I have a confession to make: Sometimes, I don’t go into a film with an open mind. I know, I know, it’s like I’m breaking a code of ethics for film buffs or film critics. This happens for a couple of reasons: a) I don’t get out that often, so I have to be deliberately selective of what I see (I only seen 12-20 theatrical releases a year), and I often choose what I think I’m going to enjoy the most, or at least what I’m going to get the most out of; or b) I have had strong reactions from the director’s previous work (or screenwriter or actor, but usually director). Case in point, I went in to The Great Gatsby with as closed of a mind as you could probably get. I was going to “hate watch” it, essentially. I was more than ready to detest whatever Lurhmann had done to bastardize F. Scott Fitzgerald’s text. Again, this sound completely horrible, but, so be it. I was, however, in for a couple surprises. But, I guess the most surprising thing about Gatsby is… I didn’t hate it.
I hate the director. I have a personal vendetta against Baz Lurhmann after William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! I have a physical aversion to his “bigger is bigger is better”, “style is absolutely everything” mentality. I have tried to watch the two aforementioned films numerous times and I have only gotten through them twice each (total viewing counts: RJ: 4; MR: 6). With the exception of his fabulous debut, Strictly Ballroom (which had all the right kinds of theatricality); I have found Lurhmann to be the “Michael Bay of pseudo-postmodern mainstream filmmaking”. His ideas look good on paper, sometimes even swell; the re-appropriation of a tragic love story set in Miami gangland while retaining the original text? Cool! The retelling of La Boehme as a musical utilizing contemporary pop music to weave the story? Superb! But, for me, it all crumbles away in execution, most notably in editing and cinematography. Lurhmann’s flare for theatricality manifests itself through his editing and camerawork, where he is more reliant on a hyperkinetic, MTV borne method of rapid cuts, oversaturated colors, and swirling camera movements. I probably would not have as much of an issue of these things actually looked visually palatable, but Lurhmann often goes so overboard that I become physically nauseous watching it. Not only does this style of filmmaking get in the way of storytelling and distract from what is occurring with the characters, it is ostentatious and I cannot tolerate it. In essence, Lurhmann does not know when to say stop. It, thus, makes it seem as if he does not actually understand visual language or the language of film. It seems random and aberrant. But, finally, in several moments of his newest film, his take on Fitzgerald’s high school consecrated novel, he steps back and takes a breath to look at some of the grandeur of what he can produce.
As I am sure that everyone reading this has read The Great Gatsby as some point in their lives, I shall not bother giving any type of summary beyond this: Fitzgerald’s book, through its ambrosial prose and decedent setting, desired to critique the deliciously sinful lifestyle so many people lived and/or chased during the 1920s and did so by creating two of the most fascinating characters in American literature: Nick Caraway and Jay Gatsby.
Now, it did not surprise me much at all that the first third of the film was wildly visual and self-satisfied in its anachronistic use of music. So, during that first third, I kind of just rolled my eyes during some moments, but I realized, halfway through, that what I was seeing was not making me ill. This, I think, is growth! Nevertheless, Lurhmann’s attempts at duding up his film with CGI art deco, augmented building and settings, rapid editing, dizzying camera work, and his usual trademarks did everything I expected them to: look flashy and distract from what was going on in the film. When Gatsby takes Nick out for the first time in his car, so many cuts were made that one has to continually mentally re-orientate themselves as to where the car is, thus almost ignoring what Gatsby was saying in his rather expository monologue. Isn’t the point, though, to be as entranced by what Gatsby is saying as Nick is?
Speaking of whom, Lurhmann employs a totally unnecessary framing device for the film’s narrative. We find Nick, morose and austere and a resident at an asylum due to severe anxiety and alcoholism, this after the events of the book/film. His psychiatrist tells him to write about his experiences, since he can’t “talk” about them. And so he does. I cannot recall who said it, but a friend of mine on Twitter said that voice over narration should not merely describe what a character does or has done; good narration gives insight into what just happened. On paper, Nick’s first person narration makes sense; on film, it does not. Even separating one’s self from the book, the narration suffers from textbook “telling, not showing”. Much of the nuance of the story and characters is reduced to Tobey Maguire’s half-baked voice over (he really does sound stoned and/or falling asleep). In this way, it feels, occasionally, like a visual audiobook and not a film. Many things are described in such detail that it robs the opportunity for the actors to embody an element of their character, or for the camera to subtly hint at something visually and dramatically. You here Nick describe everything that is going on, constantly interrupting the story, causing several scenes to become long, drawn out affairs, almost going against what Lurhmann usually does. As workable and exceptional as Gatsby’s third act is, it becomes almost excruciatingly “accurate” with the novel because so much of it has this narration. At least the cast is “good”.
