Tag Archives: John Waters

The 20 Films That Influenced My Life

When Robert Curry asked me to write an article chronicling twenty films that influenced me, I wondered how I’d even go about such a large and almost impossible seeming task. On a piece of paper, I quickly made a list of twenty films, that list was never revised and several of the titles even surprised me. I decided to arrange the list in a chronological order based on when I had seen the film and where that film belonged based on my memory of when I saw it, and what impression it left. Some films are less obscure than others, some films are so associated with a time and a place I can barely separate them. Some films I would even hesitate to call my very favorite or ones that I would watch again anytime soon. What makes a film effective is what makes it memorable, that’s what an eighties blockbuster and a Swedish black and white art film have in common. From childhood to adulthood these are the films who made me what I am today as a person a writer and an artist.  

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  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

This was not only my first film, but my first memory. While a part of me resents the Disney Corporation holding such a heavy copyright over my childhood, seeing it at the old Dollar Theater with my Grandmother at age four taught me what a film truly was and should be. Its images of good versus evil, the blurred lines of beauty and ugliness left quite an impression on me, particularly the image of the Beautiful Queen drinking her own poison to turn into a hideous crone to take revenge on the innocent Snow White. I have never had the heart to see the film again as an adult, my vision of it as a child is entirely too perfect and can’t compare, which is perhaps why it’s so special for me.

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  1. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

While Snow White was my primer, The Wizard of Oz was my first serious gateway drug into film. Every obsession of mine has roots in Oz for me. Like many in a generation of little gay boys growing up in the nineties, the film’s transition from a beloved yearly television event to Video meant years of chaos and torture for my family, exasperated and annoyed by my constant viewing of the film like it were some ancient code I was trying to decipher, its influence rendering my father speechless when I promenaded down the stairs dressed as a starry eyed Judy Garland with red high heels.

Oz, for me and many, tapped deep into the psyche. It provided a myth that helped me cope with the everyday and subconsciously helped preserve my own individuality and self-worth against a background of trauma. For all that Dorothy and her friends believe are lacking, they learn they’ve had all along. It’s taken twenty seven years to understand what Dorothy meant when she tells Glinda that if she ever goes looking for her heart’s desire, ‘I’ll look no further than my own backyard’, but once you do well, that must mean you’re hooked as bad as I am.

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  1. The Shining (1980)

The first movie I was made to promise I wouldn’t tell my parents I’d seen. I remember the slight smell of marijuana, the giggly aura of babysitters and the VHS cover so old and frayed I could barely decipher the image of Jack Nicholson axing his iconic mug through the doorway. It was my first horror movie and still the only film that truly terrifies me to this day. Director Stanley Kubrick read Child Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment while researching his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Bettelheim ascertains that classic fairy tales are important to children’s development because they teach them to survive at all costs the injustices and confusion provided or rendered impossible to prevent by adults. While King’s novel focuses on a myriad of scenarios, in particular Jack Torrance’s alcoholism, Kubrick was wise to narrow the story in on Jack’s young son Danny, who must survive what, might be the vengeance of a paranormal hotel, but is most definitely the wrath of a father trying to murder his family in a psychopathic rage. Danny and his invisible, perhaps psychic friend ‘Tony’ is composites of a child navigating an adult world with a strong moral compass, and their example has helped me greatly.

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  1. Poltergeist (1982)

When I think of a film that best encapsulates the aesthetic of my childhood, this one fits the bill. Perhaps because we lived so far away, or my parents own errant decorative choices to blame, it feels like my childhood was still surrounded by the look of the late seventies and early eighties, much like the house our yuppie family is trapped in once youngest daughter Carol-Ann is kidnapped by evil spirits by way of a television screen. When I see the sometimes hilarious, often heartbreaking performances of Jo Beth Williams and Craig T. Nielson, I see my own mother and father. Most horror films, even ones with interesting enough premises, suffer from the utter lack of chemistry between actors with little to work with as far as any real or palpable drama is concerned. I think immediately of the scene where Mom and Dad sneak into their bedroom to smoke pot while the kids are asleep, and Mom tells a story about sleepwalking as a teenager. What horror movie at any time would think to evoke such loving, intricate details?

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  1. Hairspray (1988)

Like many, this was my first John Waters movie, I saw it in the late Nineties at a time where I was beginning to look through my family’s photo albums, in Hairspray I instantly saw the Sixties that my mother remembered, when Grandma had a beehive wig a mile high, where the next time you went to school you might get stuck in a race riot  and God, it sure was hard to get a white boy to take you to see James Brown on the other side of town. John Waters was the first director I became aware of who had his own persona through his films and interviews. Through him I learned a director could make a film and that within seconds of that movie, you could instantly recognize their vision, imagination and their philosophy.

John Waters’ couldn’t possibly have known that this film would not only be rated PG on its release, but that overtime it would induct him into the American Zeitgeist and make him a National Treasure in the process, thanks to a hit Broadway musical adaptation and a bloated Blockbuster remake with a disposable cast. While certainly without the edge or notoriety of his earlier films with Divine, in a way it is John Waters’ most radical film solely because of its popularity. To this day, it is still his most ambitious and personal film, tackling the heady and confusing early sixties of his beloved Baltimore head on, depicting everything from racism and classism, big hair and body issues as seen through the eyes of an ingenious main character, Tracey Turnblad, an overweight schoolgirl with a love for black music and bringing her racially segregated city together.

