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And You Call Yourself a Cinephile?!

There's definitely a direct correlation between how deep you get into the study of film as an art and the overbearing pride and pretentiousness of the critics involved. Everyone loves to believe that they know it all. I'm no different.

Therefore I found it extremely interesting when I happened upon cinephile Andy Horbal's interesting little exercise over at his blog. Using the list of the 1000 Greatest Films Ever Made (from They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?) he compiled a list of the top 50 films he had not yet seen. Not a bad idea at all. This subculture could sure use a reality check with a bit of humility on the side.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that I had at least seen the top 15 films on the list. This spurred me to compile my own list. Only upon doing this did I realize how exponentially worse things got as I progressed past the 50's or 60's. Long streaks of unseen films. Oh well. This is the whole point of the exercise isn't it?

Final count was somewhat disappointing: 39 unseen films out of the top 100. That said, lists are lists and the attempt to mathematically compile them to produce any sort of master is always bound to fail. But enough of my own disclaimers, here it is in all of its anti-glory (preceding number indicates its ranking):

16) L'Atlante
Les Enfants du Paradis

28) Sunset Blvd.
34) Persona
38) Andrei Rublev
41) Ordet
47) Ugetsu Monogotari
400 Blows

49) Contempt
52) Night of the Hunter
55) The Wild Bunch
58) The Conformist
59) La Strada
61) The Mirror
62) Fanny and Alexander
64) Greed
67) Rio Bravo
69) Sherlock, Jr.
71) Playtime
72) L'Age d'Or
73) Ikiru
74) All About Eve
75) Voyage in Italy
76) The Apartment
77) Viridiana
Aguirre: The Wrath of God

Pierrot le Fou

82) Man with a Movie Camera
83) Blue Velvet
84) Nosferatu
85) The Leopard
87) Once Upon a Time in the West
89) Sansho Dayu
91) Last Year at Marienbad
95) Letter from an Unknown Woman
96) King Kong
97) Amarcord
99) Stagecoach
100) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)

At home with Krystle and Jason as part of weekly movie watching (Jason's last one with us before heading back to Australia for school).

Recently bought a three-disc set of Alfred Hitchcock's early films and hadn't yet touched it. We were having trouble deciding films so we did the logical thing: RPS! It was a showdown between The 39 Steps, Peeping Tom, and Springtime in a Small Town. You can guess which film won.

Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps starts off with a bang, both figuratively and literally. From the opening scene's mysterious gunshot we are quickly plunged into a classic thriller world: the introduction of the quasi-femme fatale shortly followed by the innocent (but more importantly, handsome and charming) accused leading man. There is more than a touch of classic Hitchcock here: the lady's scream which cuts to the train whistle as she discovers the dead body, the linking of sex and violence most notably in the brassiere talk on the train, and most noticeably, the MacGuffin, which Hitchcock hilariously - in retrospect - manages to squeeze not only into the film, but into the very title of the film itself!

I was immediately impressed with how compelling and expeditious (a good thing for a thriller!) the majority of the early scenes feel thanks in large part to the dynamism they're infused with via the inclusion of additional elements independent of the primary action: In the scene where Annabella (Lucie Mannheim) attempts to explain her situation to Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), rather than simply shooting a simple shot-reverse shot dialogue scene Hitchcock adds a sprightly element to it all by having Annabella deliver her monologue while Hannay runs back and forth from the fridge. Hannay's otherwise simply suspenseful eluding of his pursuers gets an added comedic kick from the pro-infidelity banter that goes on between him and the milkman - which comes back much later with the innkeeper's wife. Similarly, while on the train, his suspenseful reading of the paper is intercut with the aforementioned brassiere talk (not to mention a brilliant Hitchcock-ian POV shot of one of the caboose mates staring at Hanny over his paper). The list goes on and on: At the cottage, the suspense of hiding is mixed with his and the country man's wife's hiding of their attraction to each other and Hannay's later attempt to get her to come with him. His city hall speech is also a major highlight as a lighter sort of mistaken identity requires him to improvise a speech he doesn't know the subject to all while the authorities close in on him. And lastly, the comparatively and decidedly more auteur-ish Hitchcock scene where the man with the missing finger delivers a very calm and deliberate death sentence for Hannay juxtaposed with his increasingly frantic glances at the door. And like the old joker he is, Hitchcock subverts these expectations by having Hannay shot before he even makes what should have been a much-anticipated run-for-it.

