Top Discovery of June 2018 – Fury (Lang, 1936)

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“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” proclaimed Network’s (1976) Howard Beale (Peter Rinch), a quote that inextricably struck the chord with both the fictional crowd of Beale’s world and the post-Vietnam Gerald Ford audiences that flocked to this sensationalist-driven picture. It’s the articulative snippet from Paddy Chayefsky’s piercing script that has remained in the public conscious throughout the subsequent decades, often cited for a relevance that’s more apparent now than before. This appreciation creates a separation in the viewer’s mind by evaluating its own contextual merits while acknowledging that the success of these merits is built around a cynical core that has been brought to the fore in a society that no longer resembles this exaggerated concept. An attitude that can very well be ranked alongside Ace in the Hole (1951), The Caine Mutiny (1954), last month’s highlight, or any other film that examines the morally repugnant social kernel for drama, we treat these pictures as a retrospective for how ahead of their time they were, as if transparency hadn’t already been engrained.

Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), the Austrian-born director’s first American picture, is as vigorously apt of a title as any for assembling a mirror that has only widened as it’s aged. As usual with Lang, the film centers on a naïve sap being put through a ringer of harsh truths that had been manifesting under the surface until fate made its way. That sap is Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), a gas station owner who’s counting the days until he’s living with his fiancée, Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney), an idyllic woman with a similar narrow-minded view of the world. On route to visit her, he is wrongfully arrested in the sticks for the kidnapping of a child. Immediately clear to Wilson that this circumstantial grasp is a means for an answer, not a solution, he quietly resides in his cell as a town eager for some gossip spreads the misinformed word on this recent arrest until a need for a justice begins to dictate the collective discourse.

Lang’s penchant for exploiting a figure of innocence in order to dissect how deep the cynical bite can be comes off as the primary – or perhaps natural – function in human existence. Wilson, left alone in his cell without the figures in his life that make his heart beat so proudly (Grant, his two rambunctious brothers that need his guidance, a terrier with similar characteristics), rots away in the sight of a humanistic impulse that was once absent, growing rancorous as the figurative light he desperately needs is brought forth as the literal downfall by a crowd that wants nothing more than to shun logic for a result. You don’t necessarily question the proceedings in Lang’s word, but follow the definitively virtuous until it has been wholly distorted while retaining none of the good that once remained. (His arrest is lazily slapped together, but this negligence merely corresponds with the ensuing social retaliation, a bitter irony that convolutes a scenario where the inciting incident is defined solely by a pocket full of peanuts.)

The attempt to reckon with this unfathomable behavior in hindsight is given something of a twist: Wilson, believed to be dead from the riotous flames of the prison, making for an ironclad case against those perpetuating this animalistic incident, is, in fact, among the living. The living may be an exaggeration: his physical and mental state now resembles the hollow core of that countryside town, determined to hide his presence from others in order to – much to the giddiness of Lang – enact a form of justice that can only be achieved from their shallow playing field. The results from Lang’s characters are only accomplished when they realize they’ve been playing a fool’s game. Wilson and Grant, gazing at the emblematic image for their eventual marriage while they bounce off one another’s infectious aura, initially doesn’t feel like a bookend for the narrative, but a glimpse within a dynamic that, if it wasn’t going to be finite on its own, was destined to crumble piece by piece; a foundation that couldn’t possibly exist within a social structure that treats such concepts as a form of amusement. The great strength of this rabbit hole isn’t that these town folks are archetypal cardboard cutouts, but that they’re able to bypass this fabrication in order to succeed with their goals, however morally repugnant the path. It’s relentless and misanthropic as can be, but it wouldn’t feel like a genuine expression of Lang if it wasn’t. The film does try to bring this narrative full circle with a cheerful, abrupt conclusion that is painfully obvious with its disingenuous purpose, confirming to the viewer, even if they weren’t aware prior or afterwards, that MGM wouldn’t accept this candid expose. (Lang indeed opposed the final moments.)

This material that duly uses Wilson to dismantle the falsity and hypocrisy of American values would’ve fallen apart had anyone other than Tracy played the part. With a composure that is as formidable as it is ingenuous, Tracy allows his character to have the proper balance for believability. You accept that this person was able to progress through life with such passiveness, while understanding that the self-assertiveness lurking under every spoken word and facial tick can prevail with immense force once the proper pieces are assembled. His persona in the back half feels innate to both the performer and character. Jimmy Stewart and Clarke Gable, two other MGM contracted stars, are too offset with their very nature to persuade such motives. Stewart wasn’t far enough in his career to convincingly present this impetuous self-destruction, while Gable’s presence would have been too in line with Sydney’s. Even actors that could have potentially been put on loan or thought of purely on a hypothetical basis, such as Warner Bros’ Edward G. Robinson  (used to immaculate effect in Lang’s Scarlett Street (1945), but only at the right point – i.e. the climax) or Paramount’s Gary Cooper, lack the idealism that is waiting to collapse for dramatic effect. Tracy exudes the desired purity while physically conveying a presence that could very well have appeared in the town mob.

