Ramblin' 'bout Amblin: Jaws

Fox Its release was a watershed moment in motion picture history. In 1975 Steven Spielberg was a relatively unknown filmmaker. He was 26 and had one theatrically released feature film under his belt, the neo-noir The Sugarland Express. Dick Richards, who'd just put out his own debut The Culpepper Cattle Co. had slotted Jaws to be his second film but the producers dropped him for Spielberg.

I think they chose correctly.

Jaws became the first summer blockbuster in history and it's a bit of downward spiral from there as far as popular American film is concerned.

I've seen this film plenty of times but only in this most recent watch did I take a hard look at it for Spielberg's touch. And even so early on in his career he'd developed some of the key traits we associate with his shooting style. The full dolly pushes forward on characters at moments of revelation, really realistic performances despite the fact that Jaws is essentially a monster movie, and, probably the oddest touch for me, an overwhelmingly classical view towards the 
titular man-eating shark. Robert Shaw's Quint rapidly becomes Captain Ahab but at no point in the film does the viewer worry about Brody or Hooper's exposure to the man. Instead we're treated to a lot of laughter and camaraderie, accompanied by John William's oddly upbeat score as they chase harpoon-led barrels around the Atlantic.

Two main things stood out to me on this most recent viewing: John William's score and the narrative's focus. Williams is arguably the greatest film composer of all time. Almost every single theme known by the masses belongs to the man and Jaws is the birth of the legend. Many times I've heard anecdotes about how Spielberg laughed with incredulity at William's when he came to him with the theme to Jaws. "That's it?" was Spielberg's reply. Whether it's true or not is beside my point though. What got me about the score on this viewing was how jovial it is. Most of the film utilizes a really upbeat classical sounding score with very lively string arrangements. The famous theme makes plenty of appearances but Spielberg uses it the same way he uses his reveals. Most of the time the theme is used instead of the actual shark (Though this is due mostly to the malfunction of the shark prop). The first time you really see the shark is about an hour into the film. Spielberg plays it close to the chest and it makes the film so much better. And that's where the narrative comes in.

Now Spielberg didn't write the screenplay but his love of the novel was what got him into the film in the first place. And it shows.

The film's opening is mighty famous. Skinny-dipping teenager gets eaten by an unseen monster. With horror we watch as this girl gets dragged every which way through the water as her too-drunk partner passes out on land and can't possibly help her. The sequence is horrifying, though I couldn't help but laugh. The three minute sequence was definitely shot during at least three different times of day. The quality of light ranges pretty greatly throughout the scene. In fact this kind of error happens quite a bit throughout the film. Hardly an unforgivable mistake but it's interesting to think of films as legendary as Jaws having these kinds of continuity errors. And since I'm thinking of it the best error comes once the final trio are on the Orca late in the film where Roy Scheider is talking and the scene quite literally fades out mid sentence. It'
s hysterical.

What's interesting though is after this initial attack the film goes quiet. We get a really close look at the town on Amity Island and learn quite a bit about its economy and lifestyle. This is where the film shines in my opinion. Because of Spielberg's patience, this thriller's punches end up really packing a wallop. Spielberg makes sure there's real heart in this thing. Whether it be Roy Scheider's sheriff's son being in danger or the mother of one of the shark's victims slapping him in front of the whole town, Spielberg makes sure that at the heart of this film there's a real town with real people in it. This allows for him to not only stave off seeing the shark for so long but also to truly give the film weight that lasts long after people have left the theater.

I'll probably end up having more to say about Jaws when I take a run at Spielberg's earlier work (especially Duel). For now though I'll say that its a great flick and a perfect jumping off point for this project.

Emily D Tucker and I have recently been discussing what makes a good horror movie 'good'. We keep coming back to the same popular opinion that, of course, what makes a horror movie work is for the creator to remember that the film still needs to adhere to the standards of any other movie genre. It must have a fully developed story with equally developed characters; the horror element can’t be expected to carry the film alone. (I’m looking at you, Candyman).

One of my favorite ways that some horror films carry this out is to emphasize a character’s life outside of the main plot. This not only creates a more interesting and three-dimensional character, but also ensures that the character is not simply a vehicle for the plot. The Exorcist, for example, begins by showcasing Regan and her mother under normal circumstances before their new demon friend comes to town. As Regan begins exhibiting signs of trouble, Mom handles it in a realistic way by taking her to various doctors and psychologists, but their lives are not put on hold by Regan’s “illness.” Mom even holds a dinner party for her colleagues during which Regan takes a turn for the worst and pees on the carpet in front of everyone (come on, R, Get it together). By this point, we’re invested, and our understanding of the characters ultimately heightens the eerie sequences that infuse the remainder of the movie.

