For one of cinema’s three greatest decades (the others being the 1920s and 1950s), here are my selections this morning of the ten best films. They are given in order of preference, beginning with Italy’s highest cinematic achievement:
1. L’ECLISSE (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, France, 1962). Eclipse completes Michelangelo Antonioni’s towering black-and-white trilogy of modern alienation and uncertain European identity. (L’avventura, 1960, La notte, 1961.) It begins with the end of a romantic relationship and ends with another; Vittoria (Monica Vitti, magnificent) is the constant in both. The film begins and ends in near silence, with an overwhelming sense of vacancy.
L’eclisse’s frames are composed in intricate, dynamic depth—a depth that evokes modern times, where, rather than keeping hidden below, a now thoroughly known-about, hence objectified, unconscious so intrudes on the surface of human behavior and thought that, rattled and unsure of themselves amidst self-criticism and second guessing, people seem lost in their own lives—the problem of identity that Vittoria’s frenzied dance, in African brownface, apotheosizes. Compounding this is the wobbled European identity as a result of western Europe’s loosened and lost moorings in colonialism—and this, too, Vittoria’s dance brings to the fore. Moreover, Antonioni relates all this to another concern of the 1960s: materialism. Materialism depersonalizes everything, even intimacy; thus Antonioni shows columns at the Roman Stock Exchange dividing future lovers Piero and Vittoria—a sign of the societal ill that will infect their relationship. The columns are orderly. What passes now for order is divisive rather than integrative—an idea stunningly expressed in the film’s conclusive series of bleak, thinly populated nightscapes: a world of order with nothing left to order: form outlasting content. The sparse presence of humanity suggests humanity’s now largely empty core.
Piero and Vittoria have not kept their date. L’eclisse sharpens despair to the point of apocalypse, signalling in the failure of two individuals to remain a couple the end of the world. By indirection, then, Antonioni touts the primacy of love. L’eclisse is the most powerful film ever made about two lovers.
2. THE TRIAL (Orson Welles, France, Italy, West Germany, 1962). Orson Welles, who wrote and directed The Trial, from Franz Kafka, considered it his best piece of work. I concur.
Certainly it is Welles’s most haunted film. It satirizes bureaucracy by promoting it to an almost cosmic level of authoritarianism, as Kafka had done in order to portray humanity’s sense of cluelessness in the vast, impersonal modern world; but Welles also lends great sorrow to the satire by infusing it with a specter of the Holocaust. (Kafka’s novella preceded the Holocaust by about twenty years; the film came about twenty years after.) This brings to fruition the full horror of totalitarianism that Kafka had only begun to imagine. To be sure, the film dazzles with its kaleidoscopic maze of ambiguous black-and-white images and visual cul-de-sac, its use of chiaroscuro, its urgent sense of parable; but it is the film’s phantomlike repository of historical memory, an omnipresent insinuation, that accounts for its inexhaustible power of emotion.
Not everyone who loves Welles loves this film. Critic Andrew Sarris, who places Welles in his pantheon of great American filmmakers, finds The Trial “hateful,” “repellent,” “perverted”—or did so at the time of The American Cinema (1968), where he writes: “Welles asserts in his prologue that his story has the logic of a dream, but Welles on Kafka, like Modigliani’s white on white, is less logical than superfluous, less a dream of something than a dream of a dream of something.” Bound up in memory, Welles’s film is the dream of a dream. It is Welles’s nightmare of an historical waking nightmare that we all share.
The Trial is Welles’s great lament for humanity’s inhumanity. It is a film mourning a world of justice and reason that it nevertheless knows existed in mind but never in time.
3. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (John Ford, U.S., 1962). James Stewart and John Wayne are magnificent in John Ford’s last great film, which addresses the foundation of lies and myths sustaining ideas of national destiny, frontier and progress in the U.S. “The man who shot Liberty Valance” doesn’t refer to the man who actually shot and killed the embodiment of Old West lawlessness but to the gun-shy lawyer who, given the credit, builds upon this celebrity a lofty political career that is about to allow him, as U.S. senator, to bring irrigation to Shinbone, thereby turning vast, open desert into a fenced garden, and consigning anarchy to the discipline of rules and boundaries, all of which entails, along with some reluctant modification of individual liberty, the loss of an elusive quality of romance.
