It’s undeniably one of the most bizarre films ever made, and it has always been one of my favorites. David Lynch’s debut, Eraserhead, released in 1977 but made intermittently for five years prior, defies categorization. It’s haunting and troubling enough to be a horror film. It has enough scenes of the peculiar and irrational to fall into the fantasy genre. There are the prevailing themes of marital strife and the burdens of parenthood, elements of any number of dramatic features. And there are plenty of moments yielding laughter, albeit a rather awkward and distressed kind of laughter, to make it a comedy of sorts. (As much as anything though, any laughing during this film may also serve as a defense mechanism, where the audience may try to brush off the disturbing and strange as comical so as to be less unsettling.)

So, what’s the film about. Henry has a girlfriend named Mary. She becomes pregnant - though, as she notes, the doctors aren’t even sure it is a baby. Forced to marry by her parents, the two unhappily assume the role of man and wife and mom and dad, taking care of the ... well, let’s just say “different” child. Mary can’t take the insistent crying of the baby and goes back home. Henry, meanwhile, does his best to tend to the child, who becomes visibly — and gruesomely — sick. What happens next is a barrage of the incongrous and engrossing. There are many elements of the film that give it its admittedly minimal narrative, but let’s be real, nobody watches this film for its plot.

Eraserhead is simply a just plain weird movie. It has a mood and tone unlike anything else. It looks and sounds truly amazing. It gets under your skin. You become uncomfortable at times, falling somewhere between a dream state and a place of higher consciousness. Sounds hyperbolic for a movie? Watch it and see.

David Lynch has made a career out of directing odd, unique and, more often than not, excellent movies. Eraserhead is certainly on the extreme end of odd, but there’s much more to this great filmmaker. Take a few steps back from the surrealism of Eraserhead (but not many) and you get to Blue Velvet, from 1986, one of the greatest American films ever made, a provocative examination of small town secrets. Then there’s Wild at Heart and Lost Highway (1990, 1997), two of his most inventive films, both fiercely eccentric in sound and image. His last two features, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire (2001, 2006), are also both brilliant in a typically unusual way, the former earning Lynch his third Oscar nomination for Best Director (Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man, 1980, were the previous two). These movies are all comprised to varying degrees of bizarre characters and absurd situations, though in them there’s perhaps more to latch on to than in Eraserhead. On the other hand, Lynch did also made The Elephant Man (bizarre subject yes, but not bizarre in form like other Lynch pictures) and The Straight Story, in 1999 (again, an unusual — but true — plot, but not style). And then there’s the pop culture phenomenon that was Twin Peaks, where he brought his unique thematic and stylistic sensibilities to America’s living rooms.

Still, Eraserhead is the high water mark in the cannon of cult classic cinema. In an era of the midnight movie when something abnormal and flamboyant was expected (see also Rocky Horror and Pink Flamingos), Lynch’s film managed to be exceptional and noteworthy even amongst this most savvy movie-going crowd. It’s a film that has to be seen to be believed.


The 39 Steps

        Despite having made such Hollywood films as Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960) — to name just a few of his many great movies — there are some who make the case that Alfred Hitchcock actually did his finest work in England, prior to his move across the Atlantic (his first American film, Rebecca, in 1940, would be his only to ever win a Best Picture Academy Award).

In this view, 1935's The 39 Steps, just released on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray, is a picture typically cited as one of his British best. It’s not difficult to see why. The 39 Steps, aside from featuring much of what we would come to associate with Hitchcock’s unique style, is simply a hugely entertaining film. It’s brisk, funny, suspenseful, and, given its construction, where scenes are acted out in rigidly established set pieces, it is remarkably economical in terms of aesthetic and narrative.

While making films in England, Hitchcock was not known exclusively as a director of thrillers. He dabbled in a variety of genres. He was not yet the Master of Suspense. But from his silent masterpiece The Lodger (1927) to The Lady Vanishes (1938) he no doubt excelled in the form. The 39 Steps, which refers to an ambiguous code name for an ambiguous group of spies, is a prime example.

Shots ring out at a music hall and Hannay (Robert Donat) ends up fleeing with a "Miss Smith" (Lucie Mannheim). The shots, it turns out, were from her gun. She was trying to stop a group of spies from receiving secrets detrimental to England. She fears the spies are now on her trail and, subsequently, also after Hannay. Back in his apartment, a glimpse out his window confirms this. Over night, the spies somehow make their way into his flat and kill the girl. Hannay manages to escape and becomes, in archetypal Hitchcock fashion, the wrong man in over his head in a situation he doesn't fully understand. This is a theme Hitch would revisit time and time again. In The 39 Steps we also see the emergence of another famously frequent Hitchcock component: the blonde. After some initial and prolonged reluctance to side with Hannay, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) becomes stuck with the fugitive. Though not buying his story at first, she gets the proof she needs and their relationship becomes solidified. But can they discontinue their bickering long enough to figure out who is after Hannay, and why, what do they want, and why does he continue to hum that strange tune?

Pamela doesn't quite have the icy composure that would characterize many of Hitchcock's later leading ladies, but Hannay is certainly one of the filmmaker's most interesting and compelling male figures. Donat performs in a perfectly understated, very wry, very British manner. Mostly he's calm, cool, and collected, and frequently very funny.

A third element at work in The 39 Steps, another that would remain in Hitchcock's later films, is the MacGuffin. This is basically a plot device ostensibly driving the film, one quickly becoming inconsequential to the audience. These features are merely a pretense for the action, the drama, and the romance. This goes along with Hitchcock's penchant for blatantly disregarding logistical issues, parts of the plot that perhaps defy reasonable explanation. Why do the spies not kill Hannay when they're in his apartment? What information are the spies after? What exactly are the 39 steps? Who cares.