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  1. The Seventh Seal (1957)

Undoubtedly, the Mother of all Art Films.  At age twelve, we lived in a seedy neighborhood, its sole perk being a glorious, grimy old video store run by a cantankerous French woman and her far nicer employee. This place became my first film school and this was where I primarily learned everything I know today. The place was stacked with bootleg video tapes containing everything from Russ Meyer nudie flicks to Eastern European musicals with untranslatable titles. This place was quite the contrast to the world of Disney Videos and Cable TV I’d been subjected to and Ingmar Bergman was a hell of a place to start. This was the first film I ever felt I picked to watch myself, and the first time I discovered a film could not only be art, but be as complex and mysterious as life itself. It showed to me the importance of evoking a time and place. Never had I seen a middle ages so dirty and plague ridden, so wild, that one could actually believe that Death itself would appear to challenge a Knight to a game of chess. From The Seventh Seal, I learned that a film could be more than one thing. While at its core, a dark and probing drama on human existence and the inevitability of death, it is also darkly comic and ribald in the case of Death calmly sawing down a tree with an unwilling mortal in its branches. Bergman paid the price for making dramatic, unrelenting films, and it is often forgotten how humorous and versatile his filmography truly is.

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  1. Beauty and the Beast (1946)

One difficulty that often arises in the thousands of adaptions of fairy tales in film and television is the insatiable need to over-explain or in some cases, completely eliminate the unexplainable logic or disturbing elements of fairy-tales, Walt Disney being the main culprit. What keeps Jean Cocteau’s version so original and so fascinating to generations of audiences is its devotion to the original material, taking little liberty with Jeanne-Marie Leprince De Beaumont’s version of the story. Why does a Beast covet a rose? How could it throw a family into conflict? Cocteau doesn’t need to explain the logic of folklore, he merely follows suit and accentuates its inner poetry, asking us the audience of ‘…a little of this childlike simplicity to bring us luck.’  But this version of the tale reminds us that fairy tales at their inner core are never really child-like at all. Cocteau refuses to shy away from the violence and sexuality of fairy tales, showing us a Beast that even in the finest of clothes will not hesitate to devour a deer. When Beauty enters the domain of which she will stay in lieu of her father, her place in the Beast’s world is clearly a sexual one, one of rabbit fur beds that open by themselves, halls and rooms filled with lustful faces of stone, brawny human hands wielding candelabras in dark hallways. Beauty and the Beast is a filmic gift like no other, its influence extending to a myriad of film-makers from Jacques Demy to Spike Lee. This film is special to me because it shows the world of fairy tales that I grew up with, apart from the vapid cultural landscape of Disney, a sometimes depraved but always beautiful place filled with deep human truths and mystery.

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  1. The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter was the first film that made me weep. I wept for the child I was and the adult I had become. Its story expressed abstractly so many problems and anxieties of my own childhood. In almost mythic terms, The Night of the Hunter shows patterns, and cycles of abuse and trauma that occur in familial units anytime, anywhere and almost always going unspoken. Two children’s mother is seduced by a dark handsome preacher who happens to be a savage killer, convinced that the two children hold the secret to their dead father’s stash of stolen money. Perhaps what is so frightening about the film is its depiction of the decisive rift between adult and child that occurs, two parties helpless to understand each other. But perhaps what is so moving is the triumph of the children to overcome the monster so devilishly played by Robert Mitchum. Perhaps Lillian Gish sums it up best in the films ending as she gazes over a winter scene more ethereal than a snow globe, ‘Children are man at his strongest. They abide.’

Who knows how much talent was wasted when the great actor Charles Laughton died after directing his first and only film? It was pertinently clear that a persistent and unique visionary had emerged, influenced by such radical material as German Expressionist films and the work of D.W Griffith. In the puritanical mid-fifties, such influences went both unnoticed and unwelcome. What kind of film is The Night of the Hunter exactly? It’s poetic realism and stylized atmosphere doesn’t lend it to being considered a horror movie of its era, though its body count alone rivals The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It isn’t a children’s film but much if not all the narrative is seen through the eyes of children. Is it a fairy tale? Is it a drama? The Night of the Hunter is many things at once, and there is literally nothing like it.

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  1. Princess Mononoke (1997)

When I think of a film made from a singular, uncompromising vision, I think of Princess Mononoke. If any one director can be called an auteur, it would be Hayao Miyazaki. This film in particular is now legendary for Miyazaki’s obsessive overseeing the 144,000 cels that consisted of the entire film, re-animating over 80,000 of the frames himself, an unheard of feat considering both the excessive cost and time known to traditionally create a hand drawn feature film. Miyazaki brings fourth questions that other animated films seldom ask. Can nature be replicated in drawings? Is there such a thing truly as a hero or a villain? When do good intentions grow bad?  While Miyazaki’s career far from peaked after this; Princess Mononoke carries both an edge and a message completely unlike his later films.

When I’ve grown uninspired or discouraged while creating comics, I tend to refer to Miyazaki as something of an old master in the way that other artists would study and emulate the paintings of Michelangelo or Da Vinci, and more times than not, I feel the need to just throw out the towel and give up when I’m confronted with the intense beauty and nuance that makes up this entire film.