Jaws handles this technique pretty well. We first meet the main character, Brody (who I’m going to call Danny Tanner for the rest of this review), as he begins his new job as sheriff of a hip beach town. He’s got a cool house, a wife with fabulous hair, and two kids that are surprisingly not annoying. Things are looking up for ol’ Danny Tanner. Just as he's getting his feet wet (!), he and his deputy find a dead body on the shore. In this initial investigation alone, we learn about the main character’s moral code, his logical approach to solving problems and his primary obstacle in solving those problems: the mayor. What we gather about the character here informs our viewing of the rest of the film, as we’re not just watching a shark killing kids or whatever, but a man trying to keep those kids or whatever alive. In subsequent conversations with other characters, like his wife, we see the effect that the shark situation is having on his life. The shark isn’t just a menace, it’s an imposition.  

We have a similar opportunity to get to know Danny Tanner’s entourage, Captain Ahab and Mr. Holland. Captain Ahab, though the most two-dimensional character of the three, has a clear motivation and strong sense of self throughout the film. Mr. Holland, after explaining his reasons for assisting with the hunt (science!), even has to call out of work in order to keep helping Danny Tanner. A small detail like this really lends some realism to a creature feature, particularly after seeing the clearly-rubber shark flopping up and down the boardwalk. 

Parceling out time to explore these characters at the beginning of the film pays off, as it amplifies the suspense of the boat trip in the second half of the film. This would be the most boring movie ever if we didn’t care about or understand the characters, regardless of the fantastic boat attack during the climax. This part of the film is pretty much just a war monologue, a weird fade, and a lot of waiting – risky, but it works.

Though I’m not in love with this movie overall, I certainly respect and appreciate its storytelling ability. The main thing I want a movie to do is get me to care about what it’s telling me, which Jaws actually did. Although I could have used at least one urination scene. Maybe next time, Spielberg

Next up:

Ramblin' 'bout Amblin

I grew up with Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment was a literal household name. But I didn't grow up like so many others on Raiders of the Lost Ark or E.T. No no. I grew up on Jurassic Park. I grew up on Saving Private Ryan. I grew up on Jaws. I grew up on the adult side of Spielberg.

Not that any of Spielberg's work is definitely for adults or children. If anything, he's one of the most all ages film makers to ever get behind a camera. Spielberg is fun and quickly glancing at most of his films, he's safe. Spielberg is the director that every American knows about. He doesn't necessarily make "films". He makes movies. He makes entertainment. There's a reason the word is in his production company's name. Movies like Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan have worked their way into basically every single American moviegoer's hall of fame. Saving Private Ryan blew people away with it's gritty realism and changed the way war films are made (despite the fact that at it's heart it's a western) and Jurassic Park is still the most quotable and recognizable monster movie of the last few decades. And the theme of Jaws is emulated by children so much so that it begs the question: do they even know what its from? But where in the world did this dude come from? The man has made some of the biggest films in history. His career spans four decades and because of that fact he's got an enormous filmography and quite a list of films to tackle if you really want to get in his head.

But you've gotta start somewhere.

So that's what this little project is all about.
My plan is to work my way through Spielberg's works. I want to go chronologically but as I write this I think I'm going to add a sub plan to this. I'll be tackling Spielberg's popular work first. Jaws, Indy, Private Ryan. Then I'll double back and look at the Spielberg no one knows. Films like The Sugarland Express, Amblin', and 1941.

As an addendum to all of this, Emily D will be joining me on this great crusade so you'll be getting two opinions for the price of one. Can't. Go. Wrong.