Now I have to admit, I am certainly not in the camp that prefers Hitchcock's British films to those he made in America. As good as The 39 Steps is, and it is very good, it still represents to me more of a preview of what's to come. Visually and thematically, many of the Hitchcock hallmarks are there, as they were in several of his better English pictures, but for whatever reason the director was most profoundly able to flourish in the Hollywood system. Still, if you want to see some wonderful Hitchcock films made before the filmmaker was an icon of the cinema, The 39 Steps is an excellent selection to start with; I would also suggest The Lodger, Blackmail (1929 - Hitch's pioneering first sound film), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Secret Agent and Sabotage (both 1936).


The Gospel According to St. Matthew

As an avowed Marxist, homosexual, and, frequently, atheist, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini may seem to some a dubious choice to have made one of the most realistic, faithful, and, more than anything else, best films about the life and death of Jesus Christ. But, with The Gospel According to St. Matthew, from 1964, that's exactly what the acclaimed filmmaker, poet, novelist, and theorist did.

This gritty, unpolished depiction of the life of Christ contains many of the narrative hallmarks featured in other film versions of the same topic: the virgin birth, the early miracles, the apostles, Christ's persecution and, ultimately, the crucifixion. No other cinematic depiction of this story looks, sounds, or feels quite like this one though. 

Before making this film, Pasolini had directed his first feature, Accattone!, in 1961, followed by Mamma Roma, starring the astonishing and incomparable Anna Magnani, in 1962. He next directed the short segment, "La ricotta," for the 1963 compilation film Ro.Go.Pa.G. "La ricotta" was about a film crew, led by its director (played by Orson Welles), who are making a film about Christ. One of the members takes a position on a cross set up for the crucifixion scene, where, due to all of the food he just ate (including large quantities of cheese - hence the title), he unbeknownst to everyone else dies, from apparent indigestion. This short film, coupled with some of his past writings - much of which was heavily condemnatory of the Catholic church - led to charges of blasphemy and defamation of religion against Pasolini.

Nevertheless, one day Pasolini was preparing to leave Rome. As it so happened, the Pope was in town as well and was also departing. Roads were closed and traffic was at a stand-still. Pasolini wasn't going anywhere, at least not until the Pope made his exit. With nothing else to do to kill time, Pasolini found his hotel room bible. He began reading and was inspired. He found his next film subject - however unlikely. It was, as he would jokingly tell his Christian friends, part of their "delightful and diabolical calculation."

It took much convincing, but eventually Pasolini received the blessing and the assistance of the church. He argued that, aside from being well-versed in Catholicism, as much of Italy at the time certainly was, he also had a profound compassion for marginal figures, those neglected, those on the fringes of society, those, in other words, whom Christ would have embraced. Having spent considerable time in the poor slums of Italy, Pasolini said he saw scavengers and hustlers literally as "fourteen-year old Christs." He also understood, due to his political, sexual, and ideological inclinations, what it was like to face persecution. It's little wonder then that his Christ would be strongly shown as a revolutionary figure. He was, as Pasolini saw him, "an intellectual in a world of the poor, available for revolution." There was also the issue of maternal relations. The Mary and Christ relationship is obviously well-known, but Pasolini too had a notable bond with his mother, and she would always play a crucial role in his life. It's probably no coincidence that his own mother would portray the older Mary at the end of the film.

With economics student Enrique Irazoqui cast in the lead, Pasolini's aim was to "follow, point for point, the gospel according to Saint Matthew, without making any script and without any reduction." He added, "I will faithfully translate images, without omissions to or deletions from the story. Even the dialogue must be strictly that of Saint Matthew, without even a line of explanation or feeder lines: because no images or words inserted can ever be of the poetic height of the text.…  I want to make a work of poetry. Not a religious work in the current sense of the term nor a work of ideology. In words both simple and poor: I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer – at least not consciously. But I believe Christ to be divine and I believe there was in him a humanity so great, rigorous and ideal as to go beyond the common terms of humanity.”

The film premiered Sept. 4, 1964 at the 25th Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the Special Jury Prize. It would go on to also receive the Catholic Film Office Grand Prize. Critical reception, as one would expect with this subject matter, and with this filmmaker, ran the gamut. It was called, "A religious film and religious propaganda beneath the facade of a faithful transcription of the Gospel made by a Marxist..."; it was "A fine film, a Christian film that produces a profound impression." "The author - without renouncing his own ideology - has faithfully translated, with a simplicity and a human density sometimes moving, the social message of the Gospel - in particular the love for the poor and oppressed - sufficiently respecting the divine dimension of Christ," wrote one critic. "The fact is that this film is an authentic preaching of Communism, using the words of Matthew maliciously interpreted ... to have given this work a prize, and even in the presence of Fathers [of the church] was a humiliating concession to error ... to confusion," wrote another.

It's hard to imagine that today this film could stir the sort of contentious reaction of Hail Mary (1985), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), or even The Passion of the Christ (2004) - make no mistake though, King of Kings (1961) it is not. As with many movies dealing with religious topics, views on the film are going to be heavily swayed by personal belief, usually before quality of filmmaking can be assessed. But if one is able to wipe aside spiritual sensibilities and focus on craft, The Gospel According to St. Matthew surely stands as one of the best films to undertake this sensitive subject. Indeed, it is simply one of the great works of world cinema. Pasolini's distinct style, a modern, art-film blend of neorealism and documentary, is rugged and unadorned. The performers, though competent enough here, particularly the engaging Irazoqui, are all nonprofessionals; and the settings (in Italy) and costumes are remarkably authentic, yet notably peculiar.

