Why lovers of film are different
Having been blessed with the terribly debilitating condition often referred to as “lovesick romantic”, a particularly recurring symptom tends to present itself in the form of an addiction to “feelings”. In the space of a few minutes, I can travel on an emotional journey with more peaks and troughs than Switzerland.
While others laugh at memes of Andrew Lincoln proclaiming hopeless love to Keira Knightly in Love, Actually, I drift off into the memory of how much I cried during that scene. And it’s not even a very good film.
But that’s the thing about film lovers, and perhaps all those with a creative streak. There’s a deep nerve hidden somewhere within us that allows (or forces) us to feel certain things in ways others may find difficult to comprehend. I remember this feeling from when I was quite young, watching Edward Scissorhands for the first time. It was one of the required films at my high school (the only redeeming feature of my horrible education), but I was sick for a week, thus was the treat of seeing this not amongst rowdy, small town Australian teenagers, but under a blanket, next to a heater.
I was always one of the biggest devotees to all things Batman, but it was Edward Scissorhands that introduced me to Tim Burton’s gentle outsider.
Again, some time later, American Beauty gave me a character that I returned to for many, many years. Ricky Fitz, as played by Wes Bentley, may have been a cliched emo to some. Not me. I was just as transfixed as Thora Birch’s Jane. And after witnessing that plastic bag moment, I finally heard someone outside of my own head describe my feelings with such precision, it was as though he’d robbed me of thoughts I had never articulated.
That’s the wonder of being in a lifelong love affair with cinema. Every now and then, a film can take you to a place you’ve never been, yet somehow exists within your own mind. For someone blessed with the agony of feeling everything all at once, the validation of having those thoughts expressed by someone else can be very liberating.
Of-course, being a film lover, I’m often asked for suggestions and recommendations, and I’m always reluctant. The thing that a lot of people don’t understand about film lovers — not the casual observer, I’m talking emotional obsessives — is that it’s an intensely personal thing. While Vertigo, Citizen Kane, or Gone with the Wind might be considered the universal choices for best ever, and they certainly rank among my most enjoyable, they don’t necessarily speak to me in a uniquely personal way.
The following list of films are those which I find myself returning to over and over again. For me, they’re not simply a way to pass time or take my mind away, they represent something meaningful, perhaps in a way that only I can understand. But maybe they’ll resonate with you too. Of-course, there are others. And I’m fickle, so by the time this is published the order will have changed and other titles will likely have been added.
#10 — Touch of Evil (1958)
Entering the iconography at the tale end of the film noir era, Orson Welles’ unsettling masterpiece doesn’t really fit into any genre quite perfectly. Taking his cues from the Whit Masterson book Badge of Evil, Welles reworks the narrative into a story of an ageing and obese detective who has become far too accustomed to getting his way via quite blatant corruption.
In town with her husband, Miguel (Mike) Vargas (Charlton Heston, playing a Mexican — overlook that if you can), Susie (Janet Leigh) finds herself an innocent bystander after a car crossing from Mexico into the US suddenly explodes. Knowing the political implications, Mike takes a keen interest in the case — placing the honest cop in a head-on collision with the grotesque police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). Beyond the story, however, what sets Touch of Evil apart is the world projected so precisely by Welles’ direction. From the famous opening scene — one long, extended take — the undercurrent of dread quickly boils to the surface beneath Janet Leigh’s naive smile.
There are few films that depict such a haunting world with such targeted, hollow emotion as this one. The script is good, the acting is great, but it’s the illustration of a terror-filled world that sticks long after viewing (in a similar sense to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). A sex-obsessed motel manager, a sweaty drug dealer, the blind shopkeeper in a terrible wig, and the supremely discomforting gang of teenagers all collide in the stunning black and white photography seeped in dust and dread.
Tragically, the film was torn apart by Universal prior to its release. Unhappy with the cut Welles had submitted, the studio scrapped the long opening take, using it as a traditional opening title sequence instead. The result was more in-line with the typical b-movie of the period. Orson Welles was shattered, he never made another American film.
In his rage, he penned a 58 page memo to Universal demanding that his version be restored. The studio ignored the request, releasing their version to an underwhelmed American audience (though it fared better in Europe, winning Best Picture at the Brussels Film Festival). Forty years later, Welles’ memo provided the basis for a 1998 restoration that is quite rightly considered the definitive version of this brilliant work of art.
