Second part of the list of flicks that’re Thousand Movie-Approved (TMAP) is what I think is a condensed version of the List itself. I’m using my own questionable judgment/experience to suggest the movies that I think give a solid idea of cinematic history, of its movements and techniques and the lives/works of its most influential practitioners.
If you’re looking for a quick dip into the Project that you can pursue on your own time, or if you wanna make your own version of the Project by letting me guide you, here’s where you can do it.
Movies That Rang Alex’s Personal Bell
Captains Courageous: A big part of having such a visceral reaction to this was clearly, at the time, cuz of its celebration of the mentor-protégé relationship, which I’m really into, but as I look back on clips of it now, and as I work my way through movies from the 1960s at the same time (nearly two hundred titles down the line), I see that it also looks very much like a movie of the 1930s. The image is softer, the whole thing is quieter; I don’t wanna say it’s quaint, but it’s definitely warm, and I get the impression that when people refer to this as the golden ear of cinema, or when Leonard Maltin gives a just-shoot-me shrug when saying that he doesn’t know why he watches these movies more often than those of any other decade, that the warmth of that soft image and imperfect sound is part of what’s so compelling. It’s the kinda movie that kinda demands a dark room and popcorn. A proper moviegoing experience.
Gone with the Wind: Wanting to be very original here and to only present movies from the List that you probably haven’t heard about, I’m kinda bummed to’ve found myself so seduced by Gone with the Wind, which I figured was gonna be a stuffy tedious minefield of politically dicey stuff: misogyny, racism, etc. And that stuff is certainly there to be found. But it’s also a beautiful, smart, well-paced epic that, for all its enormity, focuses on two central characters and a universal dilemma. Sprawling and gorgeous and simple. It’s a good formula. A little bit dusty, sure, but it’s an enjoyable three hours and the kinda thing you’ll be glad to spend a whole Sunday on, with breaks in the middle for soda and sex.
The Wizard of Oz: Hadn’t seen this in probably a decade when I finally sat to watch it for the List, alongside Bob and Lynda, and – like when I sat down for Gone with the Wind – I had this idea that it was gonna be a slog, that the movie’s magic belongs to children for whom it’s not all old hat. But nope, it holds up, and even though we all know what’s coming and we can sing along and mouth the dialogue and the images are as fortified in our minds as is the image of the room you’re sitting in, the magic persists. I got swept up in it. So did Bob and Lynda. I’m not gonna say it’s one of my favorite movies of all time, and in fact will confess it’s something I hardly ever think about, but I can’t deny that it’s cast a spell on me every time I’ve seen it, has done so for decades, and it’s making me wonder if it’s possible to have a favorite movie that you don’t care about all that much. If so, for me, then this is one of them.
Citizen Kane: I’ll be talking about this in the proper TMAP down below but, personally, Citizen Kane rings a bell for me as a twentysomething storyteller who, like the 25-year-old Orson Welles who directed, starred, and co-wrote, is just tryna to tell the kindsa stories he wants to tell. (I’m really chafing against this in some of the work-related writing I’ve been having to do lately: it’s a headache to research shit that I know I’m never gonna fully understand and to then try making sense of it in 700 or 800 words. I feel like a fraud. Incidentally, on that note: I just saw this wonderful old Rod Serling interview from the 1960s where he talks about how it was that exact feeling of fraudulence that drove him outta advertising.) Welles tore up floors and brought his camera into rooms through skylights and fucked with our depth perception and manipulated the sizes of actors in a single frame. Dude’s a genius. The movie is genius. Not sure I’m on the same page as Roger Ebert in saying it’s the greatest movie ever made, though. Nor would I say it’s in my top ten personal favorite. But as a creator myself it’s the kinda movie that I watch with a full awareness of the circumstances under which it was made, and the temperament and motives of the man behind the curtain, and in that sense it speaks to me in a way that it probably doesn’t even intend. A way that lotsa viewers won’t share. But so it goes.
Sergeant York: Looking back on this movie I just shake my head because I can remember so vividly the feeling watching it, getting swept up in the story, falling in love with it and then standing up and grinning when it was over – only to find that we were only at the halfway point. It practically becomes a totally different movie at the halfway point – and that second movie is even better than the first. Apart from the character development and the relatable quandry of tryna get out of a bad financial situation, and to set up a future for oneself and get out of a life of ne’er-do-well boozing, by sheer work, the movie’s dazzling for how exciting it is. It’s like 80 years old but those battle scenes are just about as exciting as some really high-quality TV drama. It’s not as gory or visceral as Saving Private Ryan or Fury or some other modern horrorshow about WWII – but you watch it and feel like the same things are at stake. Just wonderful. It’s also the only movie in which I’ve ever liked Gary Cooper. Which is something.
