what else am I going to do) as I have reviews to put up here for Speed Racer, Hellboy, Indiana Jones (finally!), and Mad Men: Season One. Also a book review for Martin Amis' The Second Plane: September 11 Terror and Boredom. A brilliant collection of essays and two short stories by Britain's greatest author. Plus...much much more comin' your way here as I plan to finally get out the theater again regularly (the theater sabbatical was looong, as is evident by the fact that it took me two months to finally see Indiana Jones a film I was waiting on pins and needles to see...) and see Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, The Strangers, and the brilliantly titled Midnight Meat Train. On with the countdown!

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5) The Godfather
dir. by Francis Ford Coppola

What can one say about The Godfather that hasn't been said a million times, already? There is no real point in trying to give insight or praise the films many merits, because that has already been done to death. People a lot smarter than me have looked at Coppola's masterpiece frame by frame and dissected the film in ways I could never do justice. The film is a benchmark -- one of those films that you know you need to see, but you are never quite sure why until you lay eyes upon it -- a masterpiece of the crime saga that looks at all other copies in its rear view mirror. There will never be another film like The Godfather -- the closest anyone has come is Sergio Leone with his masterful, yet overly-long, Once Upon a Time in America. Coppola evokes so much nostalgia with his film that even for someone like me who obviously wasn't born then, feels a part of that nostalgia. It's the first truly 'classic' film I ever watched...and everything about is classic, there is really nothing monumentally groundbreaking about the film, but it never disappoints, and it paved the way for so many pretenders to try and be as poignant and violent, cruel and sincere as The Godfather.

But other crime films fail at creating a world where those dualities are so seamless, and oddly enough, even inviting. From the opening moments of the wedding scene, the viewer feels a part of the Corrleone family. A sly trick that Coppola uses (and later Scorsese would use in Goodfellas) in letting the viewer feel a part of this community; that way it's easier to dismiss the violent acts they commit and still view them as sympathetic characters. Coppola's film doesn't glamorize organized crime or the life they lead (especially the way they treat women), but they certainly look good doing it, and the films photography and sets and costumes are so authentic that the film truly does emit a genuine American Classic film aura. Even though it was made in the 70's, I cannot help but think of The Godfather in the same terms that I think of Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and other landmark American film classics.

Plus...just look how awesome the cross-cutting is during the scene posted above. It's an ultimate (read: authoritative) and timeless textbook for any aspiring filmmaker.

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4) Blade Runner
dir. by Ridley Scott

Reprinted from an essay I wrote for a film class. The paper was on film noir, so the essay may make references to other films, but for the most part it involves most of what I find so fascinating and hypnotic about my fourth favorite film Blade Runner. It's beautiful, sad, poetic, exhilarating, and a rare film that will always leave who in contemplative state after viewing it (all experiences one feels in the moments of the scene posted above, all of which makes so much more sense in context, but watch it anyway). Just an amazing film. Now for the boring essay excerpt...enjoy!:

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner reverses this notion I have been discussing with Chinatown, the idea of what Jameson introduces that to look into the past, filmmakers are saying something about the present. With Blade Runner, we get the opposite, a look into the future to show the over consumerism and consumption of mass commercialism. So is Blade Runner a film noir? I would call it a cyber-noir, or postmodern-noir, with stylish elements that allow the viewer to think deeper about some of postmodernisms key ideas. Many critics like Roger Ebert, simply say that it is all style and no substance, a film that is only interested in its grandiose set design, and not in explaining or elaborating on the rich and complex storyline created by Philip K. Dick. I disagree with Ebert though, I think that if one looks at the film hard enough they can see the noir elements that are there as well as the ideas of one of postmodernism’s most influential thinkers, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard introduces in his book Simulations the idea of a “hyperreality” (2) and the “loss of the real” (25), copies become what we associate with real and Blade Runner seeks to explore these deep questions in two ways: one is through the idea of escaping this world and living a better life on the “off world” a kind of hyperreal existence, and looks to the characters of Roy and Pris replicants created by the Tyrell corporation, to see if we as a society can rise up against the corporations that look to control us through commercialism. The other way which the film explores Baudrillard’s thinking is through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel. Baudrillard’s claim can best represent all of the films discussed when he says: “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (12).

