Sunday, November 15, 2009
My List of Epiphany Films
Blogging is like being in a relationship. Revealing too much about oneself too soon can scare away a potential match. Conversely, revealing too little can come off as a sign of cold indifference, and can drive someone away just as quickly. Since I've had this blog up and running for nearly two years, I think it's safe to say that we've come to the point in our relationship where I make some deep, meaningful revelations. Not about my personal life, but about my taste in movies. While I have given hints from time to time as to where my tastes on the spectrum of cinema fall, I have yet to come right out and tell you what kinds of movies genuinely move me...until now.
Normally, any blogger worth their salt would reserve this list for the sidebar or another such feature on the home page of their blog. Since I have so much to say here, I just couldn't squeeze this missive into a space that small. Before I get to the first title on the list, I believe it necessary to make an important disclosure. These aren't necessarily my favorite films of all time; rather, these are films that appeal to my Renaissance Man sensibility and make me examine what goes on in every frame with a refined eye. These are movies I discovered at a time in my life where I was beginning my emergence from the angst-ridden pit of adolescence and making my gradual transition to the exciting new world of adulthood. Every title on this list holds a special place in my heart because they all came along at just the right time, like a dismissal bell that saves you from answering a tough question. Movies like these, I find, need to be revisited and appreciated for different reasons. Too often, we only taste the grape when we drink our first glass of wine. It's only after years of growth and experience that the palate grabs the other, subtler flavors.
The Godfather - Some films you remember for striking imagery, gripping scenes, or bright dialogue. Others you remember for exquisitely drawn characters who etch a permanent place in your memory. Others still you remember for a catchy musical score. The Godfather is a movie you remember for all these reasons and more. For me, there isn't a moment in this film that isn't a tour de force. Everything about this movie represents the best in every discipline of the cinema. The script sizzles with delicious dialogue, every actor is at the top of their game, every shot is painstakingly composed, and every period detail is rendered to perfection. Francis Ford Coppola blended every part of his production to create a cinematic offering as irresistible as pasta puttanesca. One could throw a dart at any page of the script and hit an unforgettable scene. I first saw this film at the age of nine, and have not seen a single movie the same way since. The murder scenes gave me nightmares, and to this day I cannot stop at a toll booth or walk through a revolving door without getting caught in the chilling grip of anxiety. Never before had I seen screen violence captured with operatic vividness. In spite of my trepidation, the film has not lost its ability to fascinate me. Whenever I need a dose of bonafide inspiration, a single viewing of this masterpiece restores my creative faculties to their fullest vitality.
The Graduate - The spring of 1995 stands out in my memory as one of the happiest of my life. I was seventeen, my Renaissance Man sensibility was awakening, and the unusually hot weather made my hormones run wild for certain girls at school -- not to mention some of their mothers. My fleeting crushes on female grade school teachers, babysitters, and my mother's hair salon clients from early childhood made me realize early on that I have romantic gravitations toward older women. With that penchant in place, it was only a matter of time before I encountered The Graduate. After renting a VHS copy from Blockbuster one Saturday night, I sat transfixed in front of the living room television for two hours, and can remember feeling sadly disappointed when I saw Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross going down a road in the back of that bus. But alas, all the great movies end too soon. Hoffman stunned me with his career-launching performance in the title role. Though I had already seen him in Tootsie, Rain Man, Dick Tracy, and Lenny, he reaffirmed his status as an acting hero in my book. He didn't play Benjamin Braddock so much as he inhabited him. The standout feature in this film, however, is the direction of Mike Nichols. There were so many touches -- the cut from Hoffman emerging from his swimming pool directly into Mrs. Robinson's bed, the toast popping up just after Ben announces his plans to marry Elaine, the filming of Ben's backyard birthday party through the goggles of his wetsuit -- that just floored me. The Graduate is one of those rare American movies that captures the joy of moviemaking. Too often, the atmosphere of a film set is characterized by the mood of a somber, suffering artist who takes his work (and himself) far too seriously. When Nichols helmed this production, his skillful poise, relaxed confidence and youthful exuberance no doubt had an effect on workplace morale. Little wonder the film remains a joy to watch, even if it hasn't aged well.
