Is optimisery the opposite of grumptimism? Who cares.
A reader of this blog complained that the last post about these endless shitty ‘100 best films’ lists lazily tossed at us by third-rate media whores was too negative. So in the name of being positive, here is mine…
Well, not quite. About 5 years ago, a friend in the US challenged me to write about 10 films I was passionate about. I think that has far more validity than ‘BEST FILMS’, it gives someone a chance to explore their personal relationship to a film and what it has meant to them rather than trying to work out how it is ‘better’ than other films.
5 years has passed since I wrote the following and I’d probably swap a couple of the films out now but generally it’s still accurate. So for delicate souls forced to read my evil blog, here is something nice….
10 FILMS I’M PASSIONATE ABOUT (in no particular order)
I’m going to start with An American Werewolf in London, which is a film I just keep coming back to and have probably watched at least 3 times a year since I was about 12.
I often use it as an example of how a film doesn’t have to be about lofty concepts or pretentious subject matter to be a well made piece. Everything surrounding it screams ‘schlock’ – the title, the subject matter, the director’s resume (which literally screams ‘schlock!’). I’m not at all surprised people out of a certain demographic haven’t seen it at all and always enjoy the positive reactions from like middle-aged women when I screen it in class.
Its just solid from the bottom to the top here is a writer/director who not only knows what he is trying to say but has found a new way of saying it. At core, its a simple morality tale about heeding warnings and the responsibility you must take for others. At each stage of the film, David – despite being a good guy that you genuinely empathise with – ignores several warnings and others pay the cost.
The tone of this film balances on a knife edge but never waivers it is exactly 50% horror, 50% comedy. The humour is spot-on both in situation and character and the horror is genuinely scary and disturbing. The result is a film that feels very human. It hits a point of reality, we believe in these characters and their relationships with one another. They don’t feel like plot points or werewolf fodder, we’re not waiting for them to be picked off in slasher style. It really doesn’t follow a traditional horror narrative, if anything it plays out like your standard drama. I maintain that the film has more in common with Midnight Express than any werewolf film. Being about a likable guy who broke a well-stated law and has to pay a price so high for it that despite being clearly in the wrong we empathise for him (despite, in this case, the fact that he’s killing people)
Besides this solid base, Landis pushed the boundaries of the genre. Not only did he make a werewolf film that is somewhat cheapened by being described as ‘horror’, he still managed to take that genre’s conventions and raise them up a notch.
the transformation scene. Still one of the greatest effects sequences in cinema, hasn’t aged at all. Still as shocking to me each time. How in a well-lit room, he can go from reading a book to sweating, screaming in agony and then into a complete bone-crunching transformation. Unlike so many other effects sequences, this was not gimmicky at all. Everything served the story. We weren’t wowed by the effects, we felt his pain and, man, it just felt so real.
So many filmmakers want to be innovators. They want to push boundaries and show you stuff you’ve never seen and basically collect kudos and it always seems to be to the detriment of the film – flashy stunts, effects, gore scenes. Its basic nut-flexing and almost always detracts from the narrative or anchors a film down to an era of technology. George Lucas’s entire new trilogy shows this. All too oftenthe story serves the ttechnology we all want to be DaDavidincher – but here is a film which hits amamazingeverisimilitudesp?) because the filmmaker isn’t trying to b some kind of paragon of style. it all serves the story. Suburban transformations, awesome.
Originality and innovation comes when the filmmakers are more concerned with finding effective visual/storytelling methods than appearing to be an original or innovative person.
But I’m making it sound too poncy. I don’t just ‘appreciate’ this film, I fucking enjoy it.
– the banter between jack and David as they walk across the moors in daylight
– that fucking pub ‘you made me MISS’ an, how the tone drops in a heartbeat from hilarity and warmth to cold fucking silence.
– the nervous tension as theylise thththey’reing tot geggetacked by the wolf. real fucking nervous tension, no filmic cliches, then jack gets fucking decimated and he even shoushouts ‘hee’he’sling me’ which gives me shivers everevery time. and David fucking runs away – as we all would.
– frank oz in the hospital
– those fucking dream sequences.
You see, I’m just going through it scene b y scene. its perfect throughout.
For me, 2 scenes hit genius – the first is in the hospital when he is visited by a mutilated Jack, and not in a ‘wooooooooo surreal scary way. His best friend, face ripped open, starts with ‘can I have a piece of toast?’. probably my favourite scene in film history.
Then the scene in the cinema. genius. I cant think of anotherfilm (aalthough I’im sure you can prove me wrong) where at one point the killer is confronted by all of his victims, in various stages of mutilation, who in quite a friendly manner try to ‘blue sky’ the situation and how best David could end the madness.
Perfectly cast with unknowns and British character actors, this film is just watertight. I cant think of any films from my childhood which I have gone on to appreciate more and more on ever more complicated levels. But, yeah, most of all, I just fucking enjoy the shit out of it. Its funny, compelling, scary, fucking awesome.
A Room For Romeo Brass.
This one is just so dear to my heart, if you say the title to me I’ll just be like ‘man…’ and sigh. Here’s the thing; I grew up obsessed with movies, totally obsessed, I’d go to the cinema like three times a week to see whatever came out, I wasn’t at all selective, I’ve seen like every crappy film that was released between 86- 93.
At about 16, I started getting a bit more selective and hunting out better films and had this realisation that I’d seen very few British films, I found Withnail & I, which was great and then jumped headfirst into the films of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. I hated them. Ken Loach is a gritty fucking guy, but it often seemed to be grit for grit’s sake. There was just too much going on politically, they felt like working class propaganda more than good stories (Kes was pretty great nonetheless). Mike Leigh was almost the opposite he seemed to be making these films that served up the working and upper classes on a plate to the middle class to either laugh at or feel sorry for. Just horribly patronising films. And every fucker loved them. Still do. I hate the average Loach/Leigh renter. Again – Leigh is not a bad filmmaker and he’s done some great work (Naked was amazing) but on the whole it felt that through the 80s and 90s Loach and Leigh had a stranglehold over British cinema and everyone was happy with that. They won awards and took the lion’s share of the funding from the government schemes.
The only other stuff coming out of the UK was either east-end gangster films or American-financed films presenting a picture-book country fulfilling all of their aristo stereotypes. I came to this revelation when I saw Three Men and a Little Lady, the second half is in the UK and I remember just being livid that they portrayed the country in this way.
So, that’s the background, since the 60s, the UK just really hadn’t been truthfully represented in cinema. That never sat easily with me. I felt that if you came from any place or background in America, there was probably at least a couple of films which struck true with your life and you could relate to. I never had that. WE never had that, especially if you lived outside of London. Provincial Britain just never got a look in.
Then in ’97 Twenty Four Seven came out and it was this hugely exciting thing for me. Shane Meadows was this really motivated dude from Nottingham who’d played the funding game, done a couple of interesting shorts (one was great, the others kind of were a mess) and scraped the funds together to make a feature. He made all the sophomore mistakes in that he was clearly desperate to make a film that would be received as a real film – so it was shot black and white, messed about with time frame a bit and had an ending that was a bit brutal and overblown within the context of the rest of the film. But it was great, regional accents took centre stage. The cats – were they even actors? if so, they were little provincial workshop actors. the dialogue seemed to be mainly improvised and it was so fucking fresh and vibrant and funny. It was the first British film that wasn’t pandering to stereotypes or hiding an agenda, it was just a story set in Britain. A little British story. So, I loved it and saw it a few times at the cinema, dragging everyone I knew along with me, but in my heart I still knew, despite what it represented to me, it was still a pretty flawed film.
