Better than AFI’s Top 100: 50-46

The following is part of an overview of the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films, from my perspective. For an introduction to the project and an index of other entries in the series, click here. For a list of more than 800 films which I considered for the top 450 and my eligibility qualifications, click here. And for a way to vote on what you think the top 100 American narrative fiction feature films are, click here. If I’ve written a full-length review of the film on this site, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!

50) No Country for Old Men (2007), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coens use an incredible number of perspective shots in No Country, and amazingly enough the majority of them seem to belong to Anton Chigurh. We follow his gaze as he tracks bloody footprints out of a crashed pickup, and then again as he scopes a street in broad daylight as he turns an automobile into a Molotov cocktail. And when we aren’t seeing things from Chigurh’s point of view, we’re getting a flood of reaction shots the kind that Leo McCarey spent nights dreaming of. Chigurh says something and Carla Jean’s face shows her revulsion. Carson Wells makes a crack and Llewelyn Moss sneers back. Chigurh and that poor fellow at the gas station who never does seem to catch the drift of the conversation he’s having with the serial killer in front of him…the two of them go back and forth for better than four minutes, with the man who married into his gas station casting lines and Chigurh hooking him. Their faces don’t change much; Bardem’s facial range stays within a pretty tight angle all movie, but even Gene Jones, playing that blessed entrepreneur, keeps his expression more or less level. People’s faces weather geologically in this movie; when Carla Jean refuses to play a game with her life, her face changes so much (though rather less than most of ours would, I believe) that it seems exaggerated.

There’s a great web in this movie, one that ties individuals to one another almost at random. Yet once a character is drawn into the web, s/he does not escape from it. Chigurh’s violence appears to be a black hole, and the gravity well affects the comers who don’t even see him, like Ed Tom or Ellis. Then again, maybe pride is an amplification for his style of violence, the initial sin which magnetizes violence. Think of the car collision that Chigurh survives towards the end of the movie while a half-smirk sits on his face. Or probably, it all just happens and it’s mere arrogance to believe that even a coin flip could have an effect on the way events play out. The Coens are always so interested in the smallest tics and idiosyncrasies of human specimens; out of their body of work, only No Country for Old Men treats those vagaries as vanities.

49) The Shining (1980), directed by Stanley Kubrick

As much as any horror movie ever made, The Shining loves tracking shots. Either from behind a character, like Danny on his trike, or from in front of him, as we often see Jack ambling about, The Shining finds ways to follow people around. And then something happens: the twins appear in the hallway, alternately upright and hacked up. The hallway is filled with balloons; Wendy swings a baseball bat frantically and thoughtlessly. I can’t pretend to be a horror aficionado, but based on the ones I’ve seen I think the genre could stand a few more tracking shots. By their nature they build up tension and curiosity; it only makes sense that in a horror movie they would magnify fear. In any event, with an actor like Jack Nicholson in the fold, it’s a shame not to run the camera back as he walks towards it, twitching his arms and making quizzical expressions. Kubrick’s ability to play with new toys is maybe unmatched among movie directors. In Barry Lyndon, he uses that f./07 lens to distraction; in The Shining, the miracle of Steadicam makes many of the movie’s best moments possible. Kubrick’s not above a jump scare – what did you do the first time you saw Jack’s body frozen in broad daylight? – but the most memorable moments of the film often happen when someone’s on the move.

The Shining is the only horror movie I know that makes me want to describe it in German. (I think this is, incidentally, a very strong selling point.) It carries with it some aspect of das Unheimliche, the uncanny. Psychoanalytically speaking, it refers us back to something which is at once terribly strange and awfully familiar. The Shining is uncanny in the extreme. It’s a drama about two fairly young parents and their little boy going through a really rough time, and I don’t even mean the “Here’s Johnny!” bit. Jack is a writer with severe writer’s block who’s taken a seasonal job to try to make ends meet. Wendy is worried about Danny’s mental health. It’s also about intimacy, and how intimacy and isolation intersect like bleach and vinegar. As the movie goes on, the family is more and more alone inside a giant luxury prison, separating from one another, seen outside of each other’s company frequently. Families are like that. But they also speak to the horror inside us, the ugliness and anger that we are forced to subduct around our families because they’re our families. Jack Torrance gets to cut loose, so to speak; he swings his axe and the uncanny appears before us with hypnotizing vigor.

48) The Gold Rush (1925), directed by Charlie Chaplin

The Gold Rush is sometimes so funny I’m not sure it should be allowed. In 1972, Charlie Chaplin won an honorary Oscar; how many of the audience members were thinking about the sequence in The Gold Rush where Chaplin escapes being eaten by his hungry compatriot, who has begun to see the Lone Prospector as a giant chicken? There’s a special genius in the scene pictured above, where a storm has blown the Lone Prospector and Big Jim’s cabin onto the edge of a cliff; it takes an awfully long time for them to figure out why it is that the cabin keeps moving every time one of them goes the back door. And there’s a special genius in the simplicity of some of the movie’s other gags, which are so perfect that more than ninety years on they are fresh as ever. The Lone Prospector, dancing with a pretty girl, tries to hold up his pants with a rope he found; unfortunately there’s a wolfhound on the other end of the rope. In a struggle over a shotgun, Big Jim and Black Larsen inadvertently point the barrel at the Lone Prospector, who tries to move away from the barrel. Unfortunately, the barrel seems drawn to him like a moth to the flame; he makes something like three laps around the room, climbing on top of beds and crawling under a table.