Wish us luck-

On Texture - 3:10 To Yuma and Wuthering Heights

In conversation about the changing landscape of film, critic and curator Mark Polizotti and I were both stumped for a moment about whether there was a word that was an antonym for luddite. We couldn't figure it out and frankly I don't think we want to know. We like old things. That said, even we have limits. New modes and methods of filmmaking don't invalidate antiquated ones, they simply section them off, to be appraised on different terms. This is just what needs to happen or we'd go insane with reconciliation (or separation). So whenever someone tells me anything along the lines of "They don't make 'em like they used to" I can't help rolling my eyes slightly because the rules change every few years. And thank god they do. Otherwise film would never evolve, and storytelling would dry. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Filmmakers will not settle for telling the same story the same way so they invent new grammar. And so film stays one step ahead of stasis at all times. Which brings me to my other pet peeve: when someone tells me that TV is getting right what film cannot; what Glenn Kenny calls the "TV Is Better Than Tarkovsky" argument. People who think this aren't watching films; they're watching what's down the road at the gigantic mostly digital multiplex. They pay to see Pirates of Caribbean sequels and what passes for romantic comedy these days. They don't know what modern film looks like because they don't care enough to go looking. It's hard and I don't blame everyone who can't seek out the new Kore-eda, but it just means any argument against cinema's current power is moot. And even when something great happens to hits the mainstream, they often don't know what they've got. Andrew Stanton's John Carter is the most recent example, but there are others. Films that take the best of the old and mix it with the knowledge we've gained since about how to capture modern life in textures. More than that, though, it's often a matter of time and space. 
I'm perhaps overly fond of tackling the phrase "They don't make 'em like they used to" in some form or other. Or anyway extrapolating what exactly it means. But to me, these days, it's so important to discern what made films of comparable budget and ambition from ten years ago age so much better than the films we get today. Compare the remake of Red Dawn to its source. Whatever their respective faults (and the new film is made up exclusively of faults), the biggest difference is that you believed in the time the characters spent on their own in the first film. You believed they might have spent that time training in the woods and becoming pissed off and determined. I might not have liked anyone in that film, but by sheer force of John Milius making me spend time with them, I had to respect them a little bit, and I did start to care when they dropped. Even if the remake hadn't made such a spectacular hash of the script and the editing, I wouldn't have cared about anyone because the film makes no attempt to get to know them. It talks in shorthand. Most modern genre romps do. You've seen these characters before and the writers didn't bother giving them anything close to a third dimension so why waste everyone's time? There's nothing to get to know. It's never been more clear that these are actors playing parts. It doesn't help that the industry is as transparent as it is. Choices are broadcast years before they're made. Soon we're just waiting out the clock. Sometimes I miss not knowing shit about how films got made. It made the appearance of James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma seem akin to the first time you celebrate Christmas. 

The trailer for 3:10 was a good indication that this film'd be the best sort of throwback. You knew exactly what needed to happen but almost nothing about what would. I was blown away by its pace, its grip on character and the confidence with which it carries off its best setpieces. I bought everything that James Mangold showed me. It was the best conventional entertainment I saw that year and I still rank it next to the best films of 2007, including other (revisionist) westerns like Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. A few months later I watched the original (my viewing of offbeat classics was limited to whatever TCM was showing) and despite Robert Osborne's faith in the power of the original, especially where the divergence in their endings was concerned, I couldn't help feeling like there was a third of that movie missing. Mangold and his coterie of screenwriters evidently went back to Elmore Leonard's source novel and put the muscle back in. In the Delmer Daves-helmed original, Outlaw Ben Wade is caught, the posse assembled, then suddenly they're in Contention City waiting out the train. In Mangold's version, the journey to Contention takes up most of the film. I realize it's perhaps unfair to compare a film to a later version that didn't exist at the time of its creation, and perhaps the times dictated a truncated form, but once they'd taken the story out of the film, I couldn't help finding every decision lacking. The black and white cinematography suddenly seemed to do no justice to the details around them; I understand it's meant to underscore the psychological underpinnings of the story, but I found them rather poorly thought out as well. It was a film of the barest essentials, and because I'd seen what you could do with the slightest detail in a film of this story the bare minimum would never do. 

Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma has become a touchstone for how to handle both drama and genre in the modern era. Mangold's clearly learned the most lessons from the new Hollywooders who turned the western inside out in the first place, and made solid genre fare like 3:10 obsolete in the first place. He's much more in the mold of Hal Ashby, Sam Peckinpah or a young Michael Cimino than Daves, Anthony Mann or John Ford. This means he's got a better idea how to frame characters for action setpieces, but also appreciates the old school way of centering a western around a basic idea and a goal rather than a broiling ideology. The casting has little to do with craft, per se, but every choice is perfect and fits in with the 70s ethos of every interesting face you can get your hands on. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale's faces, for instance, have never been put to better use. After years of Crowe appearing in films that don't know how best to utilize him, seeing him used so well here as an evil but slick cad again was a welcome joy. And Bale playing put upon and nervous, especially in contrast to his more famous roles, is a never-ending delight. Alan Tudyk, Dallas Roberts, Peter Fonda and Kevin Durand are the sort of people who can tell their own stories through diction and their eyebrows, so naturally they make the most out of bit parts. Peter Fonda's always likeable, but Mangold lets him essentially prop the film up during his scenes, so beautifully played is his pinkerton agent. He and Crowe have nothing to be proud of, particularly, both prolific killers, but their difference in attitude makes for compelling dissonance, even as you're aware that Fonda will ultimately not be the man Crowe will be played against in the long term. The real coup though is Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, the role he deservedly made his name on. I had to look up who played Charlie Prince in the original because I couldn't for the life of me who it was. Foster's Prince is the reason the end of the film works. Crowe's Ben Wade may side with Bale's rancher Dan Evans for the time being, but his sins are just around every corner in the form of Prince. Foster doesn't speak much, but he makes every line a crucial window into the whys of the lengths he'll go to rescue Wade from bondage. When Wade appears to refuse to lie down and be rescued, the panic that creeps into Foster's high-pitched croak is heartbreaking. Their bond could suddenly be anything from childhood friends to lovers. Prince's dedication to Wade is never put into question, nor is he ever played as sadistic, so much as pitiable because Wade doesn't return the feeling. Again, Foster is not even the third tier lead. This much work goes into a character who practically didn't exist in the original. Just look at the costumes. You know everything you need to about Wade by looking at the difference between his hat, or more obviously his guns, and everyone else's. It's this commitment and shading that makes Mangold's film stay in mind, almost frame for frame, yet remain galvanizing. All I remember about Daves original is feeling that the ending was a mammoth psychological copout that made the preceding hour and a half feel wasted. 

Mangold's biggest and best choice was to put space around the dialogue or action in any given scene, you get the feeling of living in the space waiting for the event, familiar with the dynamic of the people and place, rather than simply cutting to the neccesary dialogue or action. We spend an awful lot of time with Bale and Crowe in this movie, and it's all important in getting a sense of the film's ever-shifting power dynamic, and the film's central idea: do you act because you know someone's watching you, or because it's the right thing to do? I first noticed how well the film was paced in the scene where Tudyk's jumpy veterinarian shoots into the hills when he thinks he sees something. It shows the group dynamic in their response to the disturbance, but it also allows us insight into Crowe's character. He uses the disruption to sneak something by his captors, but then Mangold lets him go further and intimidate Mrs. Evans while no one's around to watch him. This is the heart of Wade's character; anything to have the edge on whoever he's with. Later a scene ends with a fade from the image of Crowe's twitching eye in anger to the men asleep by the campfire before a horrific incident. He sets up the circumstances, takes us a short distance later, then blindsides us by showing the immediate consequences in the most brutal and overwhelming fashion imaginable. The scene then stretches long after they've discovered the crime, dealt with the criminal, and clearly had a long second to think about what it means for them. The tone is set for the next time something like this happens, but he surprises by springing it in the middle of a scene, a lengthy dialogue scene with many reversals, instead of between them. And then splendidly, Mangold stages the next reversal and scene change on a close-up of Crowe's face that he holds for the entirety of the scene, cutting occasionally to Bale's reaction in a reverse.  Staying on his actor's faces, he allows them the fullest range of expression in a given scene, and lets you in on their interior in a way their constantly warring sentiments and bluffs don't always allow. Look at Bale's face when Crowe tries to talk him into one final bribe. It's genius; the sort of conflicted inner life Bale made his name on. Trying to talk himself and his captive into believing he's as strong morally as he is physically. Believing him isn't easy, and downright heartbreaking. And we get to live in these scenes, understand the way people move and talk and why, and get to know everyone, especially the characters who appear one-note from their introduction. He cares about people who half-lives written into their job descriptions. 