Pasolini would continue to make films throughout the 1960s and into the '70s. This would include three extraordinary trilogies: those of his "mythic" period - Oedipus Rex (1967), Teorema (1968), and Medea (1969), and those of his "third path," the films that comprise his "Trilogy of Life" - The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). His last film, the brilliant Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), based on the Marquis de Sade's infamous work, would not be his final film by design. After completing this immensely powerful and extremely unsettling movie (maybe the most disturbing I've ever seen), Pasolini was found brutally murdered, under what are still mysterious circumstances. Pasolini, one of the greatest of all filmmakers, died November 2, 1975, at the age of 53.


The Gold Rush

“A sort of Adam from whom we are all descended.” – Federico Fellini on Charlie Chaplin

With The Artist and Hugo both released last year, it appeared that there may be a sudden return of interest in cinema's silent era. But, now that the novelty of these new releases has worn off, it seems we're back where we were with a vast majority of audiences placing little to no significance on films made prior to 1927 (if not prior to 1970!). However, there has always been somewhat of an exception to this. There is one holdover from the silent period that still warrants attention, admiration, and unadulterated joy, and one that undoubtedly still stands the test of time. That is the work of Charlie Chaplin.

There's still something about Chaplin's endearing and enduring little Tramp that maintains a special place in the hearts and minds of movie lovers of all ages. Taking a walk down Hollywood Boulevard, there are people dressed as superheroes, as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow character, as Marilyn Monroe, and as Darth Vader; but there amongst these popular, rather contemporary movie figures is another, the lone representative of the silent era – it's Charlie … and everyone still knows who he is.

What better way to celebrate this legendary film comedian than to watch one of his best, The Gold Rush, from 1925? On the heels of their recent releases of The Great Dictator (1940) and Modern Times (1936), the Criterion Collection's remastered Blu-ray edition of The Gold Rush hits shelves June 12.

With the possible exception of The Kid (1921), one could easily make the case for The Gold Rush as being Chaplin's best film until the 1930s, and this counts his shorts (he has more than 50 to his credit, the first of which were released in 1914). It also stands as a sort of preview of what was to be an enormously accomplished string of films to follow: City Lights (1931), Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and, later, Limelight (1952), where he shared the screen with fellow cinematic legend Buster Keaton.

Chaplin conceived of the idea for The Gold Rush based, in part, on some streoscopic slides he viewed at "Pickfair," the home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. These were images of the Klondike and of lines of hopeful prospectors anxiously seeking to stake their claim. The other part of Chaplin's inspiration came from a more unlikely source: the tragic Donner party and its gruesome conclusion.

The Gold Rush, certainly by comparison to the films Chaplin made previously, was a massive undertaking, with hundreds of extras and its fair share of behind the scenes drama, namely the relationship trouble Charlie had with his original leading lady in the film, Lita Grey. Just as filming was underway, the 16-year-old Grey got pregnant … by Chaplin. Much to Chaplin's chagrin, the two were forced to marry. Grey would be replaced by Georgia Hale, with whom, so it has been reported, Chaplin subsequently began having an affair with. (In a tantalizing Hollywood case of what could have been, the stunning Carole Lombard tested for the temporarily vacant role).

Scandalous anecdotes aside, there can be no denying the comic genius at play in The Gold Rush. It is a veritable clip-show in and of itself of classic silent comedy. There's the stalking bear that won't leave the hapless Tramp alone; there's Charlie dangling from the cabin as it too teeters on the edges of a cliff; there's Big Jim McKay, played by Mack Swain, hungrily imagining Chaplin to be a man-sized chicken, and Chaplin consequently donning a chicken suit strutting and flapping about; and then there are the two most famous dining scenes: In one, Charlie, after having cooked his shoe, twirls the laces as if they were spaghetti, then he delicately licks the nails of his shoes clean, as if they were bones. Later, there is the hilarious, if not totally original, dance of the rolls, a bit so popular that some exhibitors, at the request of the audience, would actually run the reel again just so they could see this sequence a second time.

In the film, The Tramp treks off to the Yukon to test his luck and stamina during the Klondike gold rush. His efforts are thwarted by harsh weather conditions and his life threatened by the burly and surly Big Jim, a perfect physical contrast to the meek Chaplin. In a neighboring town, The Tramp meets and falls for a dancehall girl, who does not (at first, of course) share his adoration. Eventually, he joins back up the Big Jim, who, due to amnesia, has forgotten where he had hidden away his riches. The Tramp and Big Jim finally retrieve the gold and, in the end, become wealthy men. All that’s left is for Charlie to get the girl…. 
The Gold Rush, one of Chaplin's rare productions planned with a fully developed script, would be the film he himself hoped to be most remembered for. It was successful enough upon its initial release, but Chaplin chose to re-release the picture in 1942, now with sound effects and a new musical score, which Chaplin helped to compose, and a narration, which was spoken by Chaplin. In what must be a singular instance, the re-release would actually be nominated for two Oscars for its sound work.

Chaplin’s life was chock full of fascinating personal stories and artistic endeavors, some not always successful. There was his troubled childhood, his miraculously successful start with Keystone and Essanay, his achievement of phenomenal global stardom, and his reluctance to make the transition to sound. And then there were his politics. Perhaps the saddest chapter in Chaplin’s story was when, in 1952, he was returning from England and his reentry permit was revoked by the FBI, a result of his supposed “un-American activities.” Eventually, all was seemingly forgiven and he was allowed to return to America in 1972 to accept an honorary Academy Award. He passed away five years later.

Today, Chaplin is one of the preeminent figures of motion picture history. He’s an icon for the movies themselves. It’s arguable that The Gold Rush is his finest achievement, and that’s saying something.

“The only genius to come out of the movie industry.” - George Bernard Shaw on Charlie Chaplin


Mean Streets & The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

Following the Ingmar Bergman double feature previously discussed, for this entry we'll stick with another combination of two movies, but this time with the theme of New York City in the 1970s.