Fury isn’t disclosing a baleful infrastructure for us to reluctantly accept. Rather, its edges are meant to be seen in order to show how glaring these faults are, and how they can surely be modified in order to prevent such occurrences. Time has proven that humanity is blinded by this need, instead recreating, to startling effect, the very nature we’re supposed to consciously dismiss. Going from A to B takes a degree of introspection and common decency, and it is being neglected because these traits aren’t a necessity. This euphoric man eagerly driving across the landscape of America to marry his wife, only to encounter faces that let emotion swiftly override intellect, is brought to a point of decision alone in his cell: give in to the gravest of instincts, continue to cling to the faulty symbol found within your furry friend, or find a middle-ground that excuses these consequences. One suspects Lang leaned more towards the former, but it’s difficult not to feel inclined towards the least accessed route when we live in an age that thrives on the hostile ideology.

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Top Discovery of May 2018 – Seven Days in May (Frankenheimer, 1964)

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The opening sequence for John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May demonstrates the miscalculation of political dynamic that drives the film’s tyrannical bent. The credits themselves, scrolling over the constitution as the forceful, patriotic beat of Jerry Goldsmith’s score takes hold, is overwhelmingly precise with its patriotism, articulating this bind on the people that will subsequently be thwarted as the story unfolds in this post-nuclear age that has allowed a subset of ideas to be embedded, no matter the boundaries, allegiances or moral consequences.  Outside of the integral establishment that supposedly embodies this document are protestors proclaiming their right, lashing out against President’s Lyman’s (Frederic Marc) recent signed treaty with the Soviet Union by marching in drab, expressionless fashion where intent is only known from picket fences. Frankenheimer’s camera is detached, slightly shaky at a lower angle that suggests a control that is at odds with demeanor. Exploding within the second, this guerilla characteristic aligns with the crowd’s breaking point. The spatial relation is haphazard with disorienting perspectives, from the back of a bystander’s head (jarringly establishing a motif that operates as a plea for personal control) to the array of feet as they try to hold ground within uncontrolled chaos.

This formal execution is one that that only resembles the action taking place, proving that this release of direct expression is possible, but will not and cannot occur within a plot of orderly men trying to resolve a grand conflict through the ideological difference. The framing is more refined with its 1.78:1 black and white compositions, now synonymous with the calming dynamic of character in the face of power. General Scott (Burt Lancaster) is the one to have arranged the dominos that are planned to come tumbling down by the seventh day; an agenda that defies order in favor for personal declaration that rejects the notion of an accepting presidential strategy. The conveyer of information to the president himself, Colonel Jiggs (Kirk Douglas), is the sole figure of fortitude that faces the immediate decision upon discovery to accept the opposition or prescribe to the moral duty that is assumed and respected.

The framing is concerned with the hand that is highest, where the naked argumentative engagement of men prompts a nearly synchronous, conscious camera; belittling their presence as the game shifts with high-angles where the person feels just as inconsequential as the setting around them and heightening their importance with low-angles as this agenda nears its fruition. Its concerns are only within the alignment of the central conflict, not the characters themselves, always positing truths within an outlandish dilemma that somehow feels plausible within our modern perspective. It doesn’t care how the characters think, feel, or behave within the given situation, which is wholly applicable for a story that’s dependent on whether righteousness can prevail in the face of certainty.

People beyond the confines of the White House are delivered in respectively peculiar fashion. When Senator Clark (Edmond O’Brien) seeks out a base camp in the outskirts of El Paso, Texas, Frankenheimer blocks him in such a way that feels downright eerie. A vast desert setting that commands attention with its bright landscape; the pattern of electric lines being the only suggestion for a form of texture. It feels otherworldly to the extent where this location, the place that’s presumably responsible for militarily disruption in the days to come, is not only the establishing factor of an America that isn’t believed by Lyman, but also suggestive of a proclamation that can manifest itself in the distinctly particular, amounting to something more than the angering protest of one man and his sign. Even when the president’s advisor Paul Girard (Martin Balsam) is in sight of a military ship, an object as familiar as any, it is seen from a perspective that overwhelms. It’s fitting that Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, would be the one to present us with an America that feels off-kilter as the anxiety settles. But it is Frakenheimer’s camera that triumphs, making the governmental establishment, concerning an America that drastically differs with what they perceive, feel like an entirely different entity from every other location. It’s disjointed from both its past actions and ongoing declarative ideological difference. The conclusion to the story, which could be taken as a trite exchange of words elsewhere, feels like the needed reassurance for a story that proves cynicism to be sometimes a natural and almost earned form of expression.