I put that in quotation marks for a reason. I commend the entire cast, with the exception of Tobey Maguire, for some spectacular performances. While not as deeply vapid as I expected, Carey Mulligan’s turn as Daisy Buchanan was lovely, her voice emulating money just as Fitzgerald had written. Tom Edgarton epitomizes the hulking, aggressive nature of Daisy’s husband, Tom, in an almost frightening way. Relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki is absolutely divine as Jordan Baker, asserting her presence on the screen with a dose of gossip and a trace of “masculine” strength. Tobey Maguire is, on the other hand, pretty boring and banal, despite his role as Nick Caraway being crucial to the story. Only in a few moments of the film do you get to see the wide-eyed wonderment, naiveté, and childishness of Nick. Too often, though, Maguire sounds bored and kind of ghostly. You could make the argument, though, that because everyone basically overacts their way through the film that they are epitomizing the façade of wealth and class Fitzgerald so strongly tackles and criticizes in the book, but that is one of the primary issues. Because every actor seems to fit the descriptions given by Fitzgerald in the book to a T at times, it feels much like a one note performance through much of it. It seems that they are playing more of an outline of the character than actually making the character their own, bringing it to life, and truly making it memorable. Mulligan can capture that subtle quality about Daisy seemingly with ease, but only momentarily does her heartbreak, vapidity, and vulnerability seem more like the words on the page just transliterated onto the screen. Edgarton may look, talk, and walk like Tom, but rarely does he transcend that character. Nearly everyone seems trapped in a mentality dictated by a high school class where everyone lists out what qualities the characters have, as opposed to glancing at those qualities and then going with their gut feeling to make it something to be remembered.
Nearly everyone except Leonardo DiCaprio. His performance as Jay Gatsby may not be perfect, but only in him do you get both an achingly real quality to what Fitzgerald was writing about as well as a performance that goes past that and dives into Gatsby’s emotions as DiCaprio may see it. His desperate, play acted persona seems believable enough to accept him in the role, but fake enough to know there is something else lurking underneath the tailored suits and polished shoes. The nervousness, anxiety, desperation, ostentation, and corruption (emotion and moral) all ooze from DiCaprio’s pores performance effortlessly. This might be, dare I say it, one of DiCaprio’s most memorable roles. *runs and hides*
With DiCaprio’s success as Gatsby, the film’s second strongest aspect is its second a third act. Perhaps exhausted from the “whirlwind” he took us on so early in the film, Lurhmann actually takes a step back, giving both he and his audience a rest and allowing the film to become almost traditional and by the book. The ostentation of the director never fully disappears, but not only does it become more tolerable, it becomes somewhat pleasant. The distraction of the film’s visual aesthetic takes a back seat to characters doing things that could be filled with meaning; to settings that, while entirely artificial looking, at least make sense; and to a story being told. Not necessarily well, as Lurhmann continues to have very little idea about cinematic language, but “okay”. He does an okay job, when the day is done. There are a couple of truly spectacular scenes in the film, notably when Jordon, Nick, Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom are in the city in a hotel room. In this scene, you can see that Lurhmann may have finally matured in his ability to frame things as a benefit to the story, not just to look good or impressive. The tensions steadily rise, and the room is given dual jobs: claustrophobic prison for Tom and Gatsby, and the rest of the group, and large, kind of expansive arena for the former pair. Close ups detail the rage and the duel like nature of the scene; long shots show it as an ornate cell, reminiscent of Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel. Edgarton and DiCaprio bring their A-game to the scene, and in a moment of pure ferocity out of Gatsby, one is reminded of the pained, pathetic creature lurking somewhere in Gatsby’s soul. If this is what Lurhmann can do, a scene where what the actors are doing is more important than how quickly it can change from shot to shot, then I might have to rescind my vendetta.
The music, though, that is something else. I get why Jay Z is produced the soundtrack. Because he can be called “Jay Gat-Z”! Get it? Okay, I’m sorry. However, Jay Z’s personal life only reflects the most surface value of the text and of Gatsby’s aspirations and chase for the American Dream. He’s a success story, and someone whose big name and often good sonic choices might be eye catching for people interested in the film. It comes as absolutely no surprise that the most anachronistic thing in the film is the music. There are other things, sure, like the digitally rendered locale of the entire film (Film critic David Ehrlich commented that the film is less of “a period piece. more like a semi-colon… piece.”), but the music is the most buzzed about, I would surmise. Because, in what world does one marry Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and a track by will.i.am in the same scene? Apparently, in Lurhmann’s world. That said, a good portion of the music used in the film makes sense within its context. Party scenes feature tracks like “Bang Bang” by the aforementioned Black Eyed Peas alumnus, which samples the Charleston and “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody” by Fergie, which alludes to a line in the book, and these scenes work. They make sense, and they are occasionally even fun and worthy of a foot tap. Emeli Sande’s take on Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” is rearranged as a big band, cabaret track and used just prior to Gatsby’s first meeting with Daisy, and it’s the haunting sound of Sande’s voice coupled with the whining, futile brass that gives that brief scene its power. Even Lana del Ray’s “young and Beautiful”, which becomes a musical motif throughout the film, echoes hauntingly through Gatsby’s vast mansion and smartly describes the hollowness of Gatsby’s lust for Daisy. But it’s when other tracks are used, like Jay Z’s own “100$ Bill” and even the revamped “Back to Black” performed by Andre 3000 and Beyoncé, that the anachronism doesn’t actually make sense in the film and feels more like a big name throw in. These tracks that don’t quite fit in the movie sound like they belong on a disc of music “inspired by the film”, instead of being used in it. It creates unevenness in the film’s tone, which is ironic considering the director. The biggest disappointment, in my personal opinion, is the use of Gershwin’s opus “Rhapsody in Blue”. While it is always nice to hear it used at all, its use becomes somewhat redundant in the film’s two scenes where you hear it: first, when we finally meet Gatsby, and second, when the gang, so to speak, travel across the Queensboro Bridge. One use of the song would make sense; two makes it redundant, especially because the sections that are used as so close together in regards to the chronology of the track itself. That said, the music as a whole did not bother me. Its attempt to make the issues discussed in the film relevant to a contemporary audience in a very “it’s what’s happening today” is not exactly successful, but at least it doesn’t sound bad.
