photo & text by nacrowe
there is so much to be impressed by with the life and career trajectory of legendary screenwriter / director BILLY WILDER whose singular filmography includes the likes of SOME LIKE IT HOT (UNITED ARTISTS, 1959), DOUBLE INDEMNITY (PARAMOUNT, 1944), THE APARTMENT (UNITED ARTISTS, 1960), STALAG 17 (PARAMOUNT, 1953), SABRINA (PARAMOUNT, 1954), ACE IN THE HOLE (PARAMOUNT, 1951), THE LOST WEEKEND (PARAMOUNT, 1945), THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (20TH CENTURY FOX, 1955) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (PARAMOUNT, 1950). towering of his achievements in my opinion was his preternatural capacity as an GERMAN-speaking AUSTRIAN emigre to pick up on the cultural nuances and subtle inflections of the AMERICAN DIALECT and seamlessly spit them back out at us, all within a decade of arriving on stateside shores in the early 1930s.
in his definitive biography ON SUNSET BOULEVARD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BILLY WILDER (HYPERION, 1998), film scholar ED SIKOV very much digs into the creative and linguistic marvel that was WILDER, especially with his early run of hard-nosed films that take together made a sober, unblinking assessment of AMERICAN culture and society in the post-WWII period. it really is quite the achievement considering he was essentially passing judgement on his new home when he was still very much an OUTSIDER. and it is that unique mix of unmatched talent (of which he put to use beforehand when collaborating with the likes of GERMAN directors ERNST LUBITSCH and ROBERT WIENE) which allowed him write and direct with authority, as well as his status as an IMMIGRANT that makes his films so unique. he is in essence able to assess our culture so accurately in part because of his OUTSIDER status.
i read ON SUNSET BOULEVARD and several other books on WILDER (and FILM NOIR in general) back in my undergraduate years as part of a senior thesis on his early cycle of noir films which included DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE LOST WEEKEND, SUNSET BOULEVARD and ACE IN THE HOLE. in my opinion, ACE IN THE HOLE is his masterpiece as it caustically and unflinchingly calls out a then-nascent media culture that sought to exploit human suffering by creating media events that would garner media exposure and thus profits. it is a prescient film that is beyond relevant to today and has not lost its edge in the last 70s years. it was also a commercial flop and the last film he made with any sort of imbedded conceit or claim about AMERICAN culture and society writ large. it was the last film he made that had any real stakes.
as someone who after completing this undergrad project went on to teach overseas for several years, experiencing cultures as an outsider, it was the example of WILDER that i largely took to heart. i believe that when AMERICANS move overseas they feel an understandable need to impart judgement on their new unfamiliar surroundings. my thought was always to gather as much information as possible and engage with the local community. only after gaining their trust and understanding would i ever voice an opinion on states of affairs. i choose to believe that WILDER did not assimilate like he did without a genuine sense of innate curiosity and wonder about his new home. its very much an expanding of one's consciousness as anything else.
the example of WILDER showed that such a seamless ASSIMILATION could be done and at the very least, my experience as a newcomer is valid and gives me a unique PERSPECTIVE. not the only perspective, but a unique one.
film director DAVID LYNCH is renowned for his ability to control tone and atmosphere to such an esteem that his surname is now an adjective for such. he is a modern director of the first order but what some in the public fail to grasp is how is career, much like JULIAN SCHNABEL a generation later, is rooted in painting.
THE ART LIFE (DUCK DIVER FILMS, 2016) is a documentary that follows a dual narrative of both LYNCH's telling of his upbringing and connection to art while showcasing him creating a new work on canvas at his studio in the HOLLYWOOD HILLS. it is almost as though the experience of creation in painting is conflatable with that of exploring a unique psychological perspective of uncertain space and time as seen through a camera's eye.
what i gained most about his upbringing was that in spite of its idyllic nature with two loving parents that treated each other well, there was always that unspecified fear of losing that love and affection. in fact, despite his father's fair judgement and loving temperament, any harsh words that resulted from disobedience came down arguably harsher in that environment. KEITH RICHARDS once wrote that his vision of hell was being invisible to those he loved. the threat of distance from his family is a common thread that influenced his character as well as his art. also reminds of the buddha's tenet that suffering is rooted in desire. they are intertwined, as even idyllic situations are rooted in suffering as we attempt to prolong and maintain them. the fear of loss of happiness is suffering in and of itself. that dualism resonates with me when considering his films as well as his paintings and visual film art.
this theme of family is also carried out as we see LYNCH's young child painting side-by-side with him. unencumbered by expectations, the toddler is just enjoying his company and playing with colors on the canvas. you get the sense that this type of boundless joy and seeming amorality towards expectation is something LYNCH strives for. the goal is not a concept or a point, but rather the transmission of an experience, which also describes the experience of consuming one of his films, especially ERASERHEAD (AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE, 1977). i have watched that film dozens of times yet i don't know what it is about, nor am i watching it to decode it. i watch it in order to enter that world.
an alternate time and space.
intriguing film. probably worth viewing if you can suspend expectations of what is usually presented in a traditional documentary. this film is an expressionist take on the individual and his paintings, not a treatise on his films. again, beyond intriguing and worth multiple viewings.
photo manipulations by nacrowe
DUNKIRK (WARNER BROS, 2017) is a film very close to my heart.