#9 — All That Heaven Allows (1955)
There are two films directed by the great Douglas Sirk in this list, and I often have trouble deciding which order they should be in (it usually depends on my mood). As with many cinema greats, Sirk was terribly under-appreciated during his time. Often written off as a director of “women’s films” (cough, ahem), Sirk nevertheless stuck firm to his formula, creating some of the most wonderfully lush melodramas in cinema history.
Descending from the treetops of an eternally autumn New England suburbia, the film dissects the class and conformity obsessed culture of 1950s America. Jane Wyman plays a wealthy widow who, after becoming romantically interested in her gardener (Rock Hudson), finds herself facing off against her socialite peers. In the hands of anyone else, this could have been a forgettable time consumer. But while his films were almost universally relegated to the status of unimportant daytime fare — the cinematic equivalent of a romance comic book — Douglas Sirk always knew exactly what he was doing.
After marrying a Jewish woman, he fled Germany with his wife in 1937, settling in the land of hope and dreams of 1950s Hollywood. The frustration he felt at the darker undercurrent of American prejudices became an enormous influence on the remainder of his career.
By making his films look devastatingly beautiful, using a striking colour scheme and lush orchestral soundtracks, he ensured that there was always an audience. Yet, like the suburbia of his films, there was always much more to be examined beyond the attractive facade. All That Heaven Allows, despite its civilised demeanour, is a savage attack on American values of the time. Jane Wyman’s Cary Scott is visibly tormented by the expectations her social status demands, and is punished for craving something other than what is expected. Even her children would rather see her seek company in the form of a new television set than her wonderfully charming gardener — also making for one of the finest moments of symbolism in Sirk’s work.
Todd Haynes built upon this film for his 2002 homage Far From Heaven, combining the class issues of All That Heaven Allows with the racial tone of Sirk’s Imitation of Life, while adding the element of homosexuality. Oddly, the very things that critics disparaged about Sirk’s work — female-centric issues, exaggerated emotions, an intentionally unique cinematic style — are all major reasons for his retrospective status as a cinema great.
#8 — Mata Hari (1931)
Let’s be clear — this film does not hold its place for its historical accuracy. But with a dash of Hollywood magic, the legend of Mata Hari is romanticised into one of the most visually sublime cinematic experiences.
As the title character, Greta Garbo induces a dose ecstasy into an otherwise fairly straight-forward romantic plot. The sequences of her dance performances are magnificent, alight with blurred edges and bizarre contortions. But while the visuals may be the film’s most memorable feature, the performance of Ramon Novarro almost always makes me feel like I’m falling in love with his fictional presence. The face, the voice, his subtle mannerisms, he really is just beautiful.
After just one look at Mata Hari performing, Novarro’s Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff becomes instantly obsessed. He quickly arrives at her door, throwing down a mountain of flowers. Novarro’s portrayal of the love-struck boy in the body of a man, besieged by his love for the unattainable, is entirely enchanting. The sad tale of Ramon Novarro’s life echoes gently every time I watch him in this. Whenever a good cry is in order, this is where I come. Great beauty and great tragedy, all in one frame.
#7 — Too Late for Tears (1949)
My love, or perhaps obsession, with the career of Lizabeth Scott is no secret. An obscure actress with a very low profile today, Scott was a leading lady in the 1940s and 1950s before suddenly deciding she’d had enough of the whole celebrity thing in 1957. In her 12 years on screen however, she made some incredibly fascinating films, many of which have only just started receiving the attention they deserve. Too Late for Tears was the first film noir I ever saw, and was also the first time I came across Lizabeth Scott, who I’ve since been lucky enough to meet in person — altering my love for cinema.
This is a b-movie in almost every sense — cheaply made, basic set design and a clear plot device (a bag of money). What sets it apart however is that it’s just so damn exciting! The script is spot-on perfect with its rapid pace and constant suspense, and Lizabeth Scott plays her femme fatale with viscous layers of bite and ice unseen in any other noir. It’s rare for a film of this genre to feature a woman as its central character, and even more unusual for the woman to be quite as unrelentingly nasty as this one.
After existing for years as a dodgy public domain print, the film has just been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation, premiering in San Francisco and set for New York City’s Film Forum in July, 2015. Sadly, Lizabeth Scott declined an invitation to the San Francisco screening. Apparently she’s not much of a fan of her evil roles, preferring the wartime romance of her first film, You Came Along (1945).
