Sunday, June 10, 2012

Top Five Things I Learned From The Movies

The Intersection of Film and Life: Part I

      Any Top Five that invokes the "Things I Learned" refrain has to at least mention Stanley Kubrick. Without Mr. K, future generations of Americans would never know how to cease worrying about the "bomb." In all seriousness though, "The Top Five Things I Learned From The Movies" is one of my more intimate ruminations, focusing squarely on the cinematic landscape...of course!
      I'd be remiss if I did not first acknowledge one of my favorite movie podcasts, Filmspotting. Their compelling, and equally cogent take on their own personal "Five Things Learned From The Movies" provided the proper impetus for this post. For those uncultured about the online movie-sphere, let me first encourage you to swim over to Filmspotting's waters of enlightenment. They are one of the oldest and most revered movie podcasts on the internet (and also broadcast on WBEZ in Chicago). The show is hosted by Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen, an entertaining tandem of cinephiles whose abiding love for cinema, underscored by knowledge, humor, and eloquence, inspired this top five. 
      A representative top five of this intimate magnitude forces you to contemplate your own history with film, a history that may encompass epiphanies, behavioral changes, enhanced perspectives or broader world views. I suppose all avenues of thought are within reach, right? But an erudite, introspective route does not discount the exhilarating sensory experience afforded by a movie like The Raid: Redemption. The traditional Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat, demonstrated with aplomb by Iko Uwais in Gareth Evan's aforementioned ass-kicking extravaganza, will serve me extremely well if I ever find myself trapped in an impoverished, drug-ridden housing complex in Jakarta, inhabited by a cabal of the most dangerous murderers and gangsters, who, one trivial detail worth noting, are maddeningly dead set on my singular destruction. What this experience suggests is that a list of this ilk is very difficult to create because it forces you to look deep and burrow through those cobwebs of introspection. Or, on the contrary, embrace those breathtaking moments skillfully on display in movies like The Raid: Redemption, which purposely and effectively avoid the more cognitive, philosophical realm.  
      My list, I like to think, is not a hollow collection of inane revelations nor is it a compilation of truly profound or pithy observations. It is simply my resolute attempt to illustrate a map of my filmic sensibilities. The five films listed not only nourish my peculiar cinematic interests, but also challenge, to some extent, my core perspective on human psychology. And lastly I want to state that these five choices are in no way emblazoned in my pantheon as the most provocative or evocative works, but merely films whose style and sensibility I vividly recall being arrested by. 

Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También

      What is the message/lesson? Cherish your freedoms. Live life with an unfettered, undaunted passion. Express yourself and your desires without guilt or shame. 
      Films that affect you viscerally on this kind of humanistic level are a rarity. Kurosawa's Ikiru, most of Robert Bresson's films, and frankly any of Yasujiro Ozu's films immediately spring to mind as memorable conjurers, shaped by an authentic emotional strength. But the tides of modernity swayed me. This is not to say that films from eras I do not presently inhabit are barred from inclusion or that contemporary fare is a prerequisite. The experience is the key. And what's fervently and realistically depicted in Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También is more immediate and identifiable. Plus, I recently came across this modern masterpiece for a third time. The core thematic weight, for my mind's sake, still lingers prominently.
      Cuarón is one of modern cinema's great auteurs. He has a distinct visual style with a lens consisting of bravura long shots, intimate close-ups, and sprawling wide shots. His narratives advance with striking originality, galvanized by courage. A true master of long takes, his landscapes, aided by the virtuous cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki (who also worked with Malick on Tree of Life), are imbued with exquisite depth. And above all, his films propel forward with an unshakable emotional energy. Covering such powerful themes as love, sexuality, death, and politics, Cuarón's first masterpiece, Y Tu Mamá También, illuminates all of these tremendous gifts. Exceptional voice-over narration, to posit the proverbial cherry on top, counsel the proceedings. 
      The mark of a great film is one that has the power to enhance your world view. YTMT passes this pivotal test. As a work of art, it deftly empowers my conscience, urging me to undertake pursuits beyond the predictable realities and provincial qualms of daily life, a life grounded in the hubbub of the Northeast. As Robin Williams' character in Good Will Hunting intimates, "the peccadilloes...and imperfections" are what constitute the essence of living. YTMT, enlivened by life's complexities, exemplifies this philosophy. Cuarón's probing lens, a lens so relentless and so fixated on the rigors of life, is capable of snapping you out of the stupor of manipulative fiction. You need not be of Mexican descent, or from Mexico to appreciate the message, for the film glides with universal grace. 
      Films can be abstract, artistically vibrant, but great directors, auteurs if you will, provoke an emotional and psychological reaction that elevates the experience. They touch on what it means to be human. Cuarón is of this ilk.
      You can find more of my thoughts on Y Tu Mamá También in my Great Alphabet of Films.

Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express

      What is the message/lesson? Wong Kar-wai demonstrates both how and why cinema is beautiful. And in terms of message, he addresses human nature's primal yearning for companionship, and the need to relinquish the past.  
      Chungking Express is sort of an unconventional pick in terms of its distance from life (the antithesis of Y Tu Mamá También) and affinity for style, as it resides more objectively in the "Film Functions Primarily As Art" arena. Carving out a profound life lesson is not Wong Kar-wai's intention. But I absolutely adore this film and WKW's entire filmography. 
      Kar-wai really awakened my eyes to the art of filmmaking. If you love film itself, Chungking Express is precisely the film that will captivate you. The structural elements that tend to bind a film's disparate elements—those little elements we identify as story—are merely tertiary in this instance. 
      There are really two distinct stories being told in CE. But the stories themselves, while they intersect in nuanced ways, only serve as amplifiers for Kar-wai's stylistic gravitas. He is chiefly concerned with the remnants of a story. Seeking to dispense his visual dynamism, Kar-wai is aggressively vigilant of framing, composition, and juxtaposition. This does not mean he is some kind of shallow vessel of style without substance. Quite the contrary. He cultivates and executes his style in a way that magnifies and complements the narrative. The plot is purposely unconventional, but if you're attentive to style, you'll follow it easily. 
      I, for one, love Kar-wai's approach. Not only is his mise-en-scene and camerawork refreshing, but the entire experience of witnessing the film is invigorating. This is a movie about a journey, not the destination. That is the fundamental crux. The experience is largely cerebral. As Roger Ebert opines in his review, "You'll enjoy it because of what you know about film, not because of what it knows about life." 
      The themes mainly revolve around a life unfulfilled. A humanistic and comic touch, punctuated by buoyancy and hopefulness, is Kar-wai's chief enlightening instrument. Delving into the heart of human despair and loneliness, Chungking Express examines the fractured psyche. It is the kind of film that sympathizes with the characters, celebrates their existence (a very Fellini esque tendency), embraces them, focuses on their idiosyncrasies, hoists them up. Yes, sadness and desolation are embedded in the natural cycle of life. But man must always forge through the dark cellars of despair to achieve peace. 
      While most films subject you to a prolonged state of passivity, requiring only facile effort, Chungking Express is the polar opposite. Kar-wai, with the free-spirited, whimsical abandon of the French New Wave (like Godard and Truffaut), requires you to think and to feel. But his approach, sustained by confessional monologues, is forcefully optimistic and pleasant. He advises us all to put the past to bed. Move forward. Embrace spontaneity and fortuity. The impetus for our action is present in the beauty surrounding us, everyday, and everyone. 
      After viewing this film, "California Dreamin" by the Mamas and Papas, will never ring quite the same way again. And for me, re-watching this film has reinforced my love for Wong Kar-wai (I've seen all but two of his films), and intensified my desire to see his upcoming film, The Grandmasters, which is my number one anticipated film of 2012. Logic dictates that it is right ahead of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Hmmm? I would surmise something telepathic about these two forces of nature, what with the invocation of "Master" in their titles. Is it serendipity? Or is some type of concurrent genius the rationale for their titular compatibility? 
    Oh! It must also be said that Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, the star of Chungking Express, is one of my favorite actors, period. I'd love to see him headline a PTA film... California Dreamin' ...

*I am getting carried away with this post, as usual, so I am going to divide it into two parts. My last intention would be to overwhelm any readers. Brevity is your friend...and apparently my enemy ;) 

*****Stay Tuned For Part II: Numbers Three-Five*****


  1. I'm so glad you gave Cuaron's Y Tu Mamá También as an example. I thought this was a beautiful film, which let its characters to live the way they want and to do the things they love. The connection between the three of them was unbelievably sincere and real.

    1. Of course. You and I both share an unadulterated love for this film. Yep, the ability to transform the material in a way that is original is the mark of a great director. What Cuaron does is magnificent. He forges through his own whimsical narrative with fearless energy, subjecting us to exhilarations and experiences we often never see. And his daring tact enhances the overriding message. Embrace your freedoms and the journeys that derive from these freedoms.

      Thanks, mate!

  2. Fantastic lessons to be learned - and such stimulating choices for teaching material - well chosen, Matty! Looking forward to Part II!

    1. Thanks, Craig! Haha, if I ever decide to throw my hat in the teaching ring, I'll remember your words. I know who to blame :)

  3. Wow, very insightful and thought-provoking post. Great films like great novels, teach. They take us outside ourselves, our comfort zones and our established worldview. I have not seen Chunking Express, but reading your accolades has me adding this to my Must See list.

    And speaking of thinking, if you don't mind, I'm going to share a film that means a lot to me and give you some back story to it. I was a young child when the women's movement that started in the 60's was dying out. ERA had been stalled and rape was still a new crime, just separated from property laws. One film that chilled me yet made me start to think about my own physical rights over my body was The Accused. It was one of the first Hollywood films to deal directly with rape and all its consequences. I had never ever seen a movie like this. A film that showed me that no one had a right to force himself on me because of something I was wearing. That no did mean no. I grew up hearing my own mother and aunts saying things like "well what did she expect, wearing those shorts." As if being brutalized was suitable punishment for a clothing choice. On eighteen year old me, The Accused was revelatory and mind blowing. It is a film that for me, will always be in my tops lists.

    Thanks for letting me ramble on. I'm stepping off of ye olde soap box. LOL Looking forward to the rest of your amazing list here.

  4. Your comments, as always, put an enormous smile on my face :)

    Great films can be instructive and illuminating without being domineering. And I also think that great films can be accidentally didactic, which is an interesting premise in its own right. And you're point about "taking us outside ourselves, our comfort zones" is particularly insightful. When we trust who is guiding our journeys into these unforeseen, unrecognizable places, we are more willing to disavow prejudice and fear, and there is much to be learned. Part of the inherent beauty of cinema is its ability to take us to places we otherwise would not go. These two choices I hope make that aspect very clear.

    I love your selection of The Accused for all the reasons you articulated. What it taught you about being a strong, independent woman unperturbed by callous stereotypes is a reminder of what's remarkable about great cinema. These are reasons that underscore another fundamental aspect of film: It is relentlessly personal. You love that film for reasons I cannot personally identify with. But that doesn't make your reasons any less important. The experience resonates with you in a way that is tied to the very experience you bring to cinema.

    Thanks for the tremendous personal insight, Melissa! I'm always honored to be a recipient of your soap box ramblings, haha!

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