Wednesday, June 17, 2009

At Long Last! The Five Greatest Films!

Well here we are, folks: The five finest movies I've yet seen. I know it’s been a long wait; I hope it will have been worth it. Goodness knows it has been for me. And I know I've said it before, but the job of separating the titles on this list into classes like this was easily the hardest part of the entire project. For this last installment I’d hoped to end up with five—exactly five—titles without which I wouldn't be able to live in a hotel in Cambodia, and with which I could. The problem was all those other titles, running as far down the list as the twenties and thirties, that could just as easily have made the final-five.

I feel particularly bad that my "No, young American, you may only keep five" list does not include Snatch. Ditto Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Fight Club, What Time is it There, Old Boy, Cast Away, Amelie, The Lives of Others... you know what? I feel particularly bad that my only-keep-five list doesn't have every single other movie on the whole list. But Snatch was an especially difficult film to put sixth—perhaps the longest single hesitation I experienced over the entire span of the project.

As I look back over the entirety of this list, the temptation also to lament the absence of some specific title was always there, droning away in the background like an un-tuned radio playing at the back wall, though almost always this second form of unease was mitigated by the implicit need to pull something else off—the obvious self-check that keeps such an exercise from unraveling into a series of breathlessly announced revisions to the bottom twenty, over and over again. This being said, I do rather intensely wish that I’d found a spot in the eighties or nineties for Lars Von Trier’s dreamy, post-apocalyptic meditation on the perils of obsessive police-work, Element of Crime.

It is comfortably one of my hundred favorite movies, and by that measure alone, according to the ground-rules I’d set for myself in the first installment of this project, it should’ve been included. Moreover, it occupies a slightly different space from others of my favorite movies to have not made the list, e.g. The Way of the Gun, Defending Your Life, and Used Cars—films whose inclusion would’ve resulted in a complete-with-eye-roll dismissal of the whole compilation.

Element of Crime, as it happens, could easily have been defended as critically worthy; I only left it out (and this confession makes it unique, I think) because of how unanimous has been the negative reaction it’s garnered from family and friends. If Paths of Glory didn’t quite make the cut, I have credible, intellectually defensible reasons why other war movies and other Kubrick movies and other completely different movies belonged in front of it. The same sorts of things could be said about Fitzcarraldo. The same sorts of things could be said about The Passenger. The same sorts of things could be said about Go. But, really, Element of Crime should’ve held at least a low-level position on a list so pre-celebrated for its disavowal of peer pressure. It may well be my only regret, now that the project is over.

Fortunately things worked out in such a way that I am able to toss a pretty steep consolation prize to Lars Von Trier, without having had to explicitly compensate at all: the inclusion of another of his films—his third on our countdown—in the fifth-best-movie-of-all position. Without further ado, then, here are the Key Grip’s choices of the five greatest movies I’ve yet seen:

5. The Five Obstructions (2003). As an impressionable young man coming of age in the late 1960s, Lars Von Trier had occasion to view the celebrated short film of fellow Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth, The Perfect Human. And, as only happens to a fortunate few among us, Von Trier left the screening of that single, barely twenty-minute film, comfortable in the certainty with which he would be dedicating the rest of his life to filmmaking. There would be no careening from one silly project to another, no unfocused muddle from which he could claim status as a “late bloomer,” no squandered energy. Von Trier saw that scrappy little movie by Leth, and knew not just what he wanted to do, but who he was.

Naturally that kind of critical-moment influence conveys a pretty big debt of gratitude and so, when Von Trier arrived as a maestro filmmaker in his own right in the early 2000s, he set out to find his muse and inspiration—only to discover that Leth had undergone something not unlike a nervous breakdown several years earlier, quitting the European film scene and exiling himself to a rented villa in, of all places, downtown Port Au Prince. (One may imagine Von Trier’s facial expression on hearing the news: the pause, the dangled lower jaw, the averted stare, the open palm placed atop the head.) Clearly this kind of ending for Von Trier’s hero and de facto mentor wasn’t going to do at all.

Leveraging his own not inconsiderable clout to maximum effect, Von Trier persuaded a production company to finance the rounding-up of Leth for a series of five re-makes of The Perfect Human—each of them to be discussed in advance with the filmmaker in Von Trier’s shockingly austere and cluttered Zentropa flat, and each of them to be made in accordance with a set of restrictive guidelines (obstructions, if you will), conceived extemporaneously by Von Trier—as a means of stimulating Leth’s recently bored and undernourished artistic voice. Leth, to his credit, agrees.

