Among his generation of late-millennial filmmakers, Alex Ross Perry is one of the hardest to get a read on. While his late-30s New York contemporaries often fall into neater categories, Perry is difficult to pin down because his influences are so broad, his style so unique, and his decisions so unpredictable that he resists easy labeling. Trying to follow the plot of his career is tricky- how exactly did the guy who made acidic no-budget comedies about nuclear war and [REDACTED] write a movie about Winnie the Pooh?
Perry is nothing if not an iconoclast, and his unashamed reference points are all over the map. The domestic dramas of Rohmer, Cassavetes, and Bergman, carry just as much weight as the literary worlds of Pynchon and Philip Roth; he’s spoken at great length of his love for both Nora Ephron and Paul Verhoven. Perry’s casts are eclectic- they include prestige TV stars, Wes Anderson favorites, Beastie Boys, and in one infamous example, himself. His dialogue is far from naturalistic, and the word salad he puts his actors through sits in opposition to the camerawork of Sean Price Williams, Perry’s DP on all of his films and a vital piece of his puzzle. Williams’ camera is usually hazy, soft, and close, keeping any of the heady verbal sparring from feeling too stately.
Perry’s films often work in spite of themselves, both in the watching and in the making- Perry is notorious for touting his ability to work with small budgets, and even threatened to retire after the financial failure of his most recent film, 2018’s Her Smell. This dichotomy is the best summation of all that makes Perry fascinating- his rebellious streak is one that cries out for something traditional, lamenting the death of middlebrow mid-budget cinema and his place in it with the fervor of an arthouse zealot. It’s here that I find something exciting, and something to latch onto in his unique career- I can only hope that perhaps you’ll find that too.
An Essential: Her Smell (2018)
Her Smell is the best Alex Ross Perry film by a good margin. This is not to knock any of his other films, but it would be silly to ignore this film’s power and its status as the culmination of Perry’s career so far. It’s a whirlwind story about a fictional grunge band helmed by Elisabeth Moss at her most unchecked, combining over the top scenarios with a neat five-act structure. The unraveling of an unwell woman becomes the undoing of a lifetime of pain and a career of success, as Moss’ Becky Something sucks everyone around her into a harrowing vortex. Perry’s best idea was to focus on a fictional band, eschewing the facts of any one person for the larger spiritual truth of a moment in time and the universal truths of damaged people with large stages.
Moss gets to be both Courtney and Kurt, and she’s also tapped into a larger cinematic tradition as well, especially channeling Gena Rowlands in Cassavetes’ Opening Night. The film zooms in on individual moments, cutting away needless context or exposition in favor of letting us infer the painful events that occur between sections. The film bears a few similarities to Uncut Gems– both late-10s portraits of powerful and dangerous people, both intent on stressing you the hell out- but Perry diverts from the Safdie brothers by both redeeming the protagonist and setting it up so that you don’t want that to happen. Some critics asked what exactly was the purpose of the film, but if you’re intrigued by intimate character studies, bold acting, and backstage music drama, the overall experience of the film is nothing to question.
Next Step: Listen Up Philip (2014)
Perry’s breakout starts out as a ridiculous farce at the expense of petulant intellectuals and New York City writer types before melting into a slow and somber look at emotional isolation and the danger of following your indulgences too far. The loaded cast (Jason Schwartzman, Jonathan Pryce, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter) and sepia-toned visuals set the stage for brittle comedy and intrigue, while the structure undercuts the expectations of festival-friendly indie films, a favorite trick of Perry’s (more on that later). Eric Bogosian’s narration sets up a charming and spry little black comedy, but when the perspective shifts from Schwartzman’s Philp to Moss’ Ashley, the film morphs into something more emotionally curious and sentimental.
A Deep Cut: The Color Wheel (2011)
Perry’s second film is the only one to star himself, and the darkness and unlikeability of both his character and the film itself brings to mind a legend about why Martin Scorsese cast himself as the horribly racist freak in Taxi Driver– the answer being that he didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone else to say those lines. Perry and Carlen Altman, the cowriter and costar of the film, play a brother-sister duo who are completely unlovable, both abounding in casual racism, cruelty, and open disregard for social niceties. Perry creates a brilliant and caustic portrait of family bonds and emotional sickness that knowingly inverts the types of road trip rom-coms that get eaten up at Sundance, creating a transgressive and upsetting experience by doing what he does best- stripping the core from a well-trod exterior and replacing it with something broken.
Robert Rodriguiez may be one of the first auteurs that many people my age were exposed to. With many kids learning about his distinctive style from the first three Spy Kids films (2001-2003) and The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl (2005). However, I (and many others) soon realized that Rodriguez’s other projects were much different from his child-friendly features. Hyper-violent and over-the-top films. Such as the Spy Kids spin-off films about Danny Trejo’s character, Uncle Machete or the vampire film From Dusk Till Dawn (1996). However, the best way to track the evolution of Rodriguez as a director would have to be analyzing how his series of films in his Mexico Trilogy changed and evolved all marking as important indicators of where Rodriguiez was at creatively during the production of each of these films.
El Mariachi (1992)
The film that started not only the trilogy but also Rodriguez’s career is also the most different of the three. The most famous part of El Mariachi would have to be the lengths that Rodriguez went to to cut costs on this production, costing only about seven thousand to make (not counting post-production costs). It does have an endearing low-budget charm to it, in the same way that Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) does. It is also the only film in the franchise that is all in Spanish as well and has a completely different cast with Carlos Gallardo playing the titular character. Unfortunately, when compared to the other two in the franchise, it definitely lacks the needed polish in the action department that Rodriguez was later known for. But still, as a first-time director to break over a million at the box-office and get picked up by a large production company for a first feature project is wildly impressive. The shots are framed incredibly well, but the lighting is strange. Although Rodriguez using a wheelchair for dolly shots is genius and I would have never noticed if I didn’t read about him utilizing that strategy. If you are at all interested in El Mariachi I would also implore you to read Rodriguiez’s 1995 book about the production of the film, Rebel Without a Crew. Rodriguez’s latest film, Red 11 (2019) was shot on a $7,000 budget as well proving that the director still wishes to take on the challenge of low budget filmmaking.