#6 — The Wizard of Oz (1939)
This is one of the few films that just about everyone you’ve ever met has almost certainly seen (though I now know of two people who haven’t… yet). See, in the absence of a decent education, The Wizard of Oz can teach you pretty much everything you need to know about life.
In the context of today, The Wizard of Oz is surely the most classic of all the classics. It’s interesting to consider then that upon its release, it was not a success, failing to recoup MGM’s investment. The shoot was plagued with disasters, including the serious injury of two main cast members; Buddy Ebsen (the original Tin Man) received lead poisoning from the silver make-up, and Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West) copped a ball of fire in the face during her disappearance from Munchkinland.
In-fact, it wasn’t until it began broadcasting on television in 1956 that audiences started falling for its universally wonderful message. Of-course, the film is also visually spectacular — the scenes of the twister ripping Dorothy’s house into the sky still rank among the best and most terrifying.
Personally, I think the entire charm of this film can be summed up in Dorothy’s quote moments before her departure from Oz:
Well, I… I think that it… that it wasn’t enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em… and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard; because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.
#5 — Superman (1978)
Today’s cinema has just about every superhero ever put to print claiming their right to a movie franchise. In 1978, however, the superhero genre was simply a corny memory of grainy black and white television of the 1950s.
While George Reeves will forever be fondly remembered as a magnificent man of steel, nothing quite compares to the imposing charm of the late Christopher Reeve. Warner Bros. had initially demanded that a proven star take the role of Superman in cinema’s first serious attempt at a superhero movie, with actors such as Robert Redford and Jon Voight considered.
And then a skinny young man with sweat patches did a screen test opposite Stockard Channing as Lois Lane. Of-course, Channing would ultimately lose the role to Margot Kidder.
Superman’s place on this list is really dependent upon its viewing in conjunction with Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut. Donner, the director of the first movie, famously fought with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind until they replaced him with Richard Lester.
However, the first two Superman films were written and shot as one long film, and the replacement of the director had some quite bizarre consequences for the story. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. allowed Donner to piece together what was left of his original vision, released to coincide with 2006’s Superman Returns.
When viewed together, Superman and Donner’s Superman II represent what is quite simply one of the greatest stories ever told. Remnants of the comic book hero’s corny past are blown away before the iconic opening credit sequence even finishes, making way for a spectacular story of an orphan coming to terms with himself — the ultimate story of a refugee searching for his place in an unwelcoming world. Its treatment of the subject matter with absolute seriousness, something that’s also key to Reeve’s performance, is a large part of what makes it all work so perfectly.
#4 — Imitation of Life (1959)
Here we have Douglas Sirk’s second film on the list, ranking higher merely for its bravery in presenting such a divisive topic for its time with such unrelenting tragedy.
A chance meeting on a summery New York beach sets off a lifelong friendship between Lora, an aspiring actress played by screen great Lana Turner, and Annie, an African-American single mother desperately in need of a job, played with Oscar-nominated greatness by Juanita Moore. Both women have daughters around the same age, and both know what it’s like to struggle as single women in 1950s America.
But as Lora’s career begins to take-off, and their daughters start to mature, societal differences soon encroach. Annie’s daughter, Sarah Jane, is fair skinned, often assumed to be white. And as the domineering child grows into a teenager, her desperation to be white provokes a deep resentment of her mother.
While Lora’s intentions are entirely pure, the clever construct of the story proves that racial prejudice need not always be intentional. Initially bonding over their similarities, it soon becomes clear that we, the viewer, are the only ones with the slightest hint of how life must feel for the ever generous, ever suffering, Annie.
Tackling a story of deep emotional conflict with his trademark flair for stunning visuals, Imitation of Life reflects a pivotal turning point in the American psyche, peeling back the civilised discussion to present the prevailing hypocrisy of that still-overused word, “tolerance”.
Derided by critics (as Sirk always was), it was a major box office hit — the fourth biggest of the year. At the time of its release, Lana Turner was already a media sensation due to the now legendary and infamous Stompanato killing.
#3 — Sunset Blvd (1950)
There are many films that I’ll confess to having a deep affection for. There are very few, however, that I consider absolutely perfect — Sunset Blvd is one of the few. In-fact, it was almost unanimously praised by critics even upon its initial release.
You might assume that a film with such extreme attention to detail must have certainly been planned with great efforts. Apparently not — when production started in May, 1949, only one third of the script had been completed.