So 2 years later, Meadows kicks us A Room For Romeo Brass. I love it. Firstly, as a filmmaker, he’d found his confidence, the pacing is great and it’s amazingly well filmed. The most dramatic scenes playing out often in single camera long takes without flashy visuals. The drama takes centre stage and it feels all the more real for the distance of the camera.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Its about growing up as a normal kid in suburban England. The choices we make, the mistakes, the fluctuating qualities of friendship. The actual plot follows Romeo Brass, a chubby Nottingham kid and his best mate Knox, who has a bad back. They get into a fight and get helped out by a guy called Morrell in his mid-20’s. He seems a little bit odd but quickly falls into the big brother role. When he gets unhinged, he drives a wedge between Romeo and Knox, playing on his new place in Romeo’s life as a replacement father figure after a confrontation with Romeo’s actual deadbeat father.
Everyone in the film is somehow damaged but its not made explicit, its never really played on, its just understood that everyone is a bit damaged, that’s how life is. The drama doesn’t kick in until the end but it keeps you so engaged just watching the character Morrell. He’s both endearing and terrifying. Like an abused puppy who is fun to play with until he suddenly bites your hand off.
The performances are off the hook, no big names at all (except for a Bob Hoskins cameo), the only recognisable cast member is Frank Harper – maybe the UKS most dependable character actor, always watchable and fantastic. Everyone else, well, it just feels documentary. The 2 kids play off each other fantastically and are clearly improvising and loving it. Morrell was Paddy Considine’s first screen role and really one of the best performances I can think of in British film ever. Like I said, you can’;t take your eyes off him because he alternates between this pathetic but sweet character you can’t help but love and this absolute psychopath who could do anything.
The final scene is perfect. No-one dies, nothing really happens that is technically so huge, but it plays out like real British suburban drama. The threat of having your home and family invaded and uncomfortable stand-offs in the street. Knox’s dad vows to protect his family no matter what and his willingness to die for them even surprises his attacker, and its so amazingly acted.
Morrell: Do you want me to kill you? shall I put a hammer through your fucking skull?
Knox: I don’t know.
Morrell: You Don’t know? Get on your knees, I’m going to get my hammer and smash your fucking skull in.
Knox gets on his knees.
Morrell: He’s fucking doing it! You fucking coward!
Ugh, so good. Like he’s saying ‘I’m going to defend them even though I don’t know how.’
The film kind of slipped under most people’s radar because it wasn’t very flashy or concepty. I don’t even know how it fared for reviews but it means a lot to me because its as close as I’ve ever seen to my childhood on screen. suburban 60s architecture, getting chips on the way home from school, hanging out in the countryside but not really appreciating it. I’m very happy that this film exists and I will always wave the flag for Shane Meadows because as patchy as his films are (I didn’t like Once Upon a Time In The Midlands) he’s really the only guy out there making films that portray our culture as most of us know it.
Defending Your Life
I think quite often in life, as much as you want to retain an appearance of cool sophistication, the comforts you turn to when you’re alone are those which defy kudos but strike a chord somewhere deep in you.
Albert Brooks, man. This guy’s flicks are my comfort viewing. He’s like old baggy sweaters and Sundays on the sofa to me. I don’t drink, but if I did, his films would be my hangover viewing. When I’m tired or stressed, my routine is a long bath, cook a good meal from scratch and stick on an Albert Brooks film.
I’ve always viewed him as kind of a footnote to film culture in the last few decades. Everyone kind of recognises him, from Taxi Driver or his fucking world-class performance in Broadcast News (god, I can watch that film a thousand times but won’t put it on the list cos I’m trying to contain my Brooks worship to this one), I guess he’s most famous now for being the fish in Finding Nemo. A lot of people don’t realise that he’s had a pretty solid career writing/directing and his films really are these little gems that so easily go unnoticed or just don’t look like they’re going to be cool. I wouldn’t feel walking into a video shop hiring any of his flicks.
So what is he and why do I like him? His career, flicks and subject matter resemble closest those of Woody Allen, both writing and directing themselves as the eternally caricatured autobiographical flawed male central character, but he kind of does Woody Allen with a lack of sophistication, education and refinement. That sounds unattractive, right? But he’s like an everyman Woody Allen. What Brooks lacks in pretension, he makes up with in soul. Where Woody Allen’s characters are usually quite cold and cut-off, Brooks is warm and almost pathetically endearing. He narrowly avoids schmaltz but still carries about him the look of a kicked puppy having just made the decision to forgive his abusive owner.
So, through a series of films, the standard brooks character – essentially well-meaning but somewhat arrogant and selfish – finds himself swallowed up by the consequences of one of his own grand, but flawed, ideas. In Real Life, he’s the documentary film-making following a family 24/7 about 30 years before reality TV became a…. reality. In Modern Romance, he decides to prematurely break up his relationship for reasons he can barely rationallise. In Lost In America, he convinces his wife to sell all their assets, buy a Winnebago and spend the rest of their lives seeing America. In Mother, he realises that the reason all his relationships with women have failed is because he’s never surmounted his relationship with his mother, so in his mid-40s, he moves back home. There is a definite formula and its a simple but effective one.
If I’m being honest, I love his films fairly equally but Defending Your Life stands out a bit for me. It was a bit bolder and a bit more of an achievement. It has a lot of heart and, more so than all of his other films, it really is about puncturing the bubble of complacency most people live in.
So, the film pretty much opens with him dying. Its his birthday, his professional life is going well, he has just bought himself a BMW and his colleagues have bought him a bunch of CD’s for him to play on his in-car CD player (a sign of luxury back when this was made). He drops the cd’s, bends down to pick them up, veers across the road and drives straight into a bus. The rest of the movie takes place in Judgment City, a holding station between Earth and the beyond where a judge, under the guidance of counsels for the defense and prosecution, scrutinises events in your life and decides whether you have grown sufficiently to ‘move on’ or if you’ll get reincarnated to try again. This flick follows the abnormally long 9 days of Brooks’s trial. In a world where most trials last just a few days and most people have only needed reincarnation a few times, the more Brooks learns about himself, his life and his chances of ever moving on play to the stubborn neurosis that got him in that position in the first place.
I like the set-up, its an original and captivating story to me. Populated by fun characters and nice touches. Those who work in Judgment City use more of their brains than normal humans and take great delight in watching our funny little ways. Rip Torn as Brooks’ representation is fucking awesome and, the day he’s away is replaced by Buck Henry who, Brooks is repeatedly assured is the best there is, but stays silent throughout.
There’s a nice little romance between Brooks and Meryl Streep – it falls a little flat as all relationships in Brooks films do cos you kind of get the feeling he’s a little bit more in love with himself (as a filmmaker and object of his own focus) than the arm candy, but since this film really is about his weakness its nice seeing him go up against a more rounded character.