One of the first shots of the film, and one of its most famous, is of the city with its towering digitalized billboards (pictured above) and a voice that can be heard telling people to escape to the “off world” where there are no problems and you can start you life over, away from “reality.” This is a place where your “dreams can come true.” These are the sounds of an, “easy money,” get rich quick mentality that was rampant in the 1980’s. All of life’s problems go away if you run away from them. The voice is head over the city, a city that has turned into a large scale, run-down Chinatown. This “off world” idea is what Baudrillard is getting at with his idea of the simulacrum, the copy without an original, life is good and life is easy if you leave the “real” world for your own that you can create. This is the idea behind Baudrillard’s mention of the “reality” of Disneyland:

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. (25)

So, this “off world” vacation that is offered to those who live in the Los Angeles of 2012, is the same that is being offered to those who live in the present of 1982. This loss of the real and hyperreality show how Blade Runner is unlike any other noir, it is dealing with the questions of consumerism through the realm of what has been called cyber-noir. And even though the noirish qualities of the film best represent the relationship between Deckard and Rachel one cannot ignore the films main point: that through commercialism and over-consumption we can alleviate all of our problems, we can let the replicants, or Others, that look so much like us, “expire” while we buy and consume anything we can to make ourselves feel more like men or women, and we equate this commercialism to happiness, when in reality we are just as the replicants are, and the film asks us if we can be like Roy and Pris and rebel against the Tyrell corporation, if we as society, can rebel against the commercialism that plagues our society, that is turning us humans into robots. This leads me to my next point about the film, the “reality” of its characters, especially as it is seen through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel.

When the film was initially released in 1982 it had Ford’s narration guiding the viewer through the story, also providing a traditional nostalgic homage to the great noir films of 40’s and 50’s. The ending was left ambiguous, in fact, in the 1982 version you weren’t sure whether or not Deckard was a replicant or not. Creating an even bigger dilemma with him having to “expire” Roy and Rachel and the other replicants. When the film was released years later in a “director’s cut” the narration was axed and a happy ending tacked on. The ambiguity was gone, Deckard and Rachel leave for the “off world” and live happily ever after. In the original film you are never quite sure if Deckard is a human or not. For instance, the scene where Deckard kisses Rachel, before hand he keeps her from leaving his apartment and traps her by the window, the way Deckard moves is robotic, and when they kiss, Rachel shows more emotion than Deckard. In another scene we see Rachel crying, where Deckard, it seems, is incapable of emoting anything. Of course the problematic 'signs' of humanity are the crux of the film, built into the very images used to forward the story. I think it very telling that it was the aspects of Blade Runner that most challenged ideas of humanity that were cut or altered. In particular, the removal of the Unicorn Dream sequence also removed the most obvious suggestion that Deckard was a replicant. And Deckard's voice-over telling us "Rachel was special - no termination date," changes the impact of Gaff's final line: "Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?” In the original release Gaff is seen as outsmarted, as opposed to philosophically correct in the Director's Cut. I think these changes give the film less impact at the end.

The themes/meaning behind the film changes, the ambiguity is gone, and all of the mystery of the replicant/human dilemma seems to be removed. That haunting last line loses all of its power. However, the form/techniques used to introduce these themes are as strong as ever. Especially the lighting in the film, the heavy use of backlighting, hard lighting and light coming through moving objects – fans – make the film's grim future alive. The lighting also adds to the feeling of film noir. Many science fiction movies are shot in an unnaturally hard light, as if they were shot in a hospital (for example Stanley Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey). In Blade Runner we have a vivid feeling of dark alleys, sinister rooms and chambers, which is essential to old detective stories. These lighting techniques also introduce us to the ambiguous love affair between Deckard and Rachel. Notice how Rachel and Ray are usually lit in bright light, and how Deckard and the other humans are always in darkness. The opposite is used in most film noir. Ridley Scott’s idea to light the film this way is brilliant as one can see though the still shot provided, Deckard looks nor more “alive” than the replicant Rachel. By looking into the future, the film questions the state of the world in 1982, a time when this kind of postmodern thinking was starting to be embraced. Simulations was published a year after this film was released, but already the short stories of Philip K. Dick were introducing people to these postmodern ideas.

All of this to say: Blade Runner is the quintessential neo-noir. It has been called neo-noir, cyber-punk, and postmodern, but it is the perfect example of how a filmmaker can take a genre like film noir, and create something completely new, something that is completely elevated above every other kind of noir picture. Only Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet succeed in taking the noir genre and elevating it into high art.

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3) Vertigo
dir. by Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo just may be one of the rare films that will transcend all time. The film was made in 1958, but for me it is timeless. An always creepy tale of deception and obsession, it also plays as a self-reflexive psycho sex-thriller. Yes, that sounds like weird description for a film from the 50's, but Hitchcock did something amazing with Vertigo, he got it made in the 50's. I have no reason to believe he came across any kind of trouble making the film, I mean he could make anything he wanted and he had the All-American Jimmy Stewart as the films star, but I wonder what audiences thought as the film unfolded into a bizarre tale of obsession. It's one of the creepiest films I have ever seen, and I remember being younger and watching it ready to not be impressed, because obviously, some old movie from the 50's wasn't going to scare me. Boy was I wrong.

The film is hypnotic, from the first images of the vertigo you are sucked into the film and have given yourself to its powers. Watching it then I realized that the film was great because it held my attention at such a young age; watching it now, I am amazed at how much Hitch was allowed to get away with, and just how much of himself he put into this film via the Jimmy Stewart character. It was well known (and obvious when you watch his films) that Hitch loved certain actresses, especially if they were blond. Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, and in Vertigo Kim Novak. It is also known through numerous books and documentaries, that he was somewhat living vicariously through his characters who were in love with these blond beauties. When one views Vertigo through this self-reflexive lens, the film takes on a whole other exhibitionist angle (not nearly as much as Rear Window); an angle that reveals a director who is not only particular, but almost creepy in how demanding he is about the particulars. Look at the scene above; I think it's safe to say that that could be Hitch and his actresses over the years.

But more than anything the film is classic Hitchcock with its tense mystery surrounding amazing set pieces and good looking actors. The film is not as heralded as Psycho (innovative) or Notorious (classic filmmaking), but for me it's the apex of Hitch's career, and a decade that saw him make his best films: I Confess, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and Vertigo. A productive year that showcased his comedic side -- by making the fun To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest -- which would give way to his darkest film a year after his best decade: Psycho. I like to think of Vertigo as the foundation for what we would see in Psycho and the later films like Frenzy.

In Vertigo he created a film that must have been taboo for the era, a film that spends a lot of time on the topics of obsession and sex. What Hitchcock wanted to do with these always interesting topics (and usually the number one and two cause for murder) is show how easy it is for an innocent to get sucker punched by them. When the big reveal comes along about half way through the film, you breathe easy because you think you have all of it figured it out. But then Stewart's character, feeling embarrassed for having left himself so vulnerable, spirals into madness and takes his obsession to a level rarely seen in a movie theater in the 1950's. It's a perfect film, and is easily the greatest work Hitchcock ever did.


  1. The Godfather -- I like your point on it being an American classic, because it really does have that feel to it. You know this is in my top-5 as well. The great thing about it is that there isn't anything particularly flashy about it, yet it's a perfectly made film.

    Blade Runner -- Haven't seen this since Markee's film class. I should probably give it another try with the "authorized" version of the film (whichever one that is now).

    Vertigo -- There's just too many Hitchcock movies to choose from. If we weren't limited to 1 movie per director, I'm sure I'd easily have five or six of his movies in my top 25. I love Vertigo and the themes it presents, since they are pet themes of Hitchcock's, but my favorite film of his is one that shows his comedic side a little more (NOW can you guess what it is?)