Ideologically, Desperado may represent Rodriguez best out of all the films he has made, action cinema with a Mexican and Western underpinnings. This is Rodriguiez’s Evil Dead 2 (1987). A hybrid between a sequel and a remake of El Mariachi with a production budget of seven million instead of seven thousand dollars. Antonio Banderas replaces Carlos Gallardo as guitarist-turned-killer El Mariachi and fits into the role fantastically, bringing the charisma that the role desperately needed, including an iconic scorpion jacket. It is a rehash of the revenge-style plot of the first film but instead with a new foe, a cartel named Bucho (Joaquin de Almeida). The much more polished practical-effects heavy action turning into a main-stay of this era of Rodriguez’s films. Some of El Mariachi’s arsenal in Desperado reminds me of the weapons that Rodriguiez would create later in From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror (2007)such as a guitar-rocket launcher. Many of the mainstays of the cast of Rodriguez’s subsequent projects such as: Steve Buschemi, Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, and of course, Danny Trejo.
The utilization of Catholic imagery in Desperado and Machete (2010) draw a lot of parallels as well. Not necessarily the utilization of themes of Catholicism but more so the aesthetics of Catholicism because it “looks cool”. In Desperado, El Mariachi goes to confession at a church after going on a killing spree. However, upon learning about Bucho’s other goons tracking him down he tells the priest before storming out that he will have to go to confession later “because where I’m going I’d just have to come right back”. Just one example of the great hyperbolic dialogue from this Mexsploitation film.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
The final film in the trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) adds a political layer to the film, with a corrupt CIA agent (Johnny Depp) and a plot to assassinate and overthrow the President of Mexico. Musician Enrique Iglesias plays a character too, in a very odd casting choice. The political themes are not as much as part of a large-scale message that Rodriguiez is attempting to speak on Mexican politics but more-so just an “upping of the stakes” in the final film of the franchise. Once Upon a Time in Mexico to me is seen as a prototype of Machete (2010). A grindhouse-esque juggling act with an ensemble cast of characters in it. Although the latter does it much better for the reason that it goes all in on the absurd. Once Upon a Time still carries the burden of tying up loose ends with other characters while simultaneously giving Banderas’ character a backseat to the handful of new characters. The film is also significant in that it was the first film to be shot in digital high definition, an interesting development for Rodriguez as a creator that was later utilized heavily in Sin City (2005). Unfortunately unlike Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a messy and in many ways dated film, forgoing the practical effects of Desperado and El Mariachi for the more fashionable CGI at the time but executing it quite poorly. It may be a forgettable entry compared to the superior Desperado but in the greater purview of Rodriguiez’s filmography; it is seen as a stepping stone, a transitional period to greater things for him as a director.
Cinema is full of sacred cows. Bergman. Fellini. Antonioni. Names which upon their mere utterance evoke unspeakable grandeur, craft, artistry, and mastery. But even the sacred cows of cinema have their own sacred cows, creating a holy bovine hierarchy in the pastures of cinema. And the King Cow, the most sacred of all the sacred cows, is Andrei Tarkovsky. Of Tarkovsky, Bergman once said, “Tarkovsky for me is the greatest, the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” And old Ingmar is certainly right. Tarkovsky is often compared to Stanley Kubrick in his methodical and unbending personal vision. This comparison gives too much credit to the latter and not enough credit to the former. Only with 2001: A Space Odyssey did Kubrick come anywhere close to reaching the levels of metaphysical speculation, spirituality, and truly stirring and evocative compositions that Tarkovsky operated at his entire career. And I say this as a fan of quite a few of Kubrick’s works (Barry Lyndon truther here).
The filmography of Tarkovsky invokes at once the real and the transcendental, the spirit and the body, the waking and the dreaming. Initially, I had picked only four of Tarkovsky’s films to write about. However, upon my reading of his fantastic book, “Sculpting in Time”, as well as my revisiting of his works, I felt compelled to share thoughts on all of them. Tarkovsky believed that every work of art changed the artist’s life from that point on. As such, in order to get a well-rounded view of the man and his life’s relation to his work, it is perhaps necessary that each of his seven films which so changed his life are touched upon. This is part one, wherein I will highlight three of the seven that I feel are absolutely essential to understanding what Tarkovsky is about. In part two, I will give my thoughts on the remaining films (which still hold immense value but are better viewed as further investigations into Tarkovsky’s philosophy and are not as necessary to forming a basic understanding).
Andrei Rublev is Tarkovsky’s second film following Ivan’s Childhood, a film which he inherited upon Eduard Abalov’s abandonment of it. Taking place in 1400’s pre-modern Russia, the film follows real-life icon painter and travelling monk Andrei Rublev. Rublev became famous in Russia partly due to attempts by the Soviet Union to reclaim and lift up figures deemed important to Russian history. Appearing almost coincidentally alongside this movement, Andrei Rublev also marks the beginning of Tarkovsky’s frequent conflicts with Soviet authorities, such disagreements later forcing him to go into exile. Because of studio (and Soviet) demands, several cuts of this film exist. This article is in relation to the 183-minute cut, the same cut which can be found on the Criterion Channel.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Andrei Rublev is the somewhat secular approach to the real-life figure and the history of Russian Orthodoxy by proxy. The film’s opening features a seemingly unrelated depiction of the folk myth of Kryakutnoy, a Russian inventor who was alleged to have invented the hot-air balloon fifty years before the Montgolfier brothers in France. The relevance to the Soviet attempt at building the Russian folk mythos should be obvious. It must have been to Tarkovsky as well, who took no real interest in the mythic aspects of either this story or of the lived experience of Rublev. The balloon sequence is totally unglamorous, devoid of the legendary nature the story had picked up, and ends with a crash, bringing us down from the heights of cultural folklore back to reality so that a grounded analysis of the life of Andrei Rublev can take form.
