Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What I've Been Watching: 1st Edition

Tuning Into The Classics

      I'm going to experiment with a new segment (bi-weekly, monthly, who knows?) called "What I've Been Watching." Beyond the intention of renewing interest in classic cinema, this segment represents an opportunity for me to underscore some of the "great" films that I've been watching recently. So, consider this debut segment, a repository of the classics. Films from Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini, Herzog (and so many, many more) will be featured prominently. Enjoy! And as always, I encourage feedback and discussion.

The Seventh Seal (Detsjunde inseglet 1957) - Ingmar Bergman

The Seventh Seal is a medieval tale of morality. Bursting with iconoclasm, powerful imagery and philosophical ideality, Bergman's towering achievement demands the attention of every serious moviegoer. It's revered, from both contemporary and revisionist interpretations, as a groundbreaking masterpiece. And after my first viewing, immediately, I grasped the palpable totality of Bergman's stark vision. His distinctive flourish, a delicate balance of comedy and drama, is magnificent. I've seldom experienced such cinematic sincerity. The prolific director's tonal inducement is steady: the macabre embellishments are authoritative and effective, and the two central actors (Max von Sydow & Gunnar Björnstrand) perform admirably. Ultimately, the entire proceedings (a brisk 96 min. running time w/subtitles) are wonderfully bolstered by Bergman's narrative poetry; a vision negotiated splendidly with grandiose themes and allegorical profundities. 10 out of 10

Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället 1957) - Ingmar Bergman

One of my readers endorsed this film. And since I'm now hip to the greatness of Bergman, I figured it deserved my immediate attention. It's fair to say that my crash course on Bergman is ratcheting up at a feverish pace. Wild Strawberries is a beautiful film. The signature Bergman flourish, which I can appropriately describe as philosophical evocation, is present and persistent. Many esteemed critics consider Wild Strawberries to be his second greatest film (behind The Seventh Seal). I can't make that definitive judgment until I've seen his full body of work, but I can certainly attest to its resplendent composition. Bergman achieves an almost-narrative nirvana. We witness the psychological journey of Professor Isak (Victor Sjöström), a man tormented by his unsettling past and his uncertain future. And Bergman becomes our visual chaperone. He wages psychical war (rationality vs. emotionality), blends dreams with reality and circumvents past and present. If unimpressed by Bergman's dogged symbolism and relentless psychology, at the very least, Victor Sjöström's optimistic, enrapturing performance will raise the hairs on your neck. 9 out of 10

The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups 1959) - François Truffaut

Francois Truffaut is one of the preeminent filmmakers, and founders, of the French New Wave (initially owed to his formative involvement with Cahiers du cinéma). The 400 Blows is widely considered to be the beginning of the influential movement, a movement that rejected the structure of cinema's past and embraced the relevant philosophy of the world. The 400 Blows (I've watched it a few times in my life) provided the impetus for my abiding love of cinema. To say that it is an unblemished masterpiece is to say that such claims are uniform; aha, but it holds a remarkable 100% rating on RT. Truffaut's semi-autobiographical story examines the injustices of adolescence and the complexities of youth. Furthermore, it is a robust character study, featuring inventive camera techniques, tremendous build-up, fluid pacing, memorable imagery and touching exploration. Truffaut is a brilliant auteur and his impact on cinema is without reproach. He is partially, if not pivotally responsible for my lasting appreciation for classical cinema, a defining, personal imprint that I can never repay. And yes, Truffaut is also the French UFO expert in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 10 out of 10

Contempt (Le Mépris 1963) - Jean-Luc Godard       

My older brother, who holds a minor in film from GWU (meaning he knows more about film than yours truly), turned my attention towards this forgotten Godard classic. Steve, I am forever grateful. Contempt is a masterpiece. Godard is a relentless visual artist. The final act showcased some of the finest wide screen shots, imaginative vistas and colorful camera angles that I have ever seen commissioned for film. Fritz Lang, Godard's directorial influence, features prominently in the story. Essentially, Contempt treads the dichotomies of love: the contemptuous love of marriage, the impetuous lust of another man's wife, and the combative, uniquely personal love of filmmaking. The performances are superb. Brigitte Bardot is a fierce and sensual beauty of great substance; Michel Piccoli is a whirlwind caricature of conflict, ambition and romance; Jack Palance is a hotshot force of ruthless, unwieldy determination; and Fritz Lang is a delight of intellect and inspiration. Godard demonstrates a faithful love for storytelling and for filmmaking, a love that coalesces exquisitely. The beauty of the stars, particularly Bardot, is exceeded, only, by the beauty of the show. Unlike Paul and Camille, Godard and Lang, in a purely artistic sensibility, signify an undying marital bliss. 9 out of 10

(1963) - Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini's directorial acumen is synonymous with dance. His stylistic gravitas is a predominant embrace of images over ideas, movements over stoppages. Roger Ebert once wrote that "few directors make better use of space." 8½ is a symphony of filmmaking. Moments of reality intersect, and occasionally, supplant moments of fantasy. The burden of creativity rests on the shoulders of the man behind the camera. No film has ever captured the intricate depths of the filmmaking process as beautifully as 8½. Marcello Mastroianni is magnificent. He inhabits the real life Fellini, coloring the famous Italian director with spates of angst and inspiration. While 8½ concerns "director's block," Fellini's real life creative operation is void of obstruction. He directs with vigor, with intellect, with purpose. Fellini is an ingenious conjurer of atmosphere, a tonal merger of refined images and studied performances. 10 out of 10