Casablanca: This had to grow on me. I’ve never been crazy about it. In fact I resented it for a long time because I’d heard so much about how it’s the greatest movie ever made, it’s so smart and touching, but I just couldn’t follow it as a teenager and then as a college student. Even watching it again just for the List – I had a better idea of what was going on than I’d had in the past, and I was probably more appreciative of the artistry, but I still didn’t feel like I quite had my hands around it. Only after deciding to host a screening of it at Tea & Poets, thus prompting myself to watch it over and over and at one point to sit through it with Roger Ebert’s commentary, did I come to appreciate that the movie is practically a living organism. There are so many memorable characters, so many iconic lines, and way more subtext than I think a person can possibly pick up on with a first viewing. So, if you’re like me and aren’t crazy about this at first, I’d suggest making an assignment of it. Watch the thing three or four times. It’ll start to reveal itself.
To Have and Have Not: There’s a meta component to the pleasure here, I talked about it in the essay, where you’re watching and digging the story, the action, the characters and all that jazz – but we know, at the same time, that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were falling in love during production (much to the chagrin of director Howard Hawks, who had the hots for her too). Bogart was married at the time, so it’s kinda sordid, but he eventually got divorced and then he and Bacall hooked up again for The Big Sleep a few years ago and, pardoning a couple indiscretions on both sides, it seems they lived happily ever after until Bogart’s death about a decade later (it was a slow, grueling death; cancer). But this story, brilliantly adapted from a seemingly un-adaptable Hemingway “novel” of the same name (it’s more like a tapestry of three long stories), is legitimately exciting in a way that I tend not to expect of movies from this era. I expressed the same about Sergeant York. So maybe I’m holding em to a lower standard? Ahdunno. Either way: I enjoyed the shit outta this and it’s one of the few movies from the List that I’ve watched repeatedly. I think you might dig it too if you’re into crime pictures where the consequences accumulate and accumulate and then culminate in a third act that you probably wouldn’t have guessed at while back in the first.
Double Indemnity: Just a perfect fucking noir, good grief; in going through the Project I’ve wanted to be able to get aboard with every genre (the Biblical epic, the western, the musical, French New Wave, etc) and see the merits, the beauty, the genius. Film noir is toward the top of the List of genres I wanted to get really savvy about and it’s been a big disappointment, frankly, to find myself so endeared by the subject matter and the mood – but to also find myself so consistently disappointed by noir like The Big Sleep and Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past and Laura, movies with squigglesome plots that don’t lend well to a visual medium. Because yes, they’re moody and shadowy and often very beautiful in their way, but there tends to be so much exposition and dialogue, so many names and sub-plots to keep track of, that staying afloat through a noir tends to be more of an auditory than visual experience: are you keeping track of these names, do you remember what this character said about that one…? Double Indemnity simplifies the whole thing. We’ve got a charismatic (if also odious) protagonist, we’ve got a compelling antagonist in the form of Edward G. Robinson (giving a performance that rivals Little Caesar for depth and warmth and nuance – his expressions, the way we see him thinking a problem through…), and we’ve got a beautiful, seductive, charismatic and perfectly menacing femme fatale in Barbara Stanwyck. Three central characters and a simple murder plot that succeeds at first and then slowly comes undone. Also, it’s short.