Jiggs is the key to our everlasting impact. Played fittingly subdued by Douglas (he is given one chance to showcase his trademark of scene chewing and is justly robbed of this instance), the character borders on reprehensible in the personal sphere while being the honorable beacon who is able to shine light in a political world that cannot seem to maintain honorability. This isn’t a suggestion that intimate actions within the personal are of less concern (Eleanor Holbrook, played rather brilliantly by Ava Gardner with what little screen time she has, operates more as a means for men, and Jiggs, though actively aware, emphasizes this), but a sacrificial act of one’s personal development is necessary in order to succeed – something that Scott, so stubborn and at ease with his agenda, is completely oblivious towards. We don’t necessarily feel that there’s a heroic center, but a side that is clearly the right one, which marks a distinction that makes the film as vital as it is today.

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Top Discovery of April 2018 – You Were Never Really Here (Ramsay, 2018)

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The knee-jerk reaction for Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature, You Were Never Really Here, is to grab onto its ‘70s American bones and single out Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver as its obvious antecedent. Its commonality of story, a lone man, plagued by PTSD, stumbles towards a personal trajectory that’s both reprehensible and intelligible with its actions, is clearly justified through its surface. But this comparison bears little resemblance through the contextual roots springing from the respective auteurs. Scorsese’s film felt like a landmark of realization; a character piece driven by the inner-musings of an exact climate, firmly in place by an aesthetic that had yet to be refined. Ramsay’s poetic sensibility has been apparent from the onset, even in her first short, Small Deaths, and what makes her work fascinating is that this progression is a shift of what had been assembled; each subsequent film doesn’t necessarily broaden the craft but relate it to content in a way that makes this familiarity feel like a breath of fresh air.

Continuing with the Kubrick-ian tendency of a grueling waiting period between each film, Ramsay returns with a narrative that wholly uses the essence of her prior starting points: death. The process of loss with her characters is abrupt with action: a death that hovers over a boy’s identity in Ratcatcher; the posthumous occurrence prompting a singular grappling with grief itself in Morvarn Cavalar; the attempt to come to terms with the sole cause in We Need to Talk About Kevin. This gradual reckoning allows loss to be an inescapable force in world that can be stubborn with its innate occurrence. This film is channeled through the perpetrator itself: Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a hitman for hire whose personality is only assembled through the psychological fragments that drenched itself in Kevin. The act that begins the film isn’t the inciting incident for what’s to come, but another step from a man that has no motive other than distraction and money. Consequence isn’t of question when the canvas of the present is blank; he echoes the past, through action in the moment and unflinching jolts of memory, only decidedly reacting when those around him interrupt the rulebook he has set for himself. It isn’t until a case that clings with its reprehensible nature, in the ways that slightly resemble his time in the war, that a through line is found.

It’s best to go into the film without knowing what prompts this. The relentless abhorrence of the proceedings is not the primary source for our uneasiness (as is often the case with Ramsay’s concepts), but the formal assemblage of a fractured psyche attempting to clash against a hellish world that can bring some to call this archetypical protagonist as the hero. But there never is one point that suggests Ramsay is veering towards romanticizing; his actions may lead to an ultimate good, but the wartime traces that we see are now contextualized in the deeply personal. (One moment towards the end relates to this very notion and demonstrates itself as one of the most superb uses of a trope that has long been beaten to the ground.) Phoenix is the immaculate embodiment of an idea that seems like catnip for the arthouse director; consistently in sync with Ramsay’s touch by frowning and mumbling and opening the canvas to attention that holds no bounds. The slumped posture, swinging fists, furrowed face, and every other groove of his body allows for a cut that’s intrinsically compelling. Ramsay’s poeticism is offset, or perhaps rediscovered with the contrast of the definitively opposed, with her disoriented performer (something that Phoenix, try as he might, will never be able to shake away from) that couldn’t have been possible with the likes of Tilda Swinton or Samantha Morton.