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  1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

No other film encompasses such boundless joy for the medium of film and all of its possibilities. Singin’ in the Rain’s plot is in fact, about the making of movies, chronicling the various trials and errors of a fledgling movie studio and its frantic transition from silent pictures to talkies in the Golden Age of Hollywood. And no other film fills me with such happiness and optimism. People often tell me they loathe musicals, but almost every time I remind them of Singin’ in the Rain, their faces immediately change, ‘Oh no, that’s different.’ And it is different. It’s a musical not bound by the same lapses in logic or operatic fancy that turn off many a viewer from the genre. By its being about the making of musical films, it can break and re-make the rules at any time. A scene can break into song because they’re about to film a number, a scene from an entirely different film can start playing because someone is trying to pitch a producer a scene for a film within the film. A montage can appear and literally burn a hole through the celluloid, men can leap off of walls and dance through rain strewn streets because Hollywood in its heyday was  the center of the worlds imagination, anything could happen there.

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  1. 3 Women (1977)

With the exception of several good movies, an ingenious film challenges everything you think you know about the medium. It came at an impressionable time, my teenage years and I still find myself wondering about exactly what happened when Millie and Pinkie moved in together. Robert Altman taught me that there was more to a film than just a plot-line, but that characters and the world they live in can be story enough. Shelly Duvall, Sissy Spacek and the ever mysterious Janice Rule give some of the best performances ever put to celluloid. All three bring us characters imbued with such nuance and complexity that we feel we truly know them. What happens is a purely organic experience that had virtually no real screenplay but scenes consisting of ideas where both actors and director worked together to create a universe of which these characters lived, breathed and became a part of the mystery, though no one actor or even the director himself quite understood what happened.

Only a director like Robert Altman could have made this film in such a fertile and confusing time as the Seventies, when the Hollywood Studio System was falling apart and giving way to a generation of new film-makers creating thought-provoking, genre defying films. It’s certainly a massive irony that 3 Women was released the same summer as George Lucas’ Star Wars, which would give way to a Hollywood Blockbuster Model the industry never recovered from, leaving small and abstract films like this in its wake.

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  1. Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

What exactly was it about the Seventies that brought us so many films that broke convention and refused to give us easy answers? While the crash of the Hollywood Studio System was one thing, the era also gave birth to several new industries as vast as Independent films, the mainstreaming of pornography and in some cases, national film markets that never even existed. Enter Picnic at Hanging Rock, the film that brought not only the Australian New Wave but director Peter Weir to the forefront of World Cinema.

It’s about the mysterious disappearance of three girls on a school trip to the ominous Hanging Rock one sunny afternoon in 1900 and the aftermath that follows suit, leading only to more questions. What gives it both such a dream like quality and a permanent sense of dread are the events depiction as some distant, collective memory. The ethereal Picnic scene seems almost to be etched in gold, a permanent but objective place in time that cannot be penetrated or interrupted. The image of the illusive Miranda is a reminder to all of us how fleeting and beautiful youth truly is, a specter of times past and never regained.

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  1. The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

It’s the Gone with the Wind of cult films, a cult epic even. A bold example of the Sixties Polish New Wave, a beloved early Midnight Movie in Europe and the United States, a film treasured by fans ranging from Martin Scorsese to Jerry Garcia who both paid to have the film not only restored but re-edited to its original length. No other film lives so entirely by its own rules, truly feeling like a movie from another universe, beating later auteurs like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam by literal light years in its nods to German Expressionism to its flights of flabbergasting absurdity.  To explain its plot would seem both impossible and pointless. It opens with the complexity of a Russian nesting doll spanning centuries as vast as the Napoleonic Wars to the Spanish Inquisition. We encounter Mystics, Quacks, Demons, Gypsies, Priests, Ghosts, Buffoons and Knights, but all seems to evolve around a mysterious book of which they all may or may not be a part of its contents. It would be impossible to watch the same movie each time, each viewing illuminates an aspect of the plot I’d never thought of before, some new and illusive detail you can barely decipher by the sheer overwhelm of beauty and surrealism in each frame.

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  1. An Angel at my Table (1990)

By the time I reached twenty one, I’d suffered a nervous breakdown that took me out of college, out of my home and into a situation I felt there was no way out of. When no doctor or person could give me solace or hope, I turned to film, to literature, to art for others who had endured the immense pain and fear I felt being alive. Janet Frame’s story appeared to me through this beautiful film and her own writing. I felt I’d found a good friend when I didn’t have one, and hope for myself.

An Angel at my Table is an adaptation of three autobiographies by New Zealand author Janet Frame, sprawling from childhood to adulthood with a seemingly effortless ease by Director Jane Campion, who finds poetic meaning and purpose in virtually every frame of its surprising 160 minutes. Janet Frame was hospitalized in an insane asylum repeatedly throughout the Fifties, enduring over two-hundred rounds of electro-convulsive therapy and was saved from a lobotomy when it was discovered her collection of short stories had won a literary prize. Overtime, Janet finds the confidence and recognition she deserves because writing was her only salvation. Besides eliminating Shock Treatments and Insane Asylums as the norm, not much has changed in our culture as to how mental illness is recognized and treated by doctors and society at large. There is much to learn and love from this film, it conveys not only a beautiful and tender portrait of an artist but tells us truths about our society, and ourselves.

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  1. Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

One of the few foreign films that played on mainstream Cable Television throughout the Nineties State-side, a film that’s special to me because it’s one of the few films I know my parents watched together and enjoyed. This was unusual since neither of them were even remotely fans of foreign film, let alone movies. I have no idea why they enjoyed it but I know I certainly did.

