Monday, 28 July 2008

Yardstick: 100 Directors, 100 Pinnacles

This is, I guess, an official yardstick of my standards and tastes. The only rule I kept in composing this list: one film per director. The list is in alphabetical rather than preferential order of titles. But of course it's not just to say what I like - it also tells me what I have not yet seen, and so serves as a yardstick for my ignorance.

2046 (Wong-Kar Wai)
4 Months, Three Weeks, and 2 Days
(Cristian Mungiu)
40 Guns (Samuel Fuller)
(Federico Fellini)
A Hard Day’s Night
(Richard Lester)
A Man for All Seasons
(Fred Zinneman)
A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood)
Aguirre: The Wrath of God
(Werner Herzog)
Alexander Nevsky
(Sergei Eisenstein)
All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar)
Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville)
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick)
Belle de Jour
(Luis Bunuel)
(William Wyler)
Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Blue Velvet
(David Lynch)
Border Incident (Anthony Mann)
Branded To Kill (Seijun Suzuki)
Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale)
(Michael Curtiz)
(Roman Polanski)
Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding)
Deep Red (Dario Argento)
Diary of a Lost Girl (G. W. Pabst)
Down By Law
(Jim Jarmusch)
Dressed To Kill (Brian De Palma)
Ed Wood (Tim Burton)
(Gus Van Sant)
Far From the Madding Crowd
(John Schlesinger)
Fat Girl
(Catherine Breillat)
(Fritz Lang)
Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming)
Greed (Erich Von Stroheim)
Henry & June
(Phillip Kaufman)
Henry V (Kenneth Branagh)
Hour of the Wolf
(Ingmar Bergman)
In Cold Blood
(Richard Brooks)
Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson)
Johnny Guitar
(Nicholas Ray)
Kiss Me Deadly
(Robert Aldrich)
Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi)
Last Tango in Paris
(Bernardo Bertolucci)
Lawrence of Arabia
(David Lean)
Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
Les Enfants du Paradis
(Marcel Carné)
Levrés de Sang (Jean Rollin)
Marie Antoinette
(Sofia Coppola)
(Robert Altman)
Modern Times
(Charles Chaplin)
Mona Lisa (Neil Jordan)
Mr Smith Goes to Washington
(Frank Capra)
Naked (Mike Leigh)
Napoleon (Abel Gance)
O Lucky Man!
(Lindsay Anderson)
Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)
Operazione Paura (Mario Bava)
Point Blank
(John Boorman)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
(Steven Spielberg)
Red Beard
(Akira Kurosawa)
Repo Man (Alex Cox)
Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino)
(Jules Dassin)
Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks)
'Round Midnight
(Bertrand Tavernier)
Savage Messiah (Ken Russell)
See No Evil (Richard Fleischer)
Sherlock Jnr (Buster Keaton)
Shoot the Piano Player (Francois Truffaut)
Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick)
The Birds
(Alfred Hitchcock)
The Body Snatcher
(Robert Wise)
The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher)
The Duellists
(Ridley Scott)
The French Connection
(William Friedkin)
The Grapes of Wrath
(John Ford)
The Hustler
(Robert Rossen)
The Last Temptation of Christ
(Martin Scorsese)
The Leopard
(Luchino Visconti)
The Leopard Man
(Jacques Tourneur)
The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer)
The Mother and the Whore
(Jean Eustache)
The New World
(Terrence Malick)
The Pawnbroker
(Sidney Lumet)
The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor)
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder)
The Red Shoes
(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper)
The Thing
(John Carpenter)
The Wild Bunch
(Sam Peckinpah)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Thief (Michael Mann)
Three Times
(Hsiao-hsien Hou)
Touch of Evil
(Orson Welles)
Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(John Huston)
(Emir Kusturica)
Week-End (Jean-Luc Godard)


1minutefilmreview said...

Nice selection!

Roderick Heath said...


Marilyn said...

Interesting choices. I'm really surprised that you chose The Red Shoes as your favorite Powell/Pressburger film, and it's always a shock to see hack Sam Wood on a best list, even though I also love A Night at the Opera. I'd try to come up with a list myself, but they're too hard and I'm not sure what they're worth to me or anyone else.

Roderick Heath said...