To backtrack slightly, what made me want to revisit 3:10 to Yuma was watching William Wyler's first major adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Deja Vu struck fiercely watching Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon attempt to both thesp it up and play things wild and loose on the moors. That approach to the story just played so fundamentally wrong and it occurred to me that American moviegoing audiences wouldn't have put up with the adaptation the book requires, which is why Buñuel had more luck with his adaptation, Far away from our expectations. He also took a much more conservative view of the importance of some of the book, much the same way Daves chopped up the Leonard. This is crucial because to date the best and most interesting adaptation performs a similar surgery on the text, but it's about removing the moments that feel superfluous or artificial to the milieu. What remains is all that director Andrea Arnold thought neccesary to tell the story the best way possible. It's been told before, dozens of times, so why tell it the same way? Why not be truthful to the times it's set in? Arnold thus tells the story that is most in keeping with the spirit of the novel by not simply repeating the prose or dialogue that makes the novel what it is. It's simply cinematic language. It confronts your eyes and whips against your skin. It's far more articulate than either of its downtrodden heroes, as Arnold and co-scenarist Olivia Hetreed remove most of their dialogue without sacrificing their interior life. Their passion and frustration is far more vivid when they can't put into words what they want to say most in the world. Wuthering Heights has never made this much sense before and few films were as haunting or affecting last year. 

3:10 and Wuthering Heights both get a lot of mileage out of their decisions to linger on details forgotten or ignored by their predecessors. Letting Ben Wade caress a barmaid off screen or showing the fingers of Cathy and Heathcliff digging in mud and rubbing it in their hair puts you a step further into the world of their source novels by making their pleasures and textures tangible. By copping out on the ending, the original 3:10 misses that haunting, unforgettable sound of the train's engine idling while the myth of the west is deflated and somehow simultaneously celebrated in front of our eyes. But of course the nagging question is whether their creators would have known or thought to include these details if they didn't have titanic precedents to kick against. Would Mangold have bothered to make his film so rich in detail (right down to the color photography gorgeously realizing the meticulous production design) if he weren't out to correct the flimsiness of Delmer Daves' original? Crowe's complex take on Wade feels in direct response to Glenn Ford's smirking certitude, and Evans going out of his way to explain to Wade that he isn't stubborn feels like dialogue written to correct Van Heflin's typically cracked heroism. Would it have occurred to tell Wuthering Heights as essentially a story made entirely of incident, of wind and mud meeting cloth and skin, and a few choice words from the book if Wyler and Olivier hadn't made everything so fucking obvious? Olivier's ham performance as Heathcliff will now always make me cringe contrasted with the furious naturalism of James Howson. But do I owe the one to the other? It may be true that no one's making films like Wyler and Daves anymore, but in some cases, it's a good thing we've evolved and can tell these stories the way they're supposed to be told.

White Epilipesy and the 21st Century Problem

Leos Carax was back in New York not only ago, in discussion with Richard Brody about his movies. If anyone can offer an atmosphere condusive to Carax's interview phobia it's Brody. Both men appear to be on the same wavelength, defined by a reverence for cinema unrivaled by most. Across town at Lincoln Center a few days prior Carax's evil twin Philippe Grandrieux was in town with a new experiment to lay on our unprepared brains. I've written before that I think that Grandrieux is the best filmmaker alive; his last four features standing as testament not only to his unique powers as a director, but the very boundaries of cinema and a cinematic experience. Since the start of his feature filmmaking career, his work has just gotten stranger and more beautiful. He's slowly evaporated his narratives, turning them more and more elemental and bare; just enough to get from one end of a sensory journey to the other.  His latest and second in the span of a year is his aesthetic purified of all narrative. The beguiling White Epilepsy has no plot to speak of. It's a straight-up experiment and thus doesn't fit so neatly in his ouevre. His previous work, the documentary Perhaps Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve - Masao Adachi was very clearly his work, even if it told someone else's story. No one else sees the world the way he does. And as he now always holds the camera himself he is presenting a view of the world that is as close to how he sees things/how his brain translates the relationship people have to their environment as possible. The world may not appear as washed out mini-dv with high grain and contrast, but I have no doubt that this is what his brain makes of it. His films seem projected from the very recesses of his sensory perception. If it fails, as it has to many, it's because there is no reprieve from his vision this time out. No story of character to comfort a viewer adrift in this hopeless, dark landscape of primal instincts. I can't say I enjoyed this as much as his other work (it stands just above his debut doc Retour à Sarajevo, another journey with no parameters), but I wager few other films will occupy my mind the way this does.

