Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Recent Classics (May 2010)

As part of my quest to see all the essential films listed in 1001 Films to See Before You Die, I have been lucky enough to witness some classic masterpieces, for the first time, over the last few weeks. Based on their inclusion in this list and also from other excellent praise from prominent film critics and recommendations from trustworthy friends, my decisions to watch these films have not been a mistake. The films I will mention in this post are: La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc [The Passion of Joan of Arc] (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928), La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960), The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960), Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961), Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1967) and The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974).

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc [The Passion of Joan of Arc] (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)

Stands as one of the most engrossing and visually intense silent films of I have ever seen. It would have still been an astonishing masterpiece if it were made only thirty years ago, but it is incredible to think that this is one of the cinemas earliest major works. The Passion of Joan of Arc uses the exact transcripts from the trial, spanning the time when Joan was held captive by the English. Dreyer creates such powerful images primarily through the use of contrasting extreme close-ups of Joan's face (one of the great silent film performances by Maria Falconetti) and those of her prosecuting judges. The faces become the canvas that display of all the emotion during this heartbreaking series of events. The characters have such interesting features, and despite the total absence of dialogue or sound effects, the films' message is driven by the expressions, and the occasional text page to demonstrate a key question or response. The swift cross-cutting between individuals is flawless for such an old film, and the faces are beautifully illuminated. The final ten minutes, consisting of the riots in protest to Joan's death are brutal and unforgettable, and are similar to the sequences that conclude Seigei Eisenstein's Strachka [Strike]. The copy I saw was accompanied by a haunting score composed by Richard Einhorn, and I can think of no better possible choice. This is no doubt one of the greatest films ever made, whose influence is still very very recognizable today.

La Dolce Vita [The Sweet Life] (Federico Fellini, 1960)

Along with 8 1/2 (1963), La Dolce Vita is one of Fellini's great masterworks. At almost 3 hours it could be argued it is a tad too long, but the series of compelling vignettes (or episodes) that cover the existence of a celebrity journalist, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), is impossible to not appreciate. It covers seven episodes, that could be seen to cover seven closely linked days in the life of Marcello as he battles his competitors for the best stories, socializes with colleagues and family, searches for true love, and seeks a seemingly non-existent state of happiness. Covering the media hub of central Rome, it brilliantly examines the glamorous lives of the media, and the scandals and affairs that accompany the lifestyle. There are many unforgettable sequences, most notably Anita Ekberg's stroll through the Trevi Fountain and the concluding gathering at the beach house, the dialogue is engaging, and the elaborate parties are wonderfully choreographed. Marcello Mastroianni oozes class, and his performance, like in 8 1/2 is brilliantly charismatic. La Dolce Vita must be seen at least once. A magnificent achievement!

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)

Would have become an immediate classic, and destined to remain that way. Billy Wilder is such a brilliant filmmaker, capable of drawing almost any emotion from his audience. The Apartment is both a hilarious satire about corporate businessmen and the affairs that fill their lives, and a moving drama about individualism, and living a life free from the influence of others. C. C Baxter (Jack Lemon) is a man with a great apartment and dreams of rising the corporate business ranks. When his bosses become aware of his hot spot, he allows them access to his apartment to stage their secret meetings, and repay him with promotions. But when Baxter falls for his bosses' latest girlfriend Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), things begin to get complicated as he struggles to not only win the girl but keep his job. Jack Lemmon is such a likable performer and he brings brilliant energy to his role, where his fast talking and quirky mannerisms work beautifully. Fred MacMurray is also great as his scheming boss, Mr Sheldrake. Another must see!