One of the most surprising disappointments to me, though, was the 3D. For all the justification and defending Lurhmann did for his choice to make the film in 3D, it was not particularly spectacular. Although the film’s titles begin to create a sense of depth by gradually becoming a long, narrow hallway of art deco-like graphic design, much of the 3D was, I suppose, underutilized. There wasn’t so much as “sense of depth and place” as there was the understanding that an actor was either standing in front of another actor or a piece of furniture, or that an actor was standing in front of a blue screen, and, in most cases, both. Besides darkening the hues of Simon Duggan’s cinematography, never does one get the feel of just how excessive this piece of the Roaring Twenties was, or how enormous Gatsby’s mansion is. The wide open spaces don’t make you feel like you’re there, just like you feel like you should be feeling like you’re there. While their intentions are “noble”, Werner Herzog and his Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Wim Wenders and his Pina, Lurhmann might not know how to fine tune the technology enough to make it feel worth sitting through. Cave of Forgotten Dreams shows the extensive space of cave paintings, while Wim Wenders shows both the far-reaching depth into a stage as well as the illusive details of the dancers’ bodies and how they move. Gatsby sometimes uses “fun” effects (ashes, writing on the screen, the Green Light, etc.), but none of it justifies the premium ticket price.
The parties look good. But where the film fails in the biggest sense is there. Lurhmann may show just how excessive and decadent that period may have been, but little attempt is made to make as incisive a criticism of such an era as was made in the book. It all looks nice, but it’s all vapid. The justification for “what did expect other than ‘style over substance’?” is no excuse for the film to actually be that way. It attempts to show that falseness of class and sophistication, but does little to go beyond just showing it. It doesn’t peel away at those layers to reveal the true corruption of the ‘20s.
So, I didn’t hate The Great Gatsby. I didn’t even revile it. I did not feel the sense to cry at how awful it was. It wasn’t a hot mess or a train wreck, but it was still mediocre. Despite being very faithful to the book it’s based upon, The Great Gatsby may represent, as some have said, the film that fails to capture the true essence of the book. I probably would have preferred a less accurate version of the film had it been able to convey the nastiness of the novel better. One wonders to what extent Lurhmann grasped the book’s themes enough to adapt them into a satisfying film. The film’s anachronism didn’t bother me, and even the later parts of the film had me genuinely enthralled, but too much of the film was uneven. What worked, worked well, and what didn’t work really didn’t work. The most captivating aspect was DiCaprio’s performance, but beyond that, we may have to continue beat on against the current, hoping for someone to get Gatsby definitely right for once.
Making my list of my top favorite 101 films was fun. Sort of. As you can imagine, the hardest part was whittling down all of my favorite films (a list I update regularly and runs around 300 or so) down to that rather restrictive number. It was hard. And I cheated a lot by including trilogies, series, and even thematic double features (prostitutes anyone?). But I wanted to show the best of my favorites. And I managed to forget some ones that have been incredibly important to me as well as new films I’ve only recently watched but feel more than confident in putting on the list. It’s about half and half here in that respect. I was originally going post the top ten I’d left out, but then I decided not to decide something that definitive and restraining like that. So, ladies and gents, my list of THIRTEEN films I forgot to include on my Top 101 Films:
1. 3 Women (1977)| Directed by Robert Altman
The loose story of 3 Women came to director Robert Altman in a dream. This dreamlike quality is evident in the loose yet controlled lucid style. A very strange story of identity (that bears a little resemblance to another film on this list), Sissy Spaceck plays a young naïf who attaches herself to the talkative nurse she works with played by Shelley Duvall. Those are two of the three women of the title, the third being a mysterious and enigmatic mural painter. Altman’s surreal structure and dream like narrative is gorgeous and hypnotic. Full of mystery, longing emotion, and expert performances from Spececk and Duvall, 3 Women is a masterwork.
