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Der letzte Mann (1924)
Fridriech Willhem Murnau was a German director who flourished in the late 1920s, mostly for his post-expressionistic mise-en-scene, and his complete reliance on visual storytelling, a concept that a later visual director, Alfred Hitchcock, labeled "pure cinema". This film, the "Last Laugh", was made in '24, just before his next success and the film which still keeps him alive, "Sunrise". The "Last Laugh" tells the story of a hotel clerk who is demoted to lavatory attendant, because of his infirmity. As brilliantly portrayed by silent actor Emil Jannings, this hotel clerk takes pride in wearing his military uniform and going to work everyday, and has reached a clichéd level of glory and respect amongst his neighbors. When he loses this position, he sees his whole word being destroyed. The noirish photography implies not only the influence of German expressionism, but also of such great filmmakers as Lang, Griffith and Dryer, all of them directors who had an impact on later European art-house filmmakers such as Bergman, Rosselini and Reed. The overrated value we attach to appearances and the way people are judged by what they are wearing is the center of this movie. Emancipating from the mainstream American way of movie-making at the time, Murnau does more than simply telling the story in a way that involves the audience's emotions; his mise-en-scene is always subjective, as if the camera was in the mind of his protagonist. In that sense, not only is he able to include the hero's dreams and fantasies in the story, but also portray the realistic scenery as perceived by Janning's view: bright and shining at the first part of the story, while our hero is still enjoying his position as hotel clerk, dark and threatening in the second part, as the hero's situational development leads him to a more pessimistic view of life. Perhaps Murnau was not aware of it at the time, but the manner in which he balanced his direction, constantly alternating between fantasy and reality, formed a landmark of a film, possibly the greatest of the whole silent era, equal to such silent films as "Metropolis", "The Passion of Joan of Arc"and "The Lodger". This conscious disregard for realistic mainstream movie-making and the emphasis on subjective experience also originated and inspired yet another European filmmaker, who, even though lived much later and based his visual techniques on surrealism and neo-realism, founded his art completely on the intrinsic emotional impression of reality, just as Murnau did in this film. His name has Federico Fellini.
The Kid (1921)
One of the best films I have ever seen
Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid" is, quite simply, a masterpiece of silent cinema, one of the most emotional visual journeys every viewer must undertake. Simple, subtle and straightforward, Chaplin succeeds both as an actor and a director. As an actor, he plays his usual role of Charlot, a goofy flat-feet-ed short man with a hat and a mustache, who, in this case, finds a baby on the street and decides to raise him. As a director, Chaplin manages to employ a quite "cinematic" style, quite contrary to many of his former movies. Because cinematic art, generally speaking, is composed of two major elements: the narrator's ability to choose his focus and the film's reliance on visual rather than verbal information. This film excels in both. Not only is it purely visual, but the manner in which Chaplin places his camera highlights the characters and helps narrate this unornamented tale of parental love. It is highly emotional yet it never crosses the line to melodramatic. It is capable of producing a great deal of through to the viewer yet its subdued themes and messages are never overstated, they never become clear and evident, they sort of come out through the laughter and the tears. His mise-en-scene is powerful, yet exceedingly candid and forthright.
A representative outset for a spectacular and controversial career
Pasolini's first film "Accatone" is exactly as one would expect a typical Pasolini film to be: wreathed in raw violence, and shot with a brilliant sense of poetic slash brutal realism, reminiscent of the neo-realism era, and perhaps, if not for sure, a semi-autobiographical portrait of life in the streets of Rome's peripheries. "Accatone" is, at its best, a chunk of life, which Pasolini managed to extract not as it initially was, but dramatically filtered through his own personal lyrical gaze. Gangs, prostitutes, lies and deceit lie in this film's core. A sense of irresponsible opportunism is seen in this film, almost no regrets for the past and no fears for the future. In fact, the movie's tragic hero, Vittorio Accatone, is a dark alter-ego of yet another favored Italian movie character, embodied only a year before by Marcello Mastroianni in "La Dolce Vita". Perhaps, in this case, Accatone was not a party animal journalist who sought ephemeral pleasure in social middle-class gatherings and women, but the spirit is, by itself, maintained astonishingly faithfully: Accatone is no longer a protagonist in Pasolini's movie, doomed to descend lower and lower in social class, losing both his dignity, his social acceptability and his profound "style", but a symbol, a metaphor for Pasolini's own political beliefs. Under this figure of a brute, behind the otherwise repelling image of a short dirty man with a sly smile and a peculiar walk, lies the failure of post war Italian government, a government which, according to this movie's subtext, strove so hopelessly to attain social and economical success for Rome's population, and somehow neglected or marginalized Rome's peripheries, causing people like Accatone and his girlfriends to result in prostitution and theft. A kind of pretension and make-belief well being which was also visible, at the time, in America. Yes, Accatone is the result of this American Dream's pastische.