Sasom I En Spegel [Through a Glass Darkly] (Ingmar Bergman, 1961)

Ingmar Bergman, one cinemas most influential auteurs, declared Through a Glass Darkly to be his closest achievement to 'perfection'. It is a stunning work of art that headlines a trio of films that would later become the Faith trilogy [also including Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963)], that delve into some of the central characters' crisis with faith. Through a Glass Darkly is an examination of one young woman's descent into madness and the impact it has on her immediate family. The four central characters are Karin (Harriet Anderson), her husband Martin (Max Von Sydow), her father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand) and her brother Minus. The group is gathering to celebrate the return of David (who has been working abroad as a novelist) and the release of Karin from hospital (she suffers from schizophrenia). Karin's shock therapy treatment has left some mild symptoms, but potentially could develop into a relapse, despite the optimism of Martin. The complex relationship between each family member is examined during a period of 24 hours and they often function as mirrors to one another when they alone together. As Karin's condition worsens, she is taken care of by Minus, who fails to understand her illness. Thematically, is one of Bergman's darkest films. It grows in intensity, and the drama is tightly woven and ultimately heartbreaking. The climax is Karin's terrifying breakdown, as she believes that God will reveal himself to her through a door in the attic, appearing in the form of a penetrating Spider God, that would become a symbol in later works by Bergman. Through a Glass Darkly is a gripping work of art, where the brevity of the feature works to its advantage. The handful of characters are well examined and not a moment is wasted on idle activity. While I didn't enjoy it as much as Bergman's other established masterpieces, notably The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957), it is the work of a master auteur so assured in his abilities that everything he creates is as close to perfection as one can get.

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1967)

It is impossible to completely judge Persona after just one viewing! Often considered to be both Ingmar Bergman's greatest film, and one of the most renowned in cinema history, it is a hauntingly eccentric and erotic psychological drama. Dealing with a personal breakdown, which leads to her complete rejection of speech, renowned stage actress Elizabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is instructed by her doctor to spend some time out of hospital with her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson). Isolated from the world at a vacation cottage the two at first are warmed by each others company. Alma finds it comforting that someone like Elizabet is willing to listen to her as she recounts stories from her past, while Elizabet has enjoyed studying Alma purely out of interest as she slowly begins to improve her sanity. When Alma discovers a letter sent by Elizabet to her doctor, recounting an intimate story shared by the two in confidence, her attitude toward Elizabet is dramatically altered, and angered by what she views as a betrayal she grows tried of her prolonged silence, or lack of reciprocated personal information. There is a charge of eroticism constantly linking the pair, and Alma begins to attack Elizabet's regrettable decisions on motherhood, and at the same time reveals her own flaws. Their faces fuse together in a later sequence and we accept that both women are one and the same. But nothing is revealed completely and much is left open to interpretation. Persona functions as a personal reflection for Bergman on many of his previous works, and as the definitive conclusion to an era of his filmmaking. The two lead performances are fantastic, especially Bibi Andersson (who delivers one of the finest I have ever seen), and the sensual black and white cinematography is often unsettling. Requires multiple viewings.

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Made between The Godfather and Part II, this is often Francis Ford Coppola's forgotten film, but it is an exceptionally intelligent surveillance thriller that stands alongside the pair of Godfather films and Apocalypse Now (1979) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema. It was winner of the Palme d'Or at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival. Gene Hackman, in a brilliant performance, plays Harry Caul, an idol in the surveillance industry. He is an invader of privacy, and three people are dead because of his work. When he is assigned a mission to record a covert conversation in a crowded, public place, his self-made technology captures it clearly. At first unable to decipher what it means, and offered a large sum of money for the turnover of the tapes by a corrupt corporate company, Caul, fearing that the subjects' lives are in danger decides to solve the mystery of the conversation, and ends up becoming far to involved. Preferring to work alone and to remain free of any intimate social contact, he chooses to abandon his own policies. Cautious and patient, Coppola's film is expertly timed, developing reveals at a near-frustrating stall, with the intensity building toward into a shocking climax. The film utilizes groundbreaking technology at the time, and Hackman's reserved performance is just outstanding. Walter Murch and Art Rochester's score must also be praised. A very underrated masterpiece!


  1. Nice summary of the conversation, great film, it's actually my favourite by Coppola i think. Love the way you gradually hear more and more of the recording.

  2. This is old stuff. I have seen The Conversation since then, and I absolutely love it. Still doesn't top The Godfather Part I and II or Apocalypse Now, but it is still one of the best films of the 70's. It's a brilliantly crafted thriller - and Gene Hackman is sensational. It won the Palme d'Or! That's impressive.