As a film, its kind of standard in execution, but the glory is in the details. All food in Judgment City is free, plentiful. delicious and calorie-free. The mob of sushi-chefs repeating Brooks’ every sentence, the Italian waiter who insists on baking him 9 pies – one for each day of his trial. The only guy he meets who has a longer trial and more reincarnations than him (whose biggest achievement in this last life was coining the phrase ‘ALL NUDE’ for strip bars). The amazing fast-cut montage the prosecution shows in response to Brooks protestation that he didn’t make bad choices, which catalogues every chainsaw accident, bad car deal, fall off roof and brushing teeth with shampoo incident of his adult life in quick succession. All of the footage shown of his life is priceless – watching him turn down a chance to invest at the ground level in Casio and instead putting his money into diseased cattle. Watching him spend ages psych up for a pay review and then accepting the first offer.
This is not genius film making, not something I’d take a girl I was trying to impress to see or display a poster of on my wall. But this is my thing. This is what I dig. Put me on a desert island with a DVD player and the back catalogue of just one director and this is the dude I’d choose. When it boils down to it, its all about comfort and this is my comfort viewing.
This film means a lot to me on a lot of different levels but above all it’s a nice original piece that has aged gracefully whilst it’s message has increased with potency.
I’m not a fan of sci-fi at all, this should be said. At worst the genre promotes cliches and stereotypes safe in the knowledge it is going to a rabid audience, at best it seems to use heavy handed metaphors for today’s society in the context of special effects and make-up. I don’t think sci-fi films can avoid falling into these traps because they are the cornerstones of the genre (and many wouldn’t call them traps at all). Silent Running is certainly the latter but it never feels like it is trying to cunningly get a message across. It deals with the issues at hand in an upfront way, avoiding simile, and plays out like a flick that could take place logically within the realms of our reality in the space of a couple of decades. There are no funny looking aliens or lazers. Its safe.
I feel that this was the first film I ever discovered for myself and certainly the first I ever called my favourite film with any degree of validity (I’m a 28 year old guy, Star Wars was my first favourite film before I’d even seen it). I think at 9, when I first saw this, all the films I’d seen had been as a result of my parents taking me along or sitting me down, friends forcing or mass-marketing. I read a description of it in the TV guide, had never heard of it and decided it was something I wanted to see. I’m sure I didn’t get past the words ‘from the effects producer of Star Wars’, but I found it and waited a week to see it on BBC 2, 6pm on a week night.
It really was unlike anything I’d seen up to that point but I wasn’t put off because it still had that familiar feel of 70s cinema sci-fi – a bit industrial, people in jumpsuits and American accents (so it felt like a real film). I was struck by the fact that after the initial flurry of activity, nothing really happened, but it wasn’t boring or inaccessible. It was kind of awesome just watching this really passionate guy doing the gardening and teaching robots how to play cards.
The story goes like this; after much change, expansion, modernisation/destruction of Earth (I’m still unclear as to whether there was a crisis or this was just a government programme), the last remaining forests and natural habitats exist only in domes being stored on American Airlines spaceships. Lowell – played by Bruce Dern – is the botanist on one such ship. Society has moved on and he is the butt of many jokes from his 3 other crew mates as he chooses to eat natural food and gets angry when they drive their buggies over his grass. He’s basically treated like a space straight-edger. They humour him but find him and his idealism ridiculous. They get a message from the government to blow up the forest domes and return to Earth, the ships are to go back into commercial use. As happy as the rest of the crew are to be going home, Lowell can’t believe that the government is prepared to destroy these last remnants of nature, ensuring that the Earth will never be refoliated. He tries to stop his crew mates from destroying the forests as all the other ships are but to no avail. They’ve already destroyed one of the 3 domes, he kills one of his crew with a spade in one dome, locks the others in the other dome but they’d already primed the bomb so they die along with it. Lowell has one dome left, no crew mates and after feeding a story to the other ships, manages to get the ship to drift out of contact, presumed missing. The rest of the film is really him coming to terms with his action, trying to save his forest from dying due to lack of sunlight and reprogramming and befriending 2 maintenance robots (played by double-amputee victims).
It was the first film I ever saw with a strong political message, that if we allow our attitudes to important issues slowly ebb away, one day we’ll be left with nothing. I don’t even see this as a staunchly environmental sentiment and, obviously, like everything these days, it draws a terrifying parallel with the way Bush is slowly erasing liberties and the everyday Joe doesn’t really care. The guys he kills are not bad dudes at all, they’re just normal guys exhibiting routine behaviour – nature means nothing to them and hasn’t meant much to society for decades, so why should they care that this last speck is destroyed? its almost all gone anyway and they just want to get home. Lowell comes off as just being a bit of a freak for caring. The bitter irony comes later when we see him with a certificate from some government scheme of the environmentalist’s pledge he’d signed as a child stating that as a good American he would do all he could to save the environment.
I think the most chilling moment comes when the last human voice he ever hears before drifting out of contact is one telling him that for giving up his life in the supposed pursuit of following orders and destroying the forests, he’s dying a ‘great American’.
Again, the story kind of plays second place for me to the tone, the acting and the awesome little touches. I don’t understand how Bruce Dern didn’t quite breakthrough to proper acclaim and bigger roles. He’s the perfect combination of lead and character actor, but I guess I just like to see this as his film. Perfect in it’s own way and perfect for him. Dern is just supercharged and shows his full spectrum of moods, a really rounded performance when he could easily have played the whole film as a curmudgeonly hermit.
The model effects are great and predate Star Wars by a clear half-decade, its directed by SW/2001 effects guru Doug Trumbull and I kind of wonder why he didn’t go on to direct more as I wouldn’t describe it as an ‘effects’ film. It has a good pedigree, having been written by Michael Cimino and Stephen Bochco in their hungry early years and, man, its just a great film to stick on late at night. It has that kind of spiritualism of solitude thing going on.
One of those great 70s oddities which is too quirky to be commercial and too straightforward to be quirky. In a horrible twist of irony, they don’t make them like this anymore – why would they make a big budget, starless, first-time writer/director combo film about an intimate human story? It just wouldn’t make commercial sense, and 30 years later, people won’t demand or see the point in it. Ugh.
I don’t put much stock in films that are labeled as classics and I kind of have beef with people who do. I think the label ‘milestone’ is more appropriate for most of these things. These are flicks which mark a point of innovation or the genesis of a genre or film making discipline. They’re great to study and to watch for the sake of historical importance, but I just can’t quite believe people really dig them.
Every time someone returns a copy of Battleship Potemkin and goes ‘oh, it was great!’ I always kind of think ‘Yeah, it was great when it was released, but fuck that for a Saturday night’.
Psycho is a classic and was great but if it genuinely scares you….. ugh, I don’t know. Call me a heathen if you will, its not that I don’t appreciate these films, it’s just that the visual language of film develops so quickly that as advanced as they often were for their times, they’re just horribly dated in terms of structure, pacing and aesthetic. Don’t get me wrong, I still love me some Hitchcock, love me some Marx Bros, love me some Ealing, Chaplin and De Mille. I really love me some Norman Wisdom. Actually, I’m half reconsidering the point I was trying to make, but I’ll soldier on. All I’m really trying to say is that when asked to list 10 films I’m passionate about, only one of them that springs to mind is really labeled a classic. And films labeled classic, as great as they are, often don’t really speak to me and how can you love a film you don’t engage with?