Mildred Pierce: This movie is so wonderful – and writing about it was a kind of mixed blessing because, hard as I fell in love with the movie, I just couldn’t manage to write an interesting essay about it. Maybe I’ll go back and put the sentences in a wok, mix em up, but, anyway, the day came and went that I was supposed to put it up on the site, I tinkered and tinkered, but the shit wasn’t getting any better. I sighed and published it. Made a little more peace with the idea that not everything I put up on the site is gonna live up to my expectations. Cuz I’d been thinking, y’know, that if I really loved a movie – which was certainly the case with Mildred Pierce – I should write an essay about it whose, ahdunno, lyricism or humor or whatever is commensurate with my appreciation for it. But anyway: this was directed by Michael Curtiz, the guy who made Casablanca, and Joan Crawford won Best Actress for her performance, the critical reception was pretty rapturous – you can’t say that it’s an undiscovered gem, that it wasn’t appreciated; but it does seems to’ve fallen by the wayside. It’s the shit and a half, though, not just one of my favorite film noir on the List (and it’s one of those deliciously straightforward film noir, like Double Indemnity and Detour, where it’s not just a buncha posturing atmosphere and garbled plot), it’s one of my favorites on the List to date. It’s absolutely beautiful and exciting and engrossing and heartbreaking. Mildred’s helplessness to her own love for a vindictive daughter, Vida, who demeans and vilifies her, is totally believable, and poses some troubling questions about the extent to which we oughta make allowances for the cruelty, duplicity, the general odium of a loved one.
The Lost Weekend: Not sure I’d leap at recommending this to people unless you’re up for something really grueling. It rang my bell though because I’m still not entirely sure what to make of my drinking habits. Particularly the way that I sometimes will have an epiphany, at the end of the week, that I was drunk three or four nights of it and then I’ll kinda shrug as though it’s not something I’m doing but, rather, something that happened to me. I was made drunk by alcohol I just happened to be drinking. Ahdunno. And there’ve been times where I’m really in the dumps and end up burrowing into more bottles than usual and, the maxim’s true, it’s the worst thing you can use to try healing an internal wound. After a few days of doing it you find that you’re behind on all your responsibilities and, even worse, you haven’t really dealt with your problem. And in those really dark moments of self-confrontation, which I’ve had a handfulla times now since turning 21, I felt some of the wrenching despair that we see here in Don Birnam (Ray Milland). It’s heavy and painful and something I think I’ll watch now and again over the years because it’s like putting a mirror up to the Medusa inside me.
Brief Encounter: This movie wrecked me. I was still in a pretty contented relationship when I saw it. Crazy about the person I was involved with and that craziness was reciprocated – but there’s something so real about the romantic angst here, where a happily-married but habituated woman falls in love (lust?) with a man she meets along her Thursday afternoon routines. I guess the reason it struck a chord is because, while you might have to reach back a few years to conjure those old feelings of heartbreak, if you watch this while you are in a happy relationship it does sell you on the ease with which this sorta thing can happen. I guess my anxiety resides in knowing that you’ll probably never find a single partner who scratches every social and sexual itch you’ve got. There’s the angst of knowing you can’t provide for them in some respects and, I suppose, the lack of fulfillment when you dwell on whatever it is they aren’t providing you. And, just like that, a person can find themselves in an exaggerated state of longing for that one unprovided thing and, in a fit of abandon, they’ll set fire to every other good thing they’ve got, just to get that itch scratched. Something like that. Alls I know is it fucked me up. Absolutely beautiful and devastating.
Open City: After all this time working on the Project I still approach foreign films feeling a little jaded and I think I even consciously create a distance between myself and the thing I’m watching because I don’t wanna have to confront my own limitations if the thing goes over my head. I remember feeling this way big time about A Throw of Dice. The culture’s just so foreign that, even if the story is a simple one, I psyche myself out thinking that there are a trillion little nuances that I’m not picking up on. That I in fact am only understanding a portion of it. And maybe that’s true sometimes. The European experience of World War II is one of those intimidating topics that, by merit of its enormity, kinda makes me cower, and I end up checking out, intellectually. Open City, though, is so goddamn beautiful and rough-looking and smart and charming that, sure, even though I clearly didn’t understand some of what’s going on, particularly with the rebel group lacing through the streets of Rome against Nazi occupation, I was totally swept up in it. I’m also a sucker for movies that have several different storylines intersecting to form a big moving tragedy wherein some succumb to the villain and others prevail. Each narrative ultimately complicating and enriching the other.