La vita è bella (1997)
You can see why it was a success, but it wasn't that good...
As I said, this film can easily pass as one of the most emotional and thought-provoking stories in modern cinema. Its big success worldwide, mostly in the U.S., spells out the mainstream ingredients for a successful film. It is quite simple really how this clown-like parody of WWII got to earn so much money: relationships between people, and relying upon one another.. These two sentences may sound simple and over-profound, even too usual and melodramatic for some tastes, but believe me, they are the everlasting secrets of how to make a movie sell. Movies that have to do with companionship, love, friendship, helping one another, make money.
Movies that have to do with loners, death, and the impossibility of love, do not make money.
Think about a rather recent example. Why do you think the academy and the audiences preferred the even "Million Dollar Baby" to the spectacular "Aviator"? Simple. "Million Dollar Baby" was about friendship, love, companionship and sacrifice. The "Aviator" was about a recluse, the lonely life of a psychotic millionaire, a film about ONE person.
If you really think about it, the most successful films of all time are the kind of soapy melodramas whose superficial sentimentality hypnotizes the minds of the mainstream viewer. It's not about action and happy endings, a rather falsely perceived Hollywood notion about a successful film, but rather a movie that deals with bonding and friendship. Would "Lord of the Rings" have made so much money if it hadn't been about the FELLOWSHIP of people/creatures?? Not really. It's almost impossible to imagine how a film that is not about bonding can be successful. The retention of the illusion of film can only be achieved if the viewer can idolize the sacred value of love. Be it amorous or otherwise. And this is it. This is why movies like "Shawshank Redemtion" and "Titanic" will always sell more than "8 1/2" and "Andrei Roublev". They are more collectivist whereas the other two are more individualist. Once such notions as family, love and friendship are celebrated on screen, the viewer seems to like it better. And it is obvious, isn't it?? No matter how good a film is (meaning the story, the acting, the direction, the music) it will always sell if it focuses on the triumph of human bonding.
In this case, "La Vita e Bella" was successful because of that. It was a film about the love and sacrifice of a father for his son. Period. That's all one has to hear to like this film. Its extremely bad aspects are immediately ignored. No one seems to care that this film was an insult to those who suffered during WWII. No one notices how unrealistic Begnini's portrayal of the clown was, how much of an immature parody of human emotions and historical truths the film was. Behind the silly laughter and the pretentious theme lies a true mockery of WWII, and nobody seems to care about it..
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Too Godard to be Tarantino, and too Tarantino to be Godard.
I first watched Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" over two years ago. I must admit I was amazed. Being not so much of a film-knower back then, I was completely set in awe about the fact that stylistically, this film was so unique - as compared to, of course, what I had previously seen. My formerly poor cinematic experience and knowledge led me to like this film. The raw violence, the exceedingly black humor, the story's complex and confusing structure, and finally, Tarantino's own treatment of the visuals, the sense of control the direction suggested, which lingered in long takes and worked as a very experienced tour guide to the viewer's eyes, falsely contaminated me with the belief that Tarantino was an auteur, or, depending on how generous I then was, a pure metteur-en-scene.
You see, my criterion for judging a film has always been its personal reflection. Not its originality per se, but the manner in which an artist's personal thoughts and emotions are uniquely portrayed on film, both in terms of style and content. A director's "signature" must be visible throughout his work's body. Thereby, by watching "Pulp Fiction" I perceived the much celebrated Tarantino as one of those unique artists, almost ranking among such great auteurs as Hitchcock, Ford and Kubrick. Mistaken as I was, of course, I saw my own sense of appreciation and respect for Tarantino destroyed at the time when I first discovered the works of Jean-Luc Godard. Tarantino may be successful and admired, he may have won awards and earned a lot of money, but the truth is that he has achieved all that by almost imitating Godard's work. It's a pity that people today know Tarantino and have not heard of Godard. If you haven't seen any of his films yet, please do, and you'll find out that "Pulp Fiction", "Reservoir Dogs" and "Jackie Brown" are nothing but mere imitations of Godard's style. The tenacity of the camera, the often one-sided angle of rendering a scene, the deliberate pacing, titles, freeze-frames and the frequent self-indulgence that characterize the films of the french master, are also the qualities of Tarantino's films. Some, however, believe that Tarantino has only exploited Godard, meaning that he has used some of Godard's better stylistic elements and blown them up into something better. This maybe true, but the fact remains that whenever I watch one of Tarantino's films, I find myself thinking about the influence of Godard...It's completely understandable how Godard, when he saw "Pulp Fiction", declared: "...they might as well have given me the money!!"
