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Fear City: Abel Ferrara In Transition

Fear City

Abel Ferrara’s career, and more importantly his influence upon the American cinema, has almost exclusively been within the vernacular of the genre film.  Most consistently, he has worked within the crime film or neo-noir genre.  In the 1990s he found his greatest critical and commercial successes with the films King Of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Addiction (1995).  If one considers that, with the exception of The Addiction, all of these films are crime films, one begins to understand how important the aesthetic milieu of the genre is to his work.  For although The Addiction is more specifically a horror film, it too cannot escape many of the aesthetic trappings of his neo-noir works, a significant fact since this case of aesthetic appropriation occurs in virtually all of his non-crime films in one form or another.

It’s also important to note that Ferrara’s contemporaries, as varied as Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, and Sara Driver, are all essentially postmodernists as well as minimalists, though the latter is often only true out of budgetary necessity.  That said, Ferrara and Mann are the only two who are principally concerned with finding a means by which to align classic genres toward more contemporary political concerns as well as to contemporary aesthetic tastes.  Mann does this with an uncanny aptness for “updating” what is essentially old material (1986’s Manhunter), while Ferrara subverts and deconstructs his genre films in the process of discovering new possibilities for characters that appear to initially be archetypal in many respects.

However, what can never be stressed enough, particularly during the phase of Ferrara’s career between the pornographic 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) and the intimate epic The Funeral (1996), is the impact of Nicholas St. John as screenwriter.  St. John and Ferrara are both equally the authors of the films made within this twenty year span and any discussion of these films should consider both men’s contributions.  We know from the extensive supplemental features on the Artisan DVD release of King Of New York that the Catholic guilt, self-sabotaging machismo, and sexual ineptness of many of these films’ protagonists is the product of St. John’s own neuroses.  Similarly, the strong visual rhymes in these films, as well as the extensive use of shadows and quick pans are the product of Ferrara’s visual sensibilities.

Of the films Ferrara directed that Nicholas St. John wrote between 1976 and 1996, perhaps one of the most unusual is Fear City (1984).  Though in many respects Fear City represents a failure of sorts, it is still a highly compelling failure that is worth considering more than once.  What sets Fear City apart from the work that preceded it is that it moves away from the grindhouse style of The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1982) in favor of the  mainstream neo-noir with an ensemble cast.  

Noir lighting in Fear City

1984 was the year for neo-noir.  The stage had been set in 1982 by Paul Schrader’s Cat People and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (both films homages to director Jacques Tourneur).  1984 saw not only the release of Fear City, but also Brian DePalma’s Body Double, and the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple.  Body Double and Blood Simple would popularize the neo-noir, giving it enough commercial longevity to see the genre through the mid-1990s.  What Body Double, Body Heat, and Blood Simple all set out to do is to make a forties style thriller, or film noir if you like, with a contemporary setting and photographed in color.  The success of these films is therefore not on their ability to adapt a forties aesthetic for the eighties, but to succeed as postmodernist constructs, paradoxically critical of the mechanics of the genre even whilst those mechanics are being employed for the perpetuation of the genre itself.

Fear City’s influences are only generally those of Jacques Tourneur in so far as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942), and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) represent some of the most potent and disturbing fantasies about American identity crisis ever shot in black and white.  Tourneur’s influence is therefore inextricably tied up in any dialogue concerning a film whose aesthetic concerns are those of film noir.  More specifically, Fear City appears indebted to Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949), Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), and Nicholas Ray’s largely underappreciated On Dangerous Ground (1951).  

The manner in which Nicholas Ray depicts the squalor, immorality and sleaze of the big city in the opening of On Dangerous Ground seems to have set a precedent for Ferrara’s Fear City.  Both films open with a bang, bringing the audience face to face with some of the more unpleasant aspects of urban living.  This sets the tone for each film.  Fear City idealizes the trappings and dressings of early 80s Times Square, and is happy to challenge its audience to accept this locale as the heart of the film’s narrative thrust whilst On Dangerous Ground uses this device as a means to ground the protagonist of the film in a space more closely associated with thrillers than the space the protagonist ultimately ends up spending most of his time in; the snowy countryside.  