2. Across the Universe (2007) | Directed by Julie Taymore
I grew up listening to the Beatles music, but it was not until my freshman year that I went head on into the Beatles work. And although I had seen Across the Universe once or twice prior and enjoyed it, its impact never hit me until then. The film is unabashedly polarizing, both in its innovative use of the Beatles’ music (warning, cover haters) as well as its intoxicating imagery. Taking the Beatles songs and weaving them into a star crossed love story was, regardless of its execution, one of the most ingenious ideas ever. Considering that the Beatles, throughout their expansive, yet short career, wrote some of the greatest love songs ever as well as some of the most subversively politically relevant music, it was only a matter of time until someone used that and appropriated it as a story. Taking place perfectly within the time of the Beatles career (from the early to late 1960s), Julie Taymore takes the characters’ names from songs (Jude, Maxwell, Lucy, etc.), throws some in-jokes in the mix (“Where did she come from?” “She came in through the bathroom window.”), and some truly dizzying images and makes an audacious masterpiece. Some of the best Beatles covers ever are featured in this film. It’s an incredible love story using incredible music, and just enough to cause a ruckus in the film world. You say you want a revolution…
3. Amélie (2001) | Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Amélie is a quaint, picturesque film about a young woman that likes to mettle in other people’s lives, with varying degrees of success. It’s like a French Emma. But director Jean-Pierre Jeunet uses his camera so elegantly, he creates a quirky, deeply saturated world full of emotion and joviality. Audrey Tatou is absolutely perfect as the meddling main character. She is able to portray the complexity of a woman who likes to live totally vicariously. I don’t think is really a spoiler, but, yes my friends, Amelie is given a chance at love. Were it not for some of the sex and language, the film is beautifully whimsical that it could easily be a modern fairy tale or a children’s book.
4. Antichrist (2009)| Directed by Lars von Trier
I already had three of Lars von Trier’s films on the list, and that was primarily the reason I did not include Antichrist. The viscerally harrowing and terrifyingly abstract psychological thriller was my first introduction into the career and filmography of the director some, including myself, like to call “Lars von Troll”. While Melancholia was made as a result of a post-depression mindset, Antichrist is the film in which he rolls out all of the stops. This is, some have said, his deadly deadpan and sarcastic answer to the world of modern psychology. Exploring gender dynamics and the art of psychosis on film in a perfect way, von Trier nods to Kubrick and Tarkovsky, creating some of the most startling and arresting images ever on the screen. The first half of the film is fairly “normal” (with the occasional interjection of the abstract), Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the depressed patient and Willem Dafoe plays the husband and psychiatrist. Von Trier’s observations about gender dynamics, psychology, emotion, etc. are astute and well articulated. And the in the second half, as the He and She head into the forest called Eden, everything goes crazy and the film goes off the rails. Don’t let the controversial scenes deter you; this film is far more complex and fascinating than its reductive “scissor” ad campaign leads one to believe. With von Trier, there’s no doubt that chaos will reign.
5. Grey Gardens (1976)/Grey Gardens (2009) |Directed by the Maysles, et. Al/Michael Sucsy
Even though Jackie Onasis’ weird relatives, Big and Little Edie Beale, seem, only by description, to be eligible for the next season of Hoarders, which the two have that no Hoarders episode ever could show is gumption and one hell of a life story. A bizarre riches to rags story, the documentary, primarily directed by the Maysles Brothers (the team behind Gimme Shelter), captures a superbly realized cinema verite of how the Beales lived. And how they lived was in squalor. At one point, they were going to be evicted from their previously lavish East Hampton home, but Jackie O came to the rescue and spruced things up a bit. And then it got dirty again. The character that both Big and Little Edie have in them is kind of astonishing. While in the documentary it isn’t made clear how people of such privilege could end up like this, the story doesn’t need to be filled because the audience is so fascinated with the subjects. Everyone who’s ever seen it remembers the very beginning, where feminist philosopher Little Edie gives her “best costume for today” monologue. It’s quite an outstanding look and how Little Edie copes and manages with the life she lives. The decrepit house, the weird relationship Little Edie has with one of the camera guys (beautifully intrusive), Big Edie’s singing and stories of Gould, etc. It’s a fascinating character study. HBO decided in 2009 to fill in some of the blanks and did so marvelously, with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange at the ready. Recreating some of the documentary footage (which Cinema Verite would do later for An American Family, but far less successfully) and flashing back and forth between the time the doc was being film and their lives beforehand, the two leads settle in their roles gloriously. Barrymore sounds so much like Little Edie, I yelped. Certainly not better than the original documentary, the HBO film makes a wonderful supplement. Grey Gardens is real life character study at its finest.
6. In the Mood for Love (2000) | Directed by Wong Kar-Wai
I may have mentioned in my little write up for Wong Kar-Wai’s other masterpiece Chungking Express that I’ve learned from Asian cinema that Asians are awesome at wallowing in their own self pity. (I should know, as I am Asian and spend my Friday nights crying into a pint of ice cream watching things like Eternal Sunshine.) While this remains true in Kaw-Wai’s loose sequel to his debut Days of Being Wild, IN the Mood for Love presents a romantic yearning that is so powerful and moving that it every other expression in love seems so trite. In Hong Kong in the 1960s, two married people move into the same apartment complex. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play the man and woman, and the two learn of a secret that will bind them forever. The proceeding events have a tender delicacy and portray a beautiful intimacy that is rarely portrayed on the screen so well. Sofia Coppola said that she was inspired by the film when she made Lost in Translation, and the themes from In the Mood for Love are evident. Wong Kar-Wai’s beautiful film is one of the most stunning portrayals of love ever on screen.