Gilda: I said it in the essay but I’ll say it again here. I’ll say it to future partners and I’ll say it to my children and to colleagues for years to come: I love this movie dearly, I’ve seen it probably a dozen times, but it’s clouded over, in my memory, by the cringefest of when I hosted a screening for it at Tea & Poets and three people showed up: the woman I was dating, the woman who wanted to date me, and a mutual friend (emphasis on the woman who wanted to date me, singular, solitary; je ne suis pas esire). Putting that aside, learning to live with it, I can rhapsodize: Gilda, like Mildred Pierce, is one of those magically moody and beautiful film noir that focuses on a small cast of characters. Three, to be exact, like Double Indemnity. The story squiggles a bit, and people trade the “antagonist” hat, but, as with Casablanca, there’s a clearcut lovestory at the center of things. A complicated love between complicated people. And everything orbits around that. It gets extremely gay and bubbly, extremely dark and brooding – it’s versatile as fuck. And, while Barbara Stanwyck is a towering figure in Double Indemnity and Joan Crawford is the stuff of pure Hollywood royalty in Mildred Pierce, Rita Hayworth’s performance as Gilda borders on the celestial. She’s magnetic, charismatic, breath-snatchingly gorgeous and insanely seductive when strumming a guitar in an empty casino, or carrying on a whole song-and-dance number (Fritz Lang, having cast the hero of this movie, Glenn Ford, in his early-‘50s noir, The Big Heat, plays Gilda’s tune, “Put the Blame on Mame,” in the background of a bar because, just a few years after that movie’s success, there was no way the audience wasn’t thinking about it).
The Bicycle Thief: Apart from being a powerful movie that works as both a mirror and a window (mirror in the sense that it’s relatable and a window in that it’s a glimpse into a different time and a way of life that’s both unique to that time and timeless) I’m compelled by The Bicycle Thief mostly because Vittorio De Sica showcases a rare kinda mastery of his craft. The movie is lean at 93 minutes, it’s got three central characters, a simple premise that’s made complicated by a brilliantly swift opening – this is the model for brilliant, simple, direct storytelling. The idea that something so powerful can be communicated on such a pedestrian premise is inspiring for anybody looking to create something of their own. But that’s just me. Not sure how people generally respond to this just as a movie. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it, though, just immersing myself into the story. It’s overshadowed by the genius behind the camera. And I love it.
The TMAP: An Abbreviated List of Movies Worth Watching if You Wanna Learn Stuff About Film
These now are the movies that I’m gonna recommend if we say that the purpose of the List is to give you a sample of all the things cinema can do. Formative moments and practitioners. Styles and movements. I’ve learned a lot from how the List has pushed me outta my comfort zone and introduced me to new cultures, aesthetics, ideas. If I was tryna be a teacher, or to save you time and steer you toward the stuff that’ll give you a quicker/abbreviated version of the roundedness I’m looking to achieve with the Project overall, these are the ones I’d suggest. And why.
Pepe le Moko: Shit’s gorgeous and smart and exciting – definitely not your conventional gangster picture, but it’s a gangster picture nonetheless, and unique in that the hero, played by the gorgeous Jean Gabin, is sympathetic and likeable (apart from the fact that he treats his girlfriend like absolute shit). Rico in Little Caesar is maybe kinda charming at the start, particularly his enduring humility and sense of propriety on through the movie until the very end, but Tony from Scarface is an absolute cretin. Tom in Public Enemy is maybe the worst of the bunch. But here we get a criminal you kinda wanna root for and who’s made understandable because he’s languishing in exile. Paris itself is an off-screen character throughout the movie.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: This isn’t where Walt Disney’s career started (he’d been making animated shorts for quite a while, starring a live-action little girl named Alice in an animated world; also, Mickey Mouse was already long-famous at this point). It is, however, the first feature-length animation and, while a lot of the story material is old hat at this point and it can be tough to watch it and not think that it’s a ripoff of the very conventions it was inventing, the movie is surprisingly still gorgeous to look at, still funny and cute, still clever and pleasant. I personally think it’s more interesting to look at this movie as a checkpoint in the career of its creator. Walt Disney, a dude with demons, was also brilliant and fascinating and the kinda workhorse I like to read about so that I’ll feel bad about my own comparative laziness.
His Girl Friday: I’m not a fan of this stuff, personally, but fast-talking romantic comedies were the pride and joy of their day, and obviously they’ve endured through the decades but, watching these, there’s a different feeling. They were a celebration of love and zaniness – they’re sweet and charming. There’s no denying it. And you should see at least one sample. Among The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, I think this is the safest bet. It’s also in the public domain cuz they forgot to renew the copyright, so you can watch it and screen it and sample it for free.
