Netflix Streaming, 50 Films: Week 3
Halfway through our 50 films we pause to consider the cost of war on the human soul as well as questioning it’s very substance. This week’s selection is dominated by war movies but more broadly, human studies. These 10 films range in genre and style but all explore the human condition, the nature of the soul, the value of our own humanity, the loss of innocence, the loss of life and it’s brevity.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
One of the early anti-war gestures in film, Lewis Milestone crafts in All Quiet on the Western Front a film remarkable for it’s time in it’s intelligence and the richness of it’s production. Compared to the near unanimity of patriotic bravado that characterized most early war films it was an unconventional repose about the devastation and tragic cost of war. The film follows several school friends at the outset of WWI. Filled with the idealism of youth the boys are incited to action by the sanctimonious declarations of patriotism and glory given by their professor. The film’s lyrical symmetry brilliantly portrays it’s message about the naivety of youth, the foolish glorification of war and the loss of innocence both material and ideological. As the boys march from the simple idealism of the classroom right into the battlefield their ennobling concepts of war are replaced by it’s bleak desolate reality. A poetic and allegorical commentary of war, All Quiet on the Western Front is a haunting and sensitive lament on the toll it exacts on the souls of those who fight.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Like many of Sergei Eisenstein’s films, Battleship Potemkin is essentially a Russian propaganda piece and as such is less accessible to modern audiences with regards to it’s story. It is, none the less one of the greatest achievements in silent film. A stunning demonstration of visual storytelling through brilliant editing and montage, Potemkin and it’s story of revolt, may not be the most relatable but the manner in which it is told makes it necessary viewing for any film fan. Their is a strange frenzy in the stillness and silence of Eisenstein’s films that is a result of his editing; a pent up energy that culminates in the speechless expression of cuts, both their timing and destination. The crescendo of his style in Potemkin is the famed scene on the Odessa Steps. There are things that qualify films beyond simply how much they amuse us or satiate our desire to sit back and be entertained with pretty sights and sounds. Like many films, especially silent, Potemkin makes you work a little. It’s not the easiest film to enjoy, nor the most entertaining on this list. It’s one of those films that’s remarkable for it’s artistic craftsmanship and satisfying to behold and appreciate as a work of technical brilliance. You need to invest yourself as the viewer but the reward for doing so is worth it.
Das Boot (1981)
An opera of faces. Wolfgang Petersen’s 3 hour WWII epic resides primarily in the claustrophobic confinement of a German U-boat (Submarine) and finds significance in the earnest hopes and fears of it’s crew. At the end of the film I couldn’t tell you a single name but I knew very well those onboard, not by rank or position except the captain (Jürgen Prochnow) but the personality and meaning in their faces. The eyes betray what words alone can never convince us of. Petersen has not crafted a war film of action and bravado but one that finds the human element essential to it’s universal importance. It’s grandeur is not visual but psychological. The men aboard cannot see beyond their metal undersea prison into the murky depths and must rely on their own instincts to ascertain what is happening during hostile confrontations. The speculative nature of these battles is where the film draws it’s greatest strength. The fear of the unknown and the terrible possibilities of what could be happening on the other side of the hull create a war thriller of powerful drama and suspense. The focus is not so much on the action but the crews’ reaction to it. We do not see them with historical prejudices because the film wisely omits most of the national specifics of it’s conflict, generalizing politics and hostile encounters. It is viewed not with the deceit and corruption of the German hierarchy but through the eyes of young men forced to shoulder the duties of their nation. The war has made them “the enemy” but fear makes them simply human beings and the resulting film avoids the negative stigma of Nazism by demonstrating and relying, not on the flags or politics which separate us, but on the humanity that unites us.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Part of the cerebral cyberpunk Anime culture that has informed other contemporary sci-fi classics such as Dark City, and most strikingly, The Matrix, Ghost in the shell is a provocative thriller that ponders the nature of the human soul. Based on the Manga, the world of Ghost in the Shell is set in the very near future, in which the advent of highly advanced cybernetics allows the human body to be partially or completely replaced (cyberized) by superior prosthetics. The processes of the human brain can be mapped digitally and transferred across or even simply reside within cyberspace (thus the most prominent Matrix link and the allusion to new “realities” and the substance thereof). Ghost in the Shell explores just what it is that makes us human. In a world where our minds can be hacked, memories forged, and AI is as sophisticated as the human brain, what defines a living being and what is the truth of our reality? If your body and mind are artificially duplicated and your consciousness digitally transferred, where is your soul? Can it be defined algorithmically? In the vein of theoretical fiction visionary Andy K Dick, who’s meditations on the nature of memory as it relates to the being, have been adapted into classic films such as Blade Runner, and Minority Report, the film uses logical scientific propositions to ask profound questions about the nature of humanity and whether we are more than the sum of our accumulated experiences. The film would have benefited from a more substantial story arc but it’s most compelling feature is the questions it’s source material suggests than the details of it’s plot.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Perhaps the greatest of all Noir. Humphry Bogart stars as another classic literary “shamus” as Dashiel Hammett’s Sam Spade in a superbly written an acted film that is one of the most distinguished and dramatic examples of the genre. Somewhat less ostentatious than The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon still features all the cynical edge but ingrains it deeply within characters it treats with more brooding sobriety. Bogart plays Spade with more refrain and slightly less swagger than his Marlow in the Big Sleep, but with the same prowess and self possession. When beautiful damsel in distress Brigid O’Shaughnessy comes to Spade for help finding her sister, Sam becomes embroiled in the affairs of a treacherous group of international thugs, all in pursuit of a legendary and valuable statue. Sydney Greenstreet (who also appeared with Bogart in Casablanca) gives a delightful performance as the unscrupulous Kasper Gutman. Spade never really trusts Miss O’Shaughnessy but is attracted to her and involves himself in a dangerous game on her behalf. Putting himself precariously in the middle of the various gangsters and police with the kind of Machiavellian duplicity characteristic of classic detective stories, Spade attempts to unravel the convoluted case of theft, blackmail, extortion and murder before it’s too late.