If it seems that I'm simply mentioning every single scene chronologically, it's because I am. All of these early scenes are expertly crafted, entertainingly written and as suspenseful as many other of Hitchcock's more well-known scenes. All the pieces appear to be in place for the makings of a classic. How ironically appropriate that the film's downfall proves to coincide with the appearance of a woman.

At approximately, OK, exactly at the point where Hannay and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) become chained together in the car and as a result are given the chance to speak to each other, the film loses all sense of urgency. It is precisely at this point where the focus becomes less on escaping, on the tension, suspense and impending doom than with Hannay's desire to tell Pamela "I told you so". At this point, the film takes a dramatic - or comedic to be exact - paradigm shift from thriller to screwball comedy. The characters shed all apprehension of being caught and their primary objective shifts from escaping their pursuers to simply trading witty barbs.

The entire (very) extended sequence lacks any sort of urgency that all the preceding scenes have conditioned us to come to expect. Everything comes grinding to a halt and even Pamela's half-hearted threats to reveal Hannay's true identity are never taken seriously by him, much less the audience. They add nothing to the rest of the film. No information is revealed and when one considers it, the film could have easily cut this entire sequence right up until Pamela's eavesdropping without losing a thing, plot-wise. And because nothing ever comes of Hannay's and Pam's relationship - as the film shortly ends after they come to an understanding anyways - even the establishment of their relationship is ultimately meaningless.

The comedy of these scenes is entertaining enough on their own but appear to exist outside of the 45 minutes that preceded them. This complete turnabout is interesting in retrospect looking at Hitchcock's pictures because it wouldn't be the one and only time he would attempt such a shift.

In Psycho, he pulled off perhaps the most famous of these stunts by shockingly killing off Janet Leigh right near the beginning of the film. In Vertigo , what starts off as a suspenseful detective story mystery takes just as sudden and jarring a dramatic and psychological turn to seriousness. Explaining why these latter shifts (which come from two of his most famous and acclaimed films) succeeded where 39 Steps fails has to do with our natural expectations of a story arc. In order to maintain interest, a story must not only be non-stagnant, but continue to supplement itself with evermore dramatic or compelling elements.

Even the best of films which don't follow traditional story arcs follow this universal structure. No great suspense film in history - that I can think of - was ever made where the tension is continually lessened as the movie progresses and yet this is precisely what occurs in The 39 Steps. It would - from a cognitive standpoint at least - have made more sense for the elements to have been switched around but instead Hitchcock throws in the screwball comedy bit last, and for an unbearably long period despite the film's short running time. Even classic screwball comedies like It Happened One Night, Bringing up Baby, and His Girl Friday only up the ante as the plots chug along. Meanwhile The 39 Steps comes brilliantly sprinting out of the gates: a femme fatale, a murder, a wrongly accused man on the trail of an international conspiracy etc. before hitting the proverbial wall and dragging its feet for the remainder of the film.

The 39 Steps is more than historically fascinating Hitchcock. It can easily stand on its own without any condescending support from retrospective auteur-focused critics. The string of early sequences are as good as any he ever directed. It is only the screwball comedy scenes, which in themselves may be entertaining, but when contrasted with the first half are so comparatively mediocre that they tarnish the overall brilliance of the film, so much so that by the time the mystery is solved, it has lost most if not all of its suspense-induced joy, along with a fantastic shot at being a true classic.

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All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)

At home on DVD with Krystle and Jason as part of our little weekly movie watching club.