Here is Ford’s most intricately composed yet grayest, knottiest, thorniest Western—his most highly analytical film. (German filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub has called Ford “the most Brechtian of all filmmakers, because he shows things that make people think . . . [and that make] the audience collaborate on the film.”) Like Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), also in black and white, the film seems to emanate from some dark collective mind, the historical imagination where myth and truth, shifting in and out of one another, are phantoms of the night. Senator Ransom Stoddard’s marriage is also founded on the error that he dispatched Liberty Valance; Hallie, his wife, originally loved Tom Doniphon, who really did kill Valance, and who, losing Hallie to Stoddard and gleaning his nation’s future, chose to pass into oblivion. Divided, like America, Hallie loved the dashing substance of one man in the righteous form of the other.
What an enduring, frightfully weighted haul is here—America’s baggage of memory, regret, contradiction, political disillusionment.
4. NIGHT AND FOG IN JAPAN (Nagisa Oshima, Japan, 1960). In 1958 Japan renegotiated its 1952 treaty ending U.S. occupation, whose original terms had impressed Japanese youth with a sense of futility, radicalizing them. Many felt the new security terms, which strengthened Japan’s alliance with the U.S., betrayed its constitution, which had committed Japan to the course of peace. Its title referring to Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955), Nagisa Oshima’s fictional Nihon no yoru to kiri haunts, instead of a Nazi death camp, Nozawa’s wedding party, which is peopled by dimmed, compromised radicals. (As a student, Oshima had participated in the movement.) Withering, ghost-ridden, the film targets the nuclear-insane U.S., the insufficiency of Sovietism to provide a viable alternative, the collapse of Japanese radicalism and idealism. A wedding’s new beginning occasions a renewed sense of betrayal, militant poses pointing to an empty nostalgia, and a catalog of political post-mortems.
A seemingly black-and-white shot through a dark forest finds someone approaching the window through which we espy the groom and bride standing behind a table, flanked by others, and all so rigid we might swear we were looking at a photograph. Inside, all is in woody, earthen color; someone summarizes recent clashes between students and police. The camera moves back and forth, left and right, one camera movement ironically canceling the other; everyone stands perfectly still except for the one who is speaking, who is also standing. When he is finished, another man speaks.
In the same fluid shot, amidst constrained singing, the back-and-forth camera finds the man of the forest, the groom’s friend, entering. Soon after, members of the wedding enter the past: voices and tableaux of student protest enrobed in darkness, ideological discussions, strategy sessions. Elegiac singing echoes: Where are we? Past or present? Among the living or the dead?
5. L’AVVENTURA (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, France, 1960). Antonioni launched cinema’s greatest trilogy with The Adventure. Two souls, her lover, Sandro, and her friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s partner and muse at the time, phenomenal), search for Anna, who is missing from their party on an uninhabited island. In the course of this adventure, the two become a couple and lose the thread of their search. What had brought them together no longer matters—except to us, who miss Anna, who at first seemed to be the film’s protagonist. Finding ourselves the projection of the pair’s conscience makes us a participant.
The fragile nature of relationships; the ties that loosen and unbind: Antonioni shows the abstract way that modern humans live, giving themselves up to experience. These characters demonstrate self-estrangement and an inability to make emotional contact with others. Visually, L’avventura translates the concepts figure and ground into the relationship between humanity and landscape. Daunting Sicilian locations fail to do what we expect locations to do in a film: locate the characters and their story. Instead, they project the vast spaces, the disconnects, between, among and within characters who lack moral and sensitive rootedness. Here is a film about will-o’-the-wisps.
Antonioni had mined the poetry of bleak landscape before, such as in The Cry (1957), but never to such intoxicating effect. Used to their own abandonment, the landscapes appear to reveal (or mimic) the idle, empty, well-to-do characters. This is a film of long- and wide-angle shots, in which characters are often on the verge of becoming lost to the eye. It is about how, like Anna, we all can be lost in this modern world of ours—lost to ourselves and others. Its overarching theme is the signature one of the sixties: alienation. But Antonioni investigates its character rather than exploiting a fashionable mood.