Well, Marilyn, my mind fairly boggles at what The Red Shoes tries, and succeeds, in accomplishing - it's a dark, brutal noir film, a gorgeous romantic comedy, a neo-realist study in group dynamics and art as industry, a semi-surreal visionary parable, and it outclasses just about every musical ever made in intertwining image, music, and story. Not only is it P & P's best film, it could be the best British film ever made.

As for Sam Wood...A Night at the Opera was chosen as my favorite Marx Brothers film - the brothers part-auteurs of their own films anyway. But I don't know if I'd label Wood a hack. I understand he was an unpleasant right-wing jerk, and Groucho couldn't stand him, but he was a talented filmmaker who made some terrific films - Goodbye Mr Chips, King's Row, Command Decision (I know you hate Pride of the Yankees, and can't comment there) - and also pulled off something that other, better-known directors couldn't do - he made a good film out of a Hemingway novel, his superlative For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Marilyn said...

Well, when you put it that way, OK.

Really, The Red Shoes is a favorite of mine, too, but I find it marred by misogyny. Picasso never had to choose between art and love, but Vicky does, with tragic consequences. If I had to choose a P&P film (and how could I choose just one), I might go with Black Narcissus or maybe -- see why I don't make lists!

I guess I've seen all the bad Wood films.

Roderick Heath said...

I must politely but strongly disagree with your comment on The Red Shoes, Mare. And your comparison with Picasso is a bit laboured. You could easily point to the number of films about Van Gogh or others for spectacular examples of artists unable to make the choice that Vicky cannot make either. Romantic masochism is a common element of films about artists, and Powell/Pressburger too. It was a more common fact of life in the '40s that a woman gave up her career when she got married, but actually that's never an issue in the film for Vicki, which makes it borderline radical for the time. Julian actually promises her that she can "dance anywhere she likes" – just not with the tyrannical Lermontov, who uses people as much as he makes them. The choice between life and art - a total dedication and immersion in craft, that is, something rather more than the average career choice - is the guff Lermontov espouses, and Lermontov’s covering up his own jealousy, which, on one level (his admiration for her ability) he readily admits, but suppresses, another level of it, which is more personal. It’s suggested, if one is paying close attention, that he’s planning to pursue Vickie romantically when he discovers she and Julian are an item, and so his always-intense feelings of abandonment and betrayal when one of his chose flock departs, are raised to the Nth degree. Lermontov sets tragedy in motion when he violates the core ethos that is constantly displayed by the troupe – once respect is gained and good work is proven, then respect is a given. Lermontov violates this code by condemning Julian’s work and forcing his departure, trying to force Vicky into making a choice. She chooses one way, and then the other. It’s true – the final scene is astonishingly cruel as Lermontov and Julian argue and essentially pull Vicky’s psyche apart. But the film isn’t blaming Vicky for trying – it’s pointing out that facing such a choice is terrible, and the men are oblivious to her agony - their own adoration of her ironically reduces her to an objec they destroy. The clash between freedom of the spirit and a need to obey an ethos or controlling force that may be destroying you is common in P&P’s work, and could often involve male protagonists – from Clive Candy to the killer in Peeping Tom, who also can’t choose between love and his rather more savage form of art, literally a choice between creation and destruction, and he too destroys himself. Lermontov plays on the fact that Vickie respects him and his troupe over all others to manipulate her into agreeing with his ideal, but in the end Vicky’s death is more an illustration of her failure to choose in the face of such a decision. To a large extent she finishes as a martyr to her own idealism, dying for her lust for life, like the girl in the story she dances. Powell himself couched the tale’s success with audiences in terms of “after years of being told to go out and die for Democracy, this film said, ‘Go out and die for you art.’” In those terms, then, Vicky’s a romantic warrior for freedom who dies in battle. And all that’s without going into how the story deliberately mimics the shape of a classic fairytale with Vicky as the enchanted princess, Lermontov as the dark wizard, and Julian as Prince Charming, whilst simultaneously drawing out the flaws in such sketchy morality tales.

Marilyn said...