The Robert Ryan police detective of On Dangerous Ground, one could argue, also informs St. Johns’ writing of the Billy Dee Williams character in Fear City.  Both characters are tough on crime, immorality, and those who choose to keep the company of either.  Yet Williams’ character is written to be more by the book than Ryan’s, but only just so.  In either case, both characters are clearly the product of the archetypal “honest cop” first glimpsed in Robert Siodmak The Killers (1946) as portrayed by Sam Levene.   There they diverge.  In Fear City the only black character of note is Williams’ hard-nosed good cop.  This stands in opposition to the typical delegation of black characters to the peripherals of the narrative, mostly in roles of henchman or drug dealers.  Ferrara and St. John prefer to privilege Williams’ character with authority.  This subversive act turns the race politics on its head, and would be echoed again in the Lawrence Fishburne/Wesley Snipes relationship in their later King Of New York.

Billy Dee Williams

The Set-Up also seems to have influenced the means by which Ferrara and St. John articulate the dregs of society in Fear City.  Fear City shares The Set-Up’s penchant for brief ensemble scenes whose relevance to the narrative is unclear, more motivated by ambiance.  There is an explicit connection between how Robert Wise stages and photographs the boxing match in The Set-Up and how Ferrara echoes that approach in Fear City.  Neither prefers the stark approach of Mark Robson’s The Champion (1949), favoring an inclusiveness where, even if the audience for the fight is not shown, they are certainly heard.

There is also a strong correlation between how Wise depicts and treats the Robert Ryan/Audrey Totter relationship and how Ferrara and St. John depict the Tom Berenger/Melanie Griffith relationship.  In both The Set-Up and Fear City each character in a relationship is allowed an autonomy and an acceptance of that autonomy by their partner.  This is not typical of American cinema in the forties, film noir, nor neo noir.  One of the fundamental narrative tropes of the genre is a character of one sex’s desire for control or possession of a character of the opposite sex (Out Of The Past, Gun Crazy, The Killers, On Dangerous Ground, Body Heat, Body Double, Cat People).  St. John and Ferrara embrace this anomaly as a means by which to modernize their interpretation of the genre.  It also enables them the chance to further counter the inherently misogynistic aspects of Fear City along the same lines as they had done prior in Ms. 45, though that will be discussed later.

Finally, Gun Crazy provides St. John and Ferrara with a rough sketch of their protagonist (Tom Berenger) in Fear City.  Gun Crazy’s Bart (John Dall) is an expert marksman who cannot bring himself to hurt another living thing because of a childhood trauma, much in the same way that Berenger’s Matt Rossi gives up boxing and violence in general after he inadvertently kills a man in the ring.  In Gun Crazy and Fear City each man must navigate their own moral code, only to forsake it at the climax as a kind of redemption.  It’s important to note that Rossi, unlike Bart, does not forsake his code in either a sacrifice nor as a form of self-martyrdom.  Rossi’s abandonment of his moral code is motivated by his love for Loretta (Melanie Griffith) and his desire to protect her.  When Rossi boxes again, it is to defend Loretta and kill the maniac who has been assaulting strippers.  Bart’s death and his moral break is unusually Christ-like, which seems more fitting within the context of Fear City and/or Rossi, since Rossi’s Catholicism figures largely in how he views his own morality as well as the ramifications of his own actions.  Before Rossi sets out to confront the murderous maniac, he goes to confession with the intent of procuring God’s forgiveness and salvation before the murder even occurs.  The dividing factor between Bart’s behavior and Rossi’s, which St. John stresses, is Rossi’s own fear of himself, of God, and his fear for his own soul.

Though these aesthetic threads link Fear City with film noir explicitly, these aesthetic tropes have, themselves, been so integrated with St. John’s own private concerns that they carry through, connecting with the later films such as Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral.  In terms of auteurist theory, Fear City functions as a conduit for textual exchange.  Fear City can, however, only be defined as such by the means with which Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John mutate and pervert their cinematic inheritance to serve their own subjective interests as filmmakers.