The film’s episodic nature enforces the attempt to avoid creating unnecessarily apocryphal depiction of the painter Rublev. We are given few sparse pieces of Rublev’s life, but Tarkovsky avoids the notion that Rublev, or any great historical figure, need be viewed through the mystifying lens of linear narrative. In this way, Rublev is depicted as perhaps the most secular of any monk put to screen. We see his contemplation and spiritual struggle, but he is the furthest possible from the inscrutable religious figure he has been made out to be. Rublev’s struggle with faith, while crucial thematically, serves to emphasize his greater conflicts with creation and perseverance.
Tarkovsky’s films are notoriously long, and Andrei Rublev contains within itself a premonition regarding Tarkovsky’s long winded nature. Nearly three hours in, in the penultimate episode titled, “The Bell”, we see the film’s thesis explicitly stated. This sequence is grueling, boring, taxing. Full of setbacks, doubts, violence, all in the name of creation. One can imagine that the forging of this bell, done in the name of a murderous prince by a lying little boy, works analogous to both Rublev’s struggle and Tarkovsky’s process as an artist. Creation is oftentimes destructive, scatterbrained, with the final product often out of sight. But for what is all this done? Andrei Rublev argues that it is done for the process, that such destruction serves only as a catalyst for greater and higher creation.
“When I began work on Mirror,” Tarkovsky writes in Sculpting in Time, “I found myself reflecting more and more that if you are serious about your work, then a film is not merely the next item in your career, it is an action which will affect the whole of your life.” It is impossible to know for sure whether Tarkovsky knew how true this statement was at the time, or if it was simply a wise observation of an artist near the end of his life. Nevertheless, the immense value he put on art cannot be overstated.
Mirror is perhaps the most challenging of the seven films in that any semblance of causality is virtually non-existent; Andrei at his most Tarkovsky. But this is not to the film’s thematic detriment. At its most base level, the film is composed of the thoughts, memories, dreams, and feelings of a dying man named Alexei. The film is heavily autobiographical and even features Tarkovsky’s actual parents among the cast (Arseny, his father, narrates the film, as well as his own poems within it. Andrei’s mother, Maria, plays Alexei’s mother, although their names are the same).
Tarkovsky was of the sentiment that the greatest, most evocative mode of communication was the image. It was to the image that Tarkovsky was supremely devoted. And if Andrei’s church was that of the image, Mirror is its foundational text. The film is visual poetry in every sense of the word; it contains perhaps the greatest photography of Tarkovsky’s career. It is through the supremacy of the image by which all other substance of a film is allowed to manifest. For Tarkovsky, the relationship between cinema and literature was somewhat dialectical. While the script and dialogue by extension are important for a film, Tarkovsky doubted the ascendancy of text over the image that most conventional filmmakers and audiences had (and still have). He writes, “…The time has come for literature to be separated, once and for all, from cinema.” And this is not to deny the importance of literature, for it is another of my obsessive passions. Rather, this is a testament to the power of film. It needs no story, words, nor even any sound to remain effective. It bears no repeating that “Cinema is the art of the moving image”, as it has become somewhat of a tired, self-evident cliché in the quest for justifying a lack of linear structure. But the idea is fundamentally sound, as true as anything, and Tarkovsky fully understood this. We might believe that story above all else is what makes great films compelling, and there is of course a place in cinema for such narratives. However, at the heart of cinema, as well as at the heart of Tarkovsky’s project, is the undying loyalty to truth. This truth, he believed, could only be captured by the image. For, though in language we may relate and transcribe experience, it will always fall short. Experience is at the heart of understanding an existence such as ours, and no combination of words will ever be able to capture being there in the same way.
As mentioned, Tarkovsky’s career was extremely personal, putting down his own experience to celluloid with such religious devotion that he became his own martyr. And this isn’t an exaggeration, for the cancer that killed him, as well as actor Anatoli Solonitsyn with whom Tarkovsky worked extensively, was caused by the terrible shooting conditions of this film.
Stalker is Tarkovsky’s second dive into the sci-fi genre after Solaris, however the two rarely (if ever) occupy the same aesthetic space. The film, as well as a few video games, is based upon the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. The film takes place in an apparently post-apocalyptic universe in which, twenty years prior to the film’s beginning, an unidentified object from space crashed into the Russian countryside, leaving a mysterious and ever-changing area called the Zone in its wake. At the heart of the Zone is a room with the ability to grant one’s greatest, sometimes unrealized desires. However, the room can only be reached with the aid of a Stalker, a mythic guide who may bring others through the Zone but may never use the room for himself. Stalker is likely Tarkovsky’s most famous and influential work. Not only that, Stalker is eerily prophetic in both tone and atmosphere with regards to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
Stalker is the last film Tarkovsky ever made in Russia due to his self-exile (a part of his life which relates heavily to Nostalghia and will be touched upon in part two). Some would argue that Tarkovsky’s desire to leave Russia can be witnessed in the first hour of Stalker, the film critic Mark Le Fanu among them. I would agree to a certain extent. “I’m imprisoned everywhere.” says the Stalker, not long after the film has started. Likewise, the similarities between the dystopian society depicted within the film and the reality of the USSR and its many gulags cannot go ignored. However, while Tarkovsky’s desire to leave the Soviet Union may be manifesting through this film, it is hard to say that it, or indeed any singular idea, is the main focus.