Rod, You're indeed correct that the film's story is mirrored in the ballet of The Red Shoes. (In fact, it has a lot in common with the Balanchine/Mejia/Farrell triangle as well, which it seems to eerily predict.) You're also correct that Vicky could keep on dancing, but on the condition that her mentor not be a part of it. This is a pretty big condition, considering what Lermontov represents--the height of the ballet world, Vicky's career epitome. The fact that two men have a pissing contest all over Vicky's career isn't a very enlightened response, and to argue that the 1940s made this kind of choice common seems as labored as you think my Picasso analogy is (which I don't - some artists struggle to reconcile their two lives, others don't, and others simply don't care).

Vicky does fail to choose, but the choice is not one she should have had to make. Yes, if you want to pull out the trope about artists sacrificing everything for their art, it makes sense, and certainly the film can be respectfully read this way.

I can't help that I'm a modern woman who finds this notion dated and particularly one-sided against women. Even though Powell especially was drawn to this theme again and again (including late in his career with the TV adaptatin of "Bluebeard's Castle"), that doesn't mean my reaction has to be respectful of his view. I don't subscribe to the life or art dichotomy anyway; it's an overly romantic notion that has killed more artists than it's made. A true lust for life would insist on having it all instead of trying to please two important men in her life. Her breakthrough moment never comes, however, and that's what destroys her--timidity, not boldness.

Boronskaya is the character who takes the middle path and is dismissed by Lermontov. She never quits nor makes a choice like that with which Vicky is faced.

Roderick Heath said...

Correction: Boronskaya retires, gets married, gets bored, and comes back to the company, an event Lermontov stage-manages. Lermontov is furious with her but he’s not in love with her like he is with Vicky, and so lets things slide. You’re also tone-deaf to the reason Julian bans her from going back to Lermontov – it’s not merely a career move, but Julian also thinks Lermontov is an egotistical, destructive bastard who will consume her to sate his own desires.

I’ve written before about how there’s a consciously conservative strain in the types of bo-pics that often get made about artists, choosing self-destructive types over calm workers and purposeful radicals. And yes, I’m sick of that. But you’re willfully missing the point here, I’m afraid.

First point - a P&P constant – characters in A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going, this, and Black Narcissus, are driven by a clashes of the spirit, whether between the divine and the earthly, passion and reason, sex and sanctity, money and freedom, and many of them feel the overt or subterranean influence of a supernatural agent in their lives, and let us observe the lack of clarity as to whether Vicky commits suicide or to whether she literally becomes possessed by the Red Shoes - the finish can be read both ways, as her own bewilderment over her actions may confirm this.

Second - no, it’s not a choice she should have had to make, and would not have had to make any other circumstance. But in this circumstance it’s not arbitrary. Nor is Lermontov’s and Julian’s clash just a pissing contest. Lermontov really thinks Vicky will only be fulfilled in dancing for him, the magician impresario. Julian really thinks that Lermontov is destructive and monstrous. Both men are right to a degree. You may not like that Vicky ends up being destroyed by Lermontov’s and Julian’ clash over her, but it is what happens, it portrays it unsparingly, and it’s brilliantly done by any standards. Yes, she is weak in that sense. But she’s not a weak person. She generally knows who she is, what she wants, and when she sees it, she tries to get it. Therefore, her finish is not merely a cautionary tale of a young women getting slapped down for trying to be something – it’s genuinely tragic.

Your reading is fine from a contemporary, feminist, rational angle – which is pretty boring, and irrelevant, considering the film is not about rationality, or enlightenment. None of Powell and Pressburger’s films are – they’re generally about passions that cancel each-other out. So many of their protagonists end up crucified on their own passions, and if that’s their sensibility, that’s their sensibility. It animates The Red Shoes as much or more as any of the rest of their work. The film takes a Freudian reading of the Anderson fairy tale and proceeds accordingly – the girl’s fatal dance is driven by a passion for life, with the coded sexual as well as artistic, elements of her mad dance, which, is unchecked, only exhaust you. So what you’re not seeing for the trees is that fact that Vicky takes her passions to their logical end – rather than having to choose a watered down version of art or losing her lover, she dances to her death, literally – she accepts no substitutes, because for her it is not fame or money or material things that are her measure of success – her gods are entirely ethereal. “Why do you have to dance?” “Why do you want to live?” “I don’t know why, but I must.” “That’s my answer too.” So for Vicky her passion is an all-or-nothing proposition. The Red Shoes keep her dancing, right to the end. This aspect is mirrored by the fact that she is presented, during the ballet with two monstrous conductors, Julian and Lermontov, who alternate. Her death is to a certain extent a final rejection of being conducted by them. When she is brought down to earth by Julian, her ideals are momentarily infused, on the stage performing, but it’s a fusion that doesn’t last. Her passion consumes her. It is perfervid nonsense from one perspective, but within the film’s logic, as being a multi-levelled exploration of the relationship of myth, and art, to life, it makes perfect sense.

