Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Blurbs, part 3: the end.

Well, that's it. I have finished my studies in Oxford, and with that, an important chapter in my life. As to what comes after, time will tell. Hopefully I will have more time now to post a bit more often than I have in the past year. But in the meantime, the blurbs I wrote for Magdalen Film Society in my final term:


The classic anti-Christmas horror comedy, still as bitingly satirical as ever.

Now I have another reason to hate Christmas.”

Joe Dante might very well qualify as one of the most talented American directors currently working, but his consistently intelligent, sharply satirical, and hilariously funny output might paradoxically be enabled by the marginal position he occupies within the film industry, having fun digs at all of its conventions while providing hugely entertaining films. Gremlins, his most famous film and one of the greatest spoofs of the Christmas spirit ever made, displays the characteristic combination of human warmth and savage critique that makes him one of the greatest satirists working in Hollywood today.
The story follows a young man who receives a cute creature for Christmas but breaks the three rules of raising it, only to let loose a bunch of monsters who wreak havoc on his small town. This is little more than an excuse for wrecking all the traditional institutions of small-town America, gleefully bringing to the surface all the neuroses and hidden tensions between the memorable cast of secondary characters. Yet it is central to Dante's vision that there is rarely such a thing as a villain in his films: some of the most sympathetic characters are the gremlins themselves, and Dante clearly has more fun observing their hedonist debauchery than the moral uptightness of some of the human characters. A sharp anti-Christmas comment that reconfigures traditional feel-good movies as horror, and a gleefully liberating destruction fest that rejoices in tearing down the American cultural unconscious, Gremlins still stands as one of the best popcorn films of all time.

A Man Escapes.

A patient examination of the efforts called for by freedom, in one of the greatest films ever made.

To fight – fight against the walls, against myself, my door.

Jean-Luc Godard once said of Robert Bresson that he is “French cinema, as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.” No small praise, coming from the man who is French cinema as Tolstoy is the Russian novel and Bach is German music. One of the greatest films ever made, Bresson's A Man Escapes is also the best introduction to his work, which stands as one of the most original and daring that cinema has produced.
Drawing on Bresson's own wartime experiences, as well as on the true story of Resistance fighter André Devigny, the film follows a man called Fontaine's escape attempt from the Nazi gaols of Lyon. The first shot of the film, showing the man's hands, sets the tone: the excitement and suspense of the film reside in its patient, unflinching observations of the very concrete problems that stand in Fontaine's way, and of the perseverance required he displays. Freedom is the central concern of the film, and Bresson complements his sparse, crisp imagery with a soundtrack that consistently plays on the dialectic of freedom and captivity: the slightest noises indicate menaces or opportunities, comradeship or oppression, and constantly expand the realm of possibilities by reminding us of a world outside the prison cell. With its very concrete sense of resistance, A Man Escapes is one of the few truly existentialist films: a work of art that exhibits a true sense not only of the difficulty, but also of the uncompromising necessity of freedom.

Two-Lane Blacktop:

The cult road-movie, which stands at the peak of 1970s American cinema.

You can never go fast enough.

Like many great artists, Monte Hellman might have had great trouble getting his projects off the ground, yet one need only watch the film for which he is most famous to verify that he is one of the most essential American film-makers of the past forty years. For all those who consider that the 1970s were a golden age of American cinema, Two-Lane Blacktop, both the greatest road-movie ever and the absolute anti-road-movie, is one of its most enduring miracles.
The film follows a set of four unnamed characters, as their shifting interactions and rivalries bring into question their entire way of life. Theoretically, the story is the classic set-up of a race between two drivers, one a smooth talker constantly building up his own mythology, the other one quiet and ruthlessly focused on racing. Yet Hellman continually undermines the notion of rugged virility and masculine affirmation which usually form the genre: conflicts are observed in a coolly detached way, and characters stop in squalid diners as often as they cross lush landscapes. By the infamous ending (one of the most memorable in American cinema), the two conflicting visions of masculinity (and of the actor's craft) have exposed as equally false, empty codes whereby men prove themselves to each other but become incapable of genuine contact, so that the very idea of “winning the girl” becomes a dead end. Two-Lane Blacktop takes the road movie ever faster towards its culimation in absolute stillness. Run, run, as fast as you can...

Children in the Wind.

An masterwork of unassuming spontaneity by one of the great forgotten masters of Japanese cinema.

You only have freedom when you're young.

The films of Hiroshi Shimizu, one of the supreme (and unjustly neglected) masters of Japanese cinema, offer a blast of fresh air to anyone seeking worthwhile portrayals of childhood on film. Whereas most attempts either portray children as annoying idiots or as cloying creatures so irritatingly cute as to be devoid of any reality, Shimizu pays close attention to their interactions and aspirations, letting them exist as multi-faceted beings as worthy of interest as the adults around them. Nowhere is the generosity of his vision as evident as in one of his best films, Children in the Wind.
Sanpei and Zenta are two brothers who see their position in the group of village children undermined when their father meets with trouble at work. Shimizu attentively follows the reverberations of this, first in the family, then in the wider frame of society, carefully drawing parallels between the economic struggles of the adult world and the discord it creates within the children's society. A master at integrating human figures in landscapes, Shimizu effortlessly creates compositions all the more stunning for their simplicity, and has few challengers in the art of contriving scenes that are both funny and intensely moving. His children are intelligent and funny, eager to discover the world, and Shimizu adopts their posture of patient and ever-renewed exploration to chart the transformations of the slowly modernizing Japanese rural community. Beautifully simple and effortlessly rich, the communal vision of Children in the Wind is one of the most compelling portrayals of children ever seen on screen.