Sunday, July 19, 2009

Phil's Film Faves

A while back, we here at the Screengrab made our best stab at listing our picks for the greatest movies of all time. This is a classification that is distinctly different from naming our favorite movies, movies that, in many cases, happened to come into our lives at just the right moment, packing a style or a mindset that happened to hit us right in the soft spot, and that entered our bloodstream, affecting our judgements from that point on--though it not unheard of for favorite movies and greatest movies to overlap. A list of one's nominations for greatest movies tells one a lot about a person's ideas about art and history, about which breakthroughs matter to him in a way that, if they were not a part of what movies have come to be, he would care a lot less about them all. Our favorite movies tell us a lot about ourselves. Permit me to bore you with a little about me.



Both these short films were made by Ward Kimball, one of the "Nine Old Men" remembered as having been key to the development of the animation department at Walt Disney Studios. They were eventually shown on the TV anthology series The Wonderful World of Disney in the 1970s, which is were my barely formed retinas took them in. Bird is mostly animated, with some live action mixed in; Car is mostly live action, but with lots of animation effects. These range from quick gags to sequences that suggest the surreal, politically charged animation being done in Eastern Europe at the time, as well as Terry Gilliam's brand of animated cut-outs. Kimball, whose reputation is that of the wild man among the Disney old guard, had a simple, direct approach: pick a subject and garland it with as many visual gags as he could come up with. The wildness was all in how far afield his comic imagination could go, and how happy he seemed when he was slapping things together as fast as he could. I saw these films when I was so young that I subsequently forgot having seen them at all, but a few years ago I saw Bird again, and just a few months ago I found Car on a bootleg DVD, and as soon as I recognized what they were, I realized how much I'd loved them as an infant, so much so that I wanted more stuff like that to cram into my head. In a strange way, I think this desire planted the seeds for a lot of things I like, ranging from Svankmajer to Godard at his most discursive to Monty Python to Requiem for a Dream to the rambling monologues of This American Life. Discovering something that had a major impact on shaping your tastes when they were still at the developmental stages can weird you out a little.

JAWS (1975)

This was the first feature film that I loved unreasonably, and I think it's a good pick for a first love. The story is simple and uncomplicated and involving, and Spielberg brought it to life by lavishing upon it an amazing level of inventiveness at telling it visually, so much so that, in scenes such as the famous moment when the shark unexpectedly appears in the background of the shot while Roy Scheider has his head turned and is in the middle of spitting out a line in the other, he was able to give the viewer a jolt at the same time he got you laughing at his mastery of the conventions he was turning inside out and the audience expectations with which he was playing. It also has a subversive, satirical edge that connects it to the best of '70s pop culture: even someone who'd seen as few horror movies as I had by that time knew that it was unusual for the director to implicitly side with the hippie know-it-all scientist with the unsightly beard against the blustering macho man who thinks he's scored a goal in their ongoing war of personalities by glowering and flattening an empty beer can with his paw. (For years afterwards, I was trying to impress people by imitating Richard Dreyfuss's aplomb at squeezing a paper cup in response, not recognizing that it lost a lot of context.) Not long after I saw Jaws for the first of I hate to think how many times--not very long after at all, in fact, because I was too young to see it when it first came out but was allowed, after two years of screaming and crying over my cruel deprivation, to see it when it was re-released in 1977, thanks in no smart to my parents' very well-timed and much-enjoyed divorce, Star Wars came out. I used to try to reason with people who were raving about it at the playground. "Guys," I'd say in my reasoning-with-idiots voice, "there is no shark in this movie."


I know that she has many suitors, but for my part, let me just say, in all selfishness, that I will always be grateful for having seen Holy Grail at precisely the moment in my life when a movie that begins with the opening credits malfunctioning and ends with a police raid on the set would strike me as the greatest thing in the world. Frankenstein's appeal was less avant-garde. Let's just say that, for all of my childhood and well into my adolescence, I got most of my information about what was going on the movie theaters of our great land from the movie satires in Mad magazine, and it was a great thrill to see what was basically the greatest Mad magazine movie satire ever projected on a thirty-foot screen.