From 1969's Best Picture winning (and at the time X rated) Midnight Cowboy, through films like The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Annie Hall (1977), and Manhattan (1979), and including movies of the so-called Blaxploitation cycle like Shaft (1971) and Super Fly (1972), the Big Apple was well represented in the 1970s, arguably one of the greatest decades for American cinema. And two films, Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), starring Walter Matthau, are classic examples of the period's predilection for urban drama and depictions of unrefined authenticity.

The former, Scorsese's look at violence, religion, relationships, and redemption inside a group of the city's lower echelon hoods, and the latter, about a group of gunmen who hold a subway train and its passengers hostage, convey the best and worst of the city in the decade. There was the rough nature of the city streets, the grime and garbage, the insular, isolated melancholy of some of the inhabitants, and the vibe of the bustling conglomeration within the city's melting pot society. In addition, it being the 1970s, there was the distinctive clothing, the hair, the unique cars and language, the music, and the aesthetic of the cinematography, a gritty, unpolished realism that went as far away as possible from the Hollywood gloss of decades previous. There's no mistaking where and when these films were made.

Mean Streets, just Scorsese's third feature, after the student film Who's That Knocking At My Door? (1967) and the Roger Corman produced exploitation picture Boxcar Bertha (1972), not only heralded the emergence of one of America's best rising young filmmakers (this would be further certified with Taxi Driver three years later, itself another '70s New York essential), but it also brought further attention to two actors who would become among the world's greatest: Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro. In the role of Charlie, Scorsese's autobiographical stand-in, Keitel plays a man torn between his ambition, his love for a girl he cares for but tends to feel ambivalent about, and his obligations to his dangerously erratic friend Johnny Boy, played with gusto by De Niro. Throw in Charlie's Catholicism and all the guilt and sense of moral responsibility that that entails, and you have a film of immense power. Then add to it Scorsese's penchant for sudden, realistic violence, rock and roll music in just the right style played at just the right moment, as well as his keen sense of cinematic technique, and you have a masterpiece.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, on the other hand, is not so much a personal work of auteurist art (its director, Joseph Sargent, would mostly stick with television movies from here on out, many, however, widely acclaimed), but it is a prefect example of a tension filled, wonderfully constructed, and extremely entertaining thriller. It's just another day for Lt. Zachary Garber of the New York City Transit Police, when suddenly he is forced to deal with a group of armed criminals who have taken control of a subway car and threaten its entire board of passengers. Garber, played with delightful cynicism and weariness by Matthau, contends with the bureaucracy of city management while doing his everyday, working man's best to negotiate with the hijackers, attempting to determine how they intend to reach their ultimate desired outcome. The film was recently remade with Denzel Washington and John Travolta, but this original is by far the superior picture. You can count among its biggest admirers Quentin Tarantino, who borrowed the color-coded nicknames of the villains in the film for his band of thieves in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

Mean Streets will be released for the first time on Blu-ray July 17 and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three will air June 11 on Turner Classic Movies (set your DVRs though – it plays at 2 a.m. Arizona time). Taken together, these two New York City gems are shining examples of the type of superb movies made during the 1970s. They're imbued with a strong sense of naturalism and earnestness of emotion and character that was unique to this period of America cinema. The directness of their storytelling and the unadorned quality of the performances make them both touchstones of the era.


Summer Interlude & Summer with Monika

With summer fast approaching, The Criterion Collection is apparently marking the season with the release of two of Ingmar Bergman’s early features, Summer Interlude (1951) and Summer with Monika (1953), both out now on DVD and Blu-ray. 

This was Bergman before he was the internationally acclaimed filmmaker of such classics as The Seventh Seal (1957), Persona (1966), and Fanny and Alexander (1982). Indeed, this was even the Bergman before Smiles of a Sumer Night, the film that in 1955 catapulted him to global cinematic stardom. Here, Bergman is somewhat lighter, and somewhat – but not much! – less profound. However, these two films are still notable for their seriousness, especially when you consider the frivolity that youth-oriented pictures are treated with today. They are introspective and realistic works that dispel the myths of youthful innocence while also reveling in the images and dreamlike nature of these moments of fleeting bliss.

Summer Interlude stars Maj-Britt Nilsson as a ballet dancer, and Summer with Monika features Harriet Andersson as the precarious titular character. Both were Bergman regulars, and both films, as the posters below indicate, were widely touted as exhibitions of young love and – especially the latter film – of scandalous eroticism. To be sure, the two actresses, particularly Andersson, were seductively alluring young women. But far from the sex romp these images seem to publicize, the two films are actually quite somber in their general tone. There are certainly moments of great joy and exuberance - these are the scenes associated with summer, a season of immense happiness in Bergman’s work (see the fond recollections of the elderly Dr. Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström) in Wild Strawberries from 1957). The purity and pleasure of the characters is a charming spectacle, if slightly archaic in this cynical age. But the films gain their emotional impact when summer gives way to the literal and metaphoric fall. This is when the idyllic hopes and dreams and illusions of the carefree confront the realities of adolescent angst. This isn’t some mumblecore melodrama though; it’s not even Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Despite their early placement in Bergman’s oeuvre, Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika are all the same still imbued with a notable melancholy, a crisis bordering on the spiritual that would be a trademark of the director’s later films.  

Summer Interlude is told in flashback as Marie (Nilsson) looks back on an event from her youth – an ephemeral flirtation with student Henrik (Birger Malmsten). Over the course of one fateful summer, their foray into young love becomes shattered by a freak accident and the misfortune affects her in ways she only seems to realize in the present day. As she recalls the tragic incident that transpired, and the magical summer that surrounded it, she is haunted by the recollection.