This film is one of the more ideologically dense pieces in Tarkovsky’s repertoire. Clearly defined in retrospect is the search for hope, the fear of desire, the loss of faith, and the ignorance left by it. But in viewing, the film takes on a spiritual kind of nature that makes hard analysis all the more challenging. The imagery is vast yet dissipates once the meaning begins to come into view. Only in the last forty minutes or so does the film’s hypothesis truly come into view. In an effort to avoid spoilers, I strongly recommend that the next section be read after your first viewing of this film. Think of the coming paragraph as the spoiler version of the Zone. You may only safely pass with Stalker to guide you.
Once the room has been reached, the thematic gears begin to turn at double speed. Upon arriving at the threshold, Writer and Professor (who have hired Stalker to take them to the room) begin to question why they embarked on this journey to begin with. They think of the tragedy of Porcupine, a Stalker who, after sending his brother ahead of himself to die, stepped into the room. Upon leaving the Zone, he was met with a large sum of money. No happiness, no peace, no salvation for his brother. Just money. The terrible reality of Porcupine’s most basic desire as revealed by the Zone was too much for him to bear, and he shortly killed himself. Writer argues that the room is unsafe, and that nothing shown to you can possibly make up for whatever shameful outcome you might receive. Man’s true nature is greedy, hateful, and selfish, and no amount of idealism can protect you from the soul-stripping nature of the Room. Neither he, nor professor, wish to take such a risk. They resolve to stay outside, to the dismay of Stalker. Stalker recounts how his life is meaningless without the zone. He has nothing to show for his life, no money to shower his wife and child, and cannot even enter the room himself. Yet, he has been given the invaluable gift of leading others to the Zone. Without it or the room, his entire existence will be pointless. His two companions proclaim his naivety as he does their pessimism. And nobody enters the room.
This speaks first to the very nature of faith. Stalker’s entire existence is dependent on the truth of the Zone, yet simultaneously faced with the reality of the Zone’s potential for harm. Without such unwavering, unconditional faith in it, he is lost. But because he has so much faith in the room, he inevitably becomes the least likely to take advantage of it. Conversely, Writer and Professor’s doubts about the room and its potential for evil make them more likely to be disappointed by whatever outcome they receive. They are unable to see the beauty in the Zone. And it appears as though Stalker’s faith, too, is wavering by the end.
This film lends itself heavily to dissection by conversation and truly must be experienced for yourself. Additionally, the supremely dense nature of the film lends itself to multiple viewings and many thorough readings. At once haunting, mystic, and peaceful, I consider Stalker to be the best singular example of what Tarkovsky is getting at. However, that does not mean the journey should stop there. In part two, I will discuss the remaining films of Tarkovsky’s career (Ivan’s Childhood, Solaris, Nostalgia, and The Sacrifice) as well as their influence on Tarkovsky’s life and philosophy. You can find all of Tarkovsky’s films currently on the Criterion Channel. Viewing the three features mentioned this time around shall give you a steadfast foundation for the rest of our dive into Russian cinema’s greatest mind in Part Two.
Olivier Assays directs the way a uniquely gifted speaker delivers a speech: while his contemporaries project, almost screaming, he lowers his voice, and the audience leans in to listen. The French writer-director has made waves for years, finding special critical success in the 2010s, and while his latest film Wasp Network was picked up by Netflix for distribution, the director isn’t quite on the same level of popular notoriety amongst Film Twitter’s darlings like Ari Aster or Greta Gerwig. I want to change that, partially because I want to see us rotate our film crops a little as young and extremely-online movie fans, and mostly because I think that his style of directing—quiet, deliberate, unassuming at first—is a personally resonant mode of being for which I want to see more celebration.
Assayas’ most popular thematic concern is this juxtaposition of the analog and the digital. Especially in Demonlover, Clouds of Sils Maria, and Personal Shopper, the way in which characters interface with technology and with each other uniquely complicates and alienates. Phones and screens are heavily in use in the diegesis, starkly contrasting the use of analog film stock with which he shoots. With the exception of Demonlover, these don’t serve as hyperbolic and pedantic of a purpose as technology does in something like Black Mirror, but what it does instead is treat social media and cell phones as ubiquitous constructs. Characters use and navigate those elements with humanity and clarity, with social media working as an intrusive breach of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart’s seclusion in Clouds of Sils Maria and a personification of metaphysical forces in Personal Shopper. With each of these, Assaysas addresses an essential component of contemporary life without condescending about technology the way a parent or grandparent might. It isn’t going away any time soon, so we might as well talk about how we use it.
Other Assayas films, like the exceptional Carlos and the more meat-and-potatoes Wasp Network, are period piece espionage dramas. Their setting embodies Assayas oscillating more toward his analog impulses, as films like Cold Water and Irma Vep also emphasize a tactile diegesis, with the costuming and mise-en-scène of both underscoring a love for all things material. Summer Hours, possibly the pinnacle of this fixation, places extreme importance on the objects left behind to a family after their mother’s passing, reifying the material and adopting a more object-oriented ontology.
Most importantly about all Assayas films, however, is his unique, deceptively simple style. Every Assayas film is a kind of magic trick, beginning as one thing and unfolding into another, and his style is an essential component of that. An emphasis on shot-reverse shots and over-the-shoulder conversations can make his films look like more competent, but are more in line with the restrained character blocking present in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a film so influential on Assayas that his interview about it is included in the Criterion Collection’s edition of the film. Narratively, he favors Antonioni as well, with several of his films having holes in their centers, mysteries of plot and character to which we as the audience may never get a real answer. However, on a slightly warmer note than Antonioni, and more so in favor of his other influence, Ingmar Bergman, Assayas’ characters are typically more explicitly realized and less speculative in their characterization. The result is deeply human characters, at once fleshed-out and withheld. This kind of dynamism animates his films’ narratives, mimicking his stylistic juxtaposition of tactile mise-en-scène and icily stylish cinematography, as well as his thematic obsession with analog and digital or physical and metaphysical.
