I’ve been torn between watching new movies with the hope of unearthing gems, and watching films I’ve seen before with the hope of writing a recommendation. I watch a dozen or so new movies a month; some I can’t finish, some are mesmerizingly ill-made, some boring, many good, a few might be great. Here, in this list, will be movies which I will not unreservedly recommend, and some I have thrown straight in the trash. I’ll do no more than write a quick note for each, unless I hated it enough and found that it needs to be toppled from some gaudy and pretentious pillar. If you watch the movies on this list, let me know what you think of them. I myself will usually indicate whether I think the movie is worth a re-watch, is potentially great (I didn’t love Citizen Kane until the 3rd time I watched it), or if it is being heaved into a garbage truck next Wednesday.
Excerpts from Nolan’s diary:
I awoke this morning feeling today will be extraordinary, ambitious, and groundbreaking. Not ordinary thoughts of ordinary men, but I am no longer an ordinary man. Last night I got my hands on a camera with untapped potential, and I am going to tap it. I’ve had ideas since when I was a kid of breaking the barriers of film, and this camera should be the very tool I need. It shall be the star of my movie, the best in a cast of one.
I’ve been having difficulties with this camera, I’m afraid it is not all it was toted to be. I had hoped so much to forgo particulars and capture ‘isms’ in their essential transcendence, but I can’t seem to focus on universals with this thing. It is always nearsighted, and so I think I will need to rouse up some people to stand between the camera and the essence of humanity; a few old planes and boats should do to represent the utmost of human endeavor. Sandhurst rang me up, and they have three Spitfires I can use. This is a most excellent bit of luck as I believe the Spitfire is just the craft to represent glorious individualism. (remember to use the Spitfire whenever I don’t know what else to film)
Upon reflection, I am glad I only have about ten planes in all: three Spitfires and a half-dozen German planes. This removes the temptation to film a battle while I’m filming my survivalist humanist pic. But war is the sort of thing I need to set my particulars in…damn technology and its inability to transcend.
I’ve thought of the perfect event, Dunkirk. It has all the elements I need: individual-humanism against God-nature-indifferentism, human-individualism against human-machine-destructionism, humanity against rationalism and defeatism and big government. I want to do something different here, put in some twist. I am thinking of making the Germans be the ones on the beach and the British be the bad guys with the Stukas.
I’ve decided to go with the complexity of three different timelines instead of a twist. The more I thought about it the more I realized that the movie couldn’t be affected by the swapping the Germans and the British and I didn’t want to bother with the German accents which I find not as convincing as the British sentimentalism. If the audience is German or sympathetic to them, I am sure their accents will not get in the way of their imagining that the British are the Germans. (I sometimes think now about how humanity in its essence is able to be impacted by events and my films)
I’ve come a long way with the timelines. One is a day, one a week, and one an hour. This is very exciting and groundbreaking. I thought of also making it meaningful, but was afraid I might have to add a story line or human interest on a particular level to do that, and I must continue to stand firm against the flaws of the cinematic medium. Another possibility was to have the different threads meet up in an interesting way, but have opted for a couple overlaps in shots and a little backtracking. I am afraid that if I start putting characters together they might come to resemble government, or community, or something other than the quintessential individualism that has brought humanism to the fore.
Spitballed with Hans today. Sketched the idea for him and he was aboard in a moment. He told me he was inspired and would start working on something pronto. 45 minutes later he phoned me back and told me he had just sent over my soundtrack. I was of course delighted and surprised. Listening to it I realized it was just the sort minimalist modernism I needed, with a lot of that brilliant squeaky fast stuff which is SOOO suspenseful. I was flummoxed by the note he attached:
I’ve long wished for a visionary to bravely come forward and make this film. Raymond is a danger to our culture, my involvement with his creation and deification is truly the one regret of my professional career. Euthanasia is the new frontier, and I am glad that having worked together on the last frontier in Interstellar, we have together broached the next. DUA.
But the score was perfect, and so I merely thanked him for his ingenious help and chalked up the note to his eccentric humor.