I don’t know why I didn’t see The Graduate earlier, having seen most ‘classics’ in my mid-teens. I was always aware of the poster and the soundtrack and I guess it felt like one of those films that you kind of felt you had seen without actually having seen it. I’d seen clips and read articles and thought I had a good feeling for it. I actually saw it for the first time when I was 18 and finishing up school
To this day, its the only film I’ve seen which captures what it feels like to be a ‘young man’. Young enough to know nothing, old enough to know better. Nothing has ever come close, John Hughes skirted around the issue in pre-emo style, Johnny Depp played young male angst in every incarnation. Its hard to do, because essentially, as soon as you show a young man facing his weaknesses or crying, you’re in chick flick territory. Men will disengage with it emotionally as quickly as they can. Fuck those pussy flicks.
The Graduate deals with this part of us that isn’t often spoken about, what most guys do when they need to emotionally shut down. Its like hedonism but it lacks the bravado and bragging, its what happens when we sink into ‘whatever’. We knowingly sleep with the wrong people, use and demean perfectly nice girls, ignore our friends and become monosyllabic with our family, choose to do nothing in particular and anger those around us with our general apathy towards life.
I’d dig it if it were just a film about that but to round it off, Ben Braddock just represents the awkward humanity in most of us educated middle-classers. He’s not an asshole and he’s not a saint. He knows how to go off the rails but he doesn’t really know how to do it right.
The joy, as with all these flicks, is in the details. The script is probably the best use of dialogue I can think of. It has a polite, clipped quality to it but that just serves to make it all the more absurd. The fact that he’s sleeping with his parents’ friend and still calling her Mrs Robinson in bed. Buck Henry is just one of the great dialogue dudes and I find it weird that he hasn’t really done all that much since. He did Catch 22, so maybe his skill is more in adaptation.
Perfectly photographed and scored – the montage sequence still remains one of my favourite uses of editing and camerawork in film history. Mike Nichols is just so smart and confident with it. The stuff with the dive suit in the swimming pool on his birthday which would probably in someone else’s hands would play out like such a heavy-handed metaphor comes across as so obvious yet understated.
I usually focus on either visual style OR scripting. This is one of those films that gets you excited about both. Buck Henry is perfect for saying everything that needs said, Mike Nichols is a genius at saying everything that isn’t vocalised.
Performances – amazing. Dustin Hoffman, holy shit, young Hoffman is my favourite actor ever. The Graduate, Tootsie (I’m still deciding if this gets to make the list), Kramer vs Kramer, Marathon Man. I swear there has never been more exciting actor to watch than young Hoffman. He’s utterly uninteresting now but, man, his 70s and 80s shit is fucking fired up. William Daniels (voice of KITT) as his dad showing that generation gap in full force. Anne Bancroft, shit, I’d still do her. Buck Henry’s cameo as the hotel clerk, Richard Dreyfuss’s one line, Murray Hamilton as Mr Robinson. Craggy, broken, awesome dude.
I’ll accept all criticism that the third act is kind of weak. Once Elaine comes into the picture, it goes off the boil A BIT. But where was the story going to go? Besides, its all worth it for the ending. The bit in the church at Elaine’s wedding. He doesn’t get there in time, watches from above ‘oh Jesus god no’, starts hammering on the glass ‘ELAAAAAAAAAAAAINNNE’. ‘BENNNNNNNN’. And he hasn’t even made it in time! He didn’t make it in time to stop the wedding – she’s totally married to the pipe smoking dude but she runs anyway.
Then the greatest final shot in cinema history. I mean, Nichols could have fallen into SO many cliches for a happy ending where Ben Braddock now finally knows what he wants and where he’s going in life. But no. He fucking left that camera rolling. So they run from the church, get on the bus, sit down grin to each other and grin to themselves about their triumph. The camera keeps rolling. They catch their breath. Their smiles a fade a bit. They don’t know where to look or what expressions to wear. They’ve achieved nothing. She’s married, he still doesn’t have any plan above getting her and they’re on some fucking bus going god knows where.
This film doesn’t age for me at all. The camerawork and direction is still sophisticated even in today’s terms. The concerns remain relevant – young educated dudes who have bright futures but don’t know how or why to start them. At least a couple of times a year I’ll hit that point the ‘what am I doing, why am I doing it?’ point and this film is just all the validation I need to get through it.
It should be compulsory viewing for teenagers. These days films tend to illustrate the issues by turning the characters into goths, anorexics and drug addicts. It doesn’t have to be that overblown and dramatic, every normal person with half a brain goes through these periods of confusion and apathy and a story told simply is a story told well.
I want you to think about two things going into this.
Firstly, think about the movie Ghost. Bare with me, imagine it wasn’t directed by that dude Zucker (his first non-Airplane movie), then imagine it didn’t star Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. Recast it with your favourite leads (but keep Vincent Schiavalli). Strip out the pottery scene, maybe, definitely ditch Unchained Melody and try to see it through the eyes of another director. Almost any good director, I don’t care. Tim Burton? Wim Wenders, Gilliam, not Spielberg – no one schmaltzy. What I’m saying is just try to look at the concept, structure and the barest elements of it. Its pretty fucking cool.
Now, take yourself back to winter ’88. Tim Burton’s got the gig directing Batman – the ultimate superhero at the peak of the ultimate action film decade. And who does he cast? Michael fucking Keaton. Beetlejuice! Mr Mom! There’s re-imagining and there’s taking the piss. But he was really good, wasn’t he? He was just fucking right. Christian Bale’s not going to be that good.
OK, so with those thoughts in mind, I want to drag you through your video shop to the ‘drama’ section, the quagmire of not-very-genre films of the last three decades. Somewhere on one of the lower shelves – the flicks that hang around cos no one can be arsed to buy them ex-rental – is a dull looking box for an uninteresting looking film. Man, it looks like a fucking TV movie. Soft focus pic of Keaton giving Nicole Kidman a little cuddle – both smiling and a picture of a man’s hand going to hold a baby’s hand. Tag line ‘Every moment counts’. Fuck that.
Yeah, I’d heard about it when it came out ‘Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman in love, he dies of cancer’. I was never going to sit down and watch this flick. I lumped it straight in with the Julia Roberts cancer movies (dying young, stepmom) and that flick where Val Kilmer is blind. Vanity projects all ‘stars’ decide to make to flex their dramatic nuts. I’ve learned to have more faith in this Keaton cat since.
I saw this for the first time on TV. I’d come in knackered from work, turned on the telly and there was Keaton. Always watchable, I’m not about to flip channels on him, especially until I work out what film it is. It took for Kidman to appear on screen for me to suss it out, but by then I was hooked.
So its not your standard love story of boy meets girl, falls in love but then their time is cut short by the tragic onset of cancer (which, if memory serves, actually was the plot of Love Story). This story opens with the crap very much cut. Keaton has cancer and he’s very soon to be told that it is terminal. Keaton is in love with Kidman, but its not fairytale shit, they’re your everyday married couple. She is pregnant. So there is your scenario. A regular guy gets terminal cancer, he’s not old or unhealthy, it has just struck him randomly in the way cancer does and he is not going to survive but, at this point, the symptoms have yet to take hold of him. He has some time. Does he have 9 months? Luckily the cheesiness of this question is never really at the forefront of the story. Instead, we get what I consider the first film to handle the subject of death in a rational, even and, I would imagine, totally realistic manner (noticed how keen I am on emotional honesty yet?).
There are no scenes of ridiculous high drama here and it is that level of underplayed honesty that destroys me. This film just stuns me, decimates me, it absolutely rips my heart out.