i should start by mentioning that during WII my great-uncle CHARLES CALIENDI worked for the DE HAVILLAND AIRCRAFT COMPANY and played a major part in designing and testing the MOSQUITO fighter plane for the war effort. he was a very sweet, funny man and i still miss him dearly.
in my mind this film is a love letter to all those who fought and died in WWII, with special focus on the efforts of the ROYAL AIR FORCE and common sea merchants who braved incredible odds and paid a high personal cost to bring their countrymen safely home during the BATTLE OF DUNKIRK.
the film itself focuses on harrowing experiences of the ALLIED forces as they were marooned in the coastal FRENCH coastal town of DUNKIRK awaiting evacuation. as they waited along the beach they were picked off and bombed at will by the NAZI LUFTWAFFE.
where this film excels is its ability to position the audience in the psychological and emotion headspace of the main protagonists: common soldiers stuck on the beachhead at DUNKIRK, RAF pilots and brave sea merchants doing their solemn duty. this is done through a masterclass of visual storytelling, with absolute minimal exposition. this film is really a story to be experienced rather than read as a piece of history.
in particular, there are numerous scenes of random wanton violence. what is truly shocking is the silence shortly thereafter. again, the psychological space that compels the characters, as well as the audience, to piece together meaning from that which is unsparingly violent and wholly unpredictable. in essence we move forward but that silence lingers.
director CHRISTOPHER NOLAN is well-known for his ability to tease out the inner psychology of his characters, despite given genre expectations as seen in his filmography that includes INTERSTELLAR (SCI-FI), INCEPTION (SCI-FI) his DARK KNIGHT trilogy (SUPERHERO) and MEMENTO (NOIR/THRILLER).
in my estimation, his war film DUNKIRK is his finest effort yet. i highly recommend it for anyone interested in the power of filmmaking.
seriously, who doesn't love PAM GRIER?
in my opinion the BLAXPLOITATION films she starred during the 1970s (FOXY BROWN, SHEBA BABY) showcase the real american nightmare, empowered sexually liberated minority women who take charge and buck the power structures that hold their community back, structural racism and drug lords be damned.
my favorite of these films is director JACK HILL's genre-defining masterwork COFFY (AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL, 1973), which carries an almost LADY SNOWBLOOD-esque revenge plot as GRIER's protagonist seeks to kill a drug kingpin for allowing heroin to ruin her neighborhood and kill her younger sister. she does this by going deep undercover as a working girl and establishing relationships with all the inside players before making her move. GRIER is a tour-de-force whose character displays an emotional trajectory that allows the audience to understand her pain and how such governs her means of devouring her competitors through seduction. like a righteous femme fatale only in a very different political, cultural and racial context.
i find this film endlessly fascinating for its scope at addressing a contemporary societal ill when such was ignored or demonized in the wider WHITE media and political classes. i think QUENTIN TARANTINO must have felt similarly when he cast GRIER in JACKIE BROWN (MIRAMAX, 1997) over 20 years later in an update of her character of sorts. again, GRIER hasn't missed a step, only this time its corruption on a higher political level.
COFFY is worth your time. it is absolutely required viewing for anyone interested in cinema, period.
what was originally intended as behind-the-scenes footage to be utilized as extra content for their upcoming release transitioned into a seminal documentary about the dissolution of a band in real-time, something that has not been documented before or since to my knowledge.
controversial at the time of its release among METAL fans, the documentary SOME KIND OF MONSTER (THIRD EYE, 2004) by directors JOE BERLINGER and BRUCE SINOFSKY (BROTHER's KEEPER, PARADISE LOST trilogy) has proven in retrospect to be arguably their highest achievement (other than those perfect string of legendary CLIFF BURTON albums in the 1980s). i say this because there is a lot of posturing and machismo bullshit in METAL. it is by far the aspect of the genre i dislike the most and for years METALLICA were the pied pipers of this toxic brand of masculinity. that was until their second bassist JASON NEWSTED departed in order to claim the freedom of pursuing other projects. this was the first domino in a series of internal debate and reconsiderations that led to group therapy and lead singer/rhythm guitarist JAMES HETFIELD's admittance into rehab for alcoholism.
again, given their history with these issues it was a brave move. original lead guitarist DAVE MUSTAINE of MEGADETH fame was booted out for his behavior when intoxicated. he wasn't afforded a second opportunity. to interview him and put all the cards on the table in such a public manner really altered the culture in my opinion. none more so than the issue of therapy.
METALLICA was mocked extensively for going in to group therapy as such was perceived (moronically) as being weak, passive and not metal. if anything this was a power move that took incredible courage. i look back now at a seminal band like PANTERA who had internal struggles that were never dealt with out of a sense of toxic masculinity and they broke up out of spite with one another. they battled each other in the press and ultimately cowered to their corners with their respective enablers and hangers-on, never addressing anything in person, man-to-man. in my mind stepping up and speaking your truth and probably more importantly, the act of listening would have been more METAL. but what do i know?
i feel as our culture becomes ever more coarse and driven by wedge issues that seek to divide us, here is an example of a group of men looking each other in the eye dealing with their internal issues directly with begrudging respect. taking control of their behavior. being adults. thats what this film represents to me.
too bad the album ST. ANGER sucked.
its funny, when my brother and i were both attending high school in KUWAIT roughly 20 years ago our middle eastern peers were largely naive about AMERICAN culture and pretty much anything that wasn't related to that isolated oil-rich hellhole. my brother had a binder that carried a printed out picture of JOHN TURTURRO's epic bowling nemesis from the THE BIG LEWBOWSKI (WORKING TITLE, 1998) and his KUWAITI classmates would ask him who that was. he'd cooly reply "that's Jesus" to which they'd inquire confusedly "THAT's JESUS?!"