Elliot Gould's acting in these two Robert Altman's movies is the kind of thing that cults are meant for. It's as if he were living some kind of improvised coffeehouse monologue--too sweet to be by Lenny Bruce, but not requiring the kind of hepcat skeleton key that you might need to make sense of Lord Buckley. He's funny and seemingly detached but not above showing how much he really cares when he realizes that he's made a terrible mistake--a mistake that he invariably makes for the best of reasons, for refusing to sense the worst about a friend. And if he strikes a lot of people as flaky, that may be because he's his own man in a way that, even then, set him completely against the times, which more and more looks like the most genuinely heroic position for an American to take. I tried like hell to achieve this degree of loosness for a few years in my twenties, and I even thought I had it for a while, but in retrospect, I'm afraid that I was just unemployed.


My other big acting man-crush from that period is Al Pacino's performance here, and it couldn't be more different in its appeal, because I'd never seen anybody channel that much controlled energy before. The whole movie is a wonder of the New York actor's art, with people like John Cazale and Charles Durning and Sully Boyer and Chris Sarandon delicately matching their styles to Pacino's and providing the quiet contrast that makes his sustained liftoff possible. I once had a new roommate who had never seen this movie, and I was very eager to show it to her. I still remember the moment, about fifteen minutes into it, when she asked, " much longer before they get out of the bank?" It's funny, those moments when you immediately know that it's not going to work.


Excuse the appearance of cross-promotion, but I've already written about this one.


Jonathan Demme's movies were essential to my having survived the 1980s. I had the closest thing I've ever had to a religious experience during the week when I saw Stop Making Sense five times; I've never seen another movie, including dance films and martial arts flicks, that conveyed to me so much of the pleasure of physicality, of moving your body, and there was something about seeing all those people joining their skills together and losing themselves in the shared experience of being simultaneously brainy, goofy, and hot that suggested everything I wanted to get, and never got, from college. The mixed-tape road trip of Something Wild, where the wild weekend gives way to a trial by fire that leaves the hero and heroine stronger, was everything I wanted out of the rest of life, including the handcuffs and the used-car-salesman cameo by John Waters.


I've always loved horror movies, I've always loved comedy, and I've always loved the idea of comic horror midnight movies that go just far enough in the direction oftoo far. Maybe if more movies that light out in this direction got it right, it would matter less to me that Stuart Gordon got this one just right. But most of them don't.

DUCK SOUP (1933)

What I just said about midnight movies? It goes double for crackhouse-rat comedy.


This movie, starring Willie Nelson and Rip Torn, written by Bud Shrake, and directed by Alan Rudolph during those three weeks a decade when his meds are working, captures the spirit and flavor of Texas hipsterdom as it has always come across in the best of Nelson's music, Torn's acting, and Shrake's writing, and that's about as hip as things get in the South. I myself, a product of the Louisiana/Mississippi border, have spent about a month total in Texas my whole life, but am not above resorting to a contact high.


Can we talk? I don't get girls. Never have, never will. I miss signals, I misread situations, I don't know...I just don't get girls, okay? And if I may presume to speak for the losers of the world for a second, being one of those people who doesn't get anywhere with other people in that way can sometimes make it a sobering experience to sit in the dark watching a lot of movies in which couple effortlessly hook up. But if I ever saw a movie in which my own fantasy of the best way you could hook up with somebody, this is probably it. Two nice, smart people just run into each other, take a chance, and for as long as the movie is running, it pays off, only to end with a cliffhanger. The director, Richard Linklater, later resolved things with his sequel, Before Sunset, and I like it fine, but I think I may have enjoyed the nine intervening years of wondering even more.

I met Linklater once, not that he would remember. It was at a festival where he was showing his first movie, Slacker, and someone tried to introduce the two of us, and I actually, fairly elaborately snubbed him, because I'd heard about--hadn't seen--his movie and thought it sounded like a pile of shit. After snubbing him (and mortifying the person trying to make the introductions(, I walked away invisibly pinning a medal to my chest, and the last time I looked back at Linklater, he was smiling at me in a very nice way that I may only imagine seemed to say, "Gee, before I made a movie, this fellow would be one of the biggest jackasses I've ever met, but now, he wouldn't even make my personal top 500!" Maybe I don't deserve to get girls.


I could get very personal here too, but I'll just say that I saw this movie at a moment when I very badly needed to see this movie. It is, of course, the movie that, of all P. T. Anderson's works, is the one most likely to get a shoe thrown at you if you sing its praises before a mixed audience. Both these facts probably have something to do with the fact that, while there are other movies of Anderson's that I think are better, his having made this one is the reason I'd be happy to take a bullet for him.

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