Sometime in Twenties China, teenaged Sònglián’s father has left her family bankrupt, deciding to marry into a wealthy family becoming one of four wives. Soon she discovers she has married into a bitter rivalry between all three wives, down to even her servants, all thanks to a philandering, abusive husband who quickly becomes her captor. She realizes she is unable to stand the rigid, exploitative life of a concubine and quickly begins to become a part of the house’s diabolical game of secrets, deceit and eventually murder. Zhang Yimou was one of the first champions of the Chinese New Wave, while the script was approved by the Chinese Government, the film was quickly banned when seen as the bold, feminist interpretation of China’s problematic past that it was. Politics aside, it is one of the best and most inventive uses of color in a Drama film. Yimou and his art director devised a color scheme that becomes a central part of the drama, each character and room is imbued with certain colors to define their psychological traits and their part of the tense, tightly plotted story. When Sònglián is given her room, it is aglow with red lanterns, treated to her favorite foods and foot massages, a perk that quickly goes away once her duties as a concubine become disturbingly clear. When her husband discovers her indiscretions, the red lanterns are covered in black silk, snow begins to fall. The art direction of a film is just as integral if not sometimes interchangeable from a script, a visual alone can tell the story or imbue the meaning of a film with something entirely different altogether. Not only do I remember well this tense, haunting story but it is synonymous with the atmosphere and its imagery.

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  1. The Devils (1971)

One of the most criminally underappreciated Directors in the recent Lovefest of Sixties and Seventies Cinema is Ken Russell. In his time, he was the most controversial Director working in the U.K. Not only that, his films made big money overseas, important for a then struggling British film market floating on Ealing Studio fare, Kitchen Sink Dramas and Hammer Horror flicks. Ken Russell wasn’t serious, he was at turns radical, flamboyant, controversial, offensive, thought provoking and sometimes downright pornographic. The Devils is to this day, one of the most controversial films ever made, and one of the few cult films that has never lost its notoriety or edge, perhaps because Warner Bros. has never been keen to release it uncut, or in any format.

Based on Aldous Huxley’s account The Devils of Loudon, a small town in Seventeenth Century France is taken siege by religious hysteria when town priest Urbain Grandier is accused of witchcraft by the hunchbacked Mother Abbess leading a convent of frenzied nuns, played brilliantly by a young Vanessa Redgrave. Ken Russell ingeniously turns this historical account into not a vision of the past, but of both past and present with sets influenced by everything from Hieronymus Bosch to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, designed by a young Derek Jarman no less. What appears is a bold, frenzied account of religious mania, paranoia, repressed sexuality and angst that is at turns frightening, hilarious and effectively dramatic. The Devils is an experience entirely by itself, a both brilliant and violent spectacle.

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  1. The Life of Oharu (1954)

When many think of the titans of Japanese Cinema and their effect on the world landscape, one would not be blamed if they thought immediately of Akira Kurosawa or even Yasujirō Ozu. Perhaps it’s a shame that Kenji Mizoguchi has a tendency to get lost in the wash. Though he made Samurai epics like Kurosawa and small modern-day dramas like Ozu, it was his old fashioned adaptations of classic Japanese Literature and folklore that gave him international acclaim. What Mizoguchi has, and what Kurosawa and Ozu both somewhat lack, is a very real empathy for his characters and the society of which they are born, and often mistreated, in particular women. It is said that Mizoguchi felt a great debt and empathy for women because his older sister was sold into Geisha-dom by their bankrupt father; it was apparently she who arranged with her clients in the freshly starting Japanese film industry of the Twenties to get Mizoguchi’s foot in the door.

The Life of Oharu is a sprawling epic tragedy set in the time of the Floating World, beginning with a haggard old woman who is asked by the other prostitutes who roam the dark streets to tell the story of her life, and what a life she has. After her family is denounced thanks to her affair with a page-boy, Oharu manages to bare the emperor a son but is banished again. She drifts from one misfortune after another, from becoming a Courtesan thanks to her bankrupt father, becoming a widow overnight, a denounced nun, and ultimately a prostitute, never giving up hope that one day she will see her son.  Mizoguchi manages to make the film both simple and complex. Simple in that he tells the story so straightforwardly, with a sense of honesty and morality which is unique for any film-maker of any time.  Kinuyo Tanaka gives a spellbinding, trans-formative performance playing a teenager, to an elderly woman without hesitating a beat. I have seen the film only once, but have never forgotten it, the sign that it works.

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  1. Scorpio Rising (1963)

It wasn’t too long ago that seeing a movie could put you in jail. Maybe that’s the true power of Kenneth Anger’s gay magnum opus and the jewel of Queer Cinema, Scorpio Rising. When the film premiered in California, the film was denounced and the print seized, soon becoming a case that went all the way to Supreme Court, helping become one of the many cases for Freedom of Speech throughout the Fifties and Sixties. Scorpio Rising is a devoutly experimental film with no plot or dialogue, it is a host of images that helped establish and cement a Gay/Queer visual language and rhetoric. Its parade of fetishized pin-up boys fixing motorcycles, clips of Jesus from old educational films, genitalia shots and clips from Sunday Funnies is a mesmerizing tapestry of subculture when that really meant something. Kenneth Anger is finally getting credit for being the first Director to effectively use pop music as a part of film soundtracks, an influence to everyone from John Waters to Martin Scorsese.