THE COEN BROTHERS are masters of playing with genre expectations and THE BIG LEWBOWSKI is a great example of them experimenting with the cinematic form of NOIR films and their ROMAN NOIR literary antecedent. NOIR films were largely created in a post-WWII climate where the world order was being rebuilt and the role of men was being challenged and rethought along economic, cultural and social considerations. the literary analogue to this genre predates WWII. usually there is a single male who throughout the film is fighting a series of outside forces that include government agencies (of the secretive variety), the media and (of course) women. women in particular are depicted as agents of destruction, i.e. femme fatales, who use their sexuality to attempt to derail our hero from his goal. of course its bullshit, but its a construction that is dear to a genre that at its heart is questioning what identifies masculinity when their hegemonic influence is questioned in a patriarchal society.
what makes THE BIG LEWBOWSKI so interesting is that instead of a determined, idealized male protagonist that rises to the occasion to supersede these overwhelming forces, we are instead given JEFF "THE DUDE" LEBOWSKI, an aging inept stoner with no will to effect change on the world other than his commitments to his bowling league and listening to CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL. he is the personification of ineffective masculinity, yet he is the protagonist that meanders his way through a convoluted plot of outside forces that he inept to deal with any reasonable capacity. that is the core of its humor and humanity.
i think i identified with that character not for his slacker-ness but his being thrown into crazy situations, much like i had at that point survived NIGERIA and boarding school.
LEBOWSKI throughout the film is manipulated by more sophisticated and devious counterparts, including another high-achieving JEFFREY LEBOWSKI who is nonetheless crippled and cuckolded by his barely legal porn star wife. even his doppelgänger or mirrored-self is compromised. much like his inability to effect change, the film also just kind of ends where it begins, and endless loop of inadequacy and mediocrity.
a film that never really ends or begins. no character development. no lessons learned.
great film well worth watching on repeat. i have since i was a teenager.
i am a total fanboy of DIVINE and JOHN WATERS.
i mean really. if you check out any of their trashy EXPLOITATION filmography from the 1970s, movies like PINK FLAMINGOS (DREAMLAND, 1972) and DESPERATE LIVING (DREAMLAND, 1977) or even more obscure earlier fare like MULTIPLE MANIACS (DREAMLAND, 1970) and MONDO TRASHO (DREAMLAND, 1969) you will not be disappointed.
my favorite out of the bunch is FEMALE TROUBLE (DREAMLAND, 1974) which depicts the life of a BALTIMORE teenager seeking attention throughout her life and ultimately commits murder for the sole motivation of becoming notorious.
for me this film is a bitter take on TABLOID culture in much the same way as BILLY WILDER's ACE IN THE HOLE (PARAMOUNT, 1951) eviscerated yellow journalism a generation before. WATERS saw the future of the AMERICAN SOUL and the lowest common denominator in cultural terms as the concept of infamy being a goal in and of itself predates today's online social media culture where people are famous for being famous and being "on brand." DIVINE is psychotic as all hell in this film and the DREAMLAND cast, as always, keep the film grounded in its debased underbelly like a more deranged and conked-out alternate versions of ANDY WARHOL's superstars.
the look, the acting, the humor and the caustic message about the nature of the media and the vacuous nature of seeking fame in this film is all textbook JOHN WATERS and is why FEMALE TROUBLE has been a touchstone of my movie-viewing habits since my teen years.
this film is required viewing in my opinion.
in an age of CANCEL CULTURE and ideological purity tests that border on the insane, i think it is as crucial a time as ever to revisit the figure of legendary film director ELIA KAZAN and his complicated legacy during the HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE hearings of the 1950s. for those unfamiliar with MCCARTHYISM, there was a wave of fear, much like our own current frenzied political climate, in the immediate post-WWII period related to our global rivalry with the SOVIETS dubbed the COLD WAR. there was always the threat of violence and massive attacks of the nuclear variety but ultimately it never got hot (i.e. conventional military conflict).
this state of affairs found the UNITED STATES turn in on itself and attempt to weed out anyone of note in major industries (politics, entertainment, journalism, etc.) who may have ever dabbled or supported socialist causes. it should be noted that in the immediate aftermath of the THE GREAT DEPRESSION in the 1930s, anyone with half a brain questioned the long-term viability of MARKET CAPITALISM.
this purity test famously heralded by WISCONSIN senator EUGENE MCCARTHY (who not ironically shared a counsel, ROY COHN, with DONALD TRUMP) was highly destructive to AMERICAN ideals of freedom and jurisprudence and resulted in ten JEWISH career professionals (screenwriters, directors, producers) known as the HOLLYWOOD TEN being BLACKLISTED and publicly vilified due to hearsay and innuendo. many film historians believe the SOCIALIST-bating histrionics was just a public smokescreen to ostracize JEWS in positions of influence, which marks this as a very dark period in our history.
