In 2021, we did a podcast episode titled “Second Chances” (which we’re hoping to turn into something of an annual thing). In it, we discussed films that, for one reason or another, didn’t work for us but that we’d been wanting to revisit because we thought it might’ve been a case of “It’s not you, it’s me”: that we watched these films with the wrong kind of expectation, or that we lacked the right lens through which to watch it.
Sometimes, though, there can be films (or books, plays, poems, TV series, albums, games etc. etc.) that simply work on a wavelength that we’re not receptive to. This doesn’t mean that they’re bad or that we’re wrong or stupid for not liking them. I’ve long believed that most art that is interesting won’t be for everyone. Ideally I can still get something out of culture that isn’t for me, but generally this is a matter more of appreciation than of enjoyment. Often these are works that I prefer to discuss or read or watch a good video essay about rather than to watch.
But these works still tend to leave me with lingering doubts, especially the ones that have elements or aspects that I genuinely do enjoy: a scene, a performance, or perhaps a shot that sticks in my mind. And the same can be true for certain directors: I don’t generally like their work, but there’s something about it that makes it difficult for me to just conclude that they’re not for me.
I first saw The Piano at the cinema in 1993, when it originally came out. The film felt intense and erotic and physical. It felt adult – though, looking back, I’m surprised by how many films I’d seen as a child and teenager that I’d consider adult. Not because of nudity or sex, although they definitely featured those – I’m thinking of the likes of Milos Forman’s Amadeus or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor -, but because of the characters and themes, and because they were more than happy to leave things unsaid. They were ambiguous. Certainly, I also spent the ’90s watching things like Aliens and Die Hard and Jurassic Park, and I enjoyed those (though I never loved Jurassic Park, which always felt like a more family-friendly Jaws to me, and Jaws should never be family-friendly) – but where these now feel familiar, like cinematic comfort food, The Piano still has that strange intimacy that is both thrilling and discomforting.
Surrealism is tricky. Some dislike it altogether, finding it too random. Myself, I respond to some of it (as the name of this blog may suggest, I’m not altogether averse to a nice slice of Lynch), but there must be an underlying form, a sense that there is some form or logic at play, even if it is the dream logic of, say, Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive. As soon as it veers into the formlessness of Dada, I tend to disengage.
Valerieand Her Week of Wonders, by the Czechoslovak director Jaromil Jireš, leans more towards the former; its surrealism is definitely more dreamlike and Freudian than it is arbitrary, and most of its images aren’t all too difficult to interpret: blood falling on daisies signifies the onset of the protagonist’s first period, vampires hungering for Valerie’s blood and its power to keep them youthful represent sexual desire and the lust of the old for the young. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders isn’t hard to read – yet its tone, somewhere between uncanny and camp, is quite effective at times. It is the kind of film that works better the less it is interpreted, perhaps, because interpretation reduces it into shopworn tropes of Freudian analysis.
Also, sadly, it is very easily reduced to a sexual fantasy whose object of desire is a thirteen-year-old girl.
There are a number of classic paranoia films made in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s. The Manchurian Candidate is one of these, as is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.
The Parallax View (1974) by Alan J. Pakula clearly belongs on the list as well. It’s a classic, it’s memorable, it’s iconic. It has its finger on the pulse of a country and a culture where politics and murder have been intertwined for more than a century.
In January 2022, my favourite cinema ran a series of films that they gave the title Mythos Samurai (“The Samurai Myth”). We ended up seeing seven (how fitting!) out of eleven films, from Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptation Throne of Blood via the Tarantino favourite Lady Snowblood to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle anti-revenge film Hana – and, yes, Seven Samurai was also among the films shown. It was interesting to watch the films as different perspectives on the same motif: the samurai, the officer caste that protected the daimyo from the late 12th century to 1876. What was perhaps most interesting, however: how many of the films subverted the image of a noble warrior caste. The protagonists of these films were often ronin, masterless samurai who had lost their status, or samurai who doubted the tenets of their caste, and none of them presented a cool, badass ideal for easy consumption. The system that created the samurai was always presented in an ambivalent or downright negative light, even when the films clearly share a fascination with the aesthetics and iconography of the culture.
