Screengrab Archive #4: Thanksgiving Edition

[Originally posted 11/27/08]



It wouldn’t be the first time I found myself agreeing with the French, and it wouldn’t be the last. But when this richly layered film by the Coen Brothers swept the major awards at Cannes, it was, for me, a confirmation that what I had only previously suspected was indeed true: Joel and Ethan Coen were not just good directors, not just great directors, but the greatest living American filmmakers. Barton Fink, to this day, is not one of the Coens’ best-loved films; it tends to be very divisive, and while its greatness isn’t frequently in question, where it belongs in their filmography is hotly disputed. For me, even in the wake of later triumphs like Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and No Country for Old Men, it seems obvious that it’s one of their greatest movies, and likely their best altogether. For a movie that was apparently scratched out during the making of Miller’s Crossing to help the Coens overcome a bad case of writer’s block, it’s astonishingly deep and complex, a deft blend of satirical comedy, character-driven drama and existential horror that seems all along to be about one thing and ends up being very profoundly about another. Not even The Big Lebowski equals Barton Fink as an evocation of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, and its intricate, dreadful set design surpasses anything the Coens have ever done. And to top it all off, it’s one of the few cinematic evocations of the process of writing that isn’t an embarrassment. The day I saw Barton Fink is the day I finally realized that the greatness of Hollywood films wasn’t a thing of the past: it was something I was living through.


One of the marks of a truly great film is that it seems you can never find enough things to say about it. Sitting down to write this, I wondered what I could mention about The Big Sleep that I hadn’t already talked about a hundred times; but now, I realize I could write a hundred pages about it and still not even begin to cover all the things worth discussing. Although everyone involved with this imperishable hardboiled detective yarn was at the top of their game, its greatness is largely the work of four geniuses at the absolute peak of their powers: the brilliant pulp novelist Raymond Chandler, who provided the source material about Philip Marlowe’s foray into pornography, blackmail and murder; the great novelist William Faulkner, who was brought on to write the unforgettable screenplay and who added his own raffish twists; the consummate professional, director Howard Hawks, who filmed one of the tightest movies of the era; and actor Humphrey Bogart, who cemented his role as perhaps the greatest leading man of all time with his utterly wonderful performance as Marlowe. Every single set piece in the film works perfectly; it’s a testament to how well the movie succeeds that whenever someone brings up the fact that the plot has a massive hole in it, it’s only to say that it doesn’t really matter one whit. The movie is drenched in L.A. atmosphere despite its back lot settings, and not a single performance is a dud: Bogart and lead actress Lauren Bacall got all the attention, but everyone, from the hired goons to the butler, shines during their moments on camera. Often identified as the father-film of the golden age of noir, I’d argue that The Big Sleep is lacking a few key elements of my favorite cinematic genre, but it does contain enough of them that it kick-started my interest in crime dramas; and maybe it’s a good thing that it’s not pure noir. If it was, it would have no competition.


Dr. Strangelove did a lot for me. It was one of the first movies of my color-charged adolescence that taught me how to appreciate the virtues of filming in black and white. It was my first introduction to the work of the savagely funny Terry Southern, whose ultra-black absurdist humor, and whose underlying premise that people in high places were like as not entirely insane, would be a huge influence on my later life. It was my second encounter, after The Shining, with the great Stanley Kubrick, who I am still convinced is even more brilliant than he is generally given credit for, and that’s considerable. But most of all, what it did for me was to convince me of something that, up until then, I had not believed, and that even now, in my darker moments, I suspect might not be the case: it convinced me that a funny movie could also be a great movie. I had always had an affinity for comic writing, especially of the variety as poisonous and coal-black as that found in this Cold War apocalyptic comedy, but I was also learning to appreciate great art, and I so rarely found the two within shouting distance of one another that I started to despair. The truly great, I decided, and the truly funny, were incompatible, and I’d have to make a choice. Luckily, Dr. Strangelove came around and showed me how wrong I was. It is unquestionably a great film: brilliantly structured, astonishingly well-filmed, crammed full of great performances, and featuring a few set pieces (the first shots of the War Room, in particular, and the breathtaking hand-held shots of the invasion of Burpelson Air Force Base) that are undoubtedly the work of a great filmmaker. But it is also a paralyzingly funny movie, and the telephone conversation between Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley and the unseen Soviet premier may be the most hilarious scene I’ve ever encountered.

PERSONA (1966)

Just before I saw Persona for the first time, I was starting to get worried about myself. My taste in movies ran decidedly towards rugged genre work, and there was something unsettlingly dude-ish about my attraction to films about murderers and lowlifes. And I didn’t quite understand what great acting really was; I tended to confuse character with acting, and I often mistook dynamic presence for talent, not realizing they are two substantially different things. What’s more, my attempts at appreciating Ingmar Bergman had been pretty thoroughly jobbed. Sitting in a small theatre in Phoenix in 1993, though, changed all those things. Persona, which today I count as one of the very tiny number of movies I’d contemplate if asked to name my all-time favorite films, was a quiet, sinuous film whose significant emotional power came entirely from within instead of being generated by external threats. Its acting was explosively great, and yet so subtle and calm as to be nearly invisible; it taught me the value of reaction, of contemplation, and of silence to great acting. It showed me what Bergman was truly trying to do, and allowed me to finally appreciate him for what he was; and, beyond that, it proved to me, in the same way Dr. Strangelove had proven that comedy and genius were not incompatible, that a movie could be deeply, intrinsically philosophical and not be pretentious, preachy or incomprehensible. Genre film never really relinquished its hold on me, and I later figured out how to look far enough below the surface that I could see depth when there had seemed only to be tension; but that’s a lesson I never would have learned if it weren’t for Persona.


“Why do so many novelists still write as though the revolution that was Ulysses never happened,” asked the Scottish experimental writer B.S. Johnson, “and still rely on the crutch of storytelling?” It’s a question I’d learned to ask of literature, but until I lucked into a screening of Michael Snow’s daring structuralist masterpiece Wavelength in college, I had not yet learned to ask it of film. Every movie on my list, I included because I’m thankful that it introduced me to some new element of filmmaking that hugely enriched my life as a viewer. In the case of Wavelength, it’s simply stated: it taught me that there was such a thing as experimental film. That alone opened up huge new vistas for me, and led me to great filmmakers like Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Chris Marker, and, especially, Stan Brakhage. Wavelength itself is quite a curiosity, even decades after its debut: a 45-minute tracking shot across a New York loft, accompanied by disjointed conversation, hints of a murder, an atonal whine, the final and unending terminal focus on a photo of the ocean. It straddles the border between narrative and non-narrative while opening up huge possibilities for visual poetry, the freeing of the camera from spatial limitations and traditional usages, and the nature of time in this most time-based medium. Prints of Wavelength are hard to come by, and often as not in terrible condition; it would be wonderful if America treated Snow (who filmed Wavelength here) as well as he’s regarded in his native Canada.


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