Summer with Monika features Harry, played by Lars Ekborg, as the eager partner of the film’s free-wheeling and mischievous heroine. Bored with their provincial and tedious life, and naively sensing that a better world exists elsewhere, they leave their jobs and family and set off on a whirlwind romance, oblivious to any negative repercussions. Reality is quick to set in for Harry though, and when the two head back home, get married, and attempt a life of domesticity, they are struck by the incongruous nature of their relationship.    

While each of these films have more than their fair share of merits, they really only hint at what was to come for Ingmar Bergman. If they were made by any other director, Summer Interlude and Summer with Monika would probably stand as unquestioned masterpieces; arguably the latter still ranks as one of the filmmaker’s best, most loved features. Now released in stellar transfers (par for the course when it comes to Criterion), both are nevertheless wondrous achievements that deserve their distinguished place in film history.


Certified Copy

Having presented his latest offering, Like Someone in Love, at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which just wrapped up Sunday, Abbas Kiarostami is again in the cinematic news. This makes it a good time to take a look at the Iranian filmmaker's 2010 film, Certified Copy, which itself was nominated for the Cannes Palme d'Or and deservedly won the best actress prize there for its star, Juliette Binoche.

Kiarostami's films are not known for their simplistic narratives. For example, his ground-breaking Close-Up from 1990, still arguably his best film, is a sort of documentary/fiction hybrid about real-life movie fan Ali Sabzian, who pretends to be real-life filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf so that he can gain admittance into the home of a family who is under the impression that he is there to film part of his next movie in their house. His ruse is discovered and he is arrested. Through the course of the film, the actual people involved in the incident re-enact the events that transpired, we see footage of the trial, and ultimately, the real Makhmalbaf meets Sabzian and they ride off together - and that's just the most basic description of what happens in this film!

Certified Copy similarly takes storytelling expectations and, along with normal notions of character development, throws them out the window. Here, Binoche plays Elle, an admirer of writer James Miller, played by William Shimell. Miller is promoting his latest work, about the pluses and minuses of a copy versus its original. It's basically a question of worth; is something fake, in some way, as valuable as something authentic? Elle expresses her admiration for the author and the two meet. They set off on a car ride and end up in a small Italian town. Along the way, as they discuss his work and its implications, their association changes. But does it really? They appear to be strangers, in the beginning at least. But, prompted by a waitress's apparently mistaken assumption, they start to role play as if they were a married couple, though they're not … right? They carry on like this, talking about the status of their relationship and their (fictional?) family. Eventually, this facade becomes more and more authentic, yet also more fragile. They genuinely appear to be a married couple, and their marriage is on the rocks. But they just met. How could this be? Is their relationship a fake? Or is it an original? These are questions brilliantly left open by the film.

What we end up with are two engaging characters and a narrative labyrinth that forces us to go back to the beginning and speculate about what we may have missed, if anything. Certified Copy is a mysterious film, one that doubles back on itself and prods the audience into second guessing its usual pattern of film reception and its practice of blindly accepting what is put forth. It's a typical art film device: a self-consciously provocative narrative, a story of intrigue told in an intriguing way.  

Having been directing since the early 1970s, Kiarostami has made some remarkable movies (some, unfortunately, still unavailable in America). His best include the back-to-back Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), two outstanding films by anyone's standards. Subsequently, he's become an international film sensation, if not always one well-received in his home country. He's a director who's every new film yields something exciting and unexpected. He has worked in documentary – his 2001 film ABC Africa is extraordinary – and he's went even further than the films so far mentioned when it comes to daring film structure: Ten, from 2002, follows an Iranian woman as she drives various passengers around Tehran, the camera never leaving its vantage point of inside the car, looking at either her or the passenger; Shirin (2008) is comprised solely of close-ups of 114 famous actresses' faces as they watch and react to a performance of the epic poem "Khosrow and Shirin."

In an era of the formulaic and predictable, Kiarostami brings continual freshness and vitality to the world cinema scene. Now, thanks to a recently released Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-ray, which also features his 1977 film The Report, an interview with the filmmaker, and an Italian documentary on the making of Certified Copy, even more film lovers can explore the marvels this director has to offer.


Samuel Fuller

He may not have the name recognition of an Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford, but from his first film, 1949's I Shot Jesse James, to his final feature, Street of No Return, in 1989, Samuel Fuller has left an indelible mark on American motion pictures.

An eclectic filmmaker of uncompromising taste and style, Fuller worked in a variety of genres, including Westerns like 1957's Forty Guns, starring Barbara Stanwyck, and Run of the Arrow — a sort of "feminist" and pro-Indian Western respectively — to gangster pictures like Underworld U.S.A. in 1961. Along the way, there have also been the indefinable, cult favorites like Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). But it is his war films that perhaps most explicitly carry the personality of their maker, and two of them, The Steel Helmet (1951) and Merrill's Marauders (1962), will be shown back-to-back May 27 as part of Turner Classic Movies' Memorial Day weekend line-up.

Fuller's real life was just as varied and fascinating as his films. Born in Massachusetts in 1912, Fuller would grow up on the mean streets of New York City. At just 17 years of age, he became a full-blooded newspaperman, working the crime beat and obtaining a gritty, hardened core that would stick with him for the rest of his life and would manifest itself in many of his films (Fuller's passion for the newspaper trade is touchingly on display in his 1952 love letter to the business, Park Row).

After that, Fuller began writing novels and screenplays and would go on to serve in World War II. In the Army, he was a corporal and combat reporter in the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, "The Big Red One." He saw action throughout his tour, including at Normandy, and he was part of a concentration camp liberation. In the end, he garnered the Bronze and Silver Star and the Purple Heart. When Fuller began making war films, rest assured, he knew what he was talking about, and this is plainly evident in the two films airing on TCM.