Bela Legosi created, what has become, the classic Dracula persona with his interpretative performance in the 1931 film based on Bram Stoker’s legendary character. Long before Legosi invented the henceforth stereotypical standard of Vampiric aura and manner, Max Schreck had created his own iconic presence in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Murnau did not have the rights to the Dracula name but the story is virtually identical. Schreck’s Nosferatu is not the debonair aristocrat of seeming ageless experience and command, implied in Legosi’s performance but instead a withered, ghastly presence. Since the film was silent, the performance is contained in his physical presence and posturing not the dialogue or the iconic accent Legosi famously attributed to Dracula. It’s this difference as well as the unique name that help distinguish the two roles and make the Nosferatu character so enduring to spite it’s obscurity and later displacement by the definitive hollywood version. What is most memorable about F.W. Murnau’s vampire however is that unlike the 1931 version there is nothing suave or charming about him. He was not a creature of social grace and accomplishment but a hideous and reclusive being. One of the most memorable things however is simply the way he looks, with an elongated sunken face and slender limbs, and a prominent set of fangs protruding from the center of his mouth instead of the sides. Silent film is well suited to the kind of creepy pervasive atmosphere Murnau uses here. The solitary of the images, amplifies the physical persona of a given character. It is this unequely subversive language and Schreck’s affecting demeanor that makes simply the presence of Nosferatu so ominous. Culled from German Expressionism and Murnau’s own genius as a stylish filmmaker, Nosferatu is a lesser known but superior version of the famous legend.
Odd Man Out (1947)
Director Carol Reed (The Third Man) again proves his ability to get the most out of his environment, this time the underworld of Belfast Ireland. An entertaining human study, Odd Man Out takes a candid look at the heart of man and what motivates our choices, compassion or judgment towards others. When a bank robbery goes wrong Johnny McQueen (Played by the great thespian James Mason) is left behind, wounded and on the run from a police manhunt closing in around him. In a bad way, desperate and cold, Johnny makes his way through the seedy underbelly of the city. Forced to rely on the help of compassionate strangers he encounters a variety of different people, from all walks of life. Reed uses these encounters to explore the inscrutable nature of the human heart as some fear him, some misunderstand him and some avoid him while still others take compassion on him. For some their attitude towards him good or bad is immediate and unthinking while others struggle to reconcile their conscience towards a dying man and their civic duty against a criminal. Odd Man Out is superbly crafted entertainment, cleverly devised and well executed, poignant, emotional and wise.
Paths of Glory (1957)
No stranger to war films, Stanley Kubrick directs his most powerful and complete in Paths of Glory, a scathing deconstruction of the politics of war and the meaning behind it. Kurt Douglas gives an intense performance as a Colonol tasked with selecting three soliders to take the fall for an operation gone wrong. The film is a brilliant portrayal of the inhuman nature of war as soldiers are used and discarded with callous inhumanity. The effect of the social politic machine of war reduces the value of human life to numbers on paper and the deaths of thousands are not regarded as horrific tragedy but instead merely interpreted through the lens of public and military opinion, discussed over glasses of cognac by high command. The film takes an unflinching look at the harsh reality behind war, where the lives of men are arranged and manipulated to serve the arrogance and stature of high ranking officials. It concludes with one of those profound and moving moments in film where, for a brief time, barriers fade away in revelation of the human condition we all share.
As an exercise in convention defying style and surprisingly visceral filmmaking, Psycho is a timeless work of horror and one of the definitive examples of the genre. Revisiting it now, as is often the case, I was amazed at how original and brilliant it really is. Hitchcock’s remarkable command of his camera has never been better as one of the greatest Directors of all time demonstrates a mastery of style and technique, building a supernatural suspense and expectation with every cut and every angle. The range of cinematography exhibited, and the extraordinary expression Hitchcock evokes with his method is amazing. The film is remembered most for the infamous shower scene (not what it sounds like), in which Hitchcock famously used 78 cuts in 45 seconds. This is one of the most consummately crafted films I’ve ever seen and there is not a moment when the pervasive atmosphere or unsettling camera work isn’t slowly building in suspense towards some unknown terror. Through it’s course the film is taught with this kind of primal energy, punctuated only a few times in sudden moments of shocking violence or revelation. From beginning to end this film is pure, magnificent cinema.
The Up Documentaries (1964 – 2005)
I cheat a little to include the 5 available instalments of the “Up Documentaries,” a series of 7 total episodic documentaries that comprise a whole work and a concept 49 years in the making. The saying goes, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The Up Documentaries began in 1964 when Director Michael Apted selected a group of seven year olds to film as part of a social cross section. Since that day, Micheal has revisited these children every seven years. The series is comprised of these septennial interviews in which we observe the amazing phenomenon of life unfolding in 7 year chapters. The series begins with 7 Up and concludes, thus far, with 49 Up (though sadly 7 Up and 21 Up are unavailable for streaming). The culminative experience and the unprecedented glimpse into the sum of these individuals lives is a revelation. One of the most amazing things committed to film and one of surprising power are the brief montages that show each progressive encounter of a given subject. To see the lives of these individuals pass before you and the faces gradually mature and age in 7 year leaps is stunning. The Up Documentaries is similar to the great documentary Hoop Dreams, which follows the lives of two students for the duration of their high-school basketball careers, yet it surpasses it in the expanse of it’s scope. It is a modern time capsule containing real human lives. Rarely do we see the amazing power of film to transcend, nor see so clearly the fleeting brevity of our lives.