So, back to the story. Firstly Keaton has to accept that he is going to die, he deflects this slightly by putting his energy into a project. Since he probably is never going to meet his son, he buys a video camera and starts making tapes for him. This is golden Keaton material. He demonstrates how to shave, how to make pasta, how to enter a room with confidence. As his journey continues, he uses the camera to hide behind as he is simply not ready to make his peace with the world.
Having been estranged from his family for years, his wife convinces him that he has to visit them, to spend time with them and let them know. But no water has passed under the bridge. The old tensions are still there. Why wouldn’t they be? He’s in his thirties, just because he’s dying doesn’t magically solve his issues with them.
They resent him for moving to LA, changing his immigrant name and not embracing family as the most important thing, he resents them for not being proud of his first-generation-American success.
and so the story continues, he starts getting ill and by the time it manifests itself physically, you’ve come to dig this guy and, since it’s a film, you hold out for that happy ending. H has to survive, he’s the hero. But he’s not going to and the film becomes more and more brutal as he gets worse. Again, not in a flashy, overly-sentimental way – no big scenes of drama.
Instead of a cathartic ‘I LOVE YOU’ scene, we get hit by the sucker punch of the completely understated arrival of a hospital bed in which he will now sleep, downstairs, because he can’t walk up the stairs anymore. There is no big reaction to it by the characters, but when you see it arrive, you understand the real implications. He’ll never sleep in his own bed again. He’s going to die downstairs. Man, the walls just seem to start moving in.
In his final days, his family make the trip from Michigan which he was always bitter about them having not done (his mum is afraid to fly) and he lets his hatred go. He lets his dad be a dad and in the scene which I would select as my most emotional in cinema history (and this makes me well up just thinking about it), his dad – admirably holding back the tears – shaves his weak and invalid son (its brain tumours). Its this awesome, touching, real moment. As he shaves him, his dad asks ‘How are you?’ and Keaton replies with a slightly slurred voice ‘Its been a tough year, dad’. Oh, I lose my shit every time.
It was the only film directed by a dude called Bruce Joel Rubin. It was also written by him. He wrote Ghost and he also wrote (drum roll) Jacob’s Ladder. So, if you hold onto your thought of Ghost as it might have been in less commercial hands, then place it alongside this and Jacob’s Ladder, you have pretty much the most interesting trilogy of flicks on the subject of death, or at least, what it is to die. My Life taking an approach of realism, Ghost an approach of fantasy and Jacob’s Ladder, if memory serves, the science of the moment of death.
I bet he’s a great dude, his CV is patchy, his other works include Stuart Little 2 and Deep Impact and that tells a story to me. Here’s a guy who produces consistently interesting work which is either mishandled or mis-marketed by Hollywood. This doesn’t even cover the projects he probably couldn’t even sell – Jacob’s Ladder was in development hell for years. So, I bet he just takes the high paying gigs when they come and writes for his own amusement now. The Ghost cheque alone probably set him up for life. He seems too smart for the current climate almost – he’s not quirky enough to b an indie icon and not straightforward enough for the mainstream. I bet he’s just a great guy to talk to.
So, I present to you the great overlooked film. Its not flashy or concepty, its not manipulative but, fuck, it’ll get to you. Horror films desensitise us to death, dramas give it glory or romance or meaning. Here is the only film I know to really tackle what will likely be the reality of the playout of many of our lives. And it’s sat on a dusty shelf in a shitty box. There’s no justice.
Now, I almost don’t want to see this flick again because it had such an impact on me, I’d hate to have it lessened. It has a very sacred place in my film passion. When I found out more about it, I immediately got kind of disheartened because I found out it was directed by Mark Romanek. Why is that disappointing? Romanek is awesome – well, that’s why it’s disappointing. I don’t want to be the film geek who’s all ‘Eternal Sunshine? Pah! Did you ever see Mark Romanek’s first feature film before One Hour Photo?’
So basically, I don’t want you thinking this is any affectation on my part, I didn’t hunt this film out to be elitist and at the time I saw it, I think it was the only thing he’d done anyway. I saw it on TV late night in ’89. 4 years after it was made. I was 13 and had fairly typical tastes for a 13 year old in ’89. I liked Batman. This was probably my first ‘indie’ or ‘art house’ film, but I’d have to see it again to know if it really falls into that category. It was certainly offbeat to my primitive tastes and made me think very heavily about what a film could be and do.
What I remember of it, and again this is faded memory so might not have been the actual focus of the flick, but certainly what I got from it, is that it was about a guy in his late teens/early 20s whose parents have died but he’s OK with it and pretty well adjusted, if a bit lonely. Anyway, he starts seeing images of heaven on his broken old TV. I think he even sees his parents there. So at first, he doesn’t quite believe it, but then it becomes apparent to him that its completely real. I can’t remember exactly how the plot goes but I remember that when he finally shares his discovery, no-one else can see it, they just see static on the screen. So he loses it and takes a bus full of pensioners hostage.
I’m sure I’m not doing it justice and may have some facts wrong but that’s how I remember it. Anyway, it stood out for me on 3 distinct levels. Firstly, the subject matter and style was so far apart from anything else I’d really watched all the way through. I’d catch scenes from random foreign/weird films late at night but they never held my attention particularly – I just found them inaccessible or obtuse.
The second reason I why I found this accessible. Keith Gordon. The lead actor. The reason I watched this film at all was because of him. Since I was very young, I go through periods of obsessing over certain films – looking back, its hard to understand why certain films were considered worthy of 2 months of viewing every single night, I think it was just me latching into films and finding nuances in odd places. These films (for better and worse) included Psycho 2, Jaws, Blues Brothers, Poltergeist 2, Empire Strikes Back, Moron From Outer Space, The Graduate, Tootsie, a bunch of others and… I’m almost ashamed to admit, a TV movie called Combat Academy.
I think he reason I fixated on Combat Academy (also notable for an early appearance of a teenage George Clooney as ‘Biff’) was Keith Gordon, a very dynamic and charismatic actor. He’d also had a shitty role in Jaws 2 and I remembered that. It upsets me to think about him because he really had a nothing career as an actor and I still think he could have (or still could) have gone on to greatness. He’s a director now and has done some credible stuff. I’d love to see him act again, he has a certain tone that is unique. Like a young Hoffman crossed with Richard Dreyfus and with a certain cheeky fuck-you attitude. I just really like him.
The final reason, and the reason it left such an impression on me, was that it was just the ultimate film about frustration. It summed it all up for me. The standard filmic interpretation of frustration is aggression. Like ‘I’m not happy, I will destroy things!’ they seem to think that is frustration – the feeling of things not going your way and making you angry. That’s just not how I’ve ever experienced it. I was a kid who was constantly taken to doctors/psychologists until the age of 7 (when they found it to be ribena-related) for having temper tantrums. They always stemmed out of frustration, that feeling that people can’t understand you. Not many films have been made on this subject. Gordon plays it perfectly. It almost makes him laugh. HOW can they not see what he does? Its ludicrous. Its ridiculous that something so obvious and crystal clear to you is so unimaginable to someone else. That point at which you don’t even know how to communicate something so obvious that your blood boils.
Like I say, a very human emotion, generally unrepresented on film, which I really connected to.