And that ambivalence towards the samurai, the feudal system they were a part of and the values they were meant to embody is represented best perhaps in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, a film that is grim and exhilarating, exciting and scathingly critical in equal parts.
Before watching Beau Travail, French director Claire Denis’ 1999 film, I’d seen two of Denis’ films: the 2009 (post-)colonial drama White Material and the 2018 sci-fi oddity High Life. My favourite cinema showed the latter last year as part of a series on women directors, so I went to see it – and came away nonplussed. Certainly, there were scenes that I found intriguing, and Denis’ strange science-fiction tone poem is often beautiful to look at, but I didn’t know what to do with it, and I still don’t. While I had some ideas about the overall themes of the film, it remained too fragmented and elliptic and I felt too much of a disconnect from the characters I was watching and the things they were doing. I could imagine someone else, and perhaps even me at a different time and in a different frame of mind, getting more from High Life, but I left the cinema with a vague sense of frustration – or possibly a frustrating sense of vagueness.
I may not immediately wish to revisit High Life after seeing Beau Travail, but Denis’ film, a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, definitely makes me think that I should keep looking out for other films by her. I could imagine that the one or the other would leave me similarly nonplussed as High Life, but I can’t think of any other director like Denis.
In 2019 (remember that time, a hundred years ago?), I nursed something of a briefish obsession with “Being Alive”, one of the songs from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970s multi-award winning musical Company – and perhaps like many others, I first heard it in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019), performed by Adam Driver. It’s perhaps something of an ironic use of the song: in Company, it is sung by the show’s central character Robert, an attractive but commitment-phobic man who, in the course of the song, comes to the realisation that he yearns for all of those things that make him shy away from an actual romantic relationship. In Marriage Story, the character who sings it is just coming out of a marriage via acrimonious divorce proceedings, and he mourns everything that he is in the process of losing. In spite of the very different contexts, however, the power of Sondheim’s song clearly comes through.
I’ve seen seven or eight films by Akira Kurosawa, but other than Ikiru and Dreams, the latter of which I saw about twenty years ago and don’t remember particularly well, it’s all been the Jidaigeki films, i.e. period dramas set during the Edo period (more or less) and featuring samurai, ronin and the like. Even Ikiru, which isn’t clearly set in the past, feels like it is about the past to some extent, as it is the story of an old man looking back at his life.
High and Low immediately makes for a striking contrast: it is set in the present day in a big city, its protagonists are businessmen and police detectives. More than that, while the film was released in 1963, there are many elements that would easily translate into our present day, and while High and Low comments on class in specifically Japanese contexts, much of its commentary could work equally well outside Japan. All of this comes together to make High and Low feel modern, in terms of the story, characters and the filmmaking itself – even almost sixty years after its release.
Has there ever been a director as Marmitey as Lars von Trier? And, let’s be honest, that’s exactly how von Trier likes it. At least for a while, there were few directors as keen as him to cultivate their own bad boy image. Which in turn makes it difficult to consider his films independently from one’s reaction to von Trier himself – and as a result, I’m always surprised to find that I truly enjoy many of his films (though for now I keep avoiding Breaking the Waves and The House that Jack Built).
Europa, the third stop on my tour of my Criterion backlog, is no exception. Of the three films I’ve watched since beginning this series, this is probably the one I’ve enjoyed most immediately.
I’ve never read In Cold Blood – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Truman Capote. I have seen the two competing films about the writing of In Cold Blood, though, Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006), in which the idiosyncratic author was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toby Jones respectively, so I was quite aware of what Capote’s novel, and its 1967 film adaptation, would be about. I was also aware of the whole discourse about the non-fiction novel, the genre that Capote adopted. Did Capote create, or at least shape, the format that we’ve come to know as true crime? Or did he just reflect cultural anxieties and currents that were already forming?