7. Mulholland Dr. (2001) | Directed by David Lynch
David Lynch’s weird universe, form Twin Peaks to Eraserhead to Blue Velvet, is a labyrinth of lies, an enigmatic world of deceit, and a poisonous letter to conventionality. Mulholland Dr. is one of his most puzzling and thrilling films, featuring alternate realities, projections of self, concepts of identity and desire, all in the city of desire and dreams. Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece shows us a deadly Hollywood noir, with a woman seeking stardom (Naomi Watts), a woman with amnesia under the guise of Rita Hayworth (Laura Harring), a director who is losing control of his film, and other various strings of plot. Originally conceived as a television plot line, filled with open endings and unfinished arcs, Lynch added material then the pilot was rejected, giving some semblance of an ending. Well, for Lynch, that is. As to the different theories surrounding the meaning of the film, that is left to interpretation. Nevertheless, the labyrinth of surrealism is one of the most exhilarating rides through Hollywood you will ever take.
8. Ratatouille (2007) |Directed by Brad Bird
I saw Ratatouille in theaters when it was released in 2007. Walking out of the theater, my immediate reaction was akin to, “How the heck did they sell this to kids?” Although easier to market than something like Hugo, Ratatouille’s “cooking rat” seemed like a hard sell. Since when do kids care about cooking? They just kind of expect their food to appear magically, either via their mother or through a drive-through window. But Ratatouille’s endearing “anyone can do it as long as your heart is in it” storyline is sweet enough to melt the hearts of viewers, but not so saccharine that cynics will groan and/or vomit. As usual with Pixar, the strength in the film is its storytelling. It is not really a typical way to tell this kind of story, and the devices used are actually fairly unique. The voice acting from Patton Oswalt is full of life, and after the film, you’ll be left hungry for more. (Kudos to Peter O’Toole to giving life to the cunning and articulate “villain”: a critic.)
9. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
Say what you will about the last film, but Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a very impressive mainstream foray into the world of dark psychoanalytical character studies, gritty realism, ethics of vigilante justice, and post-9/11 buzz words. Inhabiting a very real world metropolis under the guise of Gotham City, Nolan’s noirish take on the caped crusader presents an interesting thesis to contemporary moviegoers expecting the usual blow-‘em’up action movie: “How does a society react when someone fighting for justice comes to our aid and then leaves? What does that society do in their absence? How much do we need them?” Although interpreted, and logically so, as a very political, almost pro-Patriot Act kind of film, the realistic world that the characters live in make the stories and the characters more relevant than they have ever been. And although the films are very flawed, the ideas they present are at least enough to spark some semblance of discourse. Christian Bale nobly plays billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a man with his own demons, ones he fights through the manifestation of a vigilante bat. Nolan and his team started from scratch, reinterpreting the Batman’s origin in Batman Begins. In The Dark Knight, terrorism engulfs the city of Gotham through that of the Joker (a stellar and pretty much legendary Heath Ledger), in the form of total chaos. And when the Batman is blackballed by the public, they seek his return when another ideologically motivated terror thrives in Gotham in Bane (Tom Hardy) in The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s fascinating look at society, character, and politics make his Dark Knight Trilogy a unique triumph in modern blockbuster cinema.
10. The Terminal (2003) | Directed by Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks plays an Eastern European man who lives in the international terminal of an airport. His country, well, doesn’t technically exist anymore because of a military coup. Stunted by there being no common language and fending off a mean Customs Head (the delightfully asshole-ish Stanley Tucci), Viktor Navarski must make the most of everything and nothing. He has no money, but the terminal has a wealth of stores. What does he do? He takes those airport carts that refund a quarter and put them back all together so he has enough to get a small meal. Until Tucci stops him. As he gets “used to” living without a real country, he makes some friends in the form of an Indian custodian, a Spanish food cart delivery man, a police officer, and a very flirty flight attendant whom he falls deeply in love with (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The simplicity of the film is its strength, and while it may be in many ways Spielberg’s trademark sap, the film is so light and breezy that it is hardly a bad thing. The Terminal is sweet and affecting and features one of Tom Hanks’ best performances.
11. Wings of Desire (1987) | Directed by WIm Wenders
My English teacher from sophomore and junior year said that Wings of Desire was his favorite film. I got it for him for Christmas, and then ordered myself a copy. I was expecting… talk of angel and love. Besides that, I had no idea what I was in for. And what I was “in for” was one of the most lyrical, ludic films about what it is to love and what it is to live I have ever seen. Wings of Desire follows an Angel who falls in love with a beautiful, lonely trapeze artist and sacrifices his immortality to be with her. As an Angel, he can hear the thoughts, the wishes, the desires of everyone around him, but he yearns so much to be with the lonely soul and to feel something humans call love. Wim Wenders’ film works both as a symphony for Berlin (it was made shortly prior to the reunification of Germany) as well as a tapestry to love itself. It was loosely remade into City of Angels. Skip that and just desire for love with the original.