Johnny Greenwood’s score, his second with Ramsay, is jarring and forceful with immediate impact, furthering us into a hole that cannot be left. The more we spiral into a day that gets worse by the hour, the higher the score unhinges us from the delicacy of Ramsay’s camera. It’s the extra push of Phoenix’s quality and confirms the unwavering intuitiveness of Ramsay as a filmmaker. She is often acknowledged for her ability to remain true to the promise of a story, never flinching away from content that could be considered untouchable – and probably disastrous – in other hands. But the balance of what can happen and what does happen is appropriately realized in a piece that is driven by violence. The story itself lends to the gratuitousness of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, but it miraculously handles the explosive ramifications with authenticity that proves every sensibility doesn’t need to be overwrought when dealing with a body count. While the violence of Refn is envisioned with images that result in the nihilistic, numbing impact for an indulgence that has gradually become tiresome, Ramsay’s is felt with heft, and not solely because its consequences are able. The violence is understood, even when the act itself is absent, because the formal strategy is entirely affiliated with characterization.

At my screening, a woman next to me moved about distressingly, not necessarily, I suspect, because that something violent is happening, but because of how the violence is being presented. The frustrations you feel are due to a pronounced lack of clarity, and how a surface or edge that can have no relation to the first-hand atrocities, such as the strands of wet hair, only hastens its inevitability. Every person that is disposed of is framed and structured differently, which, applied with Ramsay’s poeticism, achieves the rare feat: widening the impact of accumulative violence, rather than desensitizing it. The senses are overwhelmed by sound in the moment – the smudging on the tile of a kitchen floor, the immediate bursting of a hotel door – that the subsequence of death, with smears of blood drenching the stagnant, buries itself in our conscious like the shards of Joe’s wartime traces. If there remains any question of the supposed redundancy of Ramsay’s proceedings, simply take a look at the syntax with Joe’s infiltration of a building around the midway point and understand the ingenuity of a scene that balances the trickiest of tones in a pitch-perfect manner.

You Were Never Really Here is the first feature film of Ramsay’s where the figure at the center progresses to a point where a goal feels accomplished. This isn’t a slight on her prior work, as they intentionally operate by showcasing the nuance of our own reactions and expressions from a personal episode. This narrative is tightly controlled in a way that only seems applicable for this fulfillment, leaving behind a messiness of newfound traumas that could appropriately lend itself to an entirely new narrative for Ramsay. The endpoint doesn’t feel triumphant, despite the success of the given agenda, but messy, direct, and even convoluted in ways that aren’t common for this auteur. The ultimate question that remains isn’t simply one that’s applied from this narrative, but a body of work that consistently questions the handling of one’s stable identity. Is it better to be left in the environmental trappings that plague with these past endeavors, or to devise the path of a newfound awakening that suggests both restoration and unquantifiable anguish? The final delivery, with an undercurrent that is characteristic of both the filmmaker and the genre, provides for the most concrete result we’ve come to expect. Only the ensuing work of this singular voice will clarify our assumption.

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Top Discovery of March 2018 – The End of Summer (Ozu, 1961)

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Sometimes relegated for being too content with the familiar, Yasujiro Ozu’s cinema is one of serene understanding, where the dynamic of family, time, and death is explored through minutely varying narratives and a realized aesthetic that seemingly limits artistic liberation. This presumption that one viewing is enough to understand the body of work as a whole is beside the point. The trajectories don’t exist for surprise, but overwhelming humanistic insight presenting comfort in the viewers mind that his characters sometimes lack. To approach a new Ozu picture is to look in another direction in Yellowstone; the sight is an elaboration of preconceptions, but the experience of delight is one from a modified expression.
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Top Discovery of February 2018 – The Naked City (Dassin, 1948)

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There’s are present assumptions when one approaches a noir. The repetition of the familiar, which can be greeted with a grown elsewhere, is treated with excitement for the possibility of its alteration under the artist at play. If, for instance, we watch a noir through the viewpoint of Fritz Lang, we expect the downward spiral will be furthered to a point that resembles the director’s grim leanings. The genre promptly presents itself with the definitive qualities – one instantly knows what a noir is when they watch two or three of them – and our enjoyment ultimately is determined by the slight shift of detail and ultimate contrast when taken from afar. A genre that is inherently limited with what constitutes it as such is given the observational awareness for a will to be defiant.

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Top Films of 2017

The highs of 2017 weren’t consistent, but they were surely felt when they landed. It was a sparse year, with dry spells that felt long enough to make one think it was a bust. Perhaps I should stop going into each year expecting another 2011. Fortunately, we had Twin Peaks: The Return during this year’s longest rut. No, I cannot justify its inclusion. If I did play by those loose rules, it would come out at the very top without a second of hesitation.

Also, for continuity’s sake.

A few films that were close to making their way on here: Good TimePersonal Shopper, and The Shape of Water.
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Top Films of 2016

Write-up to be filled within the subsequent weeks.

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