6. VIRIDIANA (Luis Buñuel, Spain, Mexico, 1961). Only Godard has made more brilliant films than Spain’s political self-exile Luis Buñuel, whose career spanned a half-century. Antifascist, surrealist, Catholic-turned-antireligionist, Buñuel is a withering artist perpetually applying a satirical razor blade to the eyeballs of the bourgeoisie, Catholic clergy, and other groups he deemed backward. The critical miscomprehension that attended his beautiful Nazarin (1958) found him giving many of its themes a more blatant treatment in Viridiana. For once, the less subtle rendering proved the greater work. Viridiana had to be smuggled out of Franco’s Spain, to which Buñuel had returned just to make it, and completed in Mexico.
Dark, course, rough wool, black-and-white Viridiana is stylistically different from the teasing silk of Buñuel’s later French work in color (Belle de Jour, 1967; The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972). In it, altruism and idealism collide with mean, grubby reality and various forms of corruption. The film follows Viridiana, a girl about to take final vows at convent, the course of whose life is wrenched when the aristocratic uncle she is visiting lies to her before committing suicide, claiming that he violated her the night before while she was in a drugged state. Viridiana assumes charge of Don Jaime’s estate, which she shares with his illegitimate son. Believing she can redeem them through prayer, Viridiana invites in beggars, resulting in the high point of the film’s astonishing brio: a looting-rape celebration that visually parodies Leonardo’s The Last Supper and is set to Handel’s Messiah. Hal-le-lu-jah!
The closeup of a child’s feet as she skips rope provides a sense of balance ripe for tragicomic reversal. Fernando Rey is marvelous as Don Jaime, whose chuckle right before he hangs himself with the jump-rope remains one of cinema’s most enigmatic and haunting gestures.
7. BARREN LIVES (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Brazil, 1963). The highwater mark of Brazil’s cinema nôvo, Pereira dos Santos’s black-and-white Vidas Secas derives from Graciliano Ramos’s 1938 novel about an impoverished young family—Fabiano, wife Vitória, their two small sons, and Baleia, the family dog—attempting to survive in the sun-seared sertão.
The film opens on endless, open land. One bare tree punctuates the dry landscape. Distant dots to the tree’s right move. As the camera moves left very slowly and the figures advance, tree and humans are each associated with the other. First to burst into full view is Baleia, running ahead. The skeletal tree is a figure of looming death; the implication arises that the dog, leaping between family and tree beyond the frame, protects the family from extinction. Soon after, Baleia barks to alert the others of a family member’s distress and, a proficient hunter, helps keep all from starvation.
Almost as soon as they arrive close to a shack that cowhand Tomás has vacated, the landowner, imperious on horseback, armed with a whip, orders them out but relents when Fabiano offers to work for next to nothing. Even so, “Boss” cheats Fabiano, who chooses family survival over personal pride. Fabiano is whipped and jailed for no offense.
Eventually they all must move on. Baleia is sick, so Fabiano first must kill their protector—a protracted passage presaging the family’s own imperiled fate. A few amazing shots illumine the dog’s consciousness as she dies: a zoom-out from the cabin; animals that Baleia won’t be hunting down. The family is on foot again, this time without certain destination. Vitória wonders aloud, “Will we ever be human?” The camera behind them this time, rather than appearing out of the distance they disappear into the nothingness stretching in front of them.
8. WEEKEND (Jean-Luc Godard, France, Italy, 1967). A savagely satirical take on “modern times,” Weekend—or Week End—is one of the signature films of the sixties. (A gloriously agile performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud helps certify this.) A typical bourgeois couple take a weekend drive to visit the woman’s mother, whom they murder for her money. The woman later joins the band of revolutionaries who have murdered her spouse, whom they eat for lunch. An alternative title might be: Ties That No Longer Bind—including patriotic ties to nation.
Godard lays claim here to the most celebrated tracking shot of all time: a massive, seemingly endless, corpse-strewn traffic stall revealing the enormity of human folly as disparate, blindly self-contained fates are headlong-prone to one explosive end. Pitched complicitly and elegantly between determinism and documentary discovery, the sunlit shot proceeds gradually, shifting from a straight, rigid course to a course slightly, subtly more relaxed, and catching about the honking metal hulks belligerent confrontations and witty scenes of resourceful recreational activity. What a shot!
