It Happened One Night (1934): What I find so propulsive about It Happened One Night is its structure more than anything (though the chemistry between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert is certainly contagious): an unhurried dance between day and night, the former defined by its caustic rush and the latter by its revelations and sense of mystery. It's easy to start longing for the coming of night, when Capra's punchy jabber dissolves into charged silence. The erotic and romantic tension between Gable and Colbert becomes a palpable element, increasingly so as the film wears on and the convincing opposites venture, accidentally but also purposefully, away from the grips of civilization and into, as usual, the wilds of Connecticut. I get a kick out of how Capra stages his Walls of Jericho bedroom scenes during rainstorms, allowing the drips on the window to represent – pardon my vulgarity – sexual juices flowing. I also get a kick out of how the ending, highly reminiscent of The Great Madcap in its turns of events, refuses to reveal the reunion of Gable and Colbert, instead disguising it in the economical dropping off a bedsheet.
The Thin Man (1934): Putting its emphasis equally on the sterling comic duo of William Powell and Myrna Low and an overstuffed, vapid murder mystery, The Thin Man shows some of the poisonous effects of a novelistic foundation. There's so many seedy characters in The Thin Man, so many minor subplots and non-sequiturs, that Powell and Loy occasionally get lost in the fray, when really the film could just place their boozy marriage at its core and watch them interact for an hour and a half. Admittedly, there's at least 15 too many martini jokes, and nearly as many twee comic relief bits featuring the cute puppy Asta (though the second installment has even more, and they're worse), but in general any time director W.S. Van Dyke places his camera in their vicinity the film is zippy, tough-talking gold.
Design for Living (1933): I'm working on a Mubi piece that will explore the idiosyncratic texture of Lubitsch's mise-en-scène and editing, so for now I'll just say this: what a kinky film! The subtexts and innuendos swirling around this love triangle – polygamy, homosexuality, oedipal complex – are strongly felt, yet Lubitsch implies so much non-visually that even if this was made during the time of the Production Code nothing concrete could have prevented its release. In many ways, it's the riskier cousin to Wilder's Some Like it Hot, viewing the conventions of social roles and professional success as equally stifling and slippery in their ways.
Days of Heaven (1978): Seeing this again on celluloid on Harvard's shimmering big screen, I was struck by how decidedly not gorgeous so many of its images actually are; for all of Malick's bad rap as a man who allegedly "just shoots pretty pictures," viewers so often forget how skilled he was in his first two films at pairing majestic beauty with the comparatively mundane and rugged. The fading rays of the sun are in fact not always at just the right angle in Days of Heaven. Sometimes they're blocked by objects, leaving the camera and the subjects in shadows. Other times, they're beating down unflatteringly on farm workers. It's these moments that make the natural wonders so remarkable, such a relief for these troubled, drifting figures. I now consider Days of Heaven to be one of Malick's very best films, a work that expresses a sublime ideal in art: at once iconic and specific, vast and small, existing and already gone.
Grand Illusion (1937): For whatever reason, Jean Renoir's one of those universally lauded "masters" of the medium that I have, up until now, been completely unexposed to. Despite his reputation among highbrow critics, I was pleased to see how open and populist Renoir's sensibility actually is. Now I understand what those free-spirits in Annie Hall meant when they mentioned seeing Grand Illusion as if it was the stoner comedy of the week; it's a very relaxed, and relaxing, film, a loose ensemble piece that is more about shuffling through vignettes of male camaraderie than anything else, even in spite of its war movie trappings. I found the film's final act, when two French soldiers finally escape prison and find shelter in the German countryside, to be genuinely beautiful and warmly human, and the preceding two acts somewhat erratic, with episodes of dated men-dressing-up-as-women comedy and heartfelt wartime conversation butted up awkwardly against each other. But this is never less than a breezy way to spend two hours.
The Last Bolshevik (1993): Chris Marker's eccentric elegy to, autobiography of, and celebration of Soviet filmmaker Alexander Medvedkin would have probably been doubly rewarding if I were familiar with Medvedkin's work at all, but even without any knowledge of the filmmaker beyond name recognition, there's still a power and charm to The Last Bolshevik. Marker's narration and assembly entertains many a'digressions without losing sight of the overall argument (namely, that Medvedkin was one of the most distinctive and subversive directors of the Silent Era in Russia), and he also manages to provide a rich summary of Russian politics and culture around the time of Medvedkin's life without ever making it feel like a dry history lesson. Shot on cheap digital video and blown up to a big screen, the film's crude superimpositions and unconventionally lovely images boast a uniquely palpable texture of their own, which didn't help keep my brain focused on the knotty content.
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999): I found myself much more moved and involved by Marker's comparatively straightforward, hour-long Tarkovsky memorial than the Medvedkin piece, largely because I'm so familiar with Tarkovsky's work. Marker eloquently, poetically suggests that Tarkovsky's the only filmmaker whose work "exists within the space of two children and two trees," referring to the opening and closing shots of his body of work (from Ivan's Childhood and The Sacrifice, respectively), and frankly, that insight alone would do, but Marker also goes on to trace the mystical and political allusions running through his work, in addition to editing in privileged glimpses of Tarkovsky at work on The Sacrifice and in his death bed. There's a lot packed in to a relatively brief study, but it's fleet-footed in that way that is specific only to Marker, who tosses off profound observations without making a big fuss about it.
The Exorcist (1973): Loren Rosson calls this the best horror film ever made, and I'd agree that it deserves to be mentioned in the pile, but as much as it disturbs me on a visceral level (how could it not?), I find that it doesn't have as lasting an impact as I'd like it to. Seeing it at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery should have been the ideal situation, but unfortunately the raucous crowd primed to laugh at anything remotely "dated" and the regrettably under-sized screen for such a sprawling lawn certainly didn't augment the effect of Friedkin's eerie and surprisingly low-key tactics. Still, the guy's a master of foreplay, thanks to some subtle lifts from Bergman's sensibility (ticking clocks, gusty winds, tipsy zooms, anguished females, Max Von Sydow) and an inbred feel for atmosphere, all of which contributes to what Stephen Russell-Gebbett has eloquently referred to as "the horror before the Horror."
How The West Was Won (1962): Three-strip technicolor: the immersive experience I've always been looking for and failed to discover with the advent of IMAX, as well as a sadly brief phenomenon. Screening at the Cinerama Dome and viewed from the second row, this was a monstrous thing to behold, requiring an entire 90 degree turn of the head in order to digest all of the details in the vast landscape of the frame. This image (the term seems inadequate, since the format redefines our understanding of the "image," but I'll use it anyway) actually approximates a realistic field of view, with each edge appearing at the furthest point in the peripherals. For optical reasons, the majority of the key action takes place around the center of the frame, encouraging the viewer to use the left and right strips as mere visual noise to complete the "entrance" into the picture, but I had a lot of fun ignoring the actual drama to focus on the nooks and crannies in the panoramic image, following the progression of separate mini-movies occurring in the production design. As for the film itself, it's a robustly patriotic romp; unfortunately after a long day I dozed off during John Ford's sections (reportedly the finest in the film, according to who you ask), but head director Henry Hathaway had a showman's grasp of the material and an equally romantic command of imagery. All this aside, the three-strip technicolor is what I was most interested in.
P.S. Big kudos to anyone who can try their hand at identifying the hidden theme of this post. Clue: take note of where the screenshots are placed, and what they're separating. 2nd clue: it's not in my words, per se, it's in the films themselves.