12. Little Children (2006) | Directed by Todd Field
Very few adaptations of novels ever include the same narrative structure as that of the source material. For instance, third person omniscient narration has, to my knowledge, never been in a film adaptation. (I could be wrong, correct me if I am.) It may be used in films from time to time, even in the form of novel writing or even screenplay writing, such as in Stranger Than Fiction or Adaptation, but not actually an adaptation of a specific novel. Little Children makes a little change to that. Little Children, directed by directed by Todd Field, based on the book by Tom Perrotta (who gave us Election, which was adapted by Alexander Payne), and with a screenplay by the two of them, Little Children is perhaps the most literary film to come in the last few decades (tied with aforementioned Stranger Than Fiction). It at times seems to be a darker, more nuanced American Beauty-esque film, but that just touches the surface. There is irony there, as the film explores the surface of idealized suburban life, but only slightly. It does it in a masterful way, allowing more time to look at the characters: a mother and faded feminist (Kate Winslet), a “prom King” father (Patrick Wilson), and a man who was recently released on sex offender charges (Oscar nominated Jackie Earle Haley). The various routines the married people have and what the sex offender wants are disrupted by various things: an affair, yearning for love form their respective spouses, and the small Boston neighborhood’s reaction to a sex offender arriving on their streets. All around the little children. Stunning performances accentuate the desperation these people have, and, somewhat regretfully, you may find yourself pitying people who may not deserve it at a first look. And all around the little children.
13. The Complete Metropolis (1927) | Directed by Fritz Lang
I bought the Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis ages ago, and I deliberately continued putting it off because the prospect of a two and a half hour silent sci-fi drama, a behemoth of inspiration and influence, was daunting. Fritz Lang’s epic is said to have inspired Blade Runner, Star Wars, and nearly every other science fiction film imaginable. But the magnitude of importance of the film is far larger than ghettoizing it to the sci-fi genre. Metropolis may be one of the single most important works of art ever created. Its dialog and situations evoke the current political atmosphere, its imagery is reminiscent not only of German Expressionism, but every other style ever used, and its characters are as complex as any human. The Complete Metropolis is THE film to watch this election year. Where else will you see the legendary quote, “The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!” The film went for decades missing nearly a half hour of footage that was cut when American producers butchered it for its US release. The footage was nowhere to be found until a 16mm duplicate negative was found in a warehouse, of all places, in Buenos Aires. The print was in lousy condition, but Kino cropped it fix the aspect ratio and cleaned it up without removing its filmic qualities. The Kino Blu-ray of The Complete Metropolis looks absolutely stunning all around, and the film is powerful, exciting, and dramatic. Its influence in society is undeniable, form the language of film to the semantics of politics. Metropolis is a towering achievement in art.
A couple years ago, I wrote a scathing review of the American remake of Michael Haneke’s thriller Funny Games (which will henceforth be known as Funny Games US). The brilliant performances from Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as poor rich people being tortured by a couple of lunatics played by Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet notwithstanding, its smugness and overt message condemning audiences for enjoying sadistic violence was a major turn off. It was a task sitting through it, an absolute nightmare in a way. But, you could say, Haneke achieved his goal. However, after avoiding Haneke’s films for a bit, and not bothering to watch the original 1997 Austrian film, I decided once and for all to delve into the Austrian director’s work. After watching Cache, The Piano Teacher, and The White Ribbon, I decided, because I loved the ambiguity, intensity, and subversiveness of those films, I’d give the original Funny Games a go. I was not, however, expecting much. Haneke’s 2007 Funny Games US was a shot for shot remake of his original film, only in English and with new actors. Having explored Haneke’s work a bit more thoroughly and having grown more mature in my tastes, not only does Haneke rank amongst my new favorite directors (subsection: “provocateur”, next to Lars von Trier), I’ve had a change of heart about both Funny Games. That does not, however mean that I love the film, or even like it more than I did. It’s honestly hard to make up one’s mind about a film that has so much fun and takes so much pleasure in serving up a wretched dish to its audience in such a knowing way. Nevertheless, I do appreciate it more than I did. But why? Well…
All in the Family
Michael Haneke has a lot to say about things. Just things in general. And while his opinion of the upper middle class and the bourgeoisie doesn’t occupy the viewer’s mind for long, due to, um, other events, what he says is just as scathing as his message about violence (which is what I will get to later). Only a certain kind of people would play a music game in the car by quizzing one another on what operatic piece is playing. Is it Mahler? No, Wagner. Or maybe… This version of fun and games certainly occupies the mainstream music listener, but as casual as the family in the film does it (in the Austrian film, the parents are played by Susanne Lothar and Ullrich Muhe), there very act itself reeks of pretension. Haneke gives us a close up of the dozen or so CDs in the car, and while the family enjoys their ride with their expensive boat to their expensive lake house, Haneke cuts short the elegiac bliss and drowns the audiences ears’ in what could be assumed to be screamo. This harsh juxtaposition is like a scale. Opera is considered one of the high arts; screamo, within most circles, is usually written off by “that kind of people” as “noise”. But within the mainstream circle, both would be ignored; thus the scale. They’re both two extremes of the same medium. (I bet if Haneke had waited a few years to remake his film, he might use Skrillex.)
When the family get to their lake house, they enter through a gate, a clear sign that these people are not the ninety-nine percent. But that gate seems to hint at the fact that their lake house not only gates them from, you know, strangers, but gates their lives off from other people. Their lives seem so insular with that gate in place. Their lake house doesn’t look like a nice little cottage by the lake. It looks like a two story house. That you live in. Another spit in the face. While Haneke may be smarmy about the upper class, he has a lot more headed for them than they could ever expect.