Now, for your homework:
An Essential: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Assayas’ first collaboration with Kristen Stewart and second time directing Juliette Binoche, this drama is, in Kristen Stewart’s words, “an infinitely-sided mirror.” The film follows Binoche as an aging actress called upon to play the opposite role in new production of the play that gave her her start, but swapping the young ingenue for the older woman she manipulates takes a toll on Binoche’s character. Drawing inspiration from several canonical works of European art cinema (a tripartite narrative influence from L’Avventura, Persona, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), as well as Kristen Stewart’s own tabloid history and Assayas and Binoche’s age and working history, this film is an entry-point into Assayas’ filmography that displays his thematic fixations and artistic influences all with an initially classical story structure, only later giving way for modernist narrative tricks. Standout performances (with a sapphic undercurrent and distinctly feminine milieu) from the two leads, as well as a biting supporting role from Chloë Grace Moretz make this an exceptional picture for Assayas newcomers and an excellent film to revisit with the context of its influences under your belt.
Next Step: Personal Shopper (2016)
Assayas’ follow-up to Clouds of Sils Maria, and in many ways its spiritual sequel, Personal Shopper was my own introduction to Assayas’ work. Stewart stars as a medium living in Paris, working as a personal shopper for a wealthy client, waiting to receive contact from her deceased twin brother. As a twin myself, and as a fan of Kristen Stewart alternating warm sweaters and slick leather jackets, I had a lot to love. The film is more of a Hitchcockian thriller than Assayas’ previous film, but its profound meditation on grief and loss in a time of social media’s purgatory makes it deeply relevant and profoundly moving. Lush costuming and Kristen Stewart’s most powerful role to date make this an essential, tied with the previous film for my favorite Assayas.
A Deep Cut: Summer Hours (2008)
Not so much a deep cut as it is undermentioned in discussions of Assayas’ filmography, this film is Assayas’ warmest film to date. Deeply personal and quite moving, it follows a family spread across the planet by the nature of their work in a globalized economy, joined together for a family reunion. When their mother dies, the family must deal with her estate, including precious works of art, furniture, and personal mementos. Fecund greenery and a beautiful provincial home are at the core of this film, while its characters wrestle with just how tightly they should hold onto the physical possessions their mother left behind. Its narrative is certainly less high-concept and high-stakes than the two previously mentioned films, but it takes fewer cues from Antonioni in its audience engagement and sincerity, making it a standout in his filmography.
Elevator Pitch for Other Recs:
Carlos (2010): Did you ever want to watch a leftist terrorist womanizer decay to a post-punk soundtrack?
Irma Vep (1996): Assayas’ Day for Night, Maggie Cheung in a black catsuit, Sonic Youth playing, awesome Stan Brakhage reference at the end.
Cold Water (1994): Oh to be an edgy French teen in autumn.
Demonlover (2002): Chloë Sevigny and corporate espionage all for the sake of what? Anime tiddies. I’m not kidding.
Olivier Assayas rocks and I’m tired of my peers not taking that pill yet. Go watch his movies. Please.
In my mind, no working director has been better able to commit to film the core essence of the American Spirit (and all of its shortcomings) than Paul Thomas Anderson. Each of Anderson’s eight feature films has dealt with alienation, familial dysfunction, and what the ethereal notion of America really is (with the exception of Phantom Thread, which, despite my highest of recommendations, has a singular flaw in not taking place in the United States). With such an idiosyncratic and fascinating filmography, it’s hard to choose just three works that can best give the Anderson Experiment its due. In short, it’s a “Hard Eight” to pick from. However, upon reading the previous director’s guides and with the good ol’ American Spirit in mind, I have decided that I am not going to follow the rules. I have picked four films (half, I know) that I feel represent key points in Anderson’s career. Despite this, I highly recommend engaging with all of his works, as each carries a piece of Paul with them (Phantom Thread, for example, comes to mind as something of a confession regarding his notorious relationship with Fiona Apple).
An Essential: There Will Be Blood
This film has such a reputation that I initially wanted to avoid writing about it; however, I just don’t think you can really get a taste for Anderson’s later stylistic maturation without it (more on this later). This is the first of Anderson’s works I ever saw, and while I don’t consider it to be my favorite PTA film, I do often consider this to be the film that made me reconsider what movies can be. It’s also the film that ignited my affinity for amazing mustaches.
There is so much to love about this film. The score is the first of many collaborations between PTA and Johnny Greenwood, who, incidentally, created my favorite score of all time in… you guessed it, Phantom Thread. Greenwood’s score absolutely sets the stage for this entire film. It isn’t just happenstance that this score frequently sounds like something of a horror soundtrack; this is a monster story by any margin, and the opening shot makes it clear. And as the camera shows what dwells inside this foreboding cave, we find our monster. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Daniel Plainview is absolutely titanic, and the film still manages to keep up with him despite the incredible energy he brings (as does Paul Dano, whose safety I fear for every single frame he is on-screen). The all-natural look of the photography makes it some of the most impressive of Anderson’s catalogue and the scope that was captured is really quite remarkable. This is not a case of one actor carrying an entire project; this is a prime example of every department firing on all cylinders.
Beyond the technical precision, this film is also the most openly political of Anderson’s works so far. The struggle between an oil-drinking vampire and a fanatical priest to satiate their unfulfilled desires for control is no small statement on the American climate. It’s hard to talk about this movie without spoiling it since most every scene carries with it such energy and urgency that they all stand out as being very remarkable, and there is no shortage of memorable lines throughout Anderson’s idiosyncratic dialogue. With that being said, in the battle between capitalism and religion, it is very clear which of the two Anderson believes has won in America.