KAZAN is famous for being a deft film director who specialized in character-driven narratives that touched on the struggles of working people (A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, ON THE WATERFRONT, EAST OF EDEN). his career dovetailed with the rise of METHOD ACTING and benefited from his collaborations with screen legends such as MARLON BRANDO and JAMES DEAN. basically he is a director of the highest order and his films are admired, studied and dissected by aspiring and working directors and random film junkies (like me) to date. he also dabbled in socialist circles in the 30s and was even a member of the communist party in NYC very briefly during that period.
now the names of members of were already known to the HUAC committee, but he was pressured to name names. and unfortunately he did. to this day he is a controversial figure for crossing that line and even during his acceptance of an award at the OSCARS over 50 years later, actors still turned their back in full view of the cameras. its a touchy subject and one that will forever be.
we like to think that people will make good choices in the face of tyranny and injustice, even at the expense to one's own self. fellow immigrant director BILLY WILDER (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD, SOME LIKE IT HOT) did such. he told HUAC to stuff themselves and he rightfully celebrated for such, but i think realistically the world is imperfect and people make imperfect decisions in imperfect situations.
did KAZAN deserve to be a pariah the rest of his life in the HOLLYWOOD community? i don't know, but i tend to side with empathy.
the people i find no empathy for are those that deliberately foster a divisive climate based on self-serving considerations such as power, which is definitely the case with MCCARTHY, COHN, TRUMP and all of his sycophants. perhaps a day will come when the waves of hatred will subside and our national wounds will have healed, but these people will still deserve our scorn and not those that got caught up in the hailstorm against their will. just saying.
for me, FEDERICO FELLINI's film JULIET OF THE SPIRITS (RIZZOLI FILM/FRANCORIZ PRODUCTION, 1965) is one of the best cinematic examinations of that feeling of being inadequate. i could be wrong, but each time i watch it i am only further confirmed in my belief that for all of this film's absolutely luscious use of color (the first FELLINI film to utilize such) and the sumptuous NINO ROTA score creating a dream-like otherworldly paradise filled with beautiful people and lavish garden parties, this film at its core is about loneliness and estrangement.
all of that carnival-like imagery and sound design is used to highlight how estranged the main character, played by FELLINI's frequent collaborator (and wife) GIULLIETTA MASINI, is from her philandering husband. it is a very unique device that is commonly utilized in MUSICALS whereby the set design, cinematography, dialogue and character behavior is meant to showcase the singular perspective of a character, not a representation of "reality." i am assuming in JULIET OF THE SPIRITS that all of the above is meant to convey the husband's charmed perspective of an idyllic, romantic idyll that his wife is only a minor character in. it is his fantasy and she comes across as a willing participant that doesn't quite fit.
again, it feels like a film on its face about inadequacy. but MASINI's character comes off grounded, stable and the epitome of a loyal partner. the husband is anything but. perhaps this is all a metaphor for the real-life partnership of MASINI and FELLINI, as his mistress was his love of cinema and filmmaking. he role being a stabilizing force and collaborator in his artistic visions.
if that is the case it is one of the most honest and deeply romantic films i know of. if anything it is the inadequacy of the director/husband to truly appreciate his wife that is on display here perhaps.
this film is worth viewing for the visuals and soundtrack alone. full disclosure: this is my personal favorite FELLINI film but virtually any of his films are worth checking out, especially 8 1/2, AMACORD, LA DOLCE VITA, SATYRICON or LA STRADA. could not recommend his work any more passionately for anyone interested in film.
CHARLIE CHAPLIN seems to get all the shine.
much of it deservedly so, especially given the transcendent greatness of films like MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR with which he used to levy criticism at capitalism and fascism at the height of his powers. it one thing to be supremely gifted and something completely different to take big risks and potentially bite the hand that feeds by critiquing your new country as an immigrant (see SPOTLIGHT on BILLY WILDER).
all that being said, watching BUSTER KEATON is akin to listening to LEADBELLY or HOWLIN' WOLF recording. at first you are mesmerized by the power of the art and then it hits you eventually how primitive the means of production where when this was made. in a sense it becomes that much more authentic and pure in its intention, although you eventually come to realize to them this was just what you did. one take. one microphone.
same with watching KEATON who wrote and directed his film which often display staggering set-pieces with stunts and acrobatics that are still thrilling and mesmerizing. when you see him throwing multiple logs from a moving train to display other logs lying on the tracks, that was actually him doing that.
whenever i feel like i've seen it all i tend to look back, way back to the early days of cinema (HAROLD LLOYD, GEORGES MÉLIÈS, JOSEF VON STERNBERG, ERICH VON STROHEIM) because there you really get a sense of the creative abandonment and potential they say in their craft. the rules hadn't been set yet.
and that's a nice place to be creatively for any artist.
at the heart of RIDLEY SCOTT's transcendent DYSTOPIAN film BLADE RUNNER (THE LADD COMPANY, 1982) is the question of what defines our humanity? what actually makes us human? loosely based on PHILIP K. DICK's novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (DOUBLEDAY, 1968), this film follows a bounty hunter in a future dystopia where technology has advanced to the point that mass produced androids called replicants are used for their labor. equipped with a conscious and prefabricated memories, some of these subjects have circumvented their end dates, thus necessitating a bounty hunter (known here as a blade runner) to find and kill them.
