This week, I’m offering up three titles that appear on my list of the greatest films ever made
All That Heaven Allows (1955)
In All That Heaven Allows, director Douglas Sirk paints a disturbing mural of small-town America, one that reveals a side of suburbia often overlooked by his contemporaries. Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a recently widowed middle-aged mother of two, falls in love with Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a landscaper who also happens to be much younger than she. Cary is very happy with Ron, despite the fact that her children (Gloria Talbott and William Reynolds) and the rest of her upper-class society disapprove of the match. Before long, Cary’s feeling pressure from all sides to end the love affair, and finds she must decide whether or not she will remain true to herself, or appease those around her by sacrificing happiness for social acceptance. In crafting All That Heaven Allows, director Sirk went to great lengths to make Cary’s community appear as picture-perfect as possible, with large houses lining the streets and perfectly manicured lawns as far as they eye can see. Like everything else in this closed-minded society, however, such appearances are merely artifice, a supposed perfection that hides an outright contempt for individuality and change. At its most basic, All That Heaven Allows is a story of the soul, a spirit that longs to break free of its invisible bonds, but cannot. By exploring the underbelly of a closed society; the gossip and rumor, the unwritten rules of a community, and the consequences if these rules are not strictly adhered to, Sirk successfully deglamorizes what many Americans in 1955 believed to be the ideal way of life.
The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974)
Director Werner Herzog’s filmography is littered with both dramatic tales (Aguirre Wrath of God, Stroszek, Rescue Dawn) and documentaries (Lessons of Darkness, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Grizzly Man). What’s truly fascinating about this body of work is that, thanks to Herzog’s unique, observant style, it’s difficult at times to determine which of his films are the dramatic, and which are the documentaries. The setting is 19th century Germany. A young man named Kasper Hauser (Bruno S.) is found standing alone in the middle of a village, unable to speak and barely able to walk. In fact, prior to this particular morning, Kasper had spent his life locked away in a basement, where a strange benefactor (Hans Musaeus) fed him regularly, yet never bothered to teach the boy to read, write or speak. Released suddenly into the outside world for the first time ever, Kasper must rely on the kindness of strangers to help him adapt. With the help of Professor Daumer (Walter Ladengast), Kasper learns the intricacies of society, and is soon considered an upstanding member of the community. Yet, as Kasper’s astuteness sharpens, he realizes that society is as cold and empty as the small cell he used to call home, and wonders aloud if he will ever find fulfillment in a world such as this. In The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, Herzog takes a long, hard look at society from the outside, through the eyes of a man who is both inspired by its intricacies and frustrated by its structure. Locked away from the world for many years, Kasper Hauser nonetheless saw things much more clearly than most, even if he was the only one who knew it.
Alice’s Restaurant (1969)
Based on a popular song by Arlo Guthrie, Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant is a veritable time capsule of the late 1960’s, when the counter-culture challenged societal norms at every turn. A young man (played by Guthrie himself), looking for a place he can call home, travels to Massachusetts to live in an abandoned church run by his good friends, aging hippies Ray (James Broderick) and Alice (Pat Quinn). Yet the film is far from a rallying cry for the “Tune In, Turn On and Drop Out” movement. In fact, what’s most appealing about Alice’s Restaurant is that it gives us both sides of the coin, convincingly offering up the argument that not all of life’s problems are solved when you leave society behind. Guthrie is surprisingly good in the lead, and director Penn injects a nice blend of frivolity and high drama to ensure Alice’s Restaurant is engaging form start to finish.