My Favourite Film Number 4

This is part of my effort to write about my 100 favorite films in two pages or less. This one is still in it's rough stages.

The Last Of The Mohicans
by Michael Mann

In order for one to understand my love for this film, one must know the role it has played in my life. My childhood had a very definite incidental soundtrack; my parents loved music and movies more than anything else I can think of. Along with the music of Richard Thompson, R.E.M., and Talking Heads, there were films that both my mom and dad loved enough to watch regularly. The film that enthralled me most of these white noise pictures was Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans. As a child it was easy to understand why I loved it: the sound of cannons and muskets firing, that visceral score, swordsmen on horseback, chaotic atmosphere, intense fighting with knives and hatchets, what’s not to love? As I got older and began to remember the film, I felt I probably had an incomplete picture as I don’t think I had ever sat down and watched it all the way through. When I finally took the time to view our battered VHS copy, I was amazed there was so much I had missed. It took a few years to appreciate the nature of the romantic direction it takes, the criticism of the colonial mindset, and that the reason I loved watching every second was because of the unbelievably gorgeous cinematography, but I did know that this film was going to last forever because at its core was unbridled passion the likes of which I’d never encountered before and have rarely seen since.

The plot, though idiosyncratic to boot, might be the most satisfying love story ever filmed. In the forests of an America caught in the midst of the French Indian War, a white man raised by Mohawk Indians and the daughter of a Scottish general fighting the French meet by chance. When the English regiment assigned to protect the woman, Cora Munroe and her sister on their way to their father’s garrison, they are ambushed by a Huron war party. The man, Hawkeye (Nathaniel by birth), his adopted father and brother come to their rescue and escort the sisters and Cora’s inept suitor Duncan to the fort. Nathaniel and Cora do not understand each other, and are at odds for a time due to their differences. When they see that perhaps they are not so different, they begin to fall in love, unfortunately this happens to coincide with Nathaniel’s decision to lead the colonial militia stationed at Munroe’s fort to leave the fort to check on their families (the Huron war party has evidently been busy). Nathaniel is nearly hanged for conspiracy to aid sedition, but a brief truce with the French leads the English army out of the fort and into the arms of the waiting Huron. It seems their leader, Magua, has a blood feud with Munroe and wishes to see both the man and his two daughters killed. This proves to be a greater obstacle than British shackles for Nathaniel, who must rescue Cora after she is taken north to the Huron land by force, but it is also the single greatest display of love ever filmed.

As a kid, I got that this movie was different from most others; I returned to this before I re-watched many of the movies intended for my age group. I know that this is due mostly to my love of the film’s soundtrack. Trevor Jones’s half of the score sounds like the musical equivalent of thunder and makes everything on screen ten thousand times as urgent and romantic. It was because of the music that I understood that though the violence is what attracted me to the film, it is the boundless love between the heroes that makes this film transcendent of its time and constraints. The movie is powerful enough, for example, to leave its weak source materials behind (which include James Fennimore Cooper’s unwieldy novel and the 1936 movie starring Randolph Scott). This is a movie that benefited from the time of its conception as much as it did the people who crafted it. There are the two composers (Randy Edelman was brought on due to time constraints to score lighter sections of the film, the standout being the scene in which a courier is dispatched from the fort), Jones’ music being some of the greatest ever written for a film (the source of his recurring theme was a Celtic traditional). The two greatest scenes of the film (Hawkeye’s race across the battlefield to rescue Cora, and the final clash between the Mohicans and Hurons) would be flat were it not for Jones’ compositions. His music is so important because so much goes unspoken. Michael Mann and co-writer Christopher Crowe were smart enough to leave much of the feelings (the resentments especially) silent so that the resolution of these conflicts could be simple and effective. When Magua murders his enemy, he makes a point of telling him why; when he fights with Chingachgook, Hawkeye’s father, they have no need for words. When Hawkeye and Cora first kiss passionately to Jones’s swooning strings, they don’t utter so much as a word. Mann knows that words aren’t always good enough, nor are they always necessary.