The greatest comedy of all times
Perhaps a comedy is made on purely extravagant levels. In making movies, and, evidently, watching them, I discovered that such pure emotions as: cry, laugh, fright, are quite easy to create. Comedies are made to make us laugh. Think of all the Billy Wilder comedies, like "Some like it Hot" and "The Apartment", great movies, with sharp, intelligent scripts and a stylish direction. But still, in a film like those, one laughs, but nothing more. There is no deep emotion, no symbolism, no major theme or thematology, and no thinking. In a sense, the only thing that makes us like those movies is the use of humor. Now, when it comes to Dr. Strangelove. What is it that elevates this film from all other comedies: it is not humor, it is wit. Never before have I watched a comedy where I am required to think as well. What I loved about this movie was the little details, the names, for example. Although I love 2001, ACO, Barry Lyndon and Paths of Glory, I think that DrS is the best Kubrick movie ever! Not only the brilliant, flawless script, of so many unexpected twists and turns, but the lovely satirical direction. Every aspect of this film has a humorous symbolic nature, such as the title sequence, with the two planes exchanging fluids. But one can't only view a film, and particularly this film, and like it as it is. One has to consider the time-frame in which it was made. In an era of desperation and general fear of a third world war, Kubrick dared to make fun of it all, reminding people to take it easy, and love the bomb.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The best movie of all motion picture history
I first watched "Lawrence of Arabia" when I was about 11 years old. Being a big fan of Steven Spielberg at that time, I was sort of awed by the fact that this was his personal favorite (check the "conversation with Steven Spielberg" featurette in the special features disk and you'll really see Spielberg's affection for that film)
Over the years, Lawrence remained among my DVD collection, and I can't say I actually watched it since that first time, when, by the way, I didn't really like it. But "time does things to movies", and when I watched it again last year, I found my eyes to be weeping at the end. It instantly became one of my favorite movies.
Since then I learned a lot about the history of cinema, and I also learned a great deal about the movies of Sir David Lean. I found my self watching films like "Brief Encounter", "The Bridge on the River Kwai", "Doctor Zhivago", "Ryan's Daughter", and the underrated, "A passage to India". Lean became one of my favorite directors, and, just a few months ago, I decided to watch Lawrence with some friends. Although I had seen it a couple of times before, this time it was a different experience altogether: from the starting credits, to the blowing of the match, the crossing of the Nefud dessert, finding Gassim and bringing him back to the camp, the invasion of Aqaba, his torture and rape (?), Lawrence's laugh after the slap by the "outrageaous" guy, his being left alone, to the final gaze to the motorcycle. I sensed something when I watched that film, which leaves my with the undoubted feeling that "Lawrence of Arabia" is the greatest film ever made. For me, this is it. Ever since '62, it's been a downfall. No other film has managed to reach Lawrence in its poetic greatness. Few do come very close (Vertigo for instance).
If we are to classify the two complete different cinematic styles, it would be those of Hitchcock and Ford. Hitch was a very "confined" director. He captured his movies from the point of view of one character. His movies took place, most of the time, in closed spaces. In a sense, Hitchcock's films were a journey in people's emotions and a study in people's characters. On the other hand, Ford was an open director. He wasn't confined to one character, or one location, his films where actual journeys. His basis was mostly on theme, and his main ability was to amaze with his imagery. Thus, these are the two different shooting styles....Well, Lean combines both.
Which is basically why his best film, Lawrence, is the best film of all times. But not only in terms of style. Also, in terms of content. The intelligent script written by Robert Bolt, the powerhouse performances by O'Toole and Shariff (a shame they didn't get the statuette), but also, the ultimately heroic yet tragic figure of T.E. Lawrence, contribute in making this the most visually and emotionally sweeping film of the last 111 years.
Such a shame that Lean retired for 14 years after "Ryan's Daughter", there's no way to know where he would have gotten.