After having been blown away with Pedro Almodóvar's Volver two weeks before, I was anxious to see more his work. All About My Mother seemed like a natural choice given that it was one of his most highly acclaimed films and it also starred Penélope Cruz - albeit in a supporting role. The film also appeared to be a decent gauge for me to judge how enthusiastically I would pursue watching the rest of Almodóvar's works. I was aware that as much as I adored Volver - and saw it as sufficient evidence alone to merit calling Almodovar a great filmmaker - it was not as characteristic of his earlier and "edgier" films to say the least.

Read enough movie reviews and you'll inevitably encounter someone using Howard Hawks' classic definition of a great film: 3 great scenes, no bad ones. They do this not only because it's succinct and catchy, but because - despite the complexity of any art form - it usually works! I myself rarely go more than a few films without Hawks' old bromide popping into my head during reflection. And while no one would be foolish enough to uphold any "theory" as any absolute, the effectiveness of Hawks' "rule" is so logical and seemingly foolproof that when you find a rare exception it warrants a bit of investigating. Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother is such an exception.

The film certainly has no shortage of great scenes and not a single one that I can honestly discount as "bad". Just as in Volver (the only other film of his I've seen), every scene is a model of intelligent and/or compassionate writing on the part of Almodóvarwho continues to amaze me with his uncanny ability to write effective yet natural-sounding dialogue. And once again his all-female cast delivers an altogether flawless ensemble performance, no doubt thanks in part to his delicate and loving direction. Each scene is infused with such warmth - and I'm not simply talking about his characteristic palette of cinematographic colours - that is derived from a palpable sense of director who truly cares for his characters and is able to extend that sentiment beyond the screen.

Manuela (a fantastic performance by Cecilia Roth) may be the protagonist and surrogate mother to all the characters of the film but the title might just as well be applied to Almodóvar himself as the ultimate mother hen, proudly showing off his surrogate daughters in the characters of Manuela, Rosa and Agrado. As great as their performances are, one gets the sense that the real star of this film is Almodóvar. He sympathizes with them in their weakness (Rosa) and exalts with them in their triumphs (Agrado's theater monologue). Certainly no one could accuse or mistake him for a cynical director or Mother as a remotely cynical film. And yet he is sure to balance the drama within each scene so that it doesn't spillover into anemic melodrama. Where tears are shed by characters - and there are plenty of occasions - the tears are validated by their earnest portrayals and by Almodóvar's discrete direction.

Even scenes involving minor characters such as Huma or Nina whom lack this emotionally compelling component are redeemed by their thematic links to the film's overall theme of motherhood. One would be remiss in not mentioning this decidedly more "intellectual" component to Almodóvar's artistic contribution to the film. He is not simply content here to tell a nice story about some nice women, but to make a clear statement that extends beyond the diegetic world of the film and addresses the various roles of women and motherhood that he engineers into the plot: Manuela-Agrado, Agrado-Huma, Huma-Nina etc. And just to make sure the simpletons don't miss out on these "finer points", Almodóvar makes his thematic intentions unmistakably clear via the film's very title: All About My Mother.

I seem to be moving backwards. Not only have I established the film's scenes as being all emotionally compelling but on top of that, noted their "greater" intellectual and societal value. Entertaining and with something to say? Most films dare only try to achieve one of these goals and even they usually struggle and fail. What could possibly be wrong?

Three great scenes and no bad ones.

The problem with Hawks' definition has nothing to do with any loopholes, but its scope. Its very outlook implies that a feature film is nothing more than a collection of individual scenes with no proprietary attributes of its own as a whole. To put a twist on a another old saying, the whole is the sum of its parts. Of course we know this to not be true. And in fact, the act of editing together various stories and scenes is not only the one artistic element of filmmaking belonging exclusively to the medium (as opposed to being borrowed from literature, music, or photography), but ever since the earliest days of narrative cinema and D.W. Griffith, we've seen that this act can add immeasurable value to a film, or take away from it.