The two men circle the real issue in their assorted meetings, of course, meandering through their discussions in a palpably strained ballet of light-hearted banter and sincere challenges, some of which lead right up to the ragged limit of words being exchanged—a fact that only heightens the pathos of the difficulties both men are facing: Leth to construct these re-makes without embarrassing himself; Von Trier to mentor his mentor without upsetting the delicate balance of professional admiration and differential authority that drives any cross-generational creative discourse. In each instance, the obstructions brainstormed by Von Trier are regarded as totally impracticable by Leth—in many instances the elder filmmaker literally refuses to abide by the conditions so articulated, at least at first—but of course this is the impossible-to-miss point of the whole thing, especially since each new version with which Leth returns to Zentropa is even more astonishing than the one before: The creative process abhors a vacuum.

This being said, Leth may hardly be blamed for his initial resistance to many of the ideas proposed by Von Trier—among them that he create a version of The Perfect Human in which no single shot is longer than twelve frames, or about a half a second. Other thrillingly sadistic notions to flit through Von Trier’s head during those artistic hazing rituals in his apartment include a requirement that all visuals be animated in some way, that the unanswerable questions posed in the original film must somehow be answered, anyway, and that Leth travel to the most horrific place he can imagine—then convey the horror of the place without actually showing it on-camera. At the conclusion of each meeting Leth adjourns shaking his head, convinced anew that the film cannot possibly be made, and at the beginning of the next meeting it turns out, somehow, that the aging and controversial Danish director has managed to outdo himself once again.

It’s overwrought to suggest this about most cinematic efforts, but it would be dishonest of me not to say right here in black-and-parchment that The Five Obstructions literally changed my life. Many of my finest pieces of writing, and those of the semi-formal writing group to which I belong, have flowed from an adaptation of Von Trier's and Leth's exercise. For one short-story I recently published I challenged myself to craft a full narrative from the first line of a randomly selected documentary transcript, and found myself trying to work a text out of the sentence, "There are seven empty beds in the room because seven of the people they brought here last week are already dead." In a recent group exercise, the circle to which I belong struggled to conjure individual tales from the line, “body of water.” In another, as yet un-published story of mine, I tried to evoke the imagery of various Chicago-area landmarks without actually setting any of the vignettes of the story at the landmarks in question, or perhaps even in Chicago at all. Another group project was inspired by the idea of standing in the shower thinking about the difference between Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker. Many of these efforts were the best work that the persons submitting them have ever shown in our circle. And all of it thanks, more or less directly, to The Five Obstructions.

That folks who watch the movie with me pick different favorite obstructions from mine is a fact that took me a long time to understand as something other than a challenge to my own expertise and my own creative intellect. And only now that I’ve typed that does it look like a pretty steep confession, but there it is: I have a favorite of the five obstructions, and, for a long time, when other people had other favorites it made me feel insecure. What was wrong with me, that I couldn’t see the flaws in my own choice? Nothing, as it turns out.

A roomful of five smart and creatively minded and bright-future-wearin’ glitterati (or, a roomful of four such people plus me) will result in five different choices for favorite obstruction, not in spite of our assorted creative insights, but because of them: Show a split-screen film in which there appears a briefcase with no explanation, crumpled money in someone’s hand with no explanation, and a long shot of the back of someone’s head as he gets off an elevator, with, no, explanation, and someone in the room will say, “that one didn’t do it for me,” and someone else will say, “ooh, it sure did it for me.” My friend Bill is drawn to the obstruction in which no shot may be longer than twelve frames, because under such a rubric only the most delicate brushstrokes are available with which to paint the whole story of the characters—and the resulting film becomes an exercise in economy. Me, on the other hand? Economy??? Not so much. No, I’m fine with not knowing the characters that well, as long as I get the chance to knit my brow over why we spent so much time watching the back of the briefcase-dude’s head. And never mind the fact that Leth, all on his own, was able to come up with all five of these, fabulously different, genuinely remarkable templates for our own creative voicing. Never mind that he's not just better than any one of us, but better than all five. Never mind that.

I haven't written much fiction lately, but whenever I'm tempted to try a band-new story from scratch, I always toss in my copy of The Five Obstructions and watch it with a legal pad and pencil in my hand—not for the inspiration to generate text, but for the inspiration to generate obstructions. And folks, if you can find a film that has had, and will continue to have, that kind of over-arching effect on an entirely separate sphere of your own life, make sure the film in question has a spot kept warm for it near the very top of your own list of the greatest movies you’ve ever seen; that’s all I’m saying.

