I started a weekly column where I highlight a music video that I vividly remember or just recently discovered. Last week I tackled the weirdness that is Bjork as directed by the great Spike Jonze. This time we are going way back in time to the first memory of a music video I ever had. I was 7 years old and my sister (a music freak) was staying with us briefly, staying up all night watching MTV. I was familiar with The Cars since my dad played their debut record constantly. They had just released a new album called Heartbeat City which he purchased on cassette. I can’t recall which video came out first “Magic” or the one that has stuck with me to this day featured below. “You Might Think” is one of my favorite songs of theirs, which is featured on a less than stellar outing from the band despite hit singles like “Drive.” Suffice to say, the record as a whole doesn’t hold up as strongly as their debut, but this landmark video (at least in mind) is still well worth a look. Yes it’s uber-80s in terms of content and effects, but it’s goofy and groundbreaking for its time. The reason I chose it for the simple fact that Ric Ocasek as a fly haunted my dreams just as much as Freddy Krueger did at the time. I had nightmares of being stalked by fly-Ocasek and watching it now, I can’t help but laugh at the fact that seeing that animated fly actually scared me as a kid. What memories of music videos do you recall from your childhood that made an indelible impression — good or bad? Here’s the very first for me, and I’m not ashamed to say that I still like this song despite what the video did to me as a kid. Stay tuned next week for an “I Love The 90s” edition of Music Video Saturday!
In a beautiful poetic film of many diverse and wonderful characters, my favourite moment comes down to pure carnal desire. It’s a simple look and casual statement made by a sleepy-eyed woman to a man. Contrary to what he may think as she stands near a bed, she’s not tired in the least. Her gaze is direct and her smile is anything but coy.
It’s a wonderful sensual act which isn’t lost on her male companion – especially when it’s followed by the delicate positioning of her fingers on the bed and a deliberate reveal of her long legs.
It’s sexy as hell.
Whether you want to call it homage or straight up borrowing, P.T. Anderson’s great Boogie Nights certainly shows off its influences. Altman and Scorsese figure prominently, but another inspiration is Mikhail Kalatozov and his film I Am Cuba (which also happens to be a big Scorsese favourite too). Aside from being drop-dead gorgeous and a remarkably poetic piece of propaganda, I Am Cuba is known for several incredible long takes that, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, will still take your breath away. One of them starts 2 minutes into the film as a camera roams through a decadent hotel party and bathing beauty contest, moves down several stories, through a crowd of people and into the water of a pool to capture the swimmers under the surface. Anderson states in his commentary on Boogie Nights that they not only wanted to try the same thing, but have the camera come out of the water too.
It’s a showy scene for sure, but it also ties together numerous threads and characters from the story and emphasizes how these lost souls are all together in this porn “family” – whether as complete avoidance of the real world or as a temporary waystation. We see Buck Swope’s (Don Cheadle) search for an identity continue as well as Maurice TT Rodriguez’s (Luis Guzman) pleading to Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) to be included in one of their films. Midway through the scene, Buck and Maurice go inside the house together as the camera picks up another character, but we reconvene with them a few minutes later in another scene that closes on Amber’s newly discovered fascination with Eddie Adams.
My favourite part of the party scene, though, is the last part of the clip above and comes right after the first cut that follows the long take into the pool. Eddie (who hasn’t yet become full blown pornstar Dirk Diggler) is asking his new buddy Reed Rothchild if his just completed pike dive into the pool looked awesome. Reed is looking to play a mentor role for the young lad and decides to reign in his confidence a bit. “I’ll show you what you did wrong.” Reed lines up a full flip, but only manages about 75% of it and lands flat on his back. As Eric Burdon and his sexy sounding female vocalist continue to pulse on the soundtrack, there’s a great edit underwater to Reed’s pained expression as he slowly floats to the surface with his back arched. It’s one of the funnier moments in a film teeming with them (as much as it’s also terribly dark at times), but it serves a purpose too – once Reed pops above the surface and Eddie says “You gotta brings your legs all the way around!”, that mentoring relationship has ended. Reed’s final “I know…I know..” comment is a realization and acceptance that he’ll be playing the supporting role to the star that Eddie will become.
Once we see Amber hoover a line of coke and then gaze intently at Eddie landing a full flip properly (in slow motion of course), we are fully prepped to dive headlong into the downward spirals that lie ahead.
