Listomania: Scorsese, Ranked!

 

So, I am bored. And when I’m bored I often make lists, as I am a nerd. Or I will troll the internet looking at other trollers lists. Usually they are movie lists, or sometimes they are Marge Simpsonish lists of things I might like to purchase. But mostly they are movie lists. So here is the first of a hopefully ongoing feature here at madebyotherpeople.com, Listomania!

In honour of a particularly fogeyish Academy Awards and me finally seeing Hugo, I decided to make a list of every Martin Scorsese film in preferential order. GoodFellas is really responsible for kicking off my love (that dare not speak it’s name) of the movies and Scorsese was the first filmmaker whose work made me want to learn more about the guiding hand behind the camera, so it’s only fitting that he should be the first subject of this series. Also, I was reading some particularly egregious lists of Scorsese films and thought I should redress the balance in favour of some of his less conventionally renowned (i.e. more complex, demanding) works.

So here it is, every fiction/narrative Scorsese film from best to blurst:

1. Raging Bull (1980): Obvs.

2 The Age of Innocence (1993): Exquisite seems too genteel a word for such a volatile film. Scorsese’s most delirious plunge into cinematic expressionism (Taxi Driver is a model of aesthetic restraint in comparison) where all of the repressed lusts and longings of D. Day Lewis are made manifest in a scandalously overripe mise-en-scene. Relentlessly paced, incisive about the labyrinthine and obscure demands a society places on the individual (really any society, but in this case mock-aristocratic 19th century Manhattan) and poignant about roads not taken, this stands tall with The Magnificent Ambersons and The Leopard in the distinguished twilight-of-a-gilded-age genre. In the words of Winona Ryder appearing on Family Guy: this is Most Good. Most. Good.

This guy pretty much sums it up!

3. GoodFellas (1990): Volatile seems like much too harsh a word for such an exquisite, dance-like film. Undoubtedly Scorsese’s most graceful piece of direction, it is also–in an oeuvre bursting with comic grace notes–his funniest film (with Raging Bull a close second–every other interaction between De Niro and Pesci is worthy of Abbot and Costello). The GoodTimes keep rolling (even the this-is-your-brain-on-coke finale is a hoot) until Henry Hill’s blank shnooks-grin in the final shot, leaving the audience with good ol’ case of ambivilitis.

4. Mean Streets (1973): Long cited as a rough draft for later goombah frescoes, Mean Streets is in fact the first film to vent the full force of Scorsese’s sensibility; with direction as lively and precise as ever, and performances at once method-edgy and tender. This really was the film he was born to make, and the fact he made many more at the same level of achievement and personal investment is… unsettling.

5. The King of Comedy (1983):  Not even Straub-Huillet have a film this ascetic and demanding. Your average Michael Heneke is a warm bath in the milk of human kindness compared to this cold shower of detached revulsion. A lacerating corrective to Taxi Driver‘s vigilante daydreams, this painful examination of Celebrity and It’s Discontents remains Scorsese’s most prescient film. Unrecognizable performance from De Niro as the wannabe Carson. Much too recognizable performance from Jerry Lewis as the aloof celebrity asshole. And Sandra Bernhard is on hand as the weird one…

The King of Comedy’s opening 10 minutes.

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Money Close Ups: Bela Balazs, Robert Bresson and L’Argent

It is a truism — or at least a provocative cliché — that God is in the details; and according to renowned culture critic, filmmaker and proto-cine-theorist Bela Balazs this idea is especially true in cinema. In his august essays, The Close Up (1930) and The Face of Man (1929), Balazs posits that cinemas ability to view life in close-up gives it the potential to reveal facets of every day existence that lie hidden from the human eye and subsequently reveal their infinite complexity–allowing the audience to see everyday existence in a new light. In The Human Face (1934), he outlines the possibility for the close-up to capture the fleeting, ephemeral qualities of the face (slanted smile, eyelash flutter, nostril flare etc.) and embalm them in celluloid. Thus for Balazs, this new light offered by cinema is a transcendental, spiritual one. In these essays Balazs espouses what is essentially a metaphysical reading of the cinema as a whole, with the close-up as his beatified tour guide through that  celestial treasure house of human features and behaviors called the movies.