i could go on about the revolutionary special effects and set pieces that define the look of this film, but it is my opinion that what really makes this film a touchstone for future generations are the concerns it brings up. in our modern day with modern genetics and CRISPR technology that allow us to modify the human genome to our will, it is important to consider what will be lost in the process. are we defined by our creator? are we pre-designated to serve a certain function or are we free actors allowed to explore our agency? what makes this film inspires is that there is an open question of whether HARRISON FORD's character (who is a blade runner) is himself a replicant. is the enforcer even in charge of his own will or is he too just serving the purpose of another higher entity.
when i look to the future all i see is BLADE RUNNER. this film did not foresee the internet, but i nonetheless it did see a future where information is a tool of power and identity. and that is something i see today that reduce us all to consumers that can be defined with an algorithm based on our spending habits, social media posts and spending habits. we are already defined by our reciepts in this new economy but the downsides insofar have been pretty mild to benign in nature on a personal level. i think that'll change and our agency will be in question once techniques are used to influence our decision-making, whether economically or politically. we are only in the beginning stages.
once it is in full bloom we will all be replicants in a sense. we will all be created by our environment into information consumers with a purpose we don't even envision.
that to me is the legacy of BLADE RUNNER. an absolutely can't miss, must-watch film.
so back in the early 2000s i'm at RUTGERS and somewhere along the way i ended up writing a series of film reviews for their student newspaper THE DAILY TARGUM. i loved the rush of seeing your stuff in print and still have copies of somewhere in my parents basement. it was a pretty sweet deal since i normally chose limited-run films that only showed at NYC landmarks like the ANGELIKA FILM CENTER and the FILM FORUM and the newspaper covered travel and admission costs. i essentially got free trips to the city. what a great time i had.
at some point i moved up from reviews to features and ultimately only got to do two of them. one was an interview with animator NICK PARK for a WALLACE & GROMIT film (which i will probably write about a some future point). the other was a phone interview with TIM ROBBINS. and that dude was a dick.
this is the story of that conversation.
studios usually seek out college newspapers as they service directly the much desired target demographic of college students. such is why their PR firms gave us access to their directors, actors, etc as a means of promotion. at the time ROBBINS was promoting some theater project of which i will not specify (as i still do not want to give his project any, albeit delayed by decades, publicity) that he had directed and filmed from multiple angles as part of some "punk rock opera" or whatever forced, lame term he devised at the time.
what i participated in was a group phone interview among several other college writers from NYU, COLUMBIA and HARVARD. the way this works is that the order of questioning is derived by the order you call in to the interview. now here is where it got interesting. ROBBINS' film had no distribution. normally the paper would be sent a promotional copy or be given tickets to a screening. not here with this project, i was going in blind. turns out, so was everyone else.
somehwere i have a lost tape of this interview and i should attempt to locate it, because in there i have ROBBINS condescendingly dismissing my question along with everyone else's. at some point he asked why he was even talking to us. the HARVARD writer adroitly asked questions based on a recent NY TIMES' review and that really set ROBBINS' off, asking the writer if she knew the writer personally. which was odd.
i remember leaving the interview dejected thinking "damn, i just got yelled at by an ACADEMY AWARD winner, this is the low point of my college career." after sharing the interview tape with my editors this quickly turned to "wow, i just got yelled at by an ACADEMY AWARD winner, this is the high point of my college career." i wrote a piece that took him to task for being a prick and not giving us the materials we needed to ask him informed questions, but ultimately i didn't want to give him any publicity.
do i hold a grudge against the guy? not really. maybe he was having a bad day. i just thought he came off particularly arrogant and completely devoid of any compassion to a bunch of lowly college writers looking to potentially promote his project. you would think communicating to us his passion for this personal film would be the objective, but no, putting us in our place for not appreciating his craft seemed a better use of his time. i don't care that i agree with his politics. dude was a dick.
so i attended NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON. its a private boarding school in GILL, MASSACHUSETTS and when i attended it had two campuses and a student population nearing 2,000. in the years since its cut both the number of campuses and student population in half and is part of the exclusive EIGHT SCHOOLS ASSOCIATION, a self-contained IVY LEAGUE-like association of northeastern prep schools that includes CHOATE, PHILIPS EXETER, PHILIPS ANDOVER and the like.
i was there for two years and without doubt those two years changed me. academically it challenged me in a way nothing before or since has, including college and grad school. it also exposed me to the rotting core of white privilege and intergenerational power and wealth. i attended classes with the sons and daughters of film directors, national politicians, authors, lawyers, CEOs, drug kingpins (no joke) and foreign dictators. it was heady stuff and still is. whenever i see TRUMP speak it reminds me of half a dozen assholes i went to high school with who honestly didn't give a shit because they knew they were made for the rest of their lives.
here's an example of that ridiculousness that this place was, and no doubt still is. i was in my freshman english class and a classmate got a call on his mobile phone and let the teacher know he had to take it. i distinctly remember him saying "i'm sorry, i have to take this. its my mom, in space." he literally walked outside looked up and spoke with his mother who was orbiting overhead above NEW ENGLAND apparently and was being patched in via HOUSTON. just crazy. but that was the norm.