I know as a result of writing this I’ll hunt for the film with a new vigour, probably find it and almost certainly be disappointed, but I’m glad I’ve done this and pinpointed why it has meant so much to me.
Life is Beautiful.
I hate the Oscars, I am fundamentally opposed to them. The main reason for this is an issue of terminology. The usage of the word ‘best’ bothers me. Best film. How can you quantify the best film of the year, and even if you found a way, how could you ever apply it to Titanic? Its just bollocks. They usually just mean ‘worthiest’ film, a po-faced study of oppression or success. The amount of levels and factors a film would have to work on to stand out, in a genre-defying stunt, as any year’s BEST FILM is mind-boggling. And yet I’d easily proclaim Life Is Beautiful as the best film of ’97. The best film of the 90s. Probably the best film ever made. Which is a pretty big and very arguable proclamation, but I’ll stand my ground.
Firstly, from a technical point of view. This is a beautifully written film. Mary Poppins said ‘a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’ and Roberto Benigni seems to have embraced this as an ethos both in the sense that a bit of playfulness helps to communicate your message AND that a spoonful of sugar is all that is necessary, moderation, too often this kind of set-up falls into syrupy over-emotional tackiness.
The script is paced perfectly and moves in a flow that many American films avoid due to five-second-attention-span audiences. The first half of the film is the story of Guido’s hapless courtship with Dora. We understand that fascism is on the rise, but it is never dwelled on or given big tacky moments of significance (hellooooo Sound of Music!). It is just fact, that is the political backdrop but is unimportant to this story, so it stays where it belongs, at the back.
We get to know Guido and Dora, and although he’s an annoying little twat, we form a bond. When he finally gets the girl, that story ends. I think I’m right in saying it takes at least half the film to get there, but its no problem, we’re in no rush. Benigni is funny and enjoyable to watch even in a ‘what a little twat’ way. Its nice to see him channeling Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin without feeling the need for a full-on homage. So, boy gets girl. End of story.
5 years later, a totally different story starts with the same characters but a completely different environment. WW2 is in full swing and Guido, Dora and their 5 year old son Joshua are packed off to a concentration camp. To get his son through it, Guido pretends the whole thing is a game and basic methods of survival are the things they must do to get points. Only if they get 1000 points can they win the first prize – a shiny new tank.
It sounds so fucking twee, doesn’t it. I suppose to many it might even be. I didn’t see it for a while because it looked painfully twee and tears-of-a-clown-ish. Even the trailer looked that way. But Benigni more than pulled it off.
So, to begin with, its a great, original story. The first half is almost painful in its predictability (‘will he get the girl? hmmmmm, i wonder’) whereas the second half is even more painful in it’s lack of predictability. There is a complete absence of emotional crutch and the story unfolds in such a way that you experience optimism and pessimism in equal blasts and the outcome is never clearly signaled. Is this a comedy or tragedy? Ultimately, that question can only be answered depending on whether the family die or survive in the end. I’ve never seen that in a film before. The idea that it really could swing either way between joyful and tragic based on that one factor but still be retrospectively consistent in tone.
So, conceptually and structurally, big thumbs up. The performances are great throughout and Benigni, despite being an annoying little twat, somehow manages to avoid his interactions with his precocious 5 year old becoming mawkish. I’ve never noticed any hugs or kisses or ‘i love you’s, there is a surprising absence of mollycoddling. Everyone in it is great, from the one-dimensional slapstick supporting cast of the first half to the more multi-faceted ghouls of the second.
The next point I adore is the theme. I’m big on theme, trying to work out what a film is basically about and therefore whether it tells the audience anything – if it has any worth. Shit films trot out the same themes; crime doesn’t pay, value your family, believe in yourself. Its all stuff that is obvious to a 5 year old and has become hackneyed and insignificant to the audience and, worryingly, the filmmakers. Obviously a lot of film theory is just speculation and really the filmmaker is the only person who could comment on the message he intended, but for me, what I get out of it is a statement on sacrifice.
All the main characters take the choice to make sacrifices throughout and all are rewarded with what they most desired. Dora sacrifices her security twice, once financially by leaving a wealthy and socially important fiancee for an annoying little twat and again when she orders the Nazis to stop the train her husband and son have been put on so she can board it too. She understands that she is sacrificing her life, not being Jewish, but she is prepared to do that for a chance to remain with her family. Guido sacrifices his own emotional needs for his son’s spirit. He has to work twice as hard as everyone else because on top of his suffering, he has to be able to retain his enthusiasm for life and his smile. Along the way, he takes risks that could be construed as sacrifices, were he caught, to broadcast messages over the loudspeakers to his wife in the separate female camp. Joshua, the son, makes constant sacrifices, he forgoes crying, personal freedom, complaining, playing – all the things that kids do – because if he wins the game and gets to 1000 points, he gets the first prize – a tank. He learns that to get what you most want, you have to make big sacrifices. The others already know this and have the burden of reality on their choices. Its a strong and positive message in what could be a damning, negative film. Whereas Schindler’s List seems to focus on the things people didn’t do or should have done and the idea that you can always do more, this film, using the same settings and subject matter manages to convey a message of optimism.
I do think Schindler’s List is great, but it relies so heavily on shocking you out of your complacency. It is a visually brutal film. This one shows no physical brutality. The only blood we see is a scrape on someone’s arm. There is no death shown onscreen, there isn’t even any visible act of cruelty. But we understand what is happening and the fact it is unshown leaves us to picture the saddest moments. Which are never looked back to or revisited.
Being Jewish and 2nd generation British, the holocaust has never been too far out of mind. Many of my elderly relatives still have the concentration camp tattoos and the ones who fled still have their deep emotional scars. Although ethnic cleansing is in no way history, it’s something that our generation of westerners will probably never know. We’ll never have that legitimate fear, but being Jewish, it still is in the back of your mind somewhere. Anti-antisemitism isn’t exactly on the decline although not as rampant or aggressive as other forms of racism. You still get that feeling, like if the shit came down, a lot of people wouldn’t fight your corner. In the age of holocaust denial and ‘quit your whining’, it is important to remember that this shit, within living memory can and did happen within civilised society. And, to quit my whining, films about the holocaust can be easily related to current world politics and instead of viewing a film and saying ‘this happened once’, it can make us ask ‘is this what is happening’.
Its important that these films get made and whereas many people avoided Schindler’s List because they didn’t want such a cold emotional experience, this film trawled in the wake and using it’s perfect sugar measurement, spread the message to a wider audience. If only Hollywood could find a way of extending the message to the multiplex masses. Ii fear Pearl Harbour might be as close as they ever get.
So, for me it scores on every level, the stories, the writing, the performances, the comedy, the drama, the point of view, the message the skillful direction which conveyed the horrors without ever showing them, the pacing, the tension as to the outcome, the outcome itself and, finally, oh great academy, THE WORTHINESS.
A worthwhile film that is thought-provoking, optimistic and entertaining. So, I’m in no way saying this is my favourite film or the funniest or worthiest, it just hits every point and then exceeds it without being flashy or auterish. When i look at the facts, I can’t think of a better film.