Olympia: This is interesting because it’s beautiful and Leni Riefenstahl, whatever you think of her politics and a-/immorality, was a brilliantly talented photographer. I also liked watching and writing about this documentary, which chronicles the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, because it’s one of the few titles on the List to pose some moral questions about the act of watching it. Are you enjoying it? Are you allowed to enjoy it? If not, who’s forbidding you? Can you appreciate the beauty of a thing that was built upon resources supplied by a genocidal regime? Also interesting: notice how different an Olympian of the early 20th century looked compared to an Olympian of the early 21st. Look at the joy on people’s faces. The anguish as they exert themselves. The whole thing is so primal but feels, at the same time, so composed, thanks to Riefenstahl’s ability to track and capture everything.
Stagecoach: This is one of the formative entries in the genre and it features one of the most daring stunts ever put to film (stunt guy drops between two rows of galloping horses before a stagecoach runs over him at 40 mph) and the climactic shoot out is – I’m not exaggerating in the way that cinephiles sometimes do – rivals any modern action sequence for thrills and suspense. It’s brilliant. But Stagecoach is also mostly notable for having catapulted John Wayne to superstardom. It’s also one of the greatest accomplishments of director John Ford, and it cemented their partnership (which was both professional and paternal) as something symbiotic. It’s said of Alfred Hitchcock’s professional relationship with Cary Grant that each man, looking at each other, saw what they thought they looked like on the inside. The same might be said of Ford and Wayne – two men who’ll prove polarizing, you’ll probably either love or hate them (especially when it comes to their politics), but they’re massive figures of 20th century film. They helped define it. If you wanna know movies, you gotta know these guys.
Gone with the Wind: Chutzpah. Balls. This movie is such a massively ridiculous undertaking, it’s as fun to just watch it for the sheer gall of its achievement as it is for the surprisingly simple story at its center – which, incidentally, isn’t quite a love story. It’s a story of unrequited love. A story of a woman who doesn’t know how to be happy. It’s about separation (of a country and of lovers and families) and it’s about loss (of war and resources and pride and identity). It’s the apex of historical fiction and it’s a tragic masterpiece and it’s very funny in places and heartbreaking in others and it’s also kinda cringy. You’ll wince at some of the depictions of slavery. It’s both difficult and easy to watch. It’s very pretty. You can look at it as something simple or as something complicated – technically, thematically, visually, ethically. Its reputation and legacy are so huge that it might not seem, at a glance, like something you can just sit down and watch and then immediately wrap your head around. And, in some respects, you can’t. It takes some time and a few viewings. But it’s more than just accessible. It’s inviting. It was made to please the masses and it did exactly that. You’ll dig it.
The Wizard of Oz: Bit of a box office flop, surprisingly, Wizard of Oz didn’t achieve its current cache of cultural clout until the 1960s, when it started playing on TV and a generation of kids could grow up singing the songs. It also blew Judy Garland up into superstardom and, though her life was cut grievously short in her late 40s as a result of an amphetamine addiction that allegedly began on the set of Oz (she was sixteen years old and producers wanted to keep her slim), it’s kinda heartening to move on from Wizard of Oz toward Meet Me in St. Louis and A Star is Born (1956) and see that the promise of her debut here was legit. The talent didn’t just assume different shapes, it grew, and the woman we see in A Star is Born is such a beautifully realized version of the girl we see here. Apart from that: it’s a masterpiece of imagination. I can’t think of another movie on the List (except maybe Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) where almost every character with a speaking role is iconic. Do an impersonation of the dude who pops his head out the door and barks at our heroes – people will know what you’re doing. Same goes for the mayor of Munchkinland and the Wicked Witch and the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. There’s so much fucking gold in this movie you could build an economy on it.
The Rules of the Game: I’m only gonna put one Renoir picture on the TMAP even though he’s got a few other entries that’re maybe more noteworthy than this one – most notably The Grand Illusion, starring Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim, which is probably his most famous and celebrated picture, and it’s definitely worth watching, but The Rules of the Game showcases Renoir’s mastery of the medium in, like, a gilded way. If you go to my Grand Illusion essay you’ll see I was a little puzzled by the fanfare, even though the movie’s obviously very smart and clever and beautiful, and I’m buying into its “genius” mostly on the basis of how many people have written about it. The Rules of the Game shows how he weaves all these different storylines into one dazzling comedy of errors. It’s beautiful and brilliant and genuinely funny, and heartbreaking, and the only one of his movies where I wasn’t just looking at Renoir’s work and assuming it’s brilliant on the basis of what more credible people have said. Also, it’s good to get around the globe. See a celebrated French movie and note the different sensibility and aesthetic.