1. Boogie Nights
Once you’ve gotten a taste for what Anderson is now, it’s important to see where he started. And as far as starts go, Boogie Nights is one Hell of a start. PTA was twenty six when he made this, to my and many other aspiring filmmakers dismay. After following a very small-scale and Coen-eqsue debut in Hard Eight with Boogie Nights, it’s not surprising that PTA was such a hothead. This movie is just cool. There’s no other way to say it.
Beyond how incredibly stylish this film is, it’s also a good indication of the directors that influenced PTA early on. The spirit of Goodfellas emerges in the opening tracking shot and lingers throughout. The wonderful ensemble cast (composed of Julianne Moore, John C. Reiley, and the dearly missed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, among others) evokes the style of Robert Altman, who PTA has worked and expressed great admiration for in the past. And I don’t bring up how Boogie Nights wears its glamorous influences on its sleeve to say that there is no originality. Despite the stylistic guidance from Scorsese and Altman, there is still plenty of Anderson in this film. PTA’s interest in families, alienation and belonging really takes off here, as does the struggle between art and vocation. One particular car scene (you’ll know it when you see it) also gives a glimpse into Anderson’s future ability to create genuinely disturbing sequences like some found in There Will Be Blood and his other works. But even with a brief descent into despair and anguish, Boogie Nights manages to come out on top and finish on an incredibly high note.
2. Punch-Drunk Love
This is where the true Anderson begins to emerge. With a new kind of sincerity not yet seen in previous works, as well as an absolutely stunning visual style in its beginning stages, Punch-Drunk Love is a clear departure from Anderson’s prior works. This film also really highlights Anderson’s talent for directing his leads. Adam Sandler is so wonderful in this film (nothing but love for the Sandman). He presents such a new and vulnerable side of himself in Barry Egan, while at the same time retaining that classic Sandler-Rage we all love.
Through this vulnerability, Anderson once again deals heavily with isolation and anxiety. Something beautiful about this film is how restrained and inconsequential the plot feels. The future of America at the hands of capitalists and oil tycoons is a much more existential and sizable issue than anything presented in this film. And yet, that is precisely what makes it so charming. Barry Egan is an everyday guy facing everyday pressures, but this film presents Barry and his struggles with the utmost urgency and respect. Barry Egan is the closest thing to an everyman that PTA has written so far. Even in his insignificance, Barry Egan stands out as a worthy protagonist. The film’s most consequential conflict amounts to embarrassment and the loss of a few hundred dollars. Not a victimless crime, but not an abstract or ethereal struggle either. But through this film, we see that even the smallest of the small can be made into heroes, even if just in their own minds. We are all like Barry Egan in some way. Feeling small, feeling helpless, feeling like we have no agency in the chaos of the world. And yet, in the face of an unkind existence, Barry still triumphs in his own monumentally small way. Herein lies the beauty of Punch-Drunk Love.
A Deep Cut: The Master
If you have known me for any short duration, you probably have heard me say that The Master is my favorite film of all time. That was hardly the case when I first saw it. I didn’t even hate it upon first viewing. It was indifferent, totally enigmatic. But it stayed in my mind for a long, long time. I think what appeals to me about The Master that I have not quite found in PTA’s other works is the continuous evolution of meaning and significance it has for me.
The Master is like a Rorschach test. It can mean whatever you want, but it is more likely that it will mean what you need it to. That statement is about as vague as the film was itself upon first viewing. It felt hollow, yet at the same time deeply comforting. It’s a wandering meditation that unfolds more and more with each viewing. On the surface, it is fairly straightforward. Freddy Quell (portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix) is a volatile sailor struggling to reintegrate into society after World War Two. He is also a compulsive drinker and suffers from PTSD. It is this lack of purpose and subordination to his own vices that leaves Freddy unable to find any sense of belonging until a serendipitous meeting with Master sets the two down a path of mutual dependence.
Freddy and Master’s relationship, as well as the film’s broader thesis, revolves around the Master-Slave dialectic. This relationship was made popular by Hegel and describes a condition wherein two self-conscious beings struggle to be recognized as self-conscious by the other. At its most extreme this dialectic creates a paradox; when one consciousness seeks to be recognized by subordinating the other, the subordinated consciousness loses that ability to freely give such recognition. This concept is also a foundational relationship of capitalism. In relying on the worker for labor, the capitalist becomes a slave to the worker just as the worker is a slave to the capitalist by means of payment to survive. In the context of the film, Freddy and Master become dependent on one another. Freddy needs a master, Master needs a subject. But in his need for a subject, Master becomes dependent on Freddy, who is at the same time the subject and master of Master. There is also a certain feeling about this film that I cannot explain. The comparison I find myself making is that it has the same sort of feel as the concept of the Great American Novel. This idea is a little too lengthy to write out entirely here as I’ve used so much space already. Not sure if plugging a YouTube channel is allowed, but while I’m still breaking the rules, feel free to reach out about it.
If this doesn’t sound convoluted enough for you, this film is also highly meandering. However, I would argue that this is absolutely the point of the film. Each watch produces seemingly more questions and less answers. As mentioned, there are a multitude of readings this film could offer. Can Freddy be cured? Does Master truly care for Freddy? What is the deal with the time-travel pseudoscience used by Master? And after a multitude of viewings, I can tell you that I still don’t fully know. But I have become more and more sure that perhaps I don’t really need to. This film is unbelievably beautiful, both on a technical and textual level. I often find myself crying by the film’s end for no obvious reason; I think the reason changes with every viewing. It’s deeply sincere and unapologetically human. It’s the sort of film that finds you exactly where it needs to. By the end, it may feel as though there was not a point at all. But without resolving to the cheesiness of the “friends we made along the way” schtick, I do sincerely believe that the purpose is the wandering. Who alive is not continuously looking for a Master? For that promise to cure all ailments, to take away all responsibility and fear as you surrender absolutely? And who alive believes naively that it can be done?