It’s said that Sunset Blvd is the best film Hollywood ever made about itself, which is perhaps why it strikes such a chord for me. There are few things I love more than the mythology of the old, lost world of movie-making and extreme grandeur. Sunset Blvd opens a keyhole into that world, albeit a faded, derelict version seeped in dust and cobwebs.
Among the many other reasons to obsess over this film is the immortal performance of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. By the time that final, iconic moment of pure madness takes an axe to the screen, I’m always left wondering whether I just watched someone turn insane, or if she started out insane and I only just realised.
#2 — Birth (2004)
Of all the films on this list, Birth may be the most obscure. Jonathan Glazer’s bleak exploration of the trauma grief puts us through takes some very bizarre turns, some of which were just a little too uncomfortable for the film-going masses.
Even Australia’s film critic royalists Margaret and David were left a little perplexed, with David complaining that the film demanded a level of belief in the absurd he wasn’t prepared for. In reality, of-course, Birth is not about the myth of reincarnation at all.
As the film’s protagonist Anna, Nicole Kidman plays a woman celebrating her engagement. Her first husband, Sean, is seen jogging through a snow-covered Central Park during the beautiful, desolate opening sequence to a distant orchestral soundtrack. By the end of the sequence however, he’s dead.
Years later, Anna and her new fiancée are holding a dimly lit gathering in their New York apartment. At first, the appearance of a young boy entering the proceedings doesn’t attract anyone’s interest. But when he introduces himself as Sean, Anna’s husband, things become uneasy.
In a world of eternal winters, drenched in beauty and haunted by an overwhelming feeling of loss, Birth leaves any sense of horror or thriller out in the cold in favour of an oddly honest portrayal of what happens when a woman is forced to confront the true scale of her grief. New York Times critic A. O. Scott called the film a chamber piece, praising Kidman’s “brilliantly nuanced” performance.
Beyond the magnificent production design and perfect performances from Kidman, Lauren Bacall, and Anne Heche, what is most striking about Birth is its insistence on subtlety when portraying such a bizarre scenario.
Some labelled the ending a “cop-out”, disappointed at its disregard for following in the footsteps of Rosemary’s Baby — an out-of-touch commentary attempting to fit Birth into a neat little box. It’s emotionally thrilling, but not a thriller. Intensely morbid, but not merely a drama. It’s a darkly beautiful exploration of the deep contradictions of the human psyche. And it’s wonderful.
#1 — Interiors (1978)
At the time of its release, Interiors was accused of being little more than a pretentious exercise in self-indulgent filmmaking, inhabited by characters no one would want to spend any time with. Indeed, I have encountered more than few raised eyebrows when raising this as my number one favourite.
But of-course, favourite films are an intensely personal thing. And for me, every viewing of Interiors is a journey deep inside my own consciousness.
In essence, Interiors is about the disintegration of a family as it was once known. Geraldine Page, in her Oscar nominated performance as the emotionally tormented and ever-bleak mother, is somewhat of a protagonist, wandering the ruins of her family. Once a confident and successful interior decorator, we know her as a fragile woman free-falling into oblivion after her husband moves out of their home.
The children of the family — Kristin Griffith, Mary Beth Hurt, Diane Keaton — are balancing their own feelings of desolation with the competing storm cloud of guilt that comes with watching one’s parents suffer. There’s a very strange sensation delivered by the deconstruction of one’s family, or childhood; the realisation that what you once were is no longer what you are, and you actually haven’t been that thing for some time. Interiors depicts this with honesty, subtlety, and haunting poetry. You might say it’s a deeply emotional film, but with so many characters struggling to express themselves, perhaps that lies more within the eye of viewer. Personally, I watch Interiors and feel awash with so many feelings, I’d struggle to dismantle them.
While it is true that Interiors left many scratching their heads, some were quick to praise Woody Allen’s first foray into serious drama, with Roger Ebert describing it as “astonishingly assured”. The film also received five Oscar nominations: Geraldine Page for Best Actress, Woody Allen for writing and directing, Daniel Robert and Mel Bourne for set and art direction, and a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the terrific red-dressed Maureen Stapleton.
I decided to keep this list limited to 10, but there are of-course many more: The Hours, Ordinary People, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, You’ve Got Mail — my lovesick-romanticism stops me from falling out of love, so my list only becomes larger. Thus is the agony of feeling.