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) - Werner Herzog

After watching Aguirre, two words resonate with me wildly and unforgettably: Klaus Kinski, a frequent collaborator of Mr. Herzog. The self-taught, unconventional, maniacal actor gives a performance for the ages. He (Aguirre) personifies madness in every sense; his aspirations for grand conquest haunt those in his wake and those in the path of his "wrath." His journey is frightening. His climax is chilling. Kinski's recurrent director, Werner Herzog, is a brilliant visionary. He is a formidable storyteller who's motivated by the possibility of transcendence. He's not concerned with entertainment value. On the contrary, Herzog is invigorated by the idea of social enrichment. Stories become his instrument, an instrument that he exploits for the purpose of intellectual discovery. In Aguirre, his cast navigates a harrowing journey, seeking answers to life's great questions: the central theme concerns man's primordial obsession with achievement (in this case, conquest). The chilling tonal atmosphere inspired the look and feel of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Coincidence? ... I think not. Unquestionably, these are two iconic films, heralded by critics because of their potent reliance upon mood: the music, the characters and the environments enhance the story. Very few films, particularly in the era of modern cinema, have rendered me speechless. Herzog and Coppola, in my own personal, cinematic world view, share that feat.  10 out of 10

Bullitt (1968) - Peter Yates

Steve McQueen is the quintessential man of cool, a reputation partially owed to his extraordinary motor vehicle operation. Mention the name Bullitt and moviegeors, without fault, will recall that famous car chase scene through the steep rolling hills of San Francisco. It is arguably the most influential car chase in cinema's history; many have duplicated it, but none have surpassed it. The man behind the wheel, Detective Frank Bullitt (McQueen), is a revelation. The film's fast-pacing, regular-talk, and manly theatrics perfectly reside within "The King of Cool's" wheelhouse. Peter Yates is a competent director, but the stars of the show are McQueen and the cars (and the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset in a barren role). Despite my disappointment with the film's climax, I was enormously impressed by its remarkably tense build-up, excellent scripting, and its ambitious use of location. As a breathless staple of modern action (well before "modern action" gained notoriety), Bullitt succeeds markedly. And I urge you to stay on the lookout for a somewhat limited performance from the great Robert Duvall, an actor who rarely, if ever, lets me down. 9 out of 10 


  1. for some strange reasons, I do like Herzog :) eventhough he sometimes tends to be controversial.
    I'm still waiting for him to make the announced movie adaptation of THE PIANO TUNER Asian set novel, which I loved quite a lot!

  2. Oh, nice! I'm happy to hear you're a fan of Herzog's. He's an amazingly gifted filmmaker.

    That adaptation sounds terrific. I'll have to look into it, as I've not heard of any recent developments.

  3. I am ashamed to admit that I have only seen two of these movies, Bullitt and The Seventh Seal. I should be more into all of these directors...but, here's where my film education is sorely lacking. So, thanks for this amazing list that I will have to check out. I'm looking forward to seeing what else you have to share with us.

  4. Matty! Wow - you have been eyeballing some heavyweights! Great stuff - I have not seen all of them either - I will say I love Herzog and Kinski - and have to give a special shout out to Bullitt for giving a great supporting role to Robert Vaughn, a fine and underrated actor! Can't wait for more of these!

  5. What an impressive list and brilliant reviews like always, buddy! I should be more ashamed since I never watched any of those titles :)

  6. @ Melissa

    Nothing to be ashamed about. As you said, it's an opportunity for you to discover some new films. And I stand behind these films with supreme confidence. They have my fullest endorsement.

    I kind of suspected that you've seen Bullitt because it's one of Steve McQueen's greatest roles. I know your a devout McQueen fan. I'm also happy to hear that you've watched The Seventh Seal. It's such an important film.

    And thanks for the vote of confidence. Perhaps, I'll have another one of these "What I've Been Watching" segments in store down the road!

  7. @ Craig

    Thanks, man! Yes, these are "heavyweights." I've been focusing more of my viewings on classics. I want to watch all the great films of yesteryear, as I become a more refined student of film. It's a very conscious and autonomous course of action, but one that is quite exciting.

    Haha, I'm glad to hear your adulation for the legendary duo of Herzog/Kinski. Some of their on-set stories are the stuff of legend. Apparently, at one point on the set of Aguirre, Kinski pointed a gun at Herzog. He terrified the entire cast. And, during his days in the German military, he became a POW. In order to end his internment, he "feigned" madness: drinking his urine and eating cigarettes. The "gimmick" worked. But I don't think these antics were faked. Kinski was the personification of maniacal. And he was a helluva of an actor. So was Robert Vaughn. Great point!

  8. @ Jaccstev

    Thanks! I always appreciate the positive support. I strongly encourage you to procure some of these films. They are absolute "must-watch," grade A cinema. You'll thank me later :)

  9. Fellini is one of my favorites, but my wife doesn't like his films--she's watched a few with me but doesn't want to watch any more. I have a copy of 8 1/2 unopened but haven't had the time to watch it. Eventually.

    I love the classic films

    Tossing It Out

  10. Thanks for that bit of information! Classics are timeless. That's why we love them. That old adage—they don't make 'em like they used to—holds true.

    And I'm very impressed to hear that Fellini is one of your "favorites." He is a breath of fresh air in the filmmaking world. You're in for a treat when you watch 8 1/2. Not that I'm making any bold proclamations, but I give it my highest seal of approval.