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  1. Jackie Brown (1997)

Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, I pick this film because it encapsulates what I feel is the greatest performance by an actress of all time, the legendary Pam Grier. She was as enduring an actress and bombshell as Marilyn Monroe, except she could whoop some serious ass. In her heyday as the undisputed Queen of Blaxploitation Flicks, she was just as popular as Bruce Lee and tougher than Charles Bronson. Jackie Brown picks up where the Pam Grier mythos left off, now she’s an air stewardess involved in small-time drug trafficking, busted by the feds and on her big-time drug boss’s death list as a possible informant. Jackie devises a Swiss watch plan to get her revenge and her hands on a heist that could make her finally hit the big time. Pam Grier gives a heartbreaking, tough performance as an older woman with nothing left to lose. How on earth was she not even nominated for an Academy Award or offered five starring roles that year? It’s a film that would literally never exist without her presence. Underrated is the fact that this was such an important film for Tarantino, fresh off the heels of the game changing Pulp Fiction, shocking the film world with the fact that yes, he could make a brilliant, restrained character piece using little of the excessive violence his last two films made him legendary for. Tarantino made one of the last great character pieces in the style of many a Seventies classic, while finding relevance and currency in the shifting Nineties.

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  1. Goodfellas (1990)

Back when I had television, this was one of maybe two movies that I would stop everything I was doing to watch. Though my list wouldn’t show it, I adore a good mob movie. While I’ve sat through maybe three or four dutiful viewings of Coppola’s The Godfather I and II, it pales in comparison when I think of what to me is the most wildly entertaining, enthralling crime movie ever made. ‘As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster’ begins Henry Hill, big-time mobster who with the Lucchese Crime Family helped manage one of the biggest bank heists of all time but that’s not all. He did jail-time, became a big time drug dealer, an FBI informant and ultimately was thrust into the Witness Protection Program. Scorsese directs it’s almost two and a half hours at a lightning pace that never stops, borrowing everything from the French New Wave to Donovan’s pop opus Atlantis. Goodfellas proves that main characters can still be engaging but at turns mostly despicable, even homicidal but they are never not interesting or unrelatable. Whether they’re stabbing a guy in the back of a car trunk or throwing bags of coke down the toilet, a part of you understands these peoples own version and expectations of the ever shifting American Dream.

by Thomas Lampion

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Humping Neil Armstrong While Dreaming Of Michael Fassbender

Despite the impression this site may have given, we have not been idle here at Zimbo Films.  Currently we are in the midst of cutting together some video for Emma Arrick’s Plant Me Here as well as continuing to develop Thomas Lampion’s Julie Lovely.  In fact, over the next week or so a few essays by Lampion will be published here on our blog that will chart the genesis of Julie Lovely as well as Lampion’s own coming-of-age in the cinema.  Companion pieces to those Thomas Lampion has written will also be written by both myself and my brother Hank.

However, what follows has little to do with Julie Lovely.  In fact the focus of this piece is to chart five experiences I have recently undergone at the movies.  I doubt I have ever written so much about films that one can still currently catch in theaters.  

Kamikaze '89Kamikaze ‘89

Directed by Wolf Gremm

Written by Robert Katz from the novel by Per Wahloo

Starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Günther Kaufmann, Boy Gobert, Franco Nero

Wolf Gremm’s masterful ode to Rainer Werner Fassbinder showed just once on June 8th at International House as part of a new national re-release of a restored print.  Despite my obsessive interest in Fassbinder this was the first time that I had seen this film from start to finish.  Perhaps it was seeing the film clearly for the first time (I mean this literally since every other encounter that I had had with Kamikaze ‘89 had been on VHS) that I was able to truly observe and appreciate Gremm’s film.  Kamikaze ‘89 is perhaps the campiest New German film I have seen outside of some of Werner Schroeter’s earliest shorts.  And Gremm uses this camp much in the same manner as John Waters, constructing a satire that is all at once conscious and reflexive.  The post-modern appropriation of logos and other visual signifiers is so abundant and so specifically American that the cultural synthesis between the U.S. and West Germany that informs so much of New German cinema is finally exploited to the last and laid to rest.  Gremm applies the same “over-kill” tactics to his allegorical scrutinizing of WDR and it’s relationship with state funded cinema in Germany.  

What was perhaps the most enjoyable part of the film was Fassbinder himself, turning in a performance as sleazy and graceless as Robert Mitchum’s turns as Philip Marlowe.  This is Fassbinder at his best, chewing the scenery, reveling in the design of Gremm’s picture that recalls equally Godard’s Alphaville and Fassbinder’s own World On A Wire. Fassbinder’s natural chemistry with Günther Kaufmann (former lovers and long time collaborators) adds a more realistic and nuanced element to the comedic proceedings of Kamikaze ‘89.  Though this natural chemistry reads as bittersweet in the context of Fassbinder’s death shortly after the film was completed.

I do not mean to give the impression that Kamikaze ‘89 is only enjoyable if one is immersed in the history of New German cinema.  My friend Gretchen who accompanied me to see the film enjoyed it very much without being a Fassbinder fanatic or German cinema aficionado.  For as she keenly observed (and I am paraphrasing) Kamikaze ‘89 “had tremendous entertainment value”.  The film is colorful, fast paced, unpredictable, kinetic, and lighthearted.  And to top it all off the film climaxes with Fassbinder humping a giant image of Neil Armstrong mid-moonwalk, then turning and finishing his cigarette as the credits begin to roll.  To quote my friend Gretchen again, “It was beautiful”.

The Lobster

The Lobster

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Written by Efthymis Filippou & Yorgos Lanthimos

Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Jessica Barden, Olivia Colman, & John C. Riley

The Lobster is one of the darkest films that I have seen this year.  In terms of it’s concept and narrative structure Lanthimos’ film is clearly indebted to Albert Brooks’ film Defending Your Life.  At the same time its formal staging and rigidity of performance recalls Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing and The Girl From Monday.  Yet The Lobster is without the sentiment of Brooks nor the wordplay of Hartley; two devices that help keep each respective filmmaker’s work from becoming too close to our own reality.  Like Kamikaze ‘89, The Lobster is concerned with a dystopian fantasy of our future where Lanthimos’ stylistic choices appear to be more a byproduct of the ill society that the film depicts.