This is the story of the end of an era. For 100 years, movies had been shot on this – celluloid. Paper-thin, shiny, perforated. A medium so sensitive it could capture the subtle colors in snow. But in the ’90s, the digital image and Terminator 2 came and reality got less real. In these last days before that happened, as if to stave off the moment when the link between reality and movies would finally be broken, filmmakers around the world made passionate movies about emotions not spaceships or other worlds.
In this first of two episodes devoted to the 1990s, Cousins highlights the humanist dramas and insistence on realism that characterize a lot of non-American film in the 1990s. According to Cousins’ interview with Robert Osborne, the ’20s and the ’90s are his two favorite eras, because of the great diversity and innovation found there. Of course, he’s talking about anything but mainstream Hollywood cinema in the ’90s, which were, as Robert pointed out, full of remakes and formula films. Instead, this episode will take us to Iran, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Denmark, and France, while Episode 14 will focus on the American independents like Tarantino and the Coen Brothers.
Chapter 13 is more polemical than most of the episodes in its fierce defense of filmmakers using film (the actual medium) to capture human themes, which Cousins continually contrasts to the digital revolution on the horizon. He is so tied to this theme that it makes for some really weird comparisons, including a repeated offhanded vitriol toward The Lord of the Rings movies. Even though I appreciate the films he’s talking about here and am really interested in seeing many of them, his apparent hatred of hobbits and the fantasy cinema they stand in for makes this episode a little repellant to those of us who rather like some fantasy films mixed in with our human dramas.
[Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins’ epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week’s episode. I’m writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I’m going to just post catch-up posts over the next few days, and I should be up to date for this week’s episode.]
“I have my finger on the pulse of America.” – William Friedkin.
“These nine words killed the complexity of New Hollywood.” – Cousins.
After an episode on New Hollywood and one on the national identity-themed films from around the world, you’d think the 1970s would be tapped out, but not so – this is an incredibly diverse and interesting decade in film history, and this episode covers popular cinema of the ’70s with Hong Kong kung fu, Bollywood epics, and the beginnings of the Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a fun episode, filled with action and films most people already know, but with commentary that helps fit them into the overall story of film. Of course, some will accuse Cousins of again being anti-Hollywood in this episode, but I’m not really bothered. In his intro interview with Robert Osborne, he gives mainstream cinema of the ’70s a lot of props for being remarkably innovative, though in the episode he does point out how these innovative films set the stage for several decades of derivative mainstream films.
First, we go to Hong Kong and flashback to the 1950s, when the Shaw brothers became the first big name in Hong Kong cinema. Under the direction of King Hu, the kung fu film was really born – even if Cousins hadn’t made the connection, it’s pretty hard to miss the influence of A Touch of Zen on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the combination of a historical, romantic story, ethereal mysticism, and beautiful, choreographed floating fight scenes. Then comes Enter the Dragon, with the explosive physicality of Bruce Lee. Cousins points out that Lee’s films are shot with wide angles and long takes, so you can see the fights play out in real time, and then jumps to John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, which cuts often and uses various focal lengths, showing action and reaction in brief snapshots. So apparently we can blame John Woo for the frenetic editing that plagues action cinema today. I kid. But not really. I’d much prefer the Lee style of shooting for fight scenes.
[Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins’ epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week’s episode. I’m writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I’m going to just post catch-up posts over the next few days, and I should be up to date for next week’s episode.]
If I don’t want to be my parents, then who am I?
With this episode, Cousins again tries to broaden the Story of Film beyond the traditional story, this time with a very specific theme in mind – how filmmakers around the world made films that dealt with national identity in some way. The title makes it sound like a dry dissertation topic, but this is actually a pretty solid episode that doesn’t suffer from being spread too thin quite as much as the New Waves Around the World episode did. He also makes a great effort in this episode (as he has before, don’t get me wrong) to go to the places where each of these filmmakers worked, which gives his film as a whole the remarkably cinematic quality that it has, and gets across the sense of place that is, in this episode especially, incredibly important.