He’s still an annoying little twat, though.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
I feel kind of funny putting in another sci-fi because that doesn’t very accurately convey my tastes – I really don’t like sci-fi in general. But I had to include one of the holy trinity – Jaws, Close Encounters, ET. Spielberg was just a god to me growing up and those films in particular still stand out as some of the best modern film-making. I think he may be the last great director in the sense that the point we have reached now, we can probably only develop film-making in a technical sense. He was one of the last to push the boundaries of storytelling. Everything seems quite derivative now but his stuff still feels fresh. What a great filmmaker he was, so different now, his current output bears no apparent relation to his 70s/80s greatness. Ah well.
It really is neck and neck for me between Jaws, CE3K and ET and the only reason I settled on this one is that Jaws has been picked apart endlessly and I’m still smarting a bit from his Lucas-esque anal raping of the film for it’s 20th anniversary release.
So, first of all, what I love about all early Spielberg is a certain style and tone that you rarely get elsewhere in that the films often don’t feel scripted. The cast talk over one another, shout over one another, mumble, lines get lost, rephrased and ignored. On the moments when someone says something clearly, it draws your attention and stands out – which is a great directorial trait. I guess I talk a lot about realism or verisimilitude (still can’t spell) but films work best when they strike that feeling of authenticity.
CE3K is the most epic film I can think of. and I don’t mean 6 million extras watching some chariot race or seeing every landmark in the world destroyed by aliens or weather conditions. It takes place in so damn many places, often for just a scene at a time, but never feels gimmicky or overstretched. We see the story played out in the army facilities, third world, suburbs, so many places but it never once feels inhuman. Its still always about the people, no matter that we may see them for one scene only. That early scene in the air control centre where the guy is talking to the pilots (that we never cut to) who are seeing the UFOs and how each time we cut back, more and more of his colleagues are surrounding him, then at the end of it they all just decide not to report anything – no drama, just a blip in their normality.
Then Richard Dreyfuss. Man, what happened to him? He was so great. Just a normal funny guy who gets sucked into this scenario – but not in the normal Hollywood way of being approached by aliens and told he is special (Last Starfighter style). His is a story of perseverance and redemption. He has his experience early on (and holy shit, that scene where the headlights pulling up behind him just rise up – one of the best understated moments in cinema history) and then sees the image of Devil’s Tower everywhere. He could drop it (as Truffaut says later in the film – think how many must have) but he doesn’t and he pays for it with his sanity and his family. That scene where he’s sat in the shower fully clothed crying and his son is repeatedly opening and slamming the door shouting ‘CRY BABY!’, ugh, so intense. Its such a horrible storyline for him. The idea that he’s locked into this course which he can’t even just sit back and let happen to him, he has to fight every step of the way and give up everything in his life for something he never wanted in the first place. I often wonder what happened to that character, because making it into the mothership was really just the vindication that he had been right to question the messages…. but now he’s on a fucking spaceship. I mean, he’s just an electrician, did he ever want that? Its not like we ever saw him sat around dreaming to be taken away. He seemed pretty happy at the beginning with his family.
Anyway. One of the golden age of special effects films. We go from the mundane to the amazing and we believe it because there’s no crappy CGI. Incredible model shots, beautiful film grainy organic looking compositing, fantastic lens flare. The aliens are just shadows and great simple puppets and we only get to see them at the very end where we’re already emotional enough to forgive a certain amount of cheesiness.
Its just great film-making. Very funny and human but also intermittently awe-inspiring and terrifying. That scene where the aliens come for the kid? Man, that shit is horrible and I love that he never feels the need to justify it in the wider context of the film. Like, just because they do that, they aren’t bad aliens, the director is just showing us that its the fear of the unknown that is so terrifying. And it is just so well done. The screws undoing themselves from the air vent, the POV shot down the chimney and then the kid being dragged out the fucking cat flap. Great stuff.
Like Jaws, it really splits into two clear halves too. This film is set-up, then Devil’s Tower – which is like a separate film to me. I think the mid-section of this part is what blows me away. The mother ship lands and just kind of sits there, then they start the musical exchange. Holy fuck. I’ve never seen anything like that anywhere else. I’ve also never seen music used like that anywhere else. Film generally falls back on music a lot to fill in emotional gaps in the storytelling, but using it as essentially language in a dialogue scene where neither quite understands what is being said but understands purely from the tone of the exchange. Whoa. I don’t know, that’s just amazing film-making. And when the mother ship gets excited and just blows the glass out of the windows.
CE3K is fantastically shot too. I kind of yearn for that kind of cinematography. Film manufacture just got too advanced. 35mm film is too good these days. The grain is too small and even, we’ve lost that organic feeling. Film isn’t supposed to look clean. Life isn’t that clean. Same reason photos from the 70s look so much better than digital photos today. Film grain used to give us something that we don’t have anymore. And as much as I dislike the modern use of super 8 to appear arty and pre-loaded with a certain integrity, I miss a lower quality of film being used as the norm. Use that look now and it looks like you’re chasing an effect. Its a shame.
I haven’t mentioned how awesome Teri Garr, Bob Balaban and Truffaut are as well, but with a film of this quality, such a strong supporting cast almost fades into the background without the audience even noticing how incredibly good they are.
The first time I saw this film, I was like 8, and really couldn’t follow the story or characters at all but I still loved it and I think that’s because there was so much to latch onto of quality. It wasn’t Star Wars where every frame was filled with an interesting looking creature or spaceship. There’s surprisingly little to look at in this flick, it’s almost visually mundane when the ships aren’t there. But the performances and composition are just totally intoxicating. Spielberg deserves to go down in history as one of the greatest directors, but I don’t think he’s challenged himself for a very very long time.
I will always go back to this film, beyond comfort viewing and fun, it is just how a film should be made. You know people now get impressed by film making they can see. Fuck bullet time. Seriously, fuck it, that pulls you out of the reality a film builds up so that you can spend a couple of minutes going ‘oh, what a clever director’. Genius lies in the details you don’t really notice and CE3K is very much my definition of film-making genius.
It makes mashed potato fun too.
OK, Here’s my last one and it’s my favourite film. The thing is, I have two favourite films, this one and Midnight Run. Midnight Run didn’t actually make the rest of the list, which is a bit weird, but I can’t really wax lyrical about the flick beyond ‘FUCK! It’s the fucking BEST!’ I guess, essentially, the whole deal with Midnight Run is the interplay between De Niro, Grodin, Kotto and whoever played Marvin. It’s just a joy of acting. It’s pure charisma without being a terribly interesting or clever piece of work. But fuck, it’s the fucking best.
Anyway, my final choice and clear favourite film….
The Last Waltz.
It’s kind of where all of my favourite things meet. All roads lead here for me. As someone passionate about film, well, it’s the greatest music or concert film ever made and it’s made by – excuse me – MARTIN FUCKING SCORSESE. As someone passionate about music, it is the final and, as legend would have it, greatest performance by The Band. Who are the best band ever in the world ever. You can disagree, but you’d be wrong to. It’s also a time capsule of that generation as the surviving members of the Woodstock days were drifting into some kind of irrelevance and the young bucks like Neil Young were snapping at heels.
It’s hard to know where to start because when I even think about The Last Waltz my blood just starts pumping harder. Ugh, where to begin.