As with Kamikaze ‘89 I saw this dystopian picture with my friend Gretchen.  And despite all of the craft and technical merits of the film, the journey of its characters proved a bit too much for our emotionally fragile conditions.  There is a bit of Fassbinder in the way The Lobster trudges forth in an onslaught of sadomasochistic relationships pushed to the brink.  On another night I know I would have found this film hysterical, but on the night I happened to see it The Lobster was only able to effect me in the most negative way.

 

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse

Directed by Bryan Singer

Written by Simon Kinberg

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac

Unlike The Lobster and Kamikaze ‘89, Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse is not about a dystopian future, but rather how the X-Men manage to avert such a future.  As the title makes clear, this installment in the X-Men movie franchise focuses on Apocalypse, an immortal mutant driven totally mad by his powers.  It would be very easy at this point to make explicit the discrepancies between Singer’s film and its comic book source but I do not believe that that would be very useful to anyone.  Instead I am going to discuss a subplot of the film that I believe was done a disservice by the filmmakers.

Michael Fassbender’s turn as Magneto is by far the best performance of any actor in a superhero film made this decade.  X-Men: Apocalypse is Fassbender’s third outing in his role as the master of magnetism, and interestingly, in this film he is given something new to do with the character that hadn’t been done in the films before.  Where the film begins Magneto is living in secret with a wife and daughter in rural Poland working at a blue collar job.  His powers and his daughter’s powers are kept secret from the other townsfolk.  But when Magneto uses his powers to save the life of a fellow factory worker Magneto is exposed.  This revelation of his true identity sets into motion a series of events that result in the murders of his wife and child.  Magneto slits the throats of the culprits and is soon about to exact his revenge upon the workers who betrayed him to the authorities when, out of thin air, appears Apocalypse and his cohorts.  In one instant Bryan Singer lets the most emotionally charged portion of his film come landing with a thud as Magneto’s slow descent back into villainy is exchanged for a moment of comic relief with Apocalypse.

Despite this most bizarre choice, X-Men: Apocalypse is a lot of fun.  It’s own self-deprecation in a scene where Cyclops and Jean Grey ponder why it is the third film in every franchise (they are referring to Return Of The Jedi) is always the worst made me snicker.  And James McAvoy’s bold performance choices, though sometimes a bit over the top, were always entertaining.

It is very difficult to make a film in this genre watchable at this point since every audience has seen all of this before, but Singer does a good job.  I did, however, have the benefit of having the real Apocalypse (a Toy  Biz action figure) sitting next to me since my brother thought to bring him.  I doubt many people have had quite the same movie-going experience.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War

Directed by Joe & Anthony Russo

Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely

Starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan

Unlike the films I discussed earlier I did not see Captain America: Civil War with either my brother or my friend Gretchen.  Instead it was a spur of the moment decision I made with Stephen Mercy.  Stephen has done some truly remarkable music for my films in the past and I have always known him to be a most thoughtful and reflective person.  I had never been in an audience with him so it was exciting to embark on a cinematic experience with Stephen, even if the film we were going to be seeing was Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War was the most boring spectacle I had ever witnessed on the big screen.  Stephen and I sat there un-amused for two and a half hours while the room pulsed with everyone else’s energy as they lapped up the latest installment of Marvel’s movie universe.  It became oddly surreal for a time before reverting to quiet frustration.  Captain America: Civil War offered nothing I had not already seen before in the genre of Super-Hero flicks.  It didn’t have the saving graces of X-Men: Apocalypse or the atmosphere of Tim Burton’s Batman.  All it had was the most base and superficial appeal of any summer spectacle.

There was one moment I did take a private delight in.  A few days before Stephen and I had our little superhero adventure my brother told me that in the film Hawkeye calls Ironman a “futurist”.  When I saw the film and heard the line for myself I smiled.  Though it is unknown to most, Robert Downey Jr. recorded an album in 2005 titled The Futurist.  This album has been the brunt of so many jokes between my brother and I over the years that there simply isn’t space to get into it now.

The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book

Directed by Jon Favreau

Written by Justin Marks from the stories by Rudyard Kipling

Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson

I saw The Jungle Book with my mother and brother about a week and a half after Stephen and his mother saw it.   Evidently the Walt Disney Corporation still holds a patent on all of our childhoods for better or for worse.  But unlike other Disney remakes of Disney films such as Cinderella or even Freaky Friday, The Jungle Book was different.  

Favreau clearly holds Zoltan Korda’s 1942 adaptation of Kipling’s fables in high esteem.  Not only does he create visual echoes of Korda’s film, but drew upon it aesthetically in terms of the designs of the CGI animals.  The effect of combining the Romanticism of Korda’s The Jungle Book with the original Disney animation of 1967’s whimsy and lyricism makes for a freshness that I had assumed left the studio with Don Bluth.

That is not to say that The Jungle Book is flawless or some sort of masterpiece.  As with Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, The Jungle Book’s greatest flaws are born out of an overindulgence of the action spectacle.  The forest fire that concludes the film is so preposterous in scope and execution that by its very artifice it reassures the audience that good will triumph over evil yet again.