These mutations and perversions of genre mechanics by Ferrara and St. John go beyond the inverted racial politics of Fear City.  One of the most attractive aspects of the film is its treatment of women.  What may be the strongest sequence in Fear City occurs early on in the film and is indicative of Ferrara’s treatment of women in his films as much as it is a compression of the entirety of his previous film Ms. 45.  The sequence begins with an opening credit sequence of topless girls and strippers at work in Times Square.  From there Ferrara cuts to Berenger arriving at the strip joint where Melanie Griffith (one of the “models” employed by Berenger) is performing.  Berenger and his partner go into an office to negotiate with the facility’s manager.  From here, Ferrara cross cuts to Griffith’s performance, her cheering male audience, and the serial killer’s first murder (his victim is a stripper as well).  This dynamic use of montage equates the masculine gaze with acts of sexual violence, voyeurism with sadism.  

Melanie Griffith

More importantly, the women in Fear City are not the women of film noir.  They are neither victims nor predators.  They are autonomous units with fully realized and complex relationships.  The candor with which the filmmakers address Melanie Griffith’s character’s sexual fluidity immediately allows her character to transcend the audience’s assumptions that she is merely an object of desire and sexual fulfillment.  So although women are sexualized in the film, that sexualization is consistently undermined much in the same way as the sequence I cited above.  This jockeying back and forth between the polemics of sexual representation within the narrative milieu of Fear City represents the foundation for Ferrara’s interpretation of sexual politics in all of his films to follow.

The postmodern impulse of Fear City to subvert the very genre to which it aligns itself is not just the singular fancy of Abel Ferrara, it is inherently implied by  the very notion of neo-noir.  It is still of consequence to note a significant aesthetic shift that heavily informs the postmodern renderings of the genre.  Consider that by the eighties American cinematic tastes and sensibilities had shifted dramatically since the forties.  The idealization of heroes who are as good as they are corrupt, but nonetheless heroic, as epitomized by Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, had given way to heroes that were even more flawed, and thusly far less heroic.  Gene Hackman seems to have best captured this post-sixties shift in sensibilities with his roles in Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Penn’s Night Moves (1975), and Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973).  In each of these three films Hackman is the “any man” in a quite literal sense.  As the seventies unfolded as the “me” decade, so did a new romantic notion of heroism.  It is from here that the neo-noir of American cinema adopted its new archetypal hero, the burnt out cousin of Robert Mitchum (played by Tom Berenger in Fear City).

Currency is not the exclusive motivation behind Ferrara and St. John’s post-modernist approach towards their material.  Films with an explicit relationship to what is commonly considered film noir had never really stopped being in vogue, nor did their production ever cease.  In the decade prior to Fear City’s release three of the most notable films to have an affiliation, if not an interest, in noir were released; Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (1970) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973).  None of these three films is neo-noir, each attempts a far more ambitious deconstruction of noir than what the more complacent neo-noir genre can attempt without becoming branded as “art-house”.  The significance of these three films and the manner with which they engage in a dialogue of noir aesthetics is that through the demystification and deconstruction of noir within the complexes of each of these three films one finds the very distillation that enables neo-noir to exist as a viable commercial genre.  Bertolucci appropriates a noir lighting scheme to lend psychological colorings to his images within a historical drama; Fassbinder breaks the narrative and visual tropes of noir down to a Brechtian minimalism to find the heart of noir’s allure as a romanticized fantasy; Altman denies every aspect of noir in his film except the promise of a nostalgia for film noir to be fulfilled, even though he has no interest in keeping that promise.

Tom Berenger

Fear City, as most neo-noir films do, implements each of these three tactics to a degree.  But Fear City, along with Body Heat, Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, etc., is different from The Conformist, The American Soldier and The Long Goodbye mainly because the authors of these later films earnestly believe in the fantasy of film noir.  

Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John see film noir as a quintessential narrative construct in which to work.  Fear City represents an honest conviction and belief in the power of that genre.  That said, what is even more important about Fear City is that the genre of film noir/neo-noir is employed, distorted and manipulated in the search for an emotional truth.  This is Fear City’s greatest success.  The film may not live up to the superficial genre delights of Kasdan’s and Tarantino’s films, nor the analytical complexes of Fassbinder, Altman and Bertolucci, but it does find a filmmaker successfully mapping an approach to genre that is wholly unique and will be put to practice for the rest of his career.

-Robert Curry

 

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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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