1964: Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
It's hard to think of many American equivalents, perhaps John Huston's The Dead and some of the final films from Howard Hawks and John Ford. What I'm talking about is when a director, towards the end of their career, starts making these films that are so pure, so refined, that they take on a whole other form. Ever chew on a Saltine for a really long time? Okay perhaps that's not the best example, but it will at least lead you in the right direction of my point.
Simply put, Gertrud is a UFO that doesn't quite feel like a normal film. There's something very abstract about it, something off and naked about it all. It's distilled to the point of being transformative.
It's enough that I find the unique form of Gertrud incredibly fascinating. But I also respond to it as one of the most powerful love stories ever put on film. And, if these two things weren't already enough, I'll say this: I can't think of any final moment in any work, in any medium, that more precisely offers closure on a great artist's career.
Other contenders for 1964: A good number of things I still need to see. These include: Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe, Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, Arthur Hiller's The Americanization of Emily, Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Mikhail Kalatozov's I Am Cuba, Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert, Cy Endfield's Zulu, Frank Tashlin's The Disorderly Orderly, and Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet. I need to revisit Satyajit Ray's Charulata, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night, and Peter Glenville's Becket (high school English class) as it's been too long since I've seen any of them to know where they'd place on this list. This year I really like Howard Hawks' Man's Favorite Sport and Don Siegel's The Killers. I love Francois Truffaut's The Soft Skin, Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution, Chris Marker's La jetee, Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove..." My closest runner-up is Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie.
12/27/10 I watched Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe. Interesting that this and Dr. Strangelove... both came out this year. Lumet's film is somewhat naturalistic, absent of music, and told almost without humor or obvious satire. I thought it could have benefitted from color rather than black-and-white, as its earnestness feels stilted because of its aesthetic. But as is often the case with Lumet, it is well-told and well-acted. I just never fully connected to anyone onscreen.
5/18/11 I watched Sergei Parajanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Parajanov's style is kinetic and certainly unique. But I found its poetic, slightly non-narrative ambitions quickly frustrating, and was very rarely absorbed in any way.
7/24/11 I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Intimate and personal telling of the Jesus story by Pasolini. He gives it a very stylish and immediate feel with an abundant use of the zoom and handheld camera.
10/15/11 I watched Jean-Luc Godard's Une Femme Mariee. Provocative as usual chez Godard, but this one is so cerebral as to become distancing compared some of my favorite of his films from this period.
1/8/12 I watched Robert Rossen's Lilith. An unusually demented work about the mentally ill. Form merges into content in a very admirable way, but this isn't completely my kind of thing. The sickness finally becomes so claustrophobic as to shut off my empathy valve a bit.
1/8/12 I watched Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert. I definitely have a take it or leave it attitude when it comes to Antonioni's work. I always admire his framing and extraordinary eye, but his fascination with bourgeois loneliness in the early sixties just simply leaves me uncaring.
10/31/13 I watched Mark Cousins' The Story of Film: An Odyssey: The Shock of the New - Modern Filmmaking in Western Europe. A little less exciting than I hoped, covering perhaps my favorite period in all of film history. But I did enjoy Cousins' treatment of Bergman and Bresson. I just wish he went a little deeper into the Nouvelle Vague and touched on Melville.
11/24/13 I watched Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. The music and Leone's use of it are still so fresh and fascinating today. And he certainly found the perfect anti-hero in Eastwood. But this one is not totally my thing. I prefer later Leone when he had more money and his artistry replaced a little of the crudeness at the fore.
12/5/15 I watched Guy Hamilton's Goldfinger. An entertaining Bond for sure even if I felt it lost a little steam by the time they got to Fort Knox. The gadgets are great and the first 30 minutes are extremely top shelf Bond.
3/5/17 I rewatched Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I was frustrated by the backlash against La La Land. And I was confused by the critical preference for Moonlight. Sure, Chazelle's film had the more robust budget. But I felt like his film also had far more filmmaking rigor than Jenkins' and that Chazelle's formal approach in general was much clearer and achieved at a significantly higher level. And when I hear someone compare Moonlight's color palate to the incredible work Doyle and Wong Kar-wai achieved together I really don't see it at all.
With that out of the way, I was looking forward to rewatching Demy's film, cited as a key influence on La La Land. I remembered Demy's work with color as among the most impressive in film's history and it was as brash and beautiful as I remembered. The pinks, purples, and splashes of bold colors of Demy's cinema certainly find their way into some of the clothes and onto some of the sets of La La Land (most noticeably in Emma Stone's apartment and her roommates' outfits). What I did not remember though is just how bittersweet and powerful the final minutes of Cherbourg are. Rewatching it now, if you felt it like I did, it seems that the secret behind the emotional power of some of La La Land's final exchanges is Chazelle tapping into the same cinema magic Demy concocted for Cherbourg's last moments. Both films explore unrequited and both get deep rewards for staying on the other side of happily ever after.
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