Midnight Cowboy - Continuing on my Hoffman streak, I first saw this movie in the summer of 1995, shortly after I completed my junior year of high school. In an echo of my experience watching The Graduate, I was open-mouthed with amazement from beginning to end. Never before had I seen a movie edited the way Cowboy was cut. The nightmarish flashback sequences still pack a punch and the montages made me gape in amazement at the power of the human imagination. John Barry's score, polished to perfection by Toots Thielemans' plaintive harmonica, captured the essence of big city loneliness and broken dreams. With his heartbreaking portrayal of crippled con man Ratzo Rizzo, Hoffman blew me away. This film came at the height of his late-sixties hot streak, and after viewing his body of work from that time on, one wonders, "Is there anything this man CAN'T play?" To say that the film stayed with me for days afterward would be a gross understatement. How badly I wanted to go out and make a movie just so I could experiment with editing rhythms the same way John Schlesinger did. In spite of the movie's unflinching portrayal of The Big Apple's gritty underbelly, I couldn't wait to visit the city that never sleeps. My exposure to Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver, the works of Woody Allen, and countless other films painted a romantic portrait of a city that beckoned for my presence. When I paid my overdue virgin visit at the age of 27, the first step I took onto Manhattan pavement from the airport bus felt like I had reconnected with a missing piece of my soul.
The Virgin Spring - Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning drama is the first landmark foreign film I remember seeing. I saw this movie as a college freshman eager to hunt down any gem within reach. When not in class, I worked as a clerk at Hollywood Video, a job that allowed me a free rental for every completed shift. Night after night, I found myself wandering toward the Foreign Film section. Though the selection was paltry, I derived the most from my ad hoc education in the works of Kurosawa, Fellini, Wenders, Antonioni, Truffaut, and Bergman. This film had me hooked from its first image of a woman stoking a fire with three deep breaths. Thirteenth century Sweden was an environment with which I was completely unfamiliar and Bergman's adaptation of Ulla Isaksson's ballad brought it sharply into focus. In the hands of a lesser artist, the trial of a dour Lutheran household for whom God remains silent would have been frightfully dull. Rendered by Bergman, the story absorbed me, even the frightening rape scene. Spring served as the perfect introduction to the oeuvre that brought us The Seventh Seal, Smiles of a Summer Night, and Wild Strawberries. Thanks largely to the visual artistry of Sven Nykvist, The Virgin Spring achieves a stark beauty that, like many other Bergman works, haunts me in a way no other cinematographer can. Like Vittorio Storaro, the man does not shoot subjects; he paints with light. That Bergman was able to achieve a glow to this film nearly five decades ago that remains pristine to this day is nothing short of remarkable. From the night of that revelatory first viewing, I have regarded Ingmar Bergman as one leg of a worldly tripod who, alongside Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, will always stand as a giant in the realm of cinema.
The French Connection - I've always been a sucker for a good action flick. The pulse-pounding stimulus of gun fights, car chases, hand-to-hand combat, and massive explosions rarely fails to hook me. Throw the cop-robber dynamic into the mix and the result is a winning combination. That was precisely the impression William Friedkin's Oscar-winning crime yarn left upon my first viewing weeks before I began my senior year of high school. From the opening fade-in of the French café to the closing shootout in the abandoned factory, I sat galvanized at the edge of my seat. Once again, I encountered a film where all areas of production clicked into place like gears in a Swiss clock. The performances are among some of the most realistic I've ever seen, the editing is breathless (especially during the famous train chase scene), Don Ellis' score fits the action like a tailored suit, and the writing crackles with streetwise attitude. As soon as I finished watching this movie, I returned it to the video store, drove to the mall, and bought a copy for myself. Since that day, I estimate that I've seen Connection fifteen times -- and each viewing brings a new discovery. (e.g., the action jumps back and forth between the heroes and villains comic book style, the editing is comprised totally of cuts save for the opening fade-up of Marseilles, the direction of movement flips many times during chase scenes to suggest how difficult it is to catch a criminal) As a side note, any friend who visited my house that year could not leave until they watched the famous chase scene. My attempt to screen the sequence at a cast party for a school play I directed was met with a scattered chorus of "Oh God, not again".
Yojimbo - This title shares a ranking with Ikiru as my favorite Kurosawa film. The story brims with despicable characters, deception, double-crosses, prostitution, severed appendages, murderous misdeeds, and close-ups of blood among other unpleasantries...and yet, it succeeds as a comedy. I first saw Yojimbo in early 1997, one of the many free rentals I enjoyed while working at Hollywood Video. Toshiro Mifune cast an immortal prototype of the laconic assassin for hire that Clint Eastwood would later use as inspiration for his "Man with No Name" hero of the spaghetti westerns that catapulted him to international fame. What struck me about the character of Sanjuro is that he possessed all of the fighting skills of a samurai warrior, but none of the Bushido values of compassion, loyalty, or humility. In spite of his arrogance, I couldn't help but be drawn to his dangerous, rugged charisma. The final duel between Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai's pistol-packing villain is every bit as riveting on the tenth viewing as it is when seen for the first time. One would be hard-pressed to find a sequence where the music blends so perfectly with the action on screen.