The Steel Helmet, just Fuller's third film, is about a group of soldiers during the Korean War. They are thrown together, not well suited to each other, and are seemingly in over their heads. Gene Evans stars as the grizzled protagonist, Zack. He's worn, weary, cynical and seasoned, and the film is as direct and earnest as he is. Fuller's abrasive dialogue, intensely realistic, is matched by his naturally direct camera work. There's an energy in his best films, a forcefulness that seems to have risen out of his journalistic philosophy and his war-time experiences, but, interestingly in contrast with this, there is a heightened poetic quality in some of the imagery; there's something almost surreal about the situation of these soldiers, holed up in a Buddhist temple as they are, and in the fighting that ensues. This being a Fuller film, made as the Korean War was just underway, the picture also contains undercurrents of sociocultural relevance, touching on everything from civil rights to communism.     

Merrill's Marauders, made years later, and with considerably more funds at his disposal (The Steel Helmet cost a scant $100,000), is a notable testament to Fuller's visual flair. Fritz Lang famously said of CinemaScope, “It's only good for funerals and snakes," but Fuller, shooting here in the widescreen WarnerScope process, is clearly at home with the horizontal frame. The scope allows for a notable balance of the marching stream of men as they are enveloped in the dense environment. It also significantly illustrates the solidarity of the men, with many of them filling the frame during times of stasis and action. In this film, we're again with an assortment of soldiers, in a archetypal men-on-a-mission setup, but now the action is set during World War II, in the Burma jungle. Against the odds, Jeff Chandler, playing Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, leads the downtrodden and exhausted group of soldiers on a perilous journey into enemy territory.

Fiercely independent, Fuller nevertheless worked competently within Hollywood's studio system during the peak of his productivity, mostly with B-grade budgets but still resulting in A-class movies; his relationship with Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck was often recalled favorably by the director, and their collaboration would yield what is arguably Fuller's finest picture, Pickup on South Street (1953). 

But Fuller would approach the end of his career with not only one of his best films — and one of the best war films ever made — 1980's The Big Red One, starring Lee Marvin and based extensively on Fuller's own service, but one of the most unusual and controversial movies of all time, 1982's White Dog, about a dog trained to attack African Americans (!) and its subsequent rehabilitation process.

Sam Fuller was not, to say the least, widely heralded when he was actually making his classic films. He was known and respected (Fuller's personality demanded respect), but his filmmaking skill was not suitably lauded. It would take several forward thinking critics, as well as contemporary American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, to really put Fuller back on the cinematic map, to reevaluate his career, and to bring fresh attention to his work.

One of the foreign filmmakers who early on treasured Fuller's output was Jean Luc Godard. In Godard's 1965 French New Wave masterpiece Pierrot le Fou (incidentally, my favorite movie of all time) Fuller even has a cameo. In it, the director sums up what a film is to him. He states: "Film is like a battleground: It's love, hate, action, violence, death… in one word, emotions." To the benefit of movie lovers the world over, all of this and more is in every Sam Fuller film.


Ulysses' Gaze

Earlier this year, the world of international cinema lost one of its giants, a filmmaker who truly ranked among the greatest of those working today. While walking near the set of his latest film, The Other Sea, the Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos was struck by a motorcycle, driven by an off-duty police officer, and died later at a hospital. A few months later, apparently by sheer coincidence, Artificial Eye would release the third and last collection of his works on DVD. Included in this set is Ulysses' Gaze (1995), one of Angelopoulos' best and most acclaimed films. 

Starring Harvey Keitel, just a year after his turn in the American masterpiece Pulp Fiction and two years after the controversial indie double whammy of Bad Lieutenant and Reservoir Dogs, Ulysses' Gaze would win multiple awards the world over, including the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (the film would not take the Palme d'Or, the festival's highest honor, prompting Angelopoulos to shockingly declare, "If this is what you have to give me, I have nothing to say.").

In the film, Keitel's character, A (yes, that's how he is known), is a filmmaker himself, returning to his Greek homeland after decades of absence to attend the screening of one of his more divisive films. Following the contentious presentation, he heads out on what is essentially a duel journey; he at once begins a voyage of memory and revisitations, while more explicitly also attempting to locate the earliest films made by the Manakis brothers, pioneering directors of the region during the birth of cinema. It' a personal and professional conquest reminiscent of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 or Woody Allen's Stardust Memories.

As A travels, seemingly back and forth through time, through his memories and perhaps even those of others', he encounters family members who have since passed, and various lovers, new, old, all played by Maia Morgenstern. To be sure, the film has its ambiguous qualities, and as A traverses through various Southeastern Europe locales, the film can tend to present more questions than answers. In his (one star!) review of the film, Roger Ebert also raises some questions, among those about the casting of Keitel. No doubt, he was an interesting choice, but in a film like this, finding an actor who could perhaps best play a character who is so vague to begin with seems of a secondary concern. (Ebert does at least credit the film for some of its remarkable images, particularly the enormous, dismantled statue of Lenin as it's loaded onto a barge, recalling the huge stone hand hovering in the air in Landscape in the Mist (1988)).

Most of Angelopoulos' work is impressive — at the very least, his movies are markedly distinct in style and tone — but Ulysses' Gaze is situated roughly between two of his most remarkable films, Landscape in the Mist and Eternity and a Day (1998). Not the most prolific director, his next film, also one that is particularly first-rate, was The Weeping Meadow, in 2004. Regardless of how many years passed between his films though, Angelopoulos, like most great filmmakers, maintained a notable aesthetic consistency in his output. There was almost always a slow, meditative pace to his films, emphasized by his meandering, single-take camera movements, often gliding across barren landscapes that suggest a time and place out of step with the modern kinetic world, and this was typically complemented by a somber, brooding musical score by Eleni Karaindrou. And then there's the weather in his films: snowy, rainy, overcast, windy, dull, quiet. It all adds up to a measured tempo and a sense of humanistic repose. Ulysses' Gaze is exemplary of these formal qualities. 