here is another less cheerful example. an upperclassman in my dorm sophomore year was caught selling opiates on campus, but wasn't expelled since his CEO father was giving a speech in a few days about making ethical judgements in business via a speech on the buddhist eight-fold path tenet of right occupation. you can't make this stuff up. and to make it sting of hypocrisy that much more, the fallout ended up being a few scholarship students from the inner-city being dismissed.
when WES ANDERSON's film RUSHMORE (TOUCHSTONE PICTURES, 1998) came out midway through my freshman year it was a revelation because it didn't feel that far removed from my experience, minus the creepy love triangle. there was even a junior that got christened for his bad grades and participation in seemingly everything.
by far the best thing about the film was the BILL MURRAY's epic chapel speech near the beginning of the film where he told the poor kids to "take dead aim on the rich boys, get them in the crosshairs and take them down." this was pre-COLUMBINE, but when that played in my dorm half the students would stare down each other.
watching it now makes me shudder. my time at NORTHFIELD MOUNT HERMON wasn't ideal, i was bullied harshly with knowing supervisors that turned the other way and "let boys be boys," but at the same time it prepared me for the reality of the world.
a world where the rich stay rich and fuck everyone else. no wonder i joined the PEACE CORPS.
i first watched CLINT EASTWOOD'S first WESTERN directorial effort HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (MALPASO COMPANY, 1973) in a film class during undergrad at RUTGERS and i remember it garnering an immediate reaction on my classmates. if i recall correctly, it pissed off more than half the audience. it is a gloriously un-PC film.
the film deals with an unnamed stranger strolling into a frontier town and basically decimating it after encountering its loutish, corrupt inhabitants, only to walk away alone at the films end. in the script he is named GABRIEL and one can assume that he is meant to be God's wrath smiting down this sin-filled SODOM-like town and burning it to the ground, but this is never stated in the actual film.
for me this film is an enigma because EASTWOOD's character is so vicious yet you root for him, he by definition is the moral center of the film despite his own deplorable actions. case in point: in the first 10 minutes of screen time this unnamed character murders 3 townsfolk in cold blood and rapes a prostitute and yet somehow you still root for him. its awful.
you can't even call this character an anti-hero, he's just a terrible person inflicting pain on other despicable people. for me i'm conflicted and perplexed by this film, which is probably why i have rewatched it several times attempting to figure it out. is it a commentary on the VIETNAM WAR or PROTEST MOVEMENTS then taking place? is he saying that brute force justifies all actions?
i really don't know. i just don't understand how a character can be that awful and still hold moral authority in a film. just on a technical narrative side, that is a neat trick. what such violence is attempting to convey to the viewer? i still don't know but am interested in finding out.
legendary british NOIR film THE THIRD MAN (LONDON FILM PRODUCTIONS, 1949) directed by CAROL REED, screenplay by GRAHAM GREENE and starring OSON WELLES is as much an historical document as it is one of the unrivaled gems of the genre. filmed largely on location in VIENNA in the immediate aftermath of World War II, this film details the intrigue of shattered lives and jumbled alliances relationships, both personal and political, that defined this era.
main character HOLLY MARTINS (JOSEPH COTTEN) is in VIENNA at the request of his friend HARRY LIME (ORSON WELLES) due to a job offer but learns on arrival that LIME has died. much of the film finds him traversing the shadow economy and sullied actors, including LIME, that are set in an underground battle for political and economic hegemony in the vacuum set into motion by the ALLIED FORCES victory.
much has been made about the craftsmanship of the dialogue, the quality of the acting, the look of the film or even the ingenious choice to use post-war VIENNA as the ideal backdrop for a dark, noirish mystery film. all of these are deserved. i myself have even watched this film in VIENNA (there is a theater that ONLY plays it multiple times a day) and gone on the walking tour of its scenes on location.
and all that is good and interesting, but for me the real value of this film is the way in which it navigates sans judgement the shadow world of politics and economic influence. too often today people look at the actions of nations and politicians in a reductive binary moral compass of good and evil, when what they really should consider is who are the players and what is their interest.
growing up i saw this dichotomy firsthand in places where our government supported corrupt foreign military dictatorships (NIGERIA) and undemocratic theocracies (KUWAIT) purely based on economic necessity. i doubt there was a discussion revolving morality when backing these un-american regimes abroad because the vacuum of our absence would have benefited our economic and political rivals (RUSSIA, IRAN, CHINA). this film dives headfirst into the ethical morass that is this ambiguity and really gets at the heart of what we value as a society (through the idealism MARTINS) and what price we are willing to pay (through the actions of LIME).
this is a legendary film well-worth your time. consider giving it a watch.
italian director MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI has made several canonical films throughout his career, my favorite being L'AVENTURA (CINO DEL DUCA,1960), but his first english-speaking film BLOW-UP (Bridge Films, 1966) created at the height of the mi-60s BRITISH INVASION is a remarkable film on several levels.