The key notion in Balazs’s conception of the close-up is that, when properly and poetically utilized by the director, it allows the viewer to see the world in a new, heretofore undiscovered way, because it can focus their attention on tiny details that can not be seen, or go unnoticed, in daily life. Because the particulars of the cinematic experience — the two dimensionality of the movie screen, the audiences fixed position in the theater and the distinct focal clarity possible with the camera lens — go against the particulars human visual perception — rapid eye movement, blinking, multiple and constantly shifting focal perspectives, and physical movement in general — there is inherent within the cinema the possibility for the “camera to uncover the cell-life…in which all great events are ultimately conceived.” Therefore, by isolating specific objects and minute pockets of life in carefully articulated close-ups cinema can visualize that every grand, momentous event is, in fact, a symphonic accumulation of minute details. For Balazs the close-up transforms the general into the particular and, thus, it is possible for a director to express his own poetic / artistic sensibility and overall world-view through his precisely modulated use of close-ups, specifically by exploiting what Balazs views as their “lyrical charm”. Indeed, in Balazs’s view, the mark of great director is one who can uncover through the close-up “the world that exists beyond appearances” a world that lies in the soul of man, a world of transcendence.   

It is in The Face of Man where Balazs’s metaphysical conception of the close-up, and cinema as whole, becomes fully apparent. Balazs posits that close-ups of objects only have meaning because of the “human connection” that is apparent in the cinematic space that surrounds them. So that the meaning subscribed to objects or limbs in close-up is only present because of the human emotion that is attached to them. Following this logic, Balazs outlines that the greatest meaning and emotion in cinema exists apart from the world of objects, “in a new dimension,” that lies within the expressive qualities of the human face. He sees the movie camera as specially attuned to picking up the infinite complexity and boundless emotional expressiveness that can exist on the topography of the face, which he calls “the polyphonic play of features”. Since the close-up can uncover minute details generally hidden from the eye, when its focused on the “microphysiognomy” (265) of the human face it can reveal, in Balazs’s view, “strange new dimension of the soul” (265) Here, Balazs is espousing a transcendental reading of the cinema and is using the ineffable power of the close-up to purport what is, essentially, his own spirtualized world-view. His language throughout the piece that is adorned with blowzy metaphysical trappings, to articulate the great emotional power that can reside in a simple close-up. While this quasi-religious perspective may be questionable to some (to me) it is nonetheless forcefully expressed, and Balazs’s metaphysical notions of the close-up take on provocative new meanings in the obscure, sui generis cinematic approach of Robert Bresson and his 1983 film L’Argent.

The Bressonian method — a winnowing away of all dramatic / cinematic excess and artificiality — reached its apotheosis in L’Argent, which is undoubtedly the directors most streamlined and concise effort. The subject of L’Argent is the pervasive corrupting force money has in the modern world. The basic plot tracks — with a ruthless speed and logic — how one forged bank note can instigate a relentless downward spiral that causes a young man (Yvon) to go to jail, lose his family and eventually devolve (or evolve?) into an axe murderer. This bizarre and brutal succession of events is made sensical and meaningful through Bresson’s carefully delineated close-ups. The entire film seems to compartmentalize existence into a series of minute, controlled, almost autonomous gestures (i.e. money changing hands, doors being opened and closed; the clipped movements of arms and legs in general). Actions are performed with a clinical dispassion by Bresson’s actors and he shoots these actions in precise close-ups and pans and tilts from object to limb to object and back, through a set of confined spaces like a photo mat or a jail cell. The characters rarely speak , and when they do, it is with terse inexpressive language that betrays not a whisper of emotion. In this way Bresson can be viewed as a cinematic miniaturist who most expresses his poetic sensibility through his close-ups, which fits Balazs’s model to a tee.


Notice, if you will, the telling absence of the facial close-up in this crucial scene.

Indeed, every event in the film is shot in such a way as too thwart conventional expectation and uncover new associations between people and their surroundings. When a woman is slapped in the face, Bresson cuts away from the action to a close-up of a coffee cup spilling. More outrageously, when Yvon brutally murders a sleeping family Bresson focus’s his camera away from the violence and onto a dog nervously scurrying around the scene. In these, and many other instances, Bresson carefully places the viewers attention away from the inherent drama of the situation and onto the isolated objects that make it up, to articulate the ways in which these simple actions and gestures embody, shape and mold all of life’s drama, and ultimately have profound implications. This is a central conception of Balazs’s theory. By focusing us so acutely to the to tiny minutiae that makes up the fabric of quotidian existence Bresson allows us “to see the everyday in a new light” and discover the momentous in the infinitesimal.