Who better to capture the urgency and passion of a man who discovers how much he will do for love than Daniel Day-Lewis. He may have spent 8 months in the woods learning how to run and fire a musket at the same time, but what makes his performance is the fire in his eyes when Cora is in danger. Today’s stable of leading men simply pale in comparison to Day-Lewis, who is at much at home throwing a knife as he is madly declaring his love with what little language his Hawkeye knows. Because we love the character, because we wish him to succeed, we suspend our disbelief. Could three men continually outfight entire regiments of armed soldiers? When the outcome is so pleasing, it’s hard to answer truthfully. With the music pounding, the brilliantly choreographed battle raging in the background, and the heroine in danger, belief is happily given over to the beauty of the film. Michael Mann has always been a master of building tension, and here he shows the simplest way to achieve it; two lovers are apart, one is in danger, the other starts running and will not stop.

Dante Spinotti may not have a lot of other work to his name, but he more than earns his place among the world’s greatest cinematographers here. Spinotti succeeds in making the woods and water that surround the characters as beautiful as the story itself. In a film about an America untainted by capitalism or the age of industry, he shows just how flawlessly and effortlessly gorgeous the natural world is. His footage of the North Carolina woodlands is stunning and has few rivals. While Mann’s compositions are doing their part, it’s the fathomless color of an endless world that captures the eye. From the opening pursuit of a buck, where every flash of moving bodies swims in a chasm of glorious, untouched scenery. The surroundings lose much of their charm when the greedy English occupy the frame (in one striking example, a perfectly composed shot of a bridge and its reflection on the pond below is slowly crossed by horse-drawn carriages). When the soldiers transporting Cora and her sister are ambushed, the scene is dark, dusty, and surrounded by dying foliage. The makeshift road is a pale brown and the forest is enshrouded in gun smoke and the red from uniforms and blood (as in the mesmerizing clash between the Hurons and the English refugees). When Nathaniel and his family take charge and lead the three survivors to Munroe’s fort, they immediately happen upon a small river framed in a rock bed. Between the deep green of the forest that extends for miles around, and the pristine water and stone, it is perfection. The lesson that Cora learns by falling in love with Hawkeye, that one must abandon material foibles and the petty English gentrification of the land, is one that Spinotti’s camera has already taught the audience subconsciously. This is a film that not only celebrates the love between two disparate people, but also declares its love for the land like fire from a cannon.

My Favourite Film Number 3

This is part of my effort to write about my 100 favorite films in two pages or less. This one is still in it's rough stages.

Night of the Living Dead
by George A. Romero

Though his body of work is small and uneven, George A. Romero has done more to influence trends in independent cinema than John Cassavetes. Entire production houses have been built on love for Romero’s movies; their homages, no matter how carefully considered, are never as satisfying as the real thing. Much of horror cinema can be traced back to a cemetery in Butler County, PA. George A. Romero wasn’t a film student, he was just a kid who loved films. He used to rent reels of films so he could watch films like Tales Of Hoffmann in his grandparents house in New York City where he lived at the time. He spent his youth consuming movies and at his earliest possible opportunity, gave back to the world he loved so much. Initially hanging out at editing labs, he quickly became head of a Pittsburgh production house and started directing commercials. It was when he and a few friends each contributed six hundred dollars and long hours of their time that history was forever changed.

A shy woman named Barbra and her obnoxious brother Johnny arrive at a cemetery in the middle of the nowhere to plant a wreath on their father’s grave. They argue, wonder about the dead radio reception, pray, and then a man in a suit assaults Barbra and murders Johnny with his bare hands. Barbra runs and the man chases her all the way to an empty farmhouse next to a gas pump. She locks the doors, but the man is outside, and soon more men just like him show up. No American film had ever thrust its audience so deeply into harm’s way. The man is dead, the woman is catatonic and alone, danger has nothing preventing its entry into the house to make short work of her. Audiences must have experienced the ultimate double-take when the hero finally shows up and he is a handsome, strong black man. Duane Jones, the best actor Romero was acquainted with at the time, gives the performance of a lifetime as Ben, the resilient, forward thinking brains and brawns in the small house of survivors. The monologue he delivers about wanting to drive his truck into the group of the living dead is pitch-perfect. Next to the bitter Mr. Cooper, the biting Mrs. Cooper, the invalid Karen, the slow-witted Judy, the well-meaning dope Tom, and vegetative Barbra, Ben is the only protagonist worthy of the name. He is the most levelheaded, the most reasonable, and yet it is his actions that lead to everyone’s demise. And even when the story seems to have brought us out of the fire with the arrival of local law enforcement, Romero has one last cruel ace up his sleeve.