Citizen Kane: There’s so much to be said about Citizen Kane, and so much that’s been said, that it’s almost not worth talking about – not cuz it’s overdiscussed, necessarily (it totally does warrant all the commentary), but because all that chatter makes it seem more intimidating or demanding or forbidding than it really is. The movie is genuinely funny and sweet and engaging and upsetting. It’s brilliant. And I’m not so sure it’s a turning point in cinema but it’s got that fiery vibe of a young artist with a vision and all the necessary resources to realize it. It’s a compelling story that’s both a tragedy and a mystery, it’s got flashes of romance and lotsa praise can be lavished on its treatment of themes like male friendship and greed and America, but its style, its look and its technical innovation, is just as interesting as anything going on in the story. Welles was obsessed with using prostheticsc, both on stage and on camera, and it’s neat to see him disappear into the ageing Charles Foster Kane and how the figure’s made monstrous and solitary by strategic camera placements, lighting, use of mirrors and shadow, etc. Like Casablanca, it rewards repeated viewings. Lynda does this thing sometimes where she’ll send me a song and, since I’m not all that savvy on music, she’ll have my try to train my ear by focusing on just the drums, or just the bass – Kane is kinda like that. You can watch it as a story of a friendship, and you’ll come away from it with something different than if you were to go in treating it like a meditation on greed. Different, too, if you just mute the whole show and appreciate the visuals – which might communicate the story all on their own.
The Maltese Falcon: You’ve gotta know about noir and unfortunately this is a pillar of the genre, one of the first major installments and also a template for how subsequent entries would be shaped. You’ve got the femme fatale and the double-crosses, a heavyhanded MacGuffin in the shape of this falcon statue everybody’s tryna get their hands on. Also it’s Bogart being Bogart and, like I mentioned with Stagecoach and the relationship between the Johns Wayne & Ford, Bogart’s is a personality you’ve gotta know if you’re gonna know movies.
Casablanca: Sort of an extension of the last movie: it’s Bogart being Bogart but now he’s in top form, his most iconic role as Jake, the owner of a Moroccan bar called Casablanca. It’s also one of the most iconic movies of all time. Ingrid Bergman is beautiful and brilliant (but, concerning Bergman, I think her role here is interesting mostly for how its soft and glamorous Hollywood treatment contrasts with her more stark and earnest Italian films in the 1950s, performing for her director/husband Roberto Rossellini). Dooley Wilson as Jake’s old friend, Sam, has a small role but imbues it with so much nuance: he’s loyal, he’s got a sense of humor, he’s worried. Sings the shit outta “You Must Remember This” – probably the best rendition ever set to wax. And then there’s Claude Raines as probably the realest talent in the cast. Casablanca is so beautiful, so complicated and clever and sad, it’s tough to summarize why it’s worth watching again and again, as the years pass. Part of what makes it so enduring is that you’re not gonna pick up on very much of the story with the first viewing. You might not even like it. But with a second viewing you’ll get a clearer idea of where our heroes are going and where they’ve been. With the viewing after that one you’ll have a clearer idea of different characters’ relationships. It’s amazing.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp: I don’t even know what the hell to say about this movie, it’s so busy and huge and English. I’m not a huge fan of the Archers, which is the name of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell whenever they pair up as writer/directors, but, as I mentioned in my piece about The Red Shoes, they’re probably the savviest filmmakers of their generation, particularly when it comes to the use of color. Also, their films feel big. They feel like events. It can get a little overbearing, I think, but it’s heartening to sit in the company of an artist(s) who’s considered every angle of their work and who seem as committed to the audience, and to the fun factor of film, as they are to the artistry of it. I think Black Narcissus is probably a better romp, but Colonel Blimp is poetic as fuck and probably the English equivalent of Gone with the Wind in terms of scope and beauty and its handling of themes like war and love and grief.
Meshes of the Afternoon: I feel fine recommending this because it’s interesting to look at and it’s only like fifteen minutes, you can watch it on YouTube. It’s an experimental film with no discernible rhyme or reason – but it does successfully convey a mood in the way that conventional storytelling can manage. Also neat: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, the husband-wife co-directors, made this at home and it feels like the first home movie. Cameras were I guess getting affordable and portable enough for people to start bringing em home and shooting shit.