I believe The Master is perhaps PTA’s most philosophical work so far, made up of equal parts Freud, Scientology, and American Dream. However, it can also be a somewhat challenging work to appreciate. But with a few other Andersons under your belt, it should be a deeply rewarding and pensive experience.
Did I mention that you should check out Phantom Thread?
Wow. What a phenomenal question. Little do you know, dear reader, that I am the perfect person to ask such a question. You really crushed it.
Throughout quarantine, I have been tearing through my favorite film director’s filmography – which is rather immense. Clocking in at 30 films, with a career spanning 57 years, Akira Kurosawa’s body of work is breathtaking, sculpted, bursting at the seams with the sheer flexing of filmmaking muscle. It is quite the body. Which is exactly why Akira Kurosawa was given the Academy Award for Greatest Bodybuilder in 1969 (no citation; this is not true).
For myself at the onset of quarantine, the answer to the already neglected question I posed with the title of this essay was simple – the beginning. I began with Kurosawa’s first film Sanshiro Sugata, a sports drama about a young man who becomes debatably the best Judo martial artist in Japan – though I remain confident that were I around, I could very well kick his ass in half.
However, in the spirit of the very same agility and shiftiness employed by the very same Sanshiro Sugata (from the very same film Sanshiro Sugata), I must juke you out, dear reader, and say that I cannot recommend you begin your inevitable Kurosawa Quest with Sanshiro Sugata. Though certainly an inoffensive piece of filmmaking, Sanshiro Sugata is truly a foundational piece for our beloved Kurosawa and holds more value as a document in his historic filmmaking trajectory than a standalone piece.
So, now we are all asking, “Will Seth just answer the god-damn question?” Yes. And I will be answering it in the most unsatisfactory way imaginable. With a fury-inducing, “Well… it depends.”
Let us begin with the genre of Action, the genre (along with drama) that Kurosawa most frequently visited. The obvious answer is to begin with Kurosawa’s most famous and beloved epic Seven Samurai. An action-packed yet emotional journey and masterclass in directing, editing, and acting – Seven Samurai is one of the most beloved action films in film history for a reason. It is also one of many films in Kurosawa’s filmog that have had elements ripped endlessly by other filmmaker’s globally, and in the case of the beloved Hollywood western The Magnificent Seven,almost directly re-made with no writing credit given to Kurosawa. Notably, Kurosawa responded to this slight with pure class, and reportedly enjoyed the film so much that he presented director John Sturges with a ceremonial sword… LODGED IN HIS BACK!!!
(this isalso un-true, Akira Kurosawa did not ever commit murder, I think)
Let us say you do not have much of an action attraction, no need to worry. For all you TNT fans, yes, all you Drama Mama’s (fans of drama) look no further than Ikiru. Ikiru is a film about an aging Japanese bureaucrat who is diagnosed with cancer, and in his final days he decides to do all that he can to get a neighborhood playground built. It is debatably the most gut-wrenching film I have seen, but I do not mean this in the same way that, say, a war film wrenches your gut. Nor do I mean this in the way that Taco Bell and 4 gin and tonics wrenches your gut. Rather, Ikiru instills a beautifully somber hope within the viewer by its conclusion, even encouraging self-evaluation in one’s own life for the better – such as the best films can do. I cannot recommend this film enough, as when I first viewed it, it ignited within my 17-year-old self a small bonfire that would soon grow completely out of control and form a roaring inferno of flames found only within the heart of a fully-fledged film freak.
Let’s say you are a romantic, shall we? Well firstly, I might recommend William Shakespeare’s classic 1500s indie novel Romeo & Juliet, and once you finish that I must recommend Akira Kurosawa’s lesser known, yet brilliant and hopeful 1947 Romance-drama film One Wonderful Sunday. A gorgeous film about a young couple in a war-ravaged Tokyo trying to make the most of a weekend with very little money between the two of them. As is standard in most Kurosawa pictures, this film is not pigeon-hole-able as a pure romance film. Its setting quite obviously denies that. However, the two inexperienced lead actors in this film act their entire hearts out and it is impossible to not fall in love with their relationship, and lovers of joy will be unable to hold back a grin of delight at this film’s stunning conclusion.
Let us say that you are perhaps a Western fanatic! You dressed as a cowboy every year for Halloween and blasted a shoddy .mp3 of Kid Rock’s 1998 single “Cowboy” right off your flip phone’s speakers every morning on the bus-ride to school and got in trouble for hog-tying your best friend David one day because he broke your copy of Red Dead Redemption. Well, if you are the person I have described, I have the perfect recommendation for you…
Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo, although not a western, provided the blueprint for so many beloved westerns to follow. Very notably including the Dollars trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone and starring Richard Jewell’s Clint Eastwood of Richard Jewell fame – A Fistful of Dollars,by the way, being another “unofficial remake” with no Kurosawa credit given. The origin of the endlessly clever, nameless film protagonist with strong morals had its roots in Yojimbo and as you might well know transcended into multiple genres beyond the western and the samurai film. Yojimbo puts on display an oft-seen director trademark for Kurosawa in one of my favorite ways, with strong gusts of wind blasting dust and debris (soon to be famously replaced by the most prolific star of many Western films – tumbleweeds) directly into the slew of bandits and mercenaries that have found a home in the film’s setting – a dilapidated town in the final years of Japan’s Edo Period. And if this film really got your blood pumping, boy do I have a treat for you… a sequel film by the name of Sanjuro was released following the success of Yojimbo, and it is truly just as superb a film.
“But Seth, I only like films in color.” Well, you psychopath, go and watch Kagemusha, a film less mentioned than one of Kurosawa’s other color masterpieces Ran. Kagemusha displays some of the most brilliant use of color you will witness in film. Absolutely stunning for a director who lived in the realm of black and white films for so long.