As a character, the Lone Prospector does very little that is meant to be funny; knowing that he is in the Klondike, and that compared to other men he both appears and possesses little, he is not in a position where he can joke. He is as serious as can be around Georgia (a lady so special she even gets her own card with flowers on it when she shows up), for the alternative Georgia has is a handsome ladies’ man. Only once, when he’s giving a party for New Year’s Eve, does he have the leeway to make a joke. He calls it the “Oceana Roll,” and at the end he can finally laugh freely. It’s a lovely moment.

47) All That Heaven Allows (1955), directed by Douglas Sirk

Gloria Talbott, playing Jane Wyman’s slightly less awful child, has an interesting historical allusion for widows. She reports one night that the ancient Egyptians would lock up a dead man’s wife in his tomb, and expresses her distaste with the idea that a widow in contemporary America should do the same. Kay can speak boldly because at that point no man had cut her legs off at the knees; when some people at the library insult her mother’s choice of a boyfriend (Rock Hudson, who is younger and not as wealthy, but, well, is Rock Hudson), Kay comes home in tears. Kay might have protested one widow being dropped off at the mausoleum, but could she have stood up to the societal pressure as man after man died and woman after woman followed? The answer, Sirk shows us, is a definite “Nope.” The person we feel for most is Cary, obviously; her independence and her ability to make choices for herself are at stake in a way that Kay’s simply aren’t. They weren’t dragging Kay’s name through the mud, after all. But Kay, as a young woman in the ’50s who wants what she’s been told to want by the world around her, has been beaten down for the first time. Even if she turns into a pod person later in the movie, there was a real girl in her when she sobbed on her bed.

Sirk’s best movies are deeply interested in how Americans with money see women, and his answers are, obviously, not uplifting. All That Heaven Allows focuses on how the rules for men are barely rules at all, while women are still roughly confined to the intransigent strangulation that Hester Prynne could have told us about. The reason we know that Ron Kirby is a good dude is not because he’s got a Thoreau fixation or that he’s totally apathetic about what other people think of him. We know he’s decent because he doesn’t force anything on Cary. A TV salesman tries to push a TV on Cary. Her son gives her the business about wanting to sell the house he grew up in and then blithely tells her he’s going to work in Iran. Cary goes out to country club and has to fight off the wandering hands of one man and a marriage proposal from another. Ron Kirby won’t even tell her what kind of hobbies she should invest in. Should I take up gardening? she asks him one morning. You should if you think you’d like it, he says a little wryly. It might be the first time that a man didn’t tell her what to think.

46) A Woman Under the Influence (1974), directed by John Cassavetes

Picture links back here

A Woman Under the Influence is a painful movie, long and unforgiving and damning. Mabel and Nick, played perfectly by Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, are a married couple who, despite everything that happens, seem like they could be happy if their lives were consistent. The first stab of the movie comes when Nick, who works for the city, has to suddenly work an extra shift and doesn’t call Mabel, who’s sent the kids to her mom’s so she can have a date night with her husband. Mabel drinks. She smokes. She puts her feet up. She goes out to a bar and gets picked up, takes the man home with her. Nick comes home in the morning with his entire crew, again without warning Mabel, and the team has spaghetti at six, seven, eight a.m. People live like this, but Mabel is clearly hanging on with her fingernails being ripped from her cuticles in this environment. As her grip on her memory and her reality fade, as her quirkiness is read as madness by the men who see her, one wonders what her life would be like if her husband just came home when he said he would, called when he couldn’t, and treated her like a human being. When Mabel is sent away for six months for treatment, we see that Nick can’t exactly hide his spots either. At that spaghetti breakfast, he breaks up a good time when he thinks Mabel is a little too flirty with one of his coworkers. He slaps Mabel more than once. He drags the children around and gives them beer to drink. And in scenes where he interacts with the kids and where Mabel interacts with the kids, it’s obvious the little people prefer their mother. The message is clear enough; if Nick were a woman, they’d toss him a mental hospital even faster than he has his wife shipped off.

Cassavetes uses his camera like a microscope. He has an eye for a wide shot or an American shot as much as the next guy, but he is most successful in the extreme close-ups which are unmistakably his. To see A Woman Under the Influence is to know Gena Rowlands’ pores in the way that few people can know anyone’s pores. It takes a heck of an actor to stand up to that kind of barrage of close-ups, and Rowlands is precisely that; Mabel isn’t Joan of Arc, but Rowlands’ naturalism is every bit as affecting as Falconetti’s flawlessness. Mabel has an unkempt cuddly quality to her, one that is often confronted by the toughness or meanness of other characters and which forces her to growl and hiss and jump up on the couch for some illusion of security. It never quite succeeds.

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