Michael Fassbender

My Dream

Let me first say that the only film I own in which Michael Fassbender appears is Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank.  In my opinion it is still Fassbender’s best performance and Arnold’s best picture.  I like Michael Fassbender and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.  Regardless, shortly after I saw X-Men: Apocalypse I had a dream.

In my dream I am walking home.  It is a brisk spring day in the afternoon.  My shoe rips, leaving my toes exposed on my left foot.  I take a few steps forward but my toes begin to hurt.  Walking towards me is Michael Fassbender.  He looks determined, aloof.  When he seems about to pass me he stops.  “Your shoe is broken”.  Fassbender removes a needle and thread from his pants pocket as he kneels on one knee in front of me.  So very gently he takes my left foot, places it on his knee and begins to sew closed the hole.

-Robert Curry

 

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The Kitschy King Of New Germany

“The cinema of postmodernity suggests a society no longer able to believe fully its received myths (the law of the father, the essential goodness of capitalism, the state, religious authority, the family).  Yet it is also unable to break with these myths in favor of a historical materialist view of reality.”-Christopher Sharrett

Der Tod der Maria Malibran

If we accept Sharrett’s de facto definition of a postmodern society, we will find it realized in the paradoxical network of Metz’s cinematographic langue as employed by West German filmmakers beginning in 1966 and continuing through to 2016 in many respects (particularly with Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy).  West Germany was the pinnacle of postmodernism.  Shame, guilt, fear, and the necessity of economic rebirth mandated a national amnesia.  As if German identity had been on an extended hiatus between the mid-nineteenth century and the 1950s.  Desperately, post-WWII West Germany came to define itself through appropriated American popular culture and the myths and folklore of Bavaria.  Sharrett points out, rather astutely, that the myths of a postmodern society are no longer useful as myths, for they carry no true belief.  Thus, this is the paradox of Young German and New German Cinema.

Two generations of German filmmakers mined the past, realigned, and redressed it in a series of films whose intention was to debunk these mythic accounts with the intention of centering them on the contemporary desire to define the “self”.  The “self” of such films is typically an outsider, a superman of sorts, a homosexual, an immigrant, or a woman meant to represent that which is German.  Werner Herzog does this explicitly in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser (1974) and Heart Of Glass (1976), Rainer Werner Fassbinder also employs a similar tactic in Die Niklashauser Fahrt (1970).  Other German filmmakers asserted a new “Germanness” by aligning in opposition to American culture as opposed to Germanic myth, such as Wim Wenders.  The most explicit champion of a “New German” identity could be found in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and his films.

Unlike a majority of his counterparts, Syberberg does not restrict his films to the traditional narrative three-act structure.  Ludwig – Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (1972) and Karl May (1974) are epics dependent upon a synthesis of opera, set design, rear projection, performance, and cinematic montage.  In the history of the cinema, no other filmmaker can lay claim to having constructed Eisenstein’s proposed synesthesia on such a spectacular or massive scale.  Syberberg’s postmodern strategies juxtapose signifiers representing the immediate German past and the contmporary, pursuing their contrasts to the point of an implosion of meaning, as if he were wiping away cobwebs, unmasking denial, in a celebration of German identity and German cinematic heritage (a heritage, as for Herzog, rooted in the works of Pabst, Lang, and Murnau).

Syberberg and Fassbinder represent two of the most renowned names of German Cinema.  Though, beyond Germany itself, little is known of Werner Schroeter who represents an aesthetic forerunner to Fassbinder and Syberberg.  Both filmmakers have acknowledged Schroeter as a significant influence on par with that of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in shaping the “alternate style” of New German films (a style opposed to the realist and the literary traditions as exemplified by the films of Helma Sanders-Brahms, Alexander Kluge and Volker Schlöndorff).

Syberberg’s spectacles of a postmodern synesthesia invariably have their root in the visual language of Schroeter’s Eika Katappa (1969) and Der Tod der Maria Malibran (1972).  The plasticity and expressionism of Schroeter’s set pieces are clearly echoed in Syberberg, as is Schroeter’s use of auditory cues lifted from Wagner and Verdi.  Likewise, Fassbinder’s kitsch codification of histrionics within the context of classic German Romanticism are also born out of Schroeter’s films.

The need to define “self” that unifies the films and filmmakers of New German cinema across differing styles and approaches is also evident in Werner Schroeter’s films.  However, Schroeter’s films find that identity in the “self” reflected.  That is to say that the individual “self” of a character is found in the definition of that “self” as reflected by another character.  A communal quality permeates Schroeter’s early features.  Bands of outsiders, banished for their sexuality or race, or crimes, congregate in groups, creating a substitute family (a hallmark of John Water’s early films as well that also focus upon gay and outsider cultures).  This renders Schroeter’s films in opposition to the maladjusted families that threaten “self” in the films of Fassbinder and other German filmmakers.

Schroeter’s short films also have an outsider focus with a historical preoccupation.  His filmic meditation on Maria Callas is obsessive in its fetishization of the film’s subject.  This fetishization carries over into the long close-ups that begin  Der Tod der Maria Malibran.  The beauty of unconventional beauty is Schroeter’s most personal preoccupation early in his career.  In this way the very landscape of Schroeter’s psyche becomes part of the structure of his films, a singular anomaly in the canon of New German Cinema.

Eika KatappaHistorians such as John Sandford may relegate Werner Schroeter to the footnotes of New German cinema history, but Schroeter’s actual importance is critical to understanding the dialogue between the avant-garde and the mainstream in German cinema as well as the linear trajectory of influence.  Werner Schroeter’s cinematic standing is perhaps better understood beyond the confines of Germany.  Schroeter’s “outsider” persona, the homo eroticism of his work, and the repertory nature of his productions are the German equivalent to either Jack Smith or Andy Warhol.  Whilst his highly personal mode of filmmaking along with the camp elements of his visual style are akin to the 16mm features of Derek Jarman.