Began filming today and found my lead. I had an excellent idea for the opening shot. It is going to be quite the most perfect shot of the movie. I had a few guys in British uniforms browsing a street and told some of them to die when shots were fired. They took it a bit far and all of them died but one and I figured that I may as well make him the focus of the week-timeline until he decided to fling the old arms up. It was a bit confusing really, since I hadn’t meant to be quite so focused on a single person in the beach scenes, and it didn’t help that he seemed to be one of a set of triplets, but now I think that my decision to run with him is justification enough for H calling me a visionary.
I added an old man in a boat today. I was only going to have a boat going across the channel for the day-timeline, but Kenneth Branagh said that he had difficulty bring the tear to his eye when the home pleasure fleet arrived and that listening to Hans’ wailing violins on loop was only making him irritated, not tearful. I thankfully remembered a punch article I read as a kid which listed the 40 stereotypical lines sure to invoke English stiff-upper-lip patriotism and not so formal gratitude. So I gave my boat a captain and a mate. There was some kid hanging around the wharf who insisted on being in the movie, and I was feeling benevolent so I let him onboard. It is a bit crowded on this boat and the kid can’t act, but I’ll figure something out.
I’m a bit worried about where my boat captain is going with this part of his. Give a mouse a cookie…
I brought Mr. Rylance on board to help Kenneth relate to the arrival of the fleet, and now I find he is threatening the whole endeavor; he is trying so hard to break through the script and be a virtuous hero. Thankfully he is erring on the mushy sentimental side, but even that is not quite as abstract as I could wish for.
Whenever I become too stressed from MR’s attempts to portray a character I switch over to Tom Hardy and his Spitfire: thank God for Sandhurst and Tom’s eyes. (Those eyes!) He is perfect in the role, and the role is perfect: no real interaction with anyone and the surreal voice of Michael Caine self-consciously proclaiming Oedipus prognostications. Humanity and Fate alone in the void—that is the fiber of my vision. I really didn’t write much for Tom to say, but I spent much ink on the stage directions ‘zigzag with a ME 109 for a long time and stagger gunfire effects too late on all the passes’. HVH is a master at interpretation here.
It has been a long time since my last entry, the work has been overwhelming. Of the 400,000 extras I had hired only a few thousand showed up. Of the extras that did show up some thought they were not extras at all, the strangest being some dude who just started talking in the beached boat scene, and accused one of the other extras of being a spy. It was very strange and I thought we would have to continue to reshoot the scene, although we are going to use it after all now that we have been through the first full screening. Thankfully he hadn’t said anything which would date his accusations and we could use his paranoia to our advantage.
That screening was rough. No one there understood what I was doing. They wanted story, plot, character, involvement. No ‘ism’ was even mentioned. They insisted that I add development, climax and resolution. I haggled with them and pleaded with them to leave my brainchild essentially untouched, and eventually we compromised. I didn’t have to add any story arcs or structure, but instead was permitted to add vignettes, little burps of climax without resolution, which incidentally solved some residual problems, like the dockhand who couldn’t act, and permitted us to insert a very pretty Stuka dive we hadn’t found a place for.
I think this is a masterpiece.
On watching The Third Man I was surprised to find the most cliché of stories hitting hard. From the first scene we are introduced to one and then another of our standard detective story cast: a friendly policeman and an efficiently ruthless one, a helpful frightened servant, a sinister foreigner (somehow more foreign then all the others, and, of course, a baron), and, after the others have made their appearances, the love interest first seen on stage and then accosted in her dressing room. Throughout the introduction, Holly, our idealistic American protagonist, is driven by his own zither soundtrack from one encounter to the next at a pace so rapid that he even outpaces the scene setup crew and exposes the movie’s first secret: Holly, a writer of pulp westerns, is furiously creating in his mind a story to explain everything around himself, and it nearly works. But he didn’t account for Graham Greene, who screen wrote The Third Man.
But even in Holly’s near-miss the movie works, it works even before Graham Greene breaks down the dime-store façade with true moral dilemmas and the emergence of subtle temptations. How?