Ulysses' Gaze could certainly be thought of as one of those pretentious "artsy" films. It's slow, complicated, and unusual, all objections hurled at many foreign film directors - Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, and Miklos Jancso being among those most similar to Angelopoulos - but these traits do not a bad film make. It just needs to be viewed in a different mindset, with different expectations, and, if at all possible, with a different frame of reference when it comes to world cinema. Ebert suggests that "A" stands for Angelopoulos, and if that's the case (very likely), then knowing the filmmaker's body of work would also probably be beneficial in unraveling what would then have to be seen,  again, like the Fellini and Allen pictures, as an autobiographical exploration as much as anything else. 

Ulysses' Gaze, like the best of the late, great Theodoros Angelopoulos, is full of extraordinary visuals, starkly haunting locations, an air of mystery and uncertainty, and a plot complex in its causal development. All this and more make the film well worth a look … or a gaze.      


Bringing Up Baby

Be it the Western (Red River (1948); Rio Bravo (1959)), the Sci-Fi/Horror film (The Thing From Another World (1951) - uncredited, but largely responsible for directing), or the Gangster film (Scarface (1932)), the legendary Howard Hawks seemingly never met a genre he didn't like, and never worked in one he couldn't succeed with. One other type of film he excelled in was the Screwball Comedy, notably with films like Bringing Up Baby (1938).

Born partially out of early sound cinema's desire to hear talking, lots of talking, the Screwball Comedy took this desire for the spoken word after 30-plus years of silence and kicked it up the proverbial notch. Here, there was talk - fast talk, funny talk, absurd talk, frenetic talk, and talk that overlapped lines and had characters speaking on top of one another (this was decades before Robert Altman set the bar for such dialogue to unrivaled heights with films like Nashville (1975) and M.A.S.H. (1970)).

With the Screwball Comedy you had characters regularly at odds with each other, frequently in situations that only made it worse. They were ill-matched and usually of a polar opposite personality, and more often than not, they were made for each other. This is what we have in Bringing Up Baby, which airs this Saturday, May 12 on Turner Classic Movies, and stars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, the former as a straight-laced absent minded paleontologist and the latter as a flighty and genial but tremendously difficult heiress.

Throw in not one but two leopards — one, the tame one, being the eponymous "Baby" — and an adorable terrier named George, played by the famous canine Asta (think the 1930's version of Uggie, the pup from The Artist (2011)) and you've got hilarious, mad-cap, and sometimes exasperatingly ridiculous comedy.    

In a brief summary (to get too detailed about this somewhat convoluted plot would frankly be pointless), Dr. David Huxley (Grant) is anxiously awaiting a much-coveted bone to complete his museum highlight brontosaurus skeleton. In addition, he's scheduled to get married. All he needs is a $1 million endowment and he's set, professionally and personally. What could go wrong?

Susan Vance (Hepburn), Susan Vance is what could go wrong.

Bringing Up Baby has all of the trademark, whip-smart dialogue and all of the predicaments that would befit a film of this type - silliness is the rule. If the film crackles because of its screenplay, that is predominantly because it was co-written by Dudley Nichols, and if that name sounds familiar that's because he was also the scribe behind John Ford's seminal Stagecoach (1939), Elia Kazan's Pinky (1949), and Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) among others. Excellent films all.

But if the film stands firmly as a Hollywood classic, it's in large part because of director Howard Hawks. Despite having the aforementioned titles to his roster of accomplishments, as well as pictures like Twentieth Century (1934), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940) - possibly the fastest-talking picture ever made - To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) (believe it or not, there are more phenomenal films to his credit) Hawks only really gained the attention he deserved thanks to a group of young French critics writing in the 1950s. They rightly saw in his work a consistency of theme and character, a pattern of style, and a habit of superior artistry, all qualities that could go overlooked in the hey-day of studio production. Remarkably, he would never win a competitive Oscar; he was nominated only once, for Sergeant York (1941) and received an Honorary Award in 1975. With the likes of Ford and Hitchcock, Welles and Wilder, Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith and others of similar caliber, Hawks in retrospect can be seen as one of the great filmmakers of Hollywood's first 75 years.

Hawks in real life was just as fascinating and eclectic as his films. A former race car driver, who would serve in the Air Force before getting into the movie business, Hawks would befriend and/or collaborate with individuals as varied as Howard Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. One humorous anecdote involves Hawks and Faulkner setting out on a hunting trip. Along the way, they were going to discuss their next collaboration, but before they left Hawks received a call from Clark Gable, asking if he too could come along. As the three of them were heading down the road, talking about the script possibility, Gable earnestly inquired to Faulkner, “Do you write, Mr. Faulkner?” To which the renowned author replied, “Yes, and what do you do Mr. Gable?”

And then there's Grant and Hepburn. What's left to say about these Hollywood icons, other than they are at their best in Bringing Up Baby? Their characters are constantly butting heads with each other in this film, but as an on-screen duo, they mesh perfectly. After watching this picture, if more examples are needed just look at two films they made together within the next two years: Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940).

A lot of titles have been mentioned above, but this is mostly because these great moviemakers were responsible for one remarkable film after another. It was a glorious time for American movies, and Bringing Up Baby is a glorious movie. 


Late Spring

Four years before he would direct what is widely regarded as his masterpiece — 1953's Tôkyô monogatari (Toyko Story) — Yasujirô Ozu would make Banshun (Late Spring), a major film in his body of work, and one of crucial transitional importance. Late Spring, as the film is most commonly known, and as the Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD is titled, is Ozu's first significant post-war film.