Yet, a key to Bresson’s approach in L’Argent, is a reduction of facial expression and eradication of outward emotion in his actors, whom he tellingly refers to as “models”. Despite the increasingly wild events that occur in the film (forgery, blackmail, multiple-homicide-by-rusty-axe) the characters show little outward reaction and seem to wander through the film like bizarre somnambulist robots. This, seemingly, runs contrary to Balazs romantic view of the human face and its ability to convey the mysteries of existence. Indeed, their isn’t one facial close-up (a shot where it just the head and neck in frame) in L’Argent and Bresson’s willful suppression of human emotion — a denial of Balazs’s “polyphonic play of features” — in the context of some particularly horrendous events, seems to be a conscious effort by the director to convey a harshly pessimistic world-view — one that surely does not fit with Balazs’s starry-eyed transcendentalism. However, Bresson’s calculated avoidance of the facial close-up in L’Argent takes on much greater importance (and makes much greater sense in relation to Balazs) when placed alongside his most widely renowned film Pickpocket.

Classic pickpocketing sequence in Pickpocket. Ah, you don’t even need to understand French to be impressed by the streamlined beauty of the of the filmmaking.

It can be argued that is in this film where the Bressonian method emmerged fully formed, with its complex thievery scenes shot in precise close-ups of hands funneling through purses and wallet’s being fleetly passed around by a cadre of pickpockets. Yet at the end of Pickpocket (1959), Bresson indulges in a pair of long, anguished medium close-ups of the two main characters faces through prison glass, as they wordlessly acknowledge their love for one another; achieving a certain grace and spiritual redemption, thus conforming with Balasz notions of the transcendental power of the silent facial close-up. However, the Bresson of L’Argent proffers no transcendence for his characters (or the viewer) and our last glimpse of Yvon is in long shot, as he sullenly eat dinner in a cafe — directly after committing theft and murder — waiting for the police to arrive. Clearly, Bresson is implying that the world he has created in L’Argent is cold, bluntly materialistic and ultimately godless. Yet, he arrives at this brutally atheistic world-view by modifying Pickpocket’s narrative trajectory towards redemption in one key respect; by denying the final emotional catharsis that can be provided by a face shot in close-up. So in this odd, roundabout way, the striking absence of facial close-ups in L’Argent goes a great distance confirming Bresson’s belief in their transcendental power.

 

Bela Balazs in his essays The Close-Up and The Face of Man extolls the primacy of the close-up in cinema’s importance as a medium by describing their metaphysical, spiritual possibilities. Balazs views the close-up as an opportunity to see the world in a new light, by focusing on the small details that make up large events, particularly when expressed on the human face. His theory takes on new, provocative meanings when viewed through the perspective of Robert Bresson’s ruthlessly pessimistic L’Argent. Bresson’s precise, miniaturist cinematic approach frames life in a rapid succession of crystalline tactile close-ups, that in their originality, go far in visualizing Balazs’s claims. Yet, Bresson’s seeming denial of Balazs’s romantic view of the human face and his refusal to take L’Argent to Balazs’s transcendental dimension — a dimension Bresson thoroughly explored in Pickpocket — does as much to affirm his belief in its existence. Therefore, Balazs’s romantic, metaphysical take on the close up is, in an odd way, reinforced in Bresson’s most materialist and atheistic film. For Bresson sees the transcendental possibilities of the close-up and the expressive qualities of the human face and attempts to snuff them out in what can be considered his darkest night of the soul, L’Argent.

Cinema & Literature Pt. 2: There Will Be Blood

In my last post in this hopefully ongoing series about the perilous intersection between literature and film (with it’s gridlock, it’s exhaust fumes, it’s three car pileups complete with the rollicking hubcap) I examined a very thorough, respectful adaptation of a notable novel that actually managed to streamline, refine and improve upon the original (it was No Country for Old Men in case you forgot). And while straight soup-to-nuts adaptations like No Country seem to be the most prevalent in Hollywood, I think it’s been universally proven that loose, tentative, glancing, even disrespectful cinematic interpretations result in the more interesting and more interestingly cinematic work.

Off the top of my head, Bertolucci’s Conformist (based on the novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia), Wenders’ The American Friend (based on the novel Ripley’s Game) and Altman’s Short Cuts (based on a clutch of Raymond Carver short stories) seem like estimable examples of films that bent and disfigured their source material in endlessly intriguing ways. And the most recent and violent offender in this regard is undoubtedly P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, which in case you never knew, is based on muckraker-extroirdinaire Upton Sinclair’s panoramic novel about American ambition, hubris and folly Oil!