Personally the experience of watching Der Tod der Maria Malibran was shattering in both its beauty and its poetry.  It is perhaps the most moving cinematic experience since I first saw Kenji Mizoguchi’s Yōkihi (1955).  So I would like to conclude by quoting Werner Schroeter himself.  He better than most can find the proper words to articulate the effect truly substantial art has upon the spectator, which, needless to say, is Schroeter’s primary motivation and the source of his “Germanness”.

“It would be absurd to argue that the desire for beauty and truth is merely an illusion of a romantic capitalist form of society.  Without a doubt, the desire for an overreaching, larger-than-life wish-fulfillment, which we find everywhere in traditional art, which by all means includes the modern trivial media such as the cinema and television, signifies a need that is common to every man; for his all-too-definite appointment with death, the single objective fact of our existence, is an a priori forfeit of the prospect of tangible happiness.” (Werner Schroeter, Der Herztod der Primadonna, 1977)

-Robert Curry

 

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A Case For Transgressive Film

The films of the American avant-garde or Underground have always functioned as a cinema of opposition, a calculated subversion of the Hollywood mainstream and the cinematic devices it employed or propagated.  First there were the spiritual films of Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren and Jonas Mekas, followed by Stan Brakhage, who set out to reflect abstract philosophical and spiritual concepts by means of Eisenstein’s theories of montage, prompted by the then growing popularity of Buddhism and Hinduism in the West.  What followed was a serious investigation of the poetic possibilities of camp and ready-made signifiers that were the product of the popular culture of television and radio.  These filmmakers (Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Paul Morrissey, and so forth) were out to take camp into the taboo world of New York’s counter culture, wrought with junkies and homosexuals, dispelling the naïveté of Adam West’s Batman and The Monkees.  The seventies saw the advent of Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton’s structuralist films that dealt with minimalism and the philosophical readings of the single sustained image and an obvious backlash to the popularity of jump cuts in the mainstream cinema popularized by Jean-Luc Godard, Nagisa Oshima, and Arthur Penn.  But by the eighties the opposition had turned again to the popular mass media, employing the strategies and technique of MTV and Grindhouse movies to invent a cinema whose primary goal was not self-expression through opposition, but rather opposition as a means of expression.

my-nighmare-1993

This movement was known as the “cinema of transgression”, and first found its voice in the late seventies on the New York punk scene in a series of zines featuring the artworks of Nick Zedd and Richard Kern.  The validity of this movement was granted recognition from the elite of the underground by the early eighties with features in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and an appearance by Richard Hell in Zedd’s first feature (which owes a great deal not only to Jack Smith but also John Waters) Geek Maggot Bingo (1983).  The transition to 16mm film and VHS came quickest for Kern, who was a trained photographer and whose works remain the most vital today.

Kern’s narratives were often the product of collaboration with performance artist Lydia Lunch, who found tremendous inspiration in newspaper headlines about murder, suicide and rape.  The narrative devices of these short films have a shocking similarity to the drive-in rape revenge genre films popular at the turn of the decade.  Yet the swipe transitions, and the abrasive use of punk music recall the inherent artifice the filmmakers observed on cable television.  The violence and explicit sex of these films goes beyond exploitation, flirting with the snuff genre of pornography.  Where this dispelled much consideration by critics, to some it followed the basic pattern of the avant-garde, and spelled an intelligent fusion of specific techniques with even more specific content.  One could even argue that the transgressive film movement was heading in directions that didn’t seem that far off from the mainstream of the mid-eighties, and that even seem tame today when compared to what one can find on the internet.

Either way, one cannot ignore the necessity of the transgressive expression in its moment.  In many ways these films were more easily accessible to an audience in the eighties than they are today when we consider how quickly Richard Kern was able to transition from the underground to the mainstream with his Sonic Youth music video Death Valley 69 (1985).  It would be negligent not to observe that with Death Valley 69 Kern landed a spot on MTV programming, giving over to that which he initially opposed. Beyond this one instance the transition of transgressive tactics into the mainstream is much more subtle because it remains a degree removed from the mainstream.  Indeed the sexual violence of the transgressive movement would first be echoed in Todd Haynes’ film Poison.  It is a common mistake to assume films like Reservoir Dogs and Poison are the primary texts for the types of violence common in nineties American Independent films, negating any correlation, no matter how obvious today, with the films of Kern and Zedd.

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The ignorance toward transgressive film is partly due to the direction it’s leading auteurs took for their careers.  The most critically praised film director of the movement, Richard Kern, became a celebrity portrait photographer with strong dabblings in erotic art.  Meanwhile, Nick Zedd transitioned to DV tape and later HD, making films such as Elf Panties (2001) with Saint Reverend Jen that have found practically no public exhibition and only the most limited home video distribution.  Sensibilities have also changed, and the quiet spirituality of Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage’s films is in vogue again amongst the avant-garde, and perhaps best exemplified in the confessional works of Bill Viola.  Circumstance has been working against the transgressive film movement since at least 1992, relegating their films, in terms of their appraisal as legitimate works of art, to the kind of cult status Robert Crumb endured during the late sixties and early seventies, before Ralph Bakshi launched him to national celebrity with his film of Fritz The Cat.

-Robert Curry

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