4. Unforgiven (1993). Easily and un-controversially the greatest western ever made. Easily and un-controversially the greatest Clint Eastwood-directed movie. Easily and un-controversially the greatest Clint Eastwood-starring movie. And, to top it all off, one of the least allegorically circumscribed narratives in all of motion pictures—a movie in which bad guys come in all shapes and allegiances, and sympathy for a character manifestly does not guarantee that they will do the right thing when the critical moment arrives, or even that our sympathy for them will withstand the test. This, in a nutshell, is Unforgiven: the western so superlative that for well over a decade afterward the industry didn’t even try to produce another western; they just threw up their hands at the impossibility of following this act and gave up.

It’s a swan-song in more ways than just this, too—with its unflinching deconstruction of the bad-guy romanticism that had sustained the western ever since Eastwood himself first road a horse across an abandoned gravel quarry somewhere in northern Italy. There is no rightful vigilantism in this one, no senselessly murdered family to avenge, no crooked army captains to thwart as they pilfer gold from Spanish convents to finance the western campaign of the Civil War. No, this time the grim realities of the wild west come through loud and clear and unencumbered by our identification with some bloody-but-just cause. This time it’s all heavy lifting, from the unpleasant business of sleeping outdoors and riding horseback through a pelting rain, at one extreme, to the shocking self-realization that comes from taking the life of another human being for the first time, at the other.

Eastwood is William Munny, a reformed gunslinger whose wife has died, leaving him the sole and aging parent of two small children on a failing farm somewhere in the Midwest. When a prostitute is savagely attacked and scarred by ranch-hands in faraway Big Whiskey, her comrades pass the hat to raise a bounty for the lives of the culprits, and word of the reward eventually makes its way across the sea of grass to Munny’s mud-clogged stockyard—where he is trying in vain to separate pigs and mostly wallowing in filth when he gets the news. Matters aren’t so simple as a ride across the prairie to plug the bad-guys, though, since the bearer of this information is “The Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), a young man who, despite having very obviously never engaged in any such exploits before, demands to be taken along and to split the dough.

After a series of vignettes (equal parts’ hilarious and stomach-sinking) in which Munny endeavors to re-learn his dormant outlaw skills, he prevails on The Kid to bring along Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny’s lifelong sidekick and consigliare, and to trust Munny and Logan to make the big decisions of the venture despite having learned of the whole thing from him. The major obstacle in the trio’s quest now shifts focus from getting along and working together, to dealing with the no-firearms-allowed town of Big Whiskey and its cheerfully sadistic Sheriff, Little Bill (played by Gene Hackman, who’d turned down the same part when the script was shown to him by another director almost twenty years earlier).

At all events, the name of the game with this one is the fidelity with which it portrays things that heretofore have been defied for a set of values that they never really had. When Little Bill confronts a separate ad-answering gunslinger, English Bob (Richard Harris), and his sycophantic biographer (Saul Rubinek) we are to understand—at a stroke—that the real confrontation is between the eastern-establishment’s sophistry about the libertarian glamor of the lawless West, and the far baser and less poetically just reality they’ve been trying to deny. Is it any wonder, really, that Little Bill savagely beats English Bob (and tries to goad him into committing an action that would justify murder in self defense), or that the biographer who had heretofore taken every self-authored account of Bob’s exploits at his word is given a front-row seat, then left to wonder exactly who it is he’s been following around?

Meanwhile, in another daring choice, Munny, Logan and The Kid aren’t even in town for the brutal dispatch of English Bob, but are instead holed-up in a barn somewhere while Munny recovers from, of all things, the flu—contracted as the three men rode through bad weather to get there. In no other western I am aware of does the rival gunslinger receive his comeuppance while the “heroes” of the story aren’t even on the screen, and here once again we find ourselves not jarred by the inconsistency with previous examples, but welcomed home by the narrative’s far greater believability, just as we do throughout: from the fickle self-empowerment of the women, to the not entirely unsympathetic ranch-hands (who as they are stalked for assassination out at their ponderosa seem far less menacing—more like pathetic, really), to the surprising and box-challenging multi-dimensionality of the supposedly vicious lawman, whose own efforts to build a house from scratch have thus far resulted in something that would look far more comfortable at the dark end of a carnival midway. Even the regret that descends over our three outlaws as they carry out their grim business is noticeable after-the-fact for its near total absence from earlier pictures. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man,” Munny tells The Kid. “You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” An observation to which The Kid can only respond by getting drunker--as surely the rest of us would, too.

At every turn Eastwood’s directorial hand is laid in just the right folds, with just the right pressure, to strum the moral complexity and gritty hardships of the narrative without waxing so atonal that the resulting film is impossible to take. The soundtrack (much of it composed by Eastwood himself) plays the counterpoint to all of this anti-western messaging, delicately evoking Peckinpah and Leone with quietly sentimental passages, stinging the quiet ride across the prairie in classical guitar, while the landscape itself (actually eastern Alberta and not the American high plain) is scoped by cinematographer Jack N. Green with a conscious nod to the paradox in which these people have found themselves—a setting, and a life, both big and spacious and full of promise (dare we say, beautiful?), but by the very form and character of that spaciousness, also a gigantic prison of tightly bounded and unsympathetic choices.

In the end, as we know only too well must happen from the opening moments of the picture, Munny’s simple desire to keep his past in the past proves no match for the stark brutality of the circumstances he’s ridden himself into—and when that awareness comes to him with full force, in the shocking twist that befalls the later half of the film, we understand perhaps even before he does exactly what he will do about it, and why. “My name’s William Munny,” he calls down the dark and empty main street, “I’ve killed women; I’ve killed children. And now I’m gonna kill you.” Many, many westerns have tried for this very note, the rage-fueled if momentary disavowal of principle, at their big and bloody and carefully choreographed dénouements, but none of them—none, of, them—have ever hit it as right as this one. Three other films will score higher, but no other film is as perfectly universal to its own genre. You watch Unforgiven, you have seen all the westerns you need ever see.

3. Pulp Fiction (1994). When it was first released, Pulp Fiction’s assorted receptions among the people who saw it formed a stark dividing line—mostly across generations. People either loved this movie to the point of recommending it to strangers on street-corners, or hated it to the point of begging close family and friends to ignore the hype and do themselves a favor—and the two camps were to a first approximation the same size. Fifty years from now someone will make a similar observation about this astonishing work of undiluted genius, and folks aren’t going to believe it. Indeed they can scarcely be brought to believe it now, so total is the transformation that has been wrought—by this movie—on the very fabric and ground-rules of American pop culture.

Quentin Tarantino’s playfully fractured narrative about the lives and times of suburban LA’s seedy underbelly (“I hope Jimmy’s ass is home, ‘cause Marcellus doesn’t have any other partners in 818”) is wound as tight as a clock spring, yelp-inducingly violent, lush with profanity and coarse sexual innuendo, peppered with stars, and acted, framed, directed, and edited to within an ace of literal perfection—but none of these things are what make the experience. What makes the experience, and what makes it so sumptuously enthralling that I can’t go more than a few weeks without re-watching the picture, is Tarantino’s (fleeting?) gift for the hilarity of gangster-deadpan badinage, some of it only hilarious once the stunned shock of all that profanity and bloodshed can be shunted to a more desensitized sphere of consciousness.

“Ain’t nobody allowed to kill anyone in my store, except for me or Zed,” is but one example of the sort of line that, for some people, takes a second trip through the movie to thoroughly appreciate. “Oh, I’m sorry baby, I had to crash that Honda,” is another. “You have any idea what my father went through to get me that watch? I don’t have time to go into it right now, but it was a lot,” is a third. “You know what’s bothering me right now? It ain’t the coffee in my kitchen….” is a fourth. And I, like the IMDB quote page for this movie, could go on, and on, and on. Essentially every line of dialogue in the entire picture is spot-on, unforgettable, and its own little jewel of either comic hilarity, scalpel-like social comment, or both—to the extent that, these days, starting a scene from the movie among close friends will earn not the completion of the scene by those friends, but the laughter that should have followed from the scene’s completion, with the ten or twelve lines of dialogue in-between rendered utterly implicit. No movie since Caddyshack has enjoyed the same iconic durability of stand-alone reportage, and Pulp Fiction brings the added benefit of being an engrossing dramatic tale with happy- and unhappy ends for some of the least expected characters in it, to boot.