Made during the American occupation, it only hints at the disastrous national and personal toll the war took on its characters. More than that, it uses this moment in time as a catalyst to explore broader, more universal, concerns. Late Spring, on one of its many levels, is very much about shifts in Japanese culture and sensibility at this unstable time. With frequent co-writer Kôgo Noda (notorious drinkers both, the two would judge their writing progress by the empty bottles of sake around them), and as per his tendency, Ozu would focus on an average, middle class family, emblematic of the Gendai-geki genre of Japanese film; and within that, he would examine most prominently the evolving institution of marriage, itself a common thread in many of the director's movies.

Here, the moral modifications of marital views are in the forefront. There is the unmarried daughter, Noriko Somiya, played by the charming and extraordinarily photogenic Ozu regular Setsuko Hara. She isn't concerned about finding a husband and she doesn't see the problem with her being 27 and without any prospects for marriage. She is more concerned with her most prized relationship, the warm rapport she has with her father, Shukichi, played by another recurrent Ozu performer, Chishû Ryû. Noriko is driven to act on the pressure to marry only after her widowed father seems interested in remarrying, like his friend has done, a thought that disgusts Noriko. Also adding a variation to this theme is the daughter's friend, the free-wheeling and extremely westernized Aya Kitagawa. She, against the antiquated norm, is happily divorced.

Being unmarried and not-so-subtly encouraged to finally marry, a decision that would turn one's world upside down; or considering the possibly of starting over again with a new spouse after the first one's death; or separating from a spouse for purely personal reasons, for simply wanting to be single again and away from that individual: these options all open up the possibility for a major change in the situation of these characters. They present the opportunity to make a decision that will have significant consequences, and they allow the characters to begin their life anew. Starting with Late Spring and continuing up until his final picture, An Autumn Afternoon (1962), many of Ozu's films would be recognizable by their seasonal titles: Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), Late Autumn (1960), among others. With Late Spring, the title truly signifies something. These characters are at a critical juncture in their lives. If spring is associated with rebirth, with newness, with change, then here too the characters are faced with an occasion for personal transformation, but the season is ending, the time to act is tightening. Late Spring also carries this notion of impending change further — though not so definitively — to general transformations in Japanese life. The film presents several juxtapositions between the traditional and the modern. There is Noriko's somewhat old fashioned sensibility when it comes to remarriage, set against Aya's casual observations about relationships, but there are more cultural disparities at play here. Late Spring is about tea ceremonies giving way to drinking Coca-Cola. It is about Noh theater playing against baseball. The war has done unusual things to people; society would not be the same — these are signs of the times.

To those new to Ozu's work, two things will most likely be instantly apparent in terms of style distinction. The first is the filmmaker's choice in camera placement. A majority of the time, the vantage point of the camera is at an uncommonly low angle, about even with the point of view of someone sitting on the floor. Why is this? Some have argued that it is indeed based on this sitting position, reflecting the view of an individual on a tatami mat. For the interiors of his films, this is reasonable enough; when inside, his characters are usually sitting down. But why then does he maintain this angle when scenes are outside, such as in an alleyway or along a street? Another possibility for this preference is that this low angle is that of a child's view. Sure enough, Ozu's films are full of children, but this doesn't hold up against the innumerable scenes where children are irrelevant. There is also the fact that such a low angle, especially kept in a wider shot, presents more of a given room, most notably the ceiling. This does seem somewhat intentional; much of Ozu's visual design is concerned with geometric patterns, of lines and depictions of interior space. However, a theory that possibly carries the most weight is that this position best illustrates a sense of balance, of order. It's a stationary arrangement that puts the spectator at a stable position reflecting objectivity and poise. Leonardo da Vinci's The Vitruvian Man is often cited as a reference point for this idea of equilibrium, especially given Ozu's preoccupations with contemplation and calm solemnity. (It's little wonder that Paul Schrader included Ozu as a key figure — with Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer — in his influential text on transcendental style in film.)

The second feature instantly noticeable with most of Ozu's work are his transitions between scenes. We don't often think about these devices when watching a movie, but in any given film, when it comes to going from one scene to the next, we're brought there by dissolves, where the new scenes blends over the old, or by fades to black, which is then frequently followed by a fade from black into the next scene, or we're transitioned via straight cuts to the next scene, usually to an establishing shot of some sort that situates us in a new location. With Ozu though, he incorporates something unique. When one of his scenes ends, before the next properly begins, we are held back from the narrative via seemingly unrelated shots of trees rustling in the wind, of buildings glistening in the sunlight, of bodies of water slowly spreading, of factory smokestacks, of vacant rooms, of clothes hanging on the line, etc. These "pillow shots," as they're sometimes known, don't simply bring us to the next scene, they bring us further into the time and place of each story. They are pauses in the drama that orient us not so much in the narrative progress, but in the world of the film. They are brief moments of reflection, extraneous to the apparent "action" of the film. These are moments in opposition to our normal sense of simply "getting on with it."

Do these two stylistic characteristics alone make Ozu great? Certainly not. But they do attribute to him a distinct formal technique and a distinguishing tone. He is a singular artist in the cinema, and each of his films are notably his and his alone. Their visual and thematic consistency can cause some to decry him for having made the same film over and over again (the similar titles can also add to this verdict), but by establishing such ridged formal patterns, Ozu actually conveys remarkable differences from film to film. These traits may be similar, but against their frequency, the variations of story and character actually become more apparent.

When American audiences were devouring the action-packed samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa in the 1950s (films equally great in their own right), Ozu was seen as being too restrained, too traditional, "too Japanese." But now, in retrospect, as Richard Pena points out in his commentary track for the Blu-ray and DVD, Ozu can be regarded as one of cinema's exceptional modernists. He ranks among the international masters of the form, and Late Spring is one of his best. Pena even goes so far as to argue that stylistically and thematically it is "perhaps his most perfect film."