The Fabulous Sociopathic Boys
The boys look like clean cut gold caddies in a way, which is a little ironic. They do not look completely out of place in the large, wealthy lake houses they break into, but they also don’t look like they were born there or were there in the first place. These sociopaths, though, are your worst nightmare. Not only because they relish the great violence and torture they cause, but because they look “just like you”, albeit younger and maybe snarkier. A lot of horror films stress the “it could be your neighbor” element, but with very little purpose other than hypothetical paranoia in comparison to these two psychopaths. Haneke seems to be saying, “They are your neighbors. And you know why? Because the media has created them.” I mean, where else would they have gotten the ideas for the sick games they play from other than video games, the news, and, yes, the movies.
Even their dialogue has the bounce and rhythm of other writers, like Hawks and Hecht, the banter resembling kind of a slash version of Bringing Up Baby. They’re fairly young, so they are the target audience. They are, essentially, you. Yes, my friends, Haneke is making the audience the culprit. And how he relishes doing that. I am not sure, however, whether or not he enjoys the game itself or the players more.
As “torturous” of an experience it is to watch Funny Games, most of the violence is suggested. And yet that still doesn’t seem to help. The violence is, perhaps, the most interesting aspect of the film. Even though most of the violence happens off screen, the audience still squirms even though they aren’t watching Hostel or Saw or even Oldboy. And yet they salivate and yearn, unsatisfied with only hearing the screams from the mother, the groans from the father, and the whimpers from their child. Not only that, but here, the violence is real. Or it seems real, too real. Subverting audience expectation is something I’ve become accustomed to when it comes to Haneke. With the ridiculousness of torture porn, it seems so outrageous that it’s just a gross out cliché. However, these so-called funny games are ones that are probably more emotionally savage than physically. Yes, the father’s knee cap is basically hammered in by a 9-iron, but the mother must play “The Loving Wife”. This game involves poor Anna, where she must recite a prayer forward and backwards (clearly mocking religion) flawlessly or her husband will be killed (either with the gun or the knife; it’s her choice). And another game, where she has to undress herself. And another game, where they put the son’s head in a canvas sack. These aren’t just random, elaborate torture devices Jigsaw would use, but truly terribly, emotionally and spiritually scarring tasks that are so diabolical because they are so incredibly simple. It’s all in the simplicity of the thing, and simplicity serves up the realism in a large portion. Why don’t they just kill them? As one of the boys says, “You can’t forget the importance of entertainment.”
However, the problem I had with the films lies in the violence itself, and it isn’t just the violence that makes the film interesting, but also its presentation. These are horrible things happening to good people. And Haneke, all the while, enjoys this. He enjoys seeing his audience both repulsed and gripped by such acts of terror. And what he’s saying, obviously, is that we are terrible people for loving it so much and for loving violence so much. The games are real, and Haneke is playing a game on the audience, not just with this upper class family. But because he enjoys it so much, doesn’t that make him just as complicit as his audience? Isn’t Haneke just as guilty of the loathsome enjoyment of violence as we are, or as any fan of horror? How does on reconcile smugness with what is clearly a grippingly and fascinatingly terrifying film? In his other films, he explores people under pressure, just as he does here, but in other situations. Someone is watching a family; someone wants to act on sexual fantasies after years of repression; more brutal things are happening but in a small German town. But with those films, as subtle as he may or may not be, depending from film to film, there isn’t as much of the impression that he is plainly slapping you in the face and laughing all the while. He subverts audience expectation, but he does not go out of his way to rub it in the audience’s faces. He makes the audience a culprit in voyeurism, but you don’t realize it until after, unlike Funny Games where you clearly know what’s going on, why, and by whom. I guess the ability to forgive Haneke for this arrogance and, I hate to say it, pretension will vary from person to person. I, for one, am still on the fence.
Smashing Down Fourth Wall
Breaking the fourth wall is an act of intrusiveness. It takes you out of the escapism and makes the experience of whatever is going on very immediate. It sometimes is used as a way to connect to the audience and to familiarize the audience with a character’s voice, like Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, but here, the fourth wall is knocked down partly out of smugness and partly, once again, to show how reckless and tasteless of a society we’ve become. The two sociopaths every so often wink or talk directly to the audience, which seems unorthodox. Generally, you would think that if a character were to break the fourth wall, it would be one we could either connect to or root for. However, because the thesis of Funny Games is mostly “condemn the audience” and because the sociopaths are an extreme incarnation of “us”, Haneke subverts the aforementioned cliché, making us identify, unwillingly, to the torturers. Although villains certainly have broken the fourth wall in the past, it’s not usually in as much of a self-conscious way, and when they do, it’s because they have appeal and they are the villain we kind of love or love to hate. They are our id that we don’t mind acknowledging. The sociopaths, however, reveal a side of human nature that’s more terrible than we want to admit. Haneke’s other films have explored, to some extent, the terrible things humans can do, but Funny Games rings more poisonous because we don’t want to identify that we could do these kinds of things. We barely even want to acknowledge that there’s a preening yuppie in all of us, never mind our ability to rake a gold club and whack someone with it. Generally, it’s Lars von Trier who likes to slap society in the face with his art films, blatantly but in an expert way. Just look at his biting allegory of America in Dogville and Manderlay. Haneke has no trouble, however, doing that as well.