as mentioned before it is a document of an all-too brief moment when there was a liberating sense of artistic, cultural and sexual possibility. at times it is hard for americans to understand british class politics as it is a bit foreign to our culture which is more underpinned by nefarious forces like structural racism and conservative, puritanical, often binary inherited constructions of sexual preference and gender identity. in england markers of identity such as clothing and regional accents gave you away as being of this or that class, which was often a permanent strike against an individual despite their success thereafter. once lower class you are always lower class. in america we may make fun of a unique accent (i'm looking at you LOUISIANA, BROOKYLN and the SAN FERNANDO VALLEY), but we won't let that stop someone from running a company or holding political office. for this reason i think american BLUES, R&B and ROCKABILLY provided british youth a foreign cloak to don and transcend whatever their class prescriptions were in england's rigid, almost caste-like social hierarchy.
this freedom can be viewed in a legendary scene where THE YARDBIRDS oerform. this scene is notable as it was shot during the brief moment that JEFF BECK and JIMMY PAGE where both sharing guitar duties (BECK would amicably depart shortly thereafter).
beyond the era that this film depicts and its influence on modern culture, this film also dives deep into the nature of reality as scene through technology. the film itself showcases a photographer who notices in his darkroom while processing film from a recent photoshoot in a park that he remarkably has evidence of a murder after magnifying, or blowing up, his film several magnitudes.
i think now ideas of HYPERREALITY in the digital age are common place as concepts such as DIGITAL DATA COLLECTION, VIDEO SURVEILLANCE, PAPARAZZI/TABLOID CULTURE and DEEP FAKES have provided means of both documenting and manipulating our belief that what our eyes relay to our brain cannot be relied upon. our reality can be dissected and cross-examined by a seemingly endless myriad of perspectives to the point now that TRUTH seems like a relative ideal, not based in actual fact.
science fiction has long toyed with this idea of authenticity and the limits of empricism (as seen in the the work of ISAAC ASIMOV, ARTHUR C. CLARKE), as have minds dating back to antiquity (SHIP OF THESEUS PARADOX, PLATO's ALLEGORY OF THE CAVE). i think were this film excels is that it asks us at what point do we stop trusting our senses and totally bow to the high reality brought on by technology. i think right now we are still dealing with this question as DIGITAL MARKETING and RESEARCH TECHNOLOGIES of such corporations like FACEBOOK and GOOGLE have already made us subservient to algorithms. its already happening.
this is a classic film that deserves to be watched repeatedly and i highly recommend it. also, it is worth paring this film with the later FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA effort THE CONVERSATION (PARAMOUNT PICTURES, 1974) as it is a similar premise, except this time dives into audio manipulation. in a world accustomed to AUTO-TUNE and the wizardry of PRO TOOLS, this film may also strike a chord, pun intended.
art by nacrowe
i don't where my sense of humor and the work of MEL BROOKS divides. to me that separation ended a long time ago as i was basically raised on his films, most notably SPACEBALLS (BROOKSFILMS, 1987), BLAZING SADDLES (CROSSBOW PRODUCTIONS, 1974), YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (CROSSBOW PRODUCTIONS, 1974), THE PRODUCERS (CROSSBOW PRODUCTIONS, 1967) and HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART I (BROOKSFILMS, 1981). all absolute classics. the dialogue in his films a long time ago became short-hand in my family.
the first time i saw SPACEBALLS was with my father in kindergarten. i didn't get any of it. my dad realized i'd never seen STAR WARS so after that was done i got some of the jokes.
i could go on about the incredible cast (RICK MORANIS, BILL PULLMAN, JOHN CANDY, JOAN RIVERS) or its commentary on franchise film-making, or even the legendary set-ups and one-liners, but really this film has to be experienced to be appreciated. i want to safeguard that experience by encouraging everyone and anyone to seek it out, even if you are not a sci-fi fan. it transcends the genre it parodies.
for me BROOKS is an american treasure. being the quintessential brooklyn-ite, he is a bit of throwback to an era of comedy writing that has largely been passed over for cheap gags and gross-out humor. given that part of my family is from brooklyn, i always considered his humor a channel to a different time and aesthetic regarding humor that is very urban, very pointed and very intelligent. it's almost aspirational and for whatever reason i associated it with my families roots. what i love most about his parodies is that he uses them to interject criticism about the genre they cover. SPACEBALLS routinely goes after the ridiculous reliance on spectacle as an audience-draw in sci-fi films as well as the blatant money-grabbing consumerism of the time with LUCAS and SPIELBERG-related properties like E.T or INDIANA JONES. it is funny because many of the same special effects people that worked on those films did so for SPACEBALLS as well. BLAZING SADDLES likewise went after the inherent racism portrayed in the american WESTERN FILM and american society en masse as well. that is a subject for another review. with BROOKS you can take the film at face-value or dig deeper, which is the sign of any quality film product. its just a pity he doesn't get the critical due he deserves since for whatever reason, the film industry doesn't take comedies as seriously as dramas in the UNITED STATES.
don't ask me why that is. as a writer, director, producer and actor he cleans the floors of most of his peers, including LUCAS and SPIELBERG. just my opinion.
check out the film. let me know what you think in the comments. and if you ever find a legit website that sells SPACEBALLS THE T-SHIRT please let me know.
normally i'm pretty ambivalent about sci-fi films since they more often than not rely on spectacle and set/prop design to propel the narrative rather than an interesting conceit, which is ironic given that science fiction as a literary genre is the inverse of that. in sci-fi literature, future/alternate technology is compelling given its effect on humankind and their decisions relationships to each other. perhaps this focus on spectacle in films is why sci-fi films become dated fairly quickly.