This film was the start of not just Romero’s life as a director, but of his career as a maker of existential horror films. His movies present heroes with more than just the movie monsters they by definition have to fight. The real threat is in the oppressive air that surrounds the characters at all times, the feeling of utter helplessness. In all of his horror films the real reason to be frightened isn’t necessarily because of the ghastliness of the zombies, vampires, or killer, but because that thing has invaded your well-being and done all it can to erase it. In Night we are shown immediately what this is like when Barbra’s brother is killed in front of her very eyes and the man who does it just has time to wipe his mouth before he starts in on her. Ben’s troubles really start when the cowardly Mr. Cooper comes up from the basement and begins acting unreasonable apropos of nothing. He ends doing battle more seriously with Cooper than the ghouls who wait patiently for them to self-destruct.

This being a horror film, it is the horrific elements, not the well-crafted characterizations, that it is remembered for, and this film became infamous for one scene. After reports on television advise all survivors to head to rescue stations, Ben, Tom, and Judy try to fuel up Ben’s truck. When things go awry and the truck goes up in flames, the undead hoards partake of the newly barbecued lovers in what is cinema’s most important gore scene. Thanks to black and white cinematography, real meat, and the impassive looks on the zombie extras faces, a macabre scene was achieved that was wholly original at that point in history. This scene was what put the film into production limbo; it’s the reason that it can be found in every dime horror bin across the country, why there are legions of zombie film fans all over the world, and why I want to make movies.

There are a few titles that will always spring to mind when horror movies as a genre are brought up in conversation; George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead will always be one of those names. The images of crowds of the undead roaming about and eating flesh are unforgettable and have been copied more times than can be easily counted (even if they were borrowed from lesser known films from a few years earlier). This was also effectively the catalyst of the "cabin in the woods" genre. Even if you’ve never seen Night of the Living Dead, you know it by reputation; it is one of ‘those’ films, the ones with unspeakable things that are never elaborated on in polite conversation. These are the films I spent my youth searching for; these are the films I plan to make someday. It was Romero’s drive that most influenced my decision to make movies. He had no permit, he had no money, the only thing he had was ambition and friends.

The acting, cinematography, music, and editing are all solid considering the budgetary restraints. Compare Duane Jones' or Judith O’Dea’s performance to those of the leads in any Jack Hill or Roger Corman movie and a few things become clear. The first is that Romero’s family was incredibly supportive and functional. The second is that Romero was capable of working with people in ways that maybe only John Cassavetes understood as well. His movies would not seem quite so scary were it not for the actor’s capability of showing how far from comfort they have fallen. Cooper acts out of concern for his pride, but he also has a family to worry about. When he and Ben clash, sympathy initially falls in Ben’s court, but then consider that Cooper’s actions are understandable given the extreme circumstances. He is pig-headed and loud, but he isn’t the villain the black-and-white filmic code of ethics paints him as subconsciously. He seems the villain because a film needs a villain and the zombies just don’t cut it for the entire second act.

Since Night of the Living Dead had no producers with expectations, it could do whatever it pleased and the existential nightmare world it creates is really just the beginning. On top of its casting and gore scenes, there is that ending; it defies all expectations, all standards of decency. Just after Barbra is carried away to certain death by her zombie brother, Karen, the little girl, dies, only to be revived as one of the undead, and then she murders her mother with a jagged trough. Things like this just weren’t done in films but Romero pulled no punches. This was the end of the world like no one had ever shown it: brutal, dark, and terrifying. No other filmmaker in the world had been as bold as George Romero, and rarely has anyone taken the chances he took. When he finished editing the film, Romero through the reel into the back of a truck and drove around looking for some place to screen it. Courage and vision drove this man to his destiny, and I can only hope that I can be allowed to make films of my own and continue telling the world about George Romero and his legacy.


The Congregation played last Saturday and we covered an Echo & The Bunnymen tune. This isn't the one, but this music video is doing things for me.