Films can embrace and explain what, if unembraced, would be stylistic flaws. This is most readily done by bringing the art of the whole into the story itself somehow, as we saw in The Battle of Algiers. Perhaps musicals are a good example of this: the sorts of characters we are introduced to are the type who break into wild song without provocation, and it does not, then, seem so strange that these same people will live somewhat wild lives—you may think they are a bunch of clowns, but you do not feel unduly manipulated by the director. There is a danger here since there is a great correlation between your appreciation of the music and your acceptance of the characters: if you find the music in Phantom of the Opera or Les Choiristes over the top and sentimental, then you will find the characters the same, but if you love the music you will love the movies. Maybe this effect should be called the breaking of walls one through three, when the machinations are embraced in some way by the protagonists.
Unique, perhaps, among these strange films, is the Third Man since it takes the machination itself as a theme. It embraces the dime store masquerade through the workings of Holly, a writer who just off the train sees and is convinced of foul play before he ought to be. Midway through the film, however, the façade is blown by the all too dangerous man in the doorway, and raw post-war Vienna dominates the screen. The transition is rough, although playfully presented by Orson Welles as something ordinary. And this presentation of the crude life of the Vienna black-market as acceptable is not unreasonable, not to Holly at least, for in the alluring veneer of Holly’s façade there is a flaw lurking, and waiting in this weakness is the great temptation of the film. A temptation which, perhaps, Holly is not directly tempted by, but which is in some way artistically tempting and a natural companion to the way Holly lives his life. The temptation is presented under the semblance of money-wise crime, not the ideals Holly operates under, but nonetheless serves as a vehicle of dehumanization with the same destination.
We all have a friend or two who has ‘a big personality’, the sort who we can watch from across the room and smile to ourselves in the comfortable assurance that ‘there goes old Wyatt’. It seems though their words can sometimes be the stuffing of their character and nothing more; it matters less what they say than how they say it. I know an old Jesuit who at 93 is no longer as audible as he once was, but he can keep a table laughing although his voice no longer carries across it—his character does.
In a movie chock full of such characters, Fred C. Dobbs stands apart; we learn more about him from watching him then from listening to his words. His words are a reflection of his character, but his mannerisms unveil his soul. There is a scene where Dobbs and Curtain, his fellow American and partner in adversity, decide to turn from hired hands to prospectors and, while their sang-froid talk weighs the options, Dobbs’ whole person tells a more frightening tale and portends the danger they’ve already been warned of: gold tries man’s soul, how will Dobbs’ hold up? Not too well, it seems. The little fixations, the rivulets of a character worn down by poverty and the desire to be a moneyed man, are there and ready to erode a man willing to be awash in the torrent of greed. Dobb’s put up no defense against greed, believing that gold itself holds no curse for the right man—himself.
From the beginning Dobbs sets himself aside from society, and not just because he is the film’s protagonist. Although in some scenes there are moments where he is merely the spokesman for the crowd within the art, in others he reveals his belief in the man-defining ability of money, and although we see him begging for a meal, we also see that he never buys that meal, instead buying smokes and getting haircuts. He may, in fact, be less interested in being a man than being a man apart—a go big or go home sort of attitude toward life itself—clearly seen in his disregard for water when gold is in the ground. The possession of gold is a characteristic of a great man, and so while the others dream of the quiet lives permitted by gold, Dobbs doesn’t think beyond the gold, while they discuss their odyssey into the mountains and away from civilization, Dobbs sleeps, already succumbing to the fate of riches he has coming to him. Leaving society is natural for him, why talk of plans?
For a man like Dobbs, though, there is a restraint in social living upon which he must lean if he is to remain upright. A concupiscent man needs to have a certain distance from the objects of illicit desires if he is not to fall. Society can be an obstacle to his passion even if it is nothing more than a familiar good (social norms are les questioned the more immersed in society you are) or used as a foil and a source of proper shame. The tragedy is that we see Dobbs is no worse than many, lacks the irascibility to pursue his passions if safety ensconced in society, and even is capable of reform if forced to confront his passion in all its foolishness, and yet gold and the promise of more is too often brought too near him for his greed to be mastered. It is not what he has or doesn’t have which herald his fall, but what he almost has and thinks he can get. The gold within that middling state is his Achilles heel, and his fear of the worst and desire for more lead him slowly, inexorably onward. He never grasps, in the laconic wisdom of Curtain, that the worst ain’t so bad when it actually happens.