He goes on a tour of Germany, Italy, Great Britain (and Australia), Japan, Senegal, and Iran. In Germany, he focuses on New German Cinema, which is hardly new territory for the dedicated cinephile, but I have to admit this era in general is a blind spot for me. It’s not like the New Waves episode, where I struggled to keep up with a lot of new names and titles – here I’ve heard of most of the films mentioned, I just haven’t made time to see them yet. New German Cinema strove, in the words of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, to make films that are important, have something to say, and are born out of their own experience – that is, the experience of a generation whose parents were Nazis or lived under Hitler’s regime. Fassbinder loved Hollywood, but sneered at its romantic ideals, making beautiful but less glossy pictures about dark subjects. Cousins also covers Wim Wenders, Margaretha von Trotta, and Werner Herzog. Cousins suggests that these filmmakers all ask the question, “if I don’t want to be my parents, who am I?” – it’s interesting how many different approaches these filmmakers take at that question, making this a movement I very much want to watch more of.
[Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins’ epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week’s episode. I’m writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I’m going to just post catch-up posts over the next four days, and I should be up to date for next week’s episode.]
New Hollywood was full of mockery and stylistically bold. Old school laced with new truths.
We’re back on more familiar ground this week as Cousins moves into the New Hollywood films of the 1970s. After the upheaval of the 1960s and the tragedies that seemed to mark the end of the revolutionary spirit of the decade – the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, etc. – you’d think that the 1970s would be a rather deflated time in American filmmaking, but instead it’s exactly the opposite. The studios were floundering toward the end of the ’60s, desperate to attract a younger crowd of people – their solution was to give bright young film-school trained directors a shot, and the result was New Hollywood, which is considered one of the liveliest and most inventive periods in American movie history.
New Hollywood directors knew their cinema history, both American and European, and they respected and in many cases loved it, but they wanted to test the waters, to bend and break the rules. Cousins identifies three types of approaches common in American film of the 1970s – satirical, dissident, and assimilationist. I don’t think the distinctions are quite as cut and dried as he implies, but it’s a decent enough set of classifications to start. Satirical films look askance at society, believing that it’s too late to save it, so let’s poke fun at it. Cousins does point out that satire is hardly new to cinema, and gives some great scenes from the Marx Brothers to show it (he skipped them in his 1930s episode, so I guess he figured to sneak them in here), as well as some Frank Tashlin from the 1950s.
Film wasn’t just a window through which you saw characters and stories, it was a language and a way of thinking in itself.
Just about every episode, I’ve lamented that Cousins had to rush through some things or wished that there had been a whole episode devoted to something he covered well, but briefly. Holy cannoli, this one is the ultimate example of that, at least so far. In the introductory interview, Robert Osborne asked him how you cut this topic down to an hour and still get everything in. Short answer: you don’t. Turns out Cousins’ original cut of this episode was three hours long. I bet even that was pretty hectic. As it stands, this episode is one of the least satisfying so far, simply because you barely get acclimated to each new place/filmmaker/situation before he jets off to the next one. It’s simply information overload, and almost none of it sticks. I will concede that perhaps some of it is my own ignorance of a lot of the cinema covered here – I can’t fill in the gaps mentally like I’ve been able to in some of the earlier chapters.
After covering the French New Wave and the spread of new wave thinking into Italy last episode, Cousins shows how new waves spread across the world in this one, starting with Eastern Europe. Behind the Iron Curtain, film industries were closely monitored, and making the kind of personal films that the French New Wave advocated was in itself a political statement – many Eastern Bloc filmmakers faced political persecution for their films, which were seen as radical.
Cinema didn’t tell the story, it was the story.
Two episodes back I said how much I enjoyed the 1940s episode, especially since I love film noir so much. Well, my second favorite movement or faux genre might just be the French New Wave, so I’m definitely biased to enjoy Chapter 7 as well. If the 1950s were a cinematic pressure cooker bursting at the seams, constrained by the studio system and the mores of the time, then the ’60s were the explosion. The world had been in upheaval in the ’50s, but it became even more tumultuous in the ’60s, with the rise of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War, increasing nuclear fears, the hippie generation, free love, revolution, etc. Times were changing, and cinema, somewhat conservative in the ’50s, was now ready to change with them.
Before getting to the New Wave itself, though, Cousins looks at some of the highly individual directors who laid the groundwork for the more personal cinema that the New Wave celebrated. We’re in well-worn cinephile territory here (and really throughout this episode), with Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, and Federico Fellini, but Cousins still manages to bring out insights into their films and relation to the larger Story of Film that I hadn’t really noticed. These are all directors who started their careers in the 1950s or earlier and thus were an inspiration to New Wave filmmakers, even as they continued their own careers throughout the 1960s and beyond.