If you have not seen all of the films I have mentioned above, then I do truly envy you dear reader. You have what I view as the most exciting lineup of films to tear through and if you follow my official guide, I guarantee that you will be satisfied. Additionally, if you watch any Kurosawa film ever and even if I do not even know who you are, feel free to talk to me about the wonderful man known only as The ‘Saw-ster – I would be delighted!
Ingmar Bergman is one of European art cinema’s most celebrated auteurs. His harsh, austere dramas and stiffly mannered comedies saw huge success in the arthouse heyday of the 1960s, especially outside of his native Sweden, and his filmmaking influenced the works of other arthouse directors in the years that followed—Woody Allen, Michael Haneke, and Lars von Trier, to name a few. This level of influence and renown has given Bergman’s filmography a unique place in film history, but the first impressions many people have of his work is of their pretension, unknowability, and inaccessible headiness: as Diane Keaton sums it up in a useful quote from a bad movie, “It’s bleak, my God. I mean, all that Kierkegaard, right? Real adolescent, fashionable pessimism. I mean, the silence. God’s silence.” The parodic Scandinavian sensibility described by Keaton in Manhattan works as the upper bound of his criticism, but a more lukewarm sense of the same exists for many people unfamiliar. My job here is to hopefully clarify that, give you some overarching reading strategies for Bergman’s works, and give you a road map of how to start.
I typically like to bifurcate Bergman’s largest thematic concerns into his theological musings and his interpersonal ones. The silence (or manifestation/absence/intention) of God is a significant part of many of Bergman’s early to middle-period works, most notable in works like Winter Light, The Silence, and The Seventh Seal. I think that the lion’s share of ire drawn toward Bergman as a heady, inaccessible filmmaker comes from this element of his work. Those without backgrounds or interests in religion or theology may find these ideas to go way over their heads or fall a little flat. However, what’s most crucial to get from this thematic concern is an overall inability to connect; it is this that joins Bergman’s theology with how he sees the people around him.
Bergman’s other concern, the one with which I have the most fascination, is a consistent interrogation of how people can be close to one another and what pain that can cause. Neon Genesis Evangelion succinctly crystallizes this in the Hedgehog’s Dilemma: hedgehogs huddle for warmth, but poke each other with their quills, and must learn just how close they can be before they hurt each other. Wild Strawberries, Scenes from a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, Autumn Sonata, and Fanny and Alexander are the most succinct distillations of this theme, but it works as a narrative through-line in practically all of Bergman’s works. It is this theme that, I think, keeps Bergman from being pretentious (most of the time), and makes his works extremely relevant and watchable today: no matter your experience, identity, or ideology, how deeply or fully you connect with other people will always be a decision that you must make. Bergman’s work is essentially a large variation on this theme, with connection leading to happiness, fulfillment, and even capital-G Grace in some works, and humiliation, rejection, and crushing loneliness in others. In all of these works, however, that thematic idea is personified in the motif of a hand touching a face, one person reaching out to the image of another.
How should you get into Bergman if you’re new to the undertaking? Start with these three:
An Essential: Persona
Bergman’s 1966 film was a rupture within the arthouse when it landed and has remained relevant since, echoing his own quote: “You are always aware of a wound.” This is maybe a controversial introductory pick, but I trust you enough to throw you in the deep end first, partially because I think that it puts Bergman’s themes and motifs into sharp focus and will benefit your viewing of the films that come before and after it. A story of identity slippage bookended by an abstract reflexive meditation on film, its quick pacing and commitment to Hollywood-style enigmas make it a reminder of Bergman’s beginning as a script reader. A lot of thematic cans of worms are opened in its brief runtime, but you’ll stay afloat if you watch the film with an understanding of interpersonal connection and intimacy at the forefront of your mind.
Next Step: Wild Strawberries
The more conventional introductory pick, this film contains remnants of Persona’s play with form but is more true to the straightforward narration of most of his films. This film uses Bergman’s sparkling dialogue to clarify some of the thematic content in Bergman’s catalogue while also echoing the levity of his earlier films and their fixations with summer. With the exception of the opening dream sequence, the clarity of this narrative makes it arguably his most accessible work and clearest statement of theme.
A Deep Cut:
The Passion of Anna
This flawed, less celebrated work in Bergman’s filmography was the first one that made me truly grasp what he was trying to communicate. I think it’s a masterpiece despite those flaws partially because of how it opened up the director’s thematic concerns for me. The themes are Bergman-pudding: marital infidelity, shame and humiliation, and the ever-present desire to get close to others and inability to comfortably do so. This film also features a subplot about a killer of dogs on the island (Bergman’s home of Fårö), and has one scene of a live dog struggling while hanging in from a noose, and while the dog lives and is cared for by Max von Sydow’s character afterwards, please use your discretion as to how that content may affect you.
One of Bergman’s two forays into the English language, The Touch sees Bergman’s frequent collaborator Bibi Andersson alongside American actor Elliott Gould in a story of marital infidelity and clashing American and Scandinavian sensibilities, all shot in a gorgeous autumnal palette that foreshadows his stunning color photography with Sven Nykvist in films like Autumn Sonata. While the narrative misfires in places, the film is memorable for its striking performances and beautiful aesthetic.
Ultimately, Bergman’s greatest concern was in connecting with other people, and he saw his films as a way to do that. They are clear, clean, and sharp. Even in his minor works, and even in his comedies, there is always a feeling that what you are watching is the result of complete seriousness, of a discernible human behind the film who wants very badly to communicate an inner truth and using fiction to do so. Bergman often considered himself an accomplished liar, and that makes the clarity and confrontations of his films all the more compelling. They are aspirations to live in truth, stabs in the dark at a moving target. His is a cinema of perseverance through despair, and there is nothing less pretentious and more human than that.