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.
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?