It's purely an immersion, after your eyes, ears and unconscious mind. It doesn't go for the tactile the way Tom Tykwer might, or touch, smell and taste like only Cate Shortland can seem to. It's about presenting visions that seem to want you to look away. The motion of the bodies on display, already deliberate before being slowed in post, is there to play games with your perception of what's really in front of you. Their shapes merge like optical illusions. Strange designs and patterns appear in their skin as if drawn on by computers. Their fists seem to seamlessly penetrate their skin as if merging into the same form. But is any of that imagined shapeshifting real? Can't be, right? Grandrieux doesn't use digital post. Or anyway, he hasn't in the past. There's something pure about his vision (an acceptable purity I associate with Tsai Ming-Liang) that precludes the thought or even the notion that he'd fuck around with green screens. He tricks you the hard way, by simply showing you images, faces and bodies in the most extreme conditions imaginable. He shows them in forms so abject and close-up, they're barely recognizable. And he's playing the same game here, so it doesn't seem right that he'd deliberately write something in the veins of his actors. Not when they've gone so far into character; they've committed to their very bones. Yet it also seems wrong that I saw his female performer's navel appear to invert before my very eyes, but the image below confirms that I didn't imagine it. But is it real simply because it's there? As a work of hypnosis, something akin to Nolan's shared dreaming or the audience gathering to sleep in the opening moments of Carax's Holy Motors, it works splendidly. Indeed my perception of the film has shifted so much since watching it that I feel as though it put a spell on me and the effects still linger. Manoel De Oliveira and Alain Resnais produce this same effect, especially in their latest works, Gebo and the Shadow and You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, which tellingly do manipulate their environs through digital effects. Their characters and spaces are frequently unflinching, forcing our brains to move them and see more in them. But I believe they encourage viewers to drift off, to sleep and let dreams enter the equation. My girlfriend and I both nodded off for a brief second during Gebo, which only intensified the experience, and allowed us to leave the confines of the set and into the unreal world outside that Oliveira created. One of my greatest cinematic memories is of seeing Resnais' tricksy epic Stavisky at the Harvard Film Archive, a place I have the fondest memories of (I saw the bulk of Grandrieux's films there). My friend Laura and I went on a frigid night in January and as Resnais began holding up more and more mirrors to the story and its characters, beautiful streams of information flying all around us, we both drifted off and began dreaming along with the movie. We both woke up a few minutes later. It was more like communion than a simple viewing. It's more than a film and more than a dream. I fell asleep during my first viewing of David Lynch's sublime, final film Inland Empire, and upon awakening couldn't determine what was real and what was in my head. I can't help thinking this would please the man. It felt like tapping into the film's dreams. Takashi Miike says his favourite films are often the ones that put you to sleep. I think he's got something there. What are films but dreams we're awake for? Awake in the dark, as Roger Ebert put it.

The devilish thing about film now in the hands of masters like Resnais and Oliveira is that they've had time to consider the change. They put great deals of energy into how to use digital to their advantage, rather than simply adopt it. In their latest films, they go out of their way to prove that environments can become anything through digital manipulation; their landscapes are imaginary, as deep in the brain as memories. In Gebo and the Shadow we see a young man imagined by his family, standing alone in an imagined tableaux. Nothing but the boy is real. Similarly once the characters in You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet begin taking part in the drama they see onscreen, suddenly the world they actually inhabit becomes a green screen-aided studio set where a train can come by at any moment, killing an offscreen character. Anything becomes possible. When we dream, we can suddenly not imagine anything outside the realm of possibility, because they've taken away the safety of the concrete image. Grandrieux and Carax do the same but through rather less obvious means. In Holy Motors, Carax deliberately goes into a green screen studio to pull back the fabric of reality and admit that nothing could be real, but then sticks to the truth of an image he can actually provide. The trickery from then on is all in make-up and practical effects. Carax believes in the image's power, but knows it can be tainted, brings us right to the brink of the uncanny valley showing us its grotesque imitation and abandonment of the reality of the image and then retreats. Cinema and the purity of the image can no longer be trusted and so Carax's brand of cinema (frames so carefully chosen that they burn into your memory, as if your brain were celluloid and silver halide crystals) is now up against the challenges of the 21st century. Anything can be faked, so what's real? What was ever real? Grandrieux, Resnais and Oliveira are all masters at imprinting memories outside of the image in the mind of their viewers. They confront the 21st century problem by figuring out ways to say more than can be written. Is White Epilepsy really as simple as I recall the experience being? Or is it a devastating treatise on the conflicting instincts of the body vs the mind's search for order? It's probably both and if success is measured in what we make of the piece after it's done, it should be called one, even if I have no aching desire to rewatch and better understand the thing anytime soon, a first since Sarajevo.