british director NICOLAS ROEG's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (BRITISH LION FILMS, 1976) starring DAVID BOWIE is one of those rare sci-fi films that reaches literary expectations. its narrative consists of an alien being who reaches earth in search of water in order to save his home planet.
what impressed me about this film is the "realistic" conceit that an alien would attempt to fit into human society by utilizing its knowledge and technology to prosper in our global economy. i can't think of any other film that showcases the exploitation of alien technology as a means of gathering economic and political influence. the cliche is obviously military action, but here economic dominance ensures undiluted power without all the bad aspects of fame and notoriety.
or so it would seem. the idea of an alien coming into our world and excelling in it, only to become alienated by capitalism is reminiscent of PLATO's "Allegory of the Cave." what does that say about human society if an intelligent being with now bias towards humankind is corrupted by it.
that is the central question of the film in my opinion. what does that say for the rest of us?
WILD STRAWBERRIES (SVENSK FILMINDUSTRI, 1957) by legendary Swedish director INGMAR BERGMAN is my vote for most depressing film of all-time. straight up.
the conceit of the film is an elderly professor traveling to his alma mater to accept an award for his life's work, when he is besieged by regret for the choices of his life. the opportunities he didn't take as they would've competed with his academic ambitions.
the idea of regret at a point in which you have no agency to do anything about it was deeply affecting to me when i saw this back in high school as part of a film class. essentially this film was my introduction to the concept of impotence, which is genuinely devastating to think about too long.
i never got into horror films in general, other than pre-1970s suspense films (ALFRED HITCHCOCK, BILLY WILDER) and early german expressionist films and their immediate adherents (FRITZ LANG, ROBERT WIENE, F.W. MURNAU, JAMES WHALE), partly because the idea of immediate death really isn't that terrifying. it's almost a relief. the idea of slow contemplation over years mulling over bad decisions is psychologically far more devastating and torturous in my opinion.
BERGMAN in this film effectively showcases this existential dread ironically through beautifully composed, hazy impressionistic dream sequences of sun-drenched, never-ending midsummer afternoons in the Swedish forests where as a youth he'd bask in young love. too bad his ambitions left her in the rear-view. these delicately shot scenes of youthful naivety bely a much darker edge in the context of the film, as seeing the college students only further reinforces his internal struggle. essentially this film is a CHARLES DICKENS' A CHRISTMAS CAROL except no hope of changing your ways. only option afforded you is to wallow in the misery of your past decisions.
only BERGMAN could make such a beautiful film that is so depressing! and thats why i love him. definitely worth checking out his filmography, especially this film or THE SEVENTH SEAL (SVENSK FILMINDUSTRI, 1957) . can't go wrong, both are highly contemplative films where characters are caught in an internal conflict asking life's most consequential questions.
art by nacrowe
it is often assumed that innovation in the arts is coupled with an expansive worldview that further enriches humanity. think LEONARDO DA VINCI with his visions of helicopters and future mechanical technology or SHAKESPEARE writing plays that ultimately sought to comment publicly on the role and responsibility of leaders (MACBETH, HAMLET, RICHARD III, KING LEAR) for then-current and future monarchs.
LENI RIEFENSTAHL mastered the relatively young art of cinema by bending the documentary form to her, umm, will in the epic nazi propaganda films OLYMPIA and TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. the very vocabulary of film shots was altered after her involvement, introducing crane and various dramatic aerial shots that sought to showcase the grandeur and sheer scale of a 1934 rally in nuremberg. massive widescreen shots of thousands of soldiers acting in unison is commonplace now (think NORTH KOREA military parades) and part of the fascist lexicon.
watching her films is a lesson in appreciating the craft while recognizing but disregarding the political, social and cultural repercussions of the message. it is difficult, much like appreciating the works of CARAVAGGIO, BERTOLT BRECHT, CHUCK BERRY, EDGARD DEGAS, WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS, PAUL GAUGUIN, JAMES BROWN, WILLIAM GOLDING and MORRISSEY after knowing their crimes or dispicable worldviews. i believe it can be done.
the fact that RIEFENSTAHL was a lesbian who was more than complicit in the propagation of a corrosive worldview that impacted millions of people, including those that shared her own sexuality, heightens her hypocrisy in scale beyond those of the artists i mentioned, so in a purely utilitarian argument she is much worse. she is the ultimate hypocrite and complicit in the holocaust and history should judge her for that.
at the same time when i view her work i see someone that is interested in the human form, both individually as with the famous divers form OLYMPIA (reminiscent of EADWEARD MUYBRIDGE except her figures are in flight) or en masse as a proverbial singular body politic in TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (which is basically the most warped BUSBY BERKELEY routine ever). the fact that her work is so visually compelling only makes it that much more sinister, as the diving bodies are meant to showcase the superiority of the Arian race and the mass of synchronized bodies a sign of the singular power and vision of the state.
to not watch her films is a mistake. appreciate her craft and be mindful of its dire implications, if anything her nazi filmography is a case study in the power of film to shape consciousness, just not those that suit our better angels.
to make a connection to how this lexicon of images she created applies to today is too obvious. all i am saying is be aware of it next time you see a mass of people in a political video trying to sell you on conformity.