I accept endings other artists provide if concords to their vision. For example, I vehemently disagree with the end of The Third Man – it’s Holly, a man who followed his conscience rather than his petty loyalties, who should be ignoring Anna, who’s blind to the sufferings of everyone but herself, not the other way around. But I accept Reed and Green’s ending because though it’s not to my personal moral and emotional code, it is true to theirs. And it is true, as the The Red Shoes’ end is true, to a vision – not designed to give a false comfort, but to give climax to a theme. If Vicky told them both to go take a jump, it would indeed be more liberating. It would also reduce it to a tawdry showbiz melodrama about a go-getter girl, a half-step away from a Doris Day musical. What you propose is turning a tragedy, which is supposed to make you shudder and grimace at the terrible things that can happen to people who gain self-awareness, into a cheap inspirational movie. The whole idea of tragedy is that a person who is strong can still be destroyed by impossible decisions – decisions that are impossible to them, to that person, by their ideals. Hamlet is not Macbeth – he cannot kill his uncle casually because it suits him. Oedipus cannot continue as King, like a hypocrite of the order of Claudius, when he realises he is the opposite of everything he holds as just. Phaedre, a moral woman, wastes away rather than let her improper love be known. Vicky cannot choose between Lermontov and Julian, because they represent equal, opposite ideals that she wants to embrace. So she races towards an end that’s terrible but also exultant, in its fashion.

As an artist, I pity Vicky and identify with her, and I think that though I too think the difficulty in reconciling art and life is oft-overstated, I also empathise with Vicky and Lermontov's conviction that some things are more important than material success - hell, I've lived my life by this precept. I also see bits of myself in Lermontov and Julian too. To a certain extent, the three of them contain the same elements in different balances. All of them contain passion, creativity, will, and a certain level of deadness to the feelings of other in pursuing the dictates of the first three. Vicky is willing to blow off Julian and dance for Lermontov as long as he doesnt know about it, and he, caring more for his marriage than his art, walks out on his opera staging. He'll give up triumph, something Lermontov would never contemplate. Vicky once again cannot reconcile the impulses.

No, The Red Shoes is not a feel-good film. But it is a beautiful film. It’s also a horror film, in its way. But maybe that's what I like, finally, and you don't - the plain simple grim nastiness of the end, which, whatever way you look at it, packs a punch.

Rosalind said...

Hi Rod....Ros from Res. school in Armidale, remember the one arguing back? just a quick note, love your selection of films. Tho' I'd have to elevate The Red Shoes above best ever british. It is my favourite all-time. Never get tired of watching and re-watching. I first saw it as a child, you're too young to remember, Bill Collins Golden Years of Hollywood. I know my favourite childhood movie should have been a Disney. inspired. beautiful. magic. everytime.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi, Ros! Great to hear from you.

I'm a huge fan of Michael Powell's films in general; watching Black Narcissus again right at the moment.

And I remember The Golden Years of Hollywood, thank you very much, though I never saw The Red Shoes on it. Some of my signal memories as a young film fan were in watching many of Hitchocok's films for the first time on it. Bill Collins still hosts it on Fox Classics, and he's still as lovable a gasbag as ever.

Anonymous said...

I saw "The Red Shoes" in the early 1950's, at that time women couldn't have it all. When it came to a career or being a wife there was a choice to be made. Vicky wanted both but neither man in her life would let her have it, she couldn't choose and so chose not to choose. I know this sounds simplistic, but that was sixty years ago. Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring were all superb in their roles.
The film was exquisite.

November, 11th 2009 3:00 AMm Thelma O'Shea-Jones