The painful thing is that these boys control this environment. Not only do the break the fourth wall, they also break the laws of reality. In one scene, where the mother takes a lone shotgun by the coffee table and kills one of the sociopaths, the other searches everywhere he can for the remote control. When he finds it, he pushes rewind, and like a videocassette, the events are rewound and then play is hit. This time, he knows what she’s going to grab for. In this way, it’s extremely frustrating to watch this film. If the villains have the control, why bother watching if there’s no hope for these people? And why, as a matter of fact, do we keep watching after that happens? Again, Haneke points out our blood lust as well as our tolerance for violence.
One chilling image is of a lone television screen displaying a NASCAR race or something like it. Pedestrian though it may be, the television screen is covered and dripping in blood. This image stays on the screen for probably thirty seconds or maybe longer. What’s the point? The desensitization of society. We, as a world culture, have gotten so used to seeing violent images in films, games, the news, TV shows, etc. that it is completely commonplace. Blood seems a little out of place for a motor car race, but that’s the point. No matter how out of place the blood would be, we would still be used to it, barely even phased by its presence. This, I feel, is the most chilling, and most accurate, statement that Haneke makes in the film.
The Circle of Life and Death
At the end of the film, it’s revealed that the boys came directly from the neighbors next door, whom they’d been torturing. And after they’re done with this family, they’re going to start right back up with another. As one of the boys approaches, asking for eggs (a sign from before that the games are about to begin), we understand that it’s all just a vicious circle. That point being that violence, both in the natural world as well as the audience’s compliance, is cyclical. While stopping by your neighbors and torturing them is hardly normal, the dark side of human nature, however, is. In a way, the end, signaling the beginning, is almost like Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a novel that expounds upon the cyclical nature of revenge and love. Horror films will be made, audiences will go in droves, the feast will continue, and begin again the next time. It’s an unpleasant thought, but true nonetheless. Atrocities will occur in the real word, people will watch the news in shock and awe, and then something else will happen garnering similar coverage and, of course, similar ratings.
All in the Shot for Shot
One could say that making one Funny Games, the Austrian one, is bad enough. But, eye rolls must commence when a foreign film gets an American remake. From the disgustingly sappy City of Angels remade from Wim Wender’s existential symphony Wings of Desire to the remake of Godard’s Breathless by Jim McBride, American remakes of foreign films usually garner scorn and bad reviews. (Not always though, for every failure there’s a Magnificent Seven or Let Me In or even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) However, Funny Games US is directed by Haneke himself. What’s more, it’s a shot for shot remake, meaning that every shot from his 1997 film is duplicated here. Unnecessary? That may be up to you, but in remaking Funny Games, he took a film that had pretty much world wide appeal and then focused it, aiming it directly at Americans. For, who else than we to come up with something as gruesome as The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, and, of course, Saw? And who other than Americans to make Saw a franchise. One film may have one thing, but seven. What kind of people are we? It’s been noted that our rating system is harsher on sex than violence, while the ratings board in Europe is harsher on violence. Why is that? Why are we so okay with seeing violence? It might be a part of human nature, but what’s with all the reveling and “okay-ness” about it. There are video games, which are an easy target (no pun intended). The thing about the US is that we are slowly losing are ability to truly differentiate between fantasy and reality, especially regarding violence. Violence in film is getting more real, and violence in reality is becoming more prolific and ubiquitous.
But I haven’t addressed the shot for shot thing. In 1998, Gus van Sant remade Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho pretty much shot for shot. He said he did it “so no one would have to”. The point also was that duplicating every scene and every shot would not create a perfect replica of the original. Even if you like van Sant’s Psycho, there is no denying it is a lesser film in comparison to Hitchcock’s. Even though, it’s basically the same thing. When Haneke is remaking his film, not only is he basically articulating the same thing, but he also seems to be making a small statement on American remakes of foreign films. While he may not be ushering Park Chan-wook to take the reigns over from Spike Lee for the new Oldboy remake, he does seem to say that American remakes are, essentially, lazy and generally not exercises of artistry or creativity (again, exceptions notwithstanding, like A Fistful of Dollars). Learn to read subtitles and get over yourselves. But, who knows? Maybe Kurosawa will rise from the grave, destroy all prints of The Outrage and remake Rashomon himself.
To me, it doesn’t really matter. Although the Austrian original has more of a worldwide appeal with its content, I’ve become fond of having America getting told off through art. The performances in both films are outstanding and so painful to watch, they are what give the film the most potency. They are both technically proficient, of course, with long takes and static shots. But because they are shot for shot, they kind of blend together in the mind from time to time. The biggest thing I can say to you is see at least one of them. It doesn’t particularly matter which (thus the main failure on Haneke’s point, for neither are terribly distinctive enough to differentiate a whole hell of a lot). While the films may be smug in their condemnation of a sector of society that kind of enjoys this stuff, the potency of its message, its presentation, and execution are pretty flawless. It’s a horror film that creates real fear that the average slasher can’t. It seduces you in the most despicable way, seemingly to prove its very point. It makes you relinquish control completely from the situation. It makes your identify with terrible people. And, yes, it plays minds games with you. You know, Funny Games.