Rebecca: There’s gotta be some Hitchcock on the TMAP or it’s no List at all, and while I personally don’t like Rebecca all that much, would rather suggest something like Shadow of a Doubt or The Lady Vanishes if what you’re looking for is a good time, but Rebecca’s a pretty brilliant movie. One of his most cinematic movies – if that makes sense. It’s a slow cerebral burn of a movie that, though tedious at times and maybe a few minutes too long, feels, like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, exhaustively considered. It’s a movie about obsession and, whether intentionally or not, it feels like an obsessive and meticulous production. It also represents an interesting mid-period in Hitchcock’s career where he was moving away from the more kinetic crowd-pleasing thrillers of the 1920s and ‘30s and trying to be more artful. Maybe he was trying to be taken seriously by critics? Ahdunno. Anyway. If you wanna be savvy on major movies from the 1940s, and major achievements from major filmmakers, Rebecca’s kind of a must-see.
Double Indemnity: Maybe you’re like me in that whenever somebody refers to a cinematic masterpiece I think of something cerebral and sweeping, something with a passionate and conflicted love story that spans decades – Gone with the Wind, basically. Or something dazzling like Wizard of Oz. “Visually Striking” is I think how Netflix categorizes em. But Double Indemnity is a good example of how a masterpiece can also just be a simple story, well-told, something that grips you with what’s going on among its characters but also utilizes, subtly, the tricks of the medium to influence your feelings. As I mentioned in my essay about it, Double Indemnity also has one of the most beautiful and compelling depictions of male friendship – which I’ve now mentioned twice in just this post but, what can I say, it interests me. This is also an outstanding example of film noir and communicates its defining characteristics pretty well: the shadowy look, the femme fatale (played by Barbara Stanwyck with the same wholly-immersed brilliance of Stella Dallas, but at a softer key), the nihilism, the crime, the backstabbing and the plot that seems simple and promising but then turns complicated. It’s just outstanding. And the last scene…oh my god. Watch this one first.
It’s a Wonderful Life: I guess. I don’t personally think there’s anything too special about the movie aside from the fact that it’s delightful and warm and shows Jimmy Stewart at his very best up to this point in his career. But basically I think you’ve gotta see it because it’s such a cultural staple and at some point in your life you’re gonna hear somebody reference it.
Monsieur Verdoux: This isn’t exactly a masterpiece either but I do think that the history of cinema is the story of its greatest practitioners, its innovators and stars, and since Charlie Chaplin was literally the first international superstar of the medium, and since he contributed so much to film during the silent era, it’s instructive to see how he adapted (grudgingly) to films with sound (City Lights and Modern Times are two silent films he made well after the widespread implementation of sound). I prefer The Great Dictator, as it’s more iconic and, I think, funnier and smarter – but I can’t forgive how overlong that movie is. And I’m tryna getchu in and outta here quick. So Monsieur Verdoux is a swift 90 minutes, it’s laugh-out-loud funny in a handfulla places, and it showcases Chaplin’s evolution. He’d forsaken the “tramp” character that made him so famous in the silent era – claims to’ve given up on that role before The Great Dictator but he’s totally playing the same role – and here we see him taking a pretty big risk by playing a serial killer and bigamist who marries old widows and kills them for the inheritance. He was trying to get out of the box into which his public image had been crammed and sealed. He succeeds. Not necessarily for the best, but it’s still interesting.
*chuckle* We also disagree on GONE WITH THE WIND. Ah well, chacon a son gout; I think we also may have been bringing two different sets of expectations TO the film, and that influences things like whoa (I saw the HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY film with a friend and we walked out with very different responses – but we then realized that he’d had very high expectations which hadn’t quite been met, and I’d had very LOW expectations which were exceeded.)
Yeah, I remember wondering how people thought HITCHHIKER was gonna work. I haven’t seen the adaptation of SLAUGHTERHOUSE five, but I’d have thought the same thing — and yet Vonnegut was always bitter about how terrible the movie was (Guillermo del Toro wrote a script for it that allegedly cracks the formula). But yeah — when Trouffault asked Hitchcock why he never went through with adapting CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, after talking about it for so many years, Hitch said he realized that a masterpiece is something that utilizes all the tools of its medium — and a story can translate from one medium to another, but the tools of its telling cant.