 Weirdly, the film that I couldn't help thinking of a sort of analog, at least presentationally, was Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the sort of thing Carax so eloquently dismisses in Holy Motors. The facts of their creation: The Hobbit was shot in 3D at an unprecedented 48 Frames per second, a most unusual and supposedly groundbreaking format. White Epilepsy is shot in the same kind of lowlight that 3D unintentionally produces and in the slender frame usually associated with videos shot on an iPhone. These are two different acceptances of modern technology. The Hobbit came after an unsuccessful attempt at a new genre and was viewed by most critics and fans of the director's past work (though not necessarily fans of the idea) as a major comedown from the remarkable achievement of the first films in the series. White Epilepsy is a return to the experimental form of its director's three greatest successes after a diversion into documentary, and is seen by many as something of a comedown. The difference is that The Hobbit's changes have zero to do with the skills of its director, and everything to do with how we view them. Peter Jackson shows no overt signs of being a better director because his juggling of elements than when he took on the original Lord of the Rings films, so The Hobbit will play as stagnation to those who expected progress. In fact, to some it was viewed as devolution. By contrast, White Epilepsy is purposefully a devolution from narrative to simply a single event. So it is engineered as a comedown, in essence, even if I'm sure Grandrieux didn't make Epilepsy to be compared unfavourably to his other films, he was also very clearly following his mind to a place where his entire toolkit as a director was not needed or entirely welcome. The question that most interests me most now: which of these artists was taking the greater risk?

100 Favourite Films - A freehand exercise

They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? is a truly fab resource for the great canon of great cinema, in its many forms. I was perusing their 1000 greatest films list last night (they recently revamped their site and it is gorgeous) and was inspired to try something, to write down my list of 100 favourite films without consulting any of my enormous lists or previous writing and see what I came up with. Next year I plan on doing the same thing and seeing how my list changes and what it says about the things I look for in an experience with a film. So here's edition 1. 

1. Sweet Movie

2. If....
3. Lawrence of Arabia
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
5. A Lake
6. Apocalypse Now Redux
7. Mon Oncle
8. North By Northwest
9. L'Avventura
10. The Red Shoes
11. Ivan's Childhood
12. Dawn of the Dead
13. L'argent
14. 2001: A Space Odyssey
15. Youth of the Beast
16. Days of Heaven
17. Black Narcissus
19. The Kiss of Her Flesh
20. Cat People
21. I Fidanzati
22. The Red & The White
23. Children of Men
24. Blow-Up
25. Let The Right One In
26. Eichi Kudo's Samurai Revolution Trilogy
27. Miracle Of Morgan's Creek
28. The Wages of Fear
29. Rules of the Game
30. Beauty & The Beast
31. Murderous Maids
32. Fists In The Pocket
33. The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue
34. White Material
35. Cries & Whispers
36. The Royal Tenenbaums
37. Pola X
38. The Hudsucker Proxy
39. The Lady From Shanghai
40. The Night Of The Hunter
41. The Sword of Doom
42. Woman In The Dunes
43. Seven Samurai
44. Hannah & Her Sisters
45. Blue Velvet
46. L'Eclisse
47. The Conformist
48. Trouble In Paradise
49. M. Hulot's Holiday
50. Before The Revolution
51. Targets
52. Juliet of the Spirits
53. The Wild Bunch
54. The Last Picture Show
55. 13 Assassins
56. Brief Encounter
57. The Long Day Closes
58. The New World
59. The Devil, Probably
60. Pierrot Le Fou
61. All That Heaven Allows
62. The Thing
63. Kiss Me Deadly
64. Point Blank
65. Fat City
66. Unsere Afrikareise
67. Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia
68. The Last of the Mohicans
69. Man Without A Map
70. Alien
71. Le Cercle Rouge
72. Down By Law
73. Repulsion
74. Mademoiselle
75. McCabe & Mrs. Miller
76. Vampyr
77. Notorious
78. Pulp Fiction
79. The Devils
80. The Double Life of Veronique
81. La Dolce Vita
82. The Brood
83. Metropolis
84. There Will Be Blood
85. Le Bonheur
86. Lancelot du Lac
87. Contempt
88. Killer of Sheep
89. I Walked With A Zombie
90. Pandora & The Flying Dutchman
91. Inferno
92. Who Can Kill a Child?
93. Wallace and Gromit in A Close Shave
94. Onibaba
95. À Nous la Liberté
96. Betty Blue
97. Near Dark
98. The Exorcist
99. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
100. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford