Argh! Cruel whips of NaBloPoMo, scoring my conscience! Content running freely from the wounds! So who are those people laughing at my pain? They seem to be wearing buckled pilgrim hats. Stupid imagination.
Inspired by the twin film demons of Mother Bumper and Reel Fanatic, here's my list of movies that I dig, dig furiously, dig like the Lord's own entrenching tool in the loam of Eden. What? Never mind, It's Friday night and I'm drunk. Here are five of my favourite films. Because I'm snooty, these ones are all black and white.
The Third Man. This movie gave me the most annoying conversation-filling gambit of all time: the 'doo-da-da doo-doo/ doo-doo' zither line from the opening credits. Whenever a silence falls across the table, that zither music rushes up in my head and I have to push it back down again before I start doing the scat version. I doubt that I've ever seen another movie so sure of itself, so gleeful in its manipulation of the terminally confused main character, a pulp fiction writer from American landing in occupied
Berlin Vienna and getting entangled in the mystery of his friend's disappearance. At least a half-dozen shots from this movie go down as the most incredible film images of all time. Featuring Orson Welles as the most charming bastard in all celluloid.
Touch of Evil. Maybe you don't want to believe that Charlton Heston makes a plausible Mexican. Maybe that's the point of the character, with his starched shirts, stilted diction and lily-white wife. You're not in it for Heston's stuck-up prig of a prosecutor, anyway. You're there for the crazy angles, the knife-like slashes of light against shadow, and the shambling hulk of Orson Welles as the corrupt police captain, whose very weight and will are weapons. That and the six-minute opening shot where you're waiting and waiting for the bomb in the trunk of the car to finally explode.
L'Atalante. As far as I can tell, film profs hate their jobs. They lecture with an air of weariness and faint embarrassment, cover their mouths whenever they have to say mise-en-scène or diegesis. And when it comes time to show the films they've been talking about, they're only too happy to disappear and let the movie carry the burden of explanation.
I'm not sure that I learned much of value from my film courses in university, but I do have to thank the instructor who took us through the work of Jean Vigo. A tubercular Frenchman who died at age 29, Vigo made only three films in his short life - a silent documentary called A Propos de Nice, a short film about a boys school called Zero de Conduit, and a feature-length film about a marriage between a rural girl and a a barge captain called L'Atalante.
It's difficult to explain what makes L'Atalante so compelling, but compelling it is, and charming too. My favourite character is the crew member Pere Jules, the grizzled crew member with the striped shirt, a singing tattoo on his stomach and a menagerie of kittens that spill over every surface in the frame. There's a sense that Vigo is truly experimenting with the possibilities of film and ways of storytelling that by now have become familiar.
Orpheus. As it turns out, every mirror is a passage to the underworld ("Look at yourself in a mirror and you will see death doing its work," says one character). And there are poets so talented and beautiful that even Death falls for their charms, which is a fine incentive for taking up dithyrambs. Orpheus is a retelling of the classic myth, updated for an off-kilter post-war France, where groups of poets and bands of angry women seem to call the shots.
Jean Cocteau made only a few films, but like Jean Vigo he seemed to have an instinct for filmmaking. Orpheus moves between the realistic and the fantastic with only a few cues for the viewer, deploying startling but simple visual effects that somehow look convincing even fifty years later. If anything, the effects may even be more powerful now, the technology of film and its manipulations having been thoroughly absorbed into our collective psyche.
Night of the Hunter. Charles Laughton wanted desperately to make a film, and after the studio saw this one, they never let him behind a camera again. Possibly the strangest tale of warped rural America ever committed to film, Night of the Hunter resembles a Flannery O' Connor story produced by Walt Disney with Yahweh as the script doctor.
Greil Marcus described early American folk music as an art that dug beneath the modern world of anxiety and success to evoke the primeval America of horror and redemption. If that's so, then Night of the Hunter is folk film, an art that bypasses standard narrative for a succession of images and moments that register as pure nightmare. If you don't believe me, watch the film and wait for the gospel duet a shotgun-toting Lillian Gish and Robert Mitchum's twisted preacher. She sits and rocks on a lit porch, guarding the house and singing a hymn, as Mitchum's deranged preacher sings just beyond the reach of the porchlight, calling to her from the outer dark.
Update: It was pointed out to me that I mistakenly set The Third Man in Berlin instead of Vienna. I've corrected my error. To avoid similar mistakes in future, I declare that all films ever made anywhere are actually set in Berlin and tell the story of a young man and his telepathic dog.