Citizen Kane - I first saw the film often hailed as the greatest ever made in June of 1996, one week before graduating high school. Early in the day of that memorable viewing, I submitted the final draft of my high school senior project research paper, "A Brief History of American Film". To reward myself, I rented this film from Blockbuster...and to this day, I cannot believe that I omitted this indispensable cinematic landmark -- not to mention the career of its genius creator -- from my studies! Having been exposed to years of media parody growing up, the secret of Rosebud had already been spoiled for me (just as the shocking surprise at the end of Psycho had already been spoiled for me), and the film still astounded me. The techniques that directors use left and right today (sets with ceilings, deep-focus photography, the synchronization of rooms lighting up with orchestral cues) all seemed new, and that night when I watched Kane for the first time, I felt like I was seeing those "cine-tricks" for the first time. Whenever I watch the film, a part of me temporarily transforms into a giddy 1941 filmgoer witnessing creative barriers being broken.
Cool Hand Luke - Here is yet another entry from that seminal spring of 1995. I first saw this film broadcast on TBS, and then ran straight to the mall to buy my own copy. I was going through a non-conformist period of sorts, and found an instant hero in Paul Newman's Christ-like chain gang prisoner. Readers who recall my obituary post for Newman know that this film contains, in my opinion, the best performance he ever gave. For me, Cool Hand Luke proves a first-class example of a gifted actor vanishing completely into a character. The care-free gait in his walk, the easygoing rhythm of his speech, the way he jumps out of bed, the way he stares at the ground, and that irresistible smile all combine to form a complete character painted with masterful brushstrokes. Newman's rendering of the Virgin Mary song never fails to get me every time I see it, even after all these years.
Vertigo - I first saw this film during my freshman year of college in the fall of 1996, and it still irks me that the mood wasn't right. It was late at night, I was exhausted from a full day of studies and running, and I kept nodding off to sleep. One could liken the experience to going on a first date with a beautiful woman while fighting a merciless migraine. Too much of the movie simply flew by me. Then, I saw the film for the second time in my mentor's Hitchcock/Spielberg seminar in spring of 1998 and the experience wiped my prior viewing from memory. Though the room was a bit chilly and the soundtrack was muddied from age, the environment could not have provided me with a better opportunity to absorb the myriad subtleties of Alfred Hitchcock's quintessential portrait of obsession. The brilliant use of psychological color, the haunting score by Bernard Herrmann, and Jimmy Stewart's incredible performance as the tortured detective (the best he ever gave under Hitchcock's direction) all contribute to the film's haunting effect on me. For the record, Vertigo tops my list of Hitchcock films as my personal favorite, with North By Northwest and Psycho trailing close behind.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - Though I first saw Milos Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel in its entirety in (you guessed it) the spring of 1995, I had seen bits and pieces of it as a kid whenever it was on TV. My folks made a point of watching it every Easter without fail. Just as I took an instant liking to Cool Hand Luke, I admired the cool, smiling confidence in R.P. McMurphy. I often adopted shades of this persona to hide behind at school whenever I was forced to cope with stress, laugh off criticism, or deal with bullies. Nicholson's performance aside, Cuckoo's Nest contains plenty of memorable moments that translate to movie magic. Among them, McMurphy's color commentary of a baseball game played on a darkened television moves the rebel in all of us who dreams of disrupting the abusive power structure of the Establishment. It is a simple scene that illustrates how a different point of view can open people's minds to new discoveries, and reminds us that those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music. Then, there is the staggering finale that begins on a note of tragedy and ends on a note of triumph. No matter how many times I promise myself in advance to keep it together when this scene plays, I always break down in tears. One would have to be made of stone to not be moved by the sight of a mercy killing followed by a daring escape. What One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest says to me is that there's a little bit of Randle McMurphy in all of us. It's a timeless story that inspires cowards to find courage they never knew they had, it makes burned-out workers quit their miserable jobs, and it turns apolitical citizens into activists. In short, one for the ages.
There you have it, dear readers. You have just caught a glimpse of a man who not only watches movies and not only reads movies, but consumes and enjoys movies as often as possible. Each of these movies kindles the curious adventurer in me. I hope I never lose that passion that makes my food taste better, the air sweeter, and the seventh art a part of my life. Now it's your turn to reveal what moves you up on that screen. What are your Epiphany films? As always, leave your comments and I'll be back soon with another treasure chest from my youth.