OK, as a performance film, it’s killer. This is not what you usually get from these things where it is essentially a documentary, cameras just filming what’s going on. There is thought there, this is filtered through the eyes of a filmmaker and then carefully edited so what you get is the drama and subtleties of a live show. The stuff a camera doesn’t often pick up. These awesome moments of eye contact between band members, cutaways at points when you’d expect maybe the focus to be elsewhere, but instead you see a band member clearly appreciating what is happening in the limelight. That’s not to say you don’t get to see the meat of the performance, just that the crafting and attention to detail is superb. There’s a beautiful moment towards the end where Dylan is onstage and they’re winding down ‘Forever Young’ and it’s clear that the band (or indeed The Band) don’t know what he intends to do next and Rick Danko has this little moment of ‘where are we going?’ and as soon as Dylan starts the first note of ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down’, Danko just grins, knows exactly what he’s doing and turns away to do it. I just love that stuff. Its so easy just to show musicians as gods – always in tune, always dynamic and it’s all trickery, but when they’re filmed honestly and you get those little moments to see the actual craft of what they do and how damn sharp they are, man, I love that. There’s an amazing part, which is totally blink and you’ll miss it, when Clapton first comes out and launches into his bit, really early on, his guitar strap breaks and he almost drops it – the camera cuts away quick so you barely see – but Robbie Robertson is in there and covering the solo without dropping a beat. Fucking amazing. Then, once Clapton is sorted, they have a fucking guitar cockfight. You can tell this is unrehearsed and they may well respect each other but they’re totally measuring dicks at this point. All these other little moments, Levon Helm watching a usually morose Van Morrison in disbelief as he high-kicks his way off the stage. God, all of them, every performance, every nuance is caught (although it seems no cameras were ever on Richard Manuel, which is unforgivable). Robbie Robertson gurning as he wrings every note out of his bronze-coated guitar, Rick Danko bopping his little baisin haircut forwards and backwards, Levon Helm fucking snarling into the mic as he pounds the living shit out of the drums, Garth Hudson back lit, wild-haired and surrounded by aura during his solo (why did they fucking cut to a talky bit midway?) Richard Manuel hammering out on the piano with a big grin. This is what a great gig feels like. When you’re pressed against the stage and you see a band for the first time not airbrushed or well lit or miming, you see them sweat and spit and joke around and shoot each other dirty looks. Its so real and yet so much grander than life. Quite genuinely, there have been occasions where I’m preparing to go out for a show but end up staying in to watch The Last Waltz cos it’s a front row ticket, satisfaction guaranteed. That sounded cheesy, but honesty often does.
So the structure itself, we get the highlights of the gig (which lasted 7 hours in actuality, The Band’s set alone taking up several of these – it’s worth getting hold of the Rhino 4 CD set with a lot of the missing stuff and rehearsal takes) inter-cut with The Band reflecting on the most epic career in music history. These guys started out rockabilly backing band to Ronnie Hawkins as teenagers, busting lose and forming The Hawks as a touring rock n roll band, getting snapped up by Dylan as his backing band when he went electric, then going solo again after his motorbike crash and rediscovering real American music (despite being mainly Canadian). Their stories are great and where they could easily fall into (we did this, then this, then this), Scorsese just draws small personal anecdotes out of each of them and we get to see them relaxed and chatty. Richard Manuel, not far on the road from his suicide, clearly fucked from years of alcohol abuse but supported and cajoled by his best friends, Rick Danko – not much upstairs but so much heart, Robbie all mouth and hyperbole which sounds great at the time but dumb upon reflection. Garth, quiet but succinct and Levon passionate but unimpressed by Scorsese. He gets the best moment in the talky sections where he talks about how blue grass comes down and mixes with rhythm and dances with country and blues music and forms a melting pot and makes its own special music and Scorsese asks ‘and what’s it called?’ Levon just tilts his head and grins ‘Rock n roll’. and he just fucking flusters Scorsese with it. So great.
The film starts with the title ‘THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!’ and some talky stuff with Danko playing pool but the film kicks in with the concert beautifully. Black screen, black stage ‘Good Evening’, the stage lights come on revealing this huge operatic set up with chandeliers and The Band are already firing into ‘Cripple Creek’ and it’s so infectious, so perfect. If someone wasn’t affected by this, I couldn’t be friends with them. I know that sounds dumb, but at a basic level this is so inarguably amazing, it crosses barriers of taste and opinion. It is what it is and if your musical tastes get in the way of it, you’re an idiot. This is beyond fashionable, beyond hip – as The Band always were, it’s just something of unquestionable workmanship and craft on every level. It’s something to behold.
So, the music – certainly the best renditions of these songs I’ve ever heard and I have everything The Band released and a lot that they didn’t. You don’t need anything else. With the only obvious track missing being Acadian Driftwood (which they did perform that night with Neil Young and is available in audio in the Rhino set), everything is here. Its a greatest hits set and beyond. It also manages to rope in the greatest moments of it’s guest performers too.
So, it kicks off with Ronnie Hawkins, personalising the song to include all of the band member’s names and clearly lapping up playing to such a big crowd in front of the guys he trained and groomed to supersede him.
Levon heart-aching through The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down for the last time with his band. Backed with a full brass section and going for it like none of them ever had before, it just fucking soars and hits fucking this transcendental perfect beauty. I know it sounds so dumb, but it’s like a religious epiphany, it’s touching heaven. Then Danko singing Stagefright, the one real time in the film he steps from the sidelines and leads The Band as if it were his own and it’s just pure glory. Seeing him from behind, single spotlight silhouetting him in front of a totally dark stage. Man. Fuck, this is what it’s all about. Maybe that’s my favourite bit, I think it probably is. It gives me fucking goosebumps.
Neil Young digging being on stage with his heroes, Neil Diamond horrifically out of place and unsuitably cocky (‘I’m just gonna do one song. But I’m gonna do it GOOD’) considering that as great as he is, stood on that stage in his powder blue suit and sunglasses, dude is just outclassed. Dr John looking like a big Cheshire cat and making everyone smile, Van Morrison turning up in a sparkly fucking jumpsuit, clearly having decided to steal the show – which he does. Eric Clapton on one of the few times in his life where he actually achieves coolness, Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield giving it some blues, then Dylan at the end, looking almost divine in some kind of soft-focus aura lighting, the only person able to stand in front of this band and call them his own. The only guy they are clearly in awe of. The big everyone-on-stage ending is a little syrupy, giving Ringo a drum kit for a song which barely needs one drummer, let alone two, but I shall Be Released is a suitable enough closer. If only they could have got the Staples Singers on the night and finished on The Weight. But who has the right to dream when faced with sheer perfection?
There is nothing like it, never will be again. If I could only watch one film the rest of my life, it’d be this, and I’d happily watch it twice a night. It feels like it’s on repeat for most of my life anyway and it never loses anything, it is still perfectly fresh and feels as exciting as the first time I saw it, whilst being as familiar as an old friend. This is nourishment for my soul. Talking about it turns me into a mad preacher because I can never convey the beauty and brilliance and satisfaction it can deliver. You don’t know music until you know this film. I really believe that. It’s like amazing architecture, where you just stand there and go ‘this was made by humans? This is the fucking oxygen of my passion. When I have a bad day, this is what restores me. It has healing properties. I’m unapologetic for my zeal for this flick but I should shut up about it.
Anyway, I know this is all I’ll need the rest of my life for entertainment/relaxation purposes. I know that I’ll be in my seventies, still sitting back in a chair watching this without my eyes leaving the screen and it’ll still be the best thing ever.
So, that’s the happy list of good things.
Now prepare yourself for grumpiness or sod off.