Scarcely less remarkable is a later shot that likewise discloses Western civilization’s bankruptcy: a fixed, rotating—continuously panning—camera, flattened by its slow pace, and thus adding inexorability to the noose-like circle it draws around a pianist, encapsulating Western culture, who plays Mozart in a farmyard—a scene both lovely and incongruous. With great love for the music and an appreciation of the irrelevancy of Mozart to so many oppressed lives, Godard can lament the passing of such perfect beauty while yet keenly feeling the need to erase the social and political inequities that have enabled high culture to exist and that still seek to sustain it. Were Godard not tugged in these opposite directions at once, his apocalyptic Weekend would not be the heartrendingly beautiful thing that it is.
9. PSYCHO (Alfred Hitchcock, U.S., 1960). Marion Crane (Janet Leigh, marvelous) steals money from her Phoenix employer. On the way to lover Sam Loomis’s small town, in the rainy dark she inadvertently slips onto a back road, finding a barely functioning motel run by Norman Bates. After chatting with Bates, Marion decides to return the money; but the boy’s jealous mother kills her, and Bates unknowingly tanks the money in a swamp in covering up the crime. Bates’s mother died years ago, it turns out, and Bates—in denial; schizophrenic—periodically “becomes” Mother to reverse her death and assuage loneliness.
Based on the case of Wisconsin farmer and serial killer Ed Gein, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho essays American loneliness, which certain forces compel: rugged individualism as a character goal worthy of especially male pursuit; the suspiciousness, hostility and competitiveness this pursuit fosters; urban impersonality; rural isolation.
Marion steals because she sees no other way of translating her tawdry affair into the respectability of marriage. Bates also is in financial distress, the fortunes of his family enterprise having shifted with the Arizona sands underneath when the main highway, whose traffic the motel once accessed, was moved, banishing the motel to a marginal existence. Sales of hardware should translate into sufficient income for Loomis, but his luck is adrift in the same desert. In the U.S., the unpredictability of survival is peculiarly accompanied by an official insistence that hard work always yields a solvent result and that a contrary outcome is the individual’s fault.
Psycho sharpens its doleful black-and-white vision with wit, as when, from a tightly wound rotation on the murdered woman’s face, the camera, abruptly, appears to float to the stolen money by her motel room bed—a parody of “spirit leaving body” pointing up materialism’s place above spirituality in America’s hierarchy of values.
10. THE ROUND-UP (Miklós Jancsó, Hungary, 1965). Every film exists on a continuum of expression governed by opposite poles of objectivity and subjectivity, documentary, fiction. In Szegénylegények (The Round-up; The Hopeless Ones), the mise-en-scène is objective; the camera, subjective. One presents material; the other interprets it. The film’s creator, Miklós Jancsó, is, like Chabrol and Eisenstein, a master formalist. Viewers breathe according to his shots and their tempo. He is also a minimalist.
Szegénylegények is about state terrorism. In 1848 Hungary tried unsuccessfully to overturn Austrian rule. The failed revolution—echoing the crushed 1956 anti-Communist revolution—plunged the country into residual turmoil as guerrillas kept up the cause. In 1868 Austria concentrated into a stockade captured rebels and anyone else they suspected of supporting a free Hungary. Outside the camp, farmers were encouraged to denounce neighbors. Those officiating at the camp go about their business grimly, sometimes even remorsefully.
In a harrowing passage, peasant women will be made examples of in an open field. The women flee, but mounted soldiers take off after them, into the background of the frame. The next shot returns us to the compound, where the women undress. Two rows of soldiers face one another. The first woman is made to run back and forth four times between the two rows of soldiers. Eight times, therefore, the soldiers’ whips strike the woman’s back. In outrage and sympathy, male prisoners drop to their deaths from the roof of the compound, aborting the procedure below.
Jancsó is an ironist as well as a formalist. Having been rounded up, Hungarian rebels are interrogated, tortured, killed, all of which is recorded by an intricately choreographed camera whose fluent, relentless trackings and backtrackings thread an impartial noose around oppressed and oppressors alike—those, unaware, who share small breathing space in history’s tightening grip.
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