Watching All About My Mother one gets the tangible impression that Almodóvar is trying too hard to give his film added resonance and relevance via the aforementioned metaphors and allegories. Before we are five minutes into the film we're met with two garish allusions: Manuela and Esteban watching All About Eve on the television, and the play A Streetcar Named Desire which they attend. The problem of course with such an approach to artistry is that in order to be effective, elements such as symbolism or metaphors must appear to blossom naturally from the story and the characters themselves, not created for the expressed purpose of. If this were not the case then there would be no need for words such as "allegory", we could simply recount the underlying meanings themselves which would be indisputably more precise and it wouldn't take an hour and forty minutes to do either. We would have no need for art, only social scientists and essays. Instead, when we say that we desire art that deals with issues such as motherhood or transvestitism, we do not mean that we would like the world's foremost scholars on the subject to attempt to make a film, but for filmmakers who have a natural inclination and passion for the subject to tell stories that may relate to it. Mother feels more like the former, like a child who jams the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to fit his/her own picture rather than placing them where they naturally fit.

Certainly history has seen a plethora of films that have failed because they set their artistic sights too high (or set any artistic sights at all for that matter!), but Mother is unique among these in that the majority of them usually don't even pass Hawks' test. They usually contain a multitude of bad scenes, bad not so much because the writer and/or director are trying to "make a point" but because in being so intensely focused on that, the characters, writing and direction suffer. Ironically, despite Almodóvar being the writer and director of the film, these blunders he makes in the plotting of the film do not spillover at all into his dialogue or direction. The result is more disjointing than anything. For example, the characters of Huma and Nina are exceedingly shallow and exist for no other reason then to enhance the mother-daughter theme of the film, and yet all their individual scenes are directed, written and acted with such care that in retrospect it's hard to believe that the man wrote these archetypal characters into the script is the same one showing them such love and compassion in his direction.

This effect is only further enhanced by Manuela's presence, or lack thereof at some points. By doing such a fine job of creating as complex a character as Manuela and emotionally investing us in her plight, tangential scenes involving Agrado or Huma and Nina seem exceedingly shallow and irrelevant in direct comparison.

Agrado in particular is a wonderfully developed and entertaining character, but amounts to little more than a goofy sidekick and Almodóvar's tribute to transvestitism. The scene at the theater where she wins over the audience is certainly a "great" scene: concisely written, entertaining, well-delivered and incredibly uplifting. But it seems to exist more as social propaganda (where the word 'propaganda' is not even inherently bad) than blossom naturally. In fact, one could even view her entire character as a microcosm of the film's seemingly contradictory problems.

Almodóvar's manipulation of time is equally puzzling and disjointing. At multiple points in the film, weeks and months are skipped at a time. We are shown something only long enough to logically understand what is going on but not nearly long enough to feel what is going on. Satisfying one of Almodóvar's goals while simultaneously diluting the other. It all seems rather backwards for a film that falls firmly into the genre of melodrama which emphasizes emotion over all else. These jumps only serve to call attention to how contrived the plot of the film is, particularly as it pertains to the relationship between Manuela and Rosa and most incredulously to the film's ending where Manuela leaves and returns to Barcelona in literally a single shot at which point we're told that her little Esteban has neutralized the AIDs virus completely. How convenient.

Given all the preceding convoluted mechanism, it's a real testament to the actors and to Almodóvar's direction that they're able to sell any of the later scenes at all. But as compelling, empathetic and sympathetic as Cecilia Roth's heartfelt portrayal of Manuela is, even her virtuoso performance eventually becomes overwhelmed by the machinations of the plot that elevate her above and beyond the cinematic angelic status of even George Bailey. Oh Almodóvar does his best to justify it all with the loss of her son - which leaves her a natural inclination to act as a surrogate mother - and by having his film take place in a decidedly more "gritty" and unconventional world than a typical Hollywood film, but in the end it's all a little too convenient. Once you peel away these misdirective layers, Manuela is really about as saintly and idealized a character as Hollywood has ever thrown at us and the plot of Mother as similarly and simply optimistic. Perhaps a more appropriate title for the film would have been "It's a Wonderful Mother".

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