P.T. famously took the opening eighty or so pages and a thimble-full of characters from the novel and jettisoned the rest (which included about 20 years of narrative shenanigans and countless locale changes). What I find fascinating about this swaggeringly idiosyncratic film is that its first half –which bares a sidelong resemblance to Oil! — is by far the most successful in both narrative and form-matching-content terms: there’s a conventionally robust, wide angle view of the time (early 20th century) and place (America!) that gives There Will Be Blood intimations of the great social-humanist epics of Orson Welles or even the Godfather movies, where a few characters in a circumscribed but distinctly American(!) context are used  as grand metaphorical fodder. But the increasingly unhinged second half, which owes almost nothing to the book, is by far the most original and poetic and disquieting — as well as the most off-putting and obscure and uneven.

(Upton Sinclair: Time’s ‘Man of The Year’ circa, I don’t know, 1890?)

When Daniel Plainview kills his pretend brother and goes completely bat-shit this already brooding movie seems to swan-dive into the bog-water of the characters psyche and everything surrounding either gets sucked in or seems to never have existed. It is mostly extraordinary as an interior, expressionist hunk of cinema, but the larger ambitions of the first half are effectively thwarted. And yet, this just seems to make the film more interesting. Anyway, here’s my original review:

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Cinema & Literature Pt. 1: No Country For Old Men

Hey all, I’m hoping to start an ongoing series that surveys the intersection between film and literature–more specifically, on what mysterious qualities make a literary work ripe for cinematic interpretation. It certainly isn’t the inherent worth or prestige of the material, as the late work of John Huston (Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, The Dead etc. ad nauseam) and the thicket of middling Dickens and Austen adaptations will attest.

(Of course this is what Cormac McCarthy looks like…)

Mitch’s post on the Coen brothers upcoming sure-to-be-awesome ‘re-imagining’ of True Grit got me thinking of the Coens last sterling literary adaptation, the much-garlanded No Country for Old Men (2007), which was based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2004 novel. While I liked the book well enough — the dust-bowl-dry descriptive prose and pulpy, corkscrew plotting marked a nice shift in register from the elegiac romanticism of his Border Trilogy, or the inchoate Mellvillian bombast of the terrifying mega/meta-western Blood Meridian — I found  that McCarthy’s cosmic fatalism seemed awkwardly wrenched into an otherwise no-nonsense thriller, in the cumbersome form of the Sheriff Bell character’s italicized, galumphingly allegorical ruminations. By stripping away all the metaphysical bushwa (save for the film’s now classic open or ambiguous ending) the Coen’s actually allow McCarthy’s themes to accrue greater heft, even a measure of majesty. Anyway, here’s what I wrote back when it was first released and I stand by every word: I mean, can anyone think of a better Hollywood studio film that’s come out since?

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Great First Films Vol. 2

JUNEBUG (2005, U.S.A)

Like Ratcatcher—but without that films aura of wounded interiority—Junebug covers familiar terrain unfamiliarly. An ethereal golden boy returns to his Southern Baptist home with his Brit-chic, art-dealing wife. Once arrived they’re met by his domineering mother—a Pagganini of passive-aggression—his taciturn-to-the-point-of-autism father, his curdled, second banana brother (Ryan from The O.C.) and Ryan from The O.C.’s almost psychotically good-natured wife (a luminous Amy Adams). So far so what, you say? Of course, the cloistered eccentricity of small towners is a subject as old as, well, small towns but the filmmakers through a cocktail of complementary sensibilities manage to afford the film the texture and suppleness of a short story as well the austere angularity of a piece of minimalist sculpture. I’m mostly serious!

Amy Adams Kills It!

Angus McLaughlin’s bouncy, oddball screenplay is a marvel of stylized naturalism, where a thousand minutely observed details seem to magically cohere into dense quilt of strained familial relations. (Just witness how Amy Adam’s infatuation with meer cats devolves into a minor domestic cataclysm in the above series of clips). All of the piquant dialogue seems character-appropriate and region-specific, but also funny and revealing and just plain strange. And director Phil Morrison treats this bustling environment with cool obliquity.

Unassumingly shot on Super-16mm but exactingly framed, flatly lit but punctuated by sprucely arrhythmic editing, everything in Junebug seems right on and slightly off. The spare, spacious camera style adds an astringent melancholy to scenes of intense activity. Indeed, Morrison’s most quietly radical formal trope may be having the main action of a scene play out in, say, the kitchen and intermittently cutting to other rooms, seemingly at random, to check up on the other characters or simply to observe empty space. Used carefully, this a nifty, haunting way of articulating the peculiar loneliness of living within a suffocatingly close-knit family.

In short, Junebug is a wonder on nearly every level and despite somewhat stock characters (though every performance is inspired) and a stale conceit the movie arrives on the screen like a bushel of fresh produce