Tarantino has sworn repeatedly that his casting decisions have nothing to do with rescuing self-marooned acting careers, but if he’s lying as shamelessly as I think he is, the crowning achievement in his ability to confidently reach for the improbably out-of-circulation talent must surely be the choice of John Travolta as Vincent Vega—the short-fused and cynical bag-man for local heavy Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and the closest thing to a protagonist that this utterly fragmented saga will permit. Bouncing his coolly vicious menace off colleague Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson), low-end supplier Lance (Eric Stoltz) and his wife Jody (Rosanna Arquette), Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman), and one-man cleanup crew Winston Wolfe (Harvey Keitel), Travolta shows us with hair-raising understatement a casually homicidal lieutenant of the drugs-and-shady-dealings rackets, by turns newly arrived from Amsterdam, argumentative for argument’s sake, disinterested in thematic restaurants, adoring of his lovingly restored Mustang, reluctant to entertain the boss’ wife, an impeccable dancer, lamentably trigger-happy, un-self-consciously addicted to heroin, and, above all, ready to escalate any difference of opinion to the point of bloodshed, at the all but literal drop of a hat. ("Jules, you give that nimrod fifteen-hundred dollars, I'm gonna shoot him on general principle.")

Meanwhile Bruce Willis is Butch—the dive-agreeing and over-the-hill prize fighter whose father bequeathed a family heirloom to him from inside a Vietnamese POW camp (the aforementioned watch, delivered to Butch in childhood by fellow POW and captivity-survivor Cptn. Koons, played by Christopher Walken), but who when fight-night arrives decides to skip the dive and must then somehow beat it out of town with his helplessly naïve and doddering girlfriend Fabienne (Maria De Mederios). There is also the tale of would-be-café-hold-up artists Pumpkin and Honey-Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), whose chosen café to hold up is patronized at that very moment by a class of customer that will prove far more than the duo had quite bargained for (“I been through too much over this case already to just hand it over to your, dumb, ass”), of Jimmy (Tarantino), the unwilling host of a delicately tight-spotted Jules and Vincent (“When you two came pullin’ in here, did you notice a sign on my front yard that says ‘dead nigger storage’?”), and of Brett and Roger, the aspiring double-crossers, soon to experience the sum and substance of Jules’ bible-quoting wrath (“Hey you, flock-of-seagulls: wanna tell my man Vincent where the case is hidden?”).

Oh, there are also (second-viewing?) uproarious scenes involving near-fatal drug overdoses, twist-dancing contests, jokes that fell flat on pilot TV-shows (“some of them get picked and become television shows; some of them don’t get picked and become nothin’; she was on one of the ones that became nothin’”), a disquieting exposé into the goings-on in the basement of a Compton-vicinity pawn shop (“fetch me the gimp”), Julia Sweeny as the daughter of exurban LA’s car-crushing tycoon (“So, what’s with the outfits: are you two going to a volleyball game after this, or something?”), a poignantly unruffled exchange over the cleaning of a crime scene (“What the fuck am I doin’ on brain detail; you an’ me is switchin’!”), and on and on, through the night into the chill dawn air of such Tarantino-childhood stomping grounds as Redondo and Englewood and Toluca Lake. (“Where’s Toluca Lake?!?” “It’s just over the hill, man!!!”)

It may take more doing for some people than perhaps it should or would with other great films, but the fact remains: to have found Pulp Fiction’s peculiar rhythm of ghastly carnage and comedic timing is, as if in one of those shaft-of-light moments from other movies, to realize all at once just how brilliant and unique this movie really is. “I watched it again on your advice,” a friend of mine said to me a year or two after the film came out on video (a friend who’d told me how much he’d hated it the first time), “an’ normally yo’ ass would be as dead as fried fuckin’ chicken right now,” he continued. “But you happened to pull this shit while I’m in a transitional period.”

…And just like that I knew I’d scored another convert.

2. The Return (2003). Like so many of its own characters and the culture from whence they hail, Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev's feature-length directorial debut is mystifying, deliberative, brooding and difficult. That which is not said is every bit as important as that which is; no one is any more or less honest than a particular situation suggests for itself; and grim dignity is held in the face of all comers, and at all costs. Make no mistake, please: this is. Not. A light-hearted picture.

In just the first of innumerable daring choices in this one, we join the lives of the two main characters—teenaged brothers Andrei and Ivan (Vladimir Garin and Ivan Dobronravov)—bang in the middle of what, in some other film, would be the defining plot-point: a challenge by the other kids of their seaside neighborhood to dive from the top of a navigation tower at the end of a long breakwater. Ivan, the younger of the two brothers, cannot muster the courage to jump but, in a moment that will hold dominion over much of what follows, also refuses to climb down and thus admit his failure. Instead, after long moments of increasing exasperation from Andrei, the elder brother departs with his friends, leaving Ivan crouched Indian-style on the floor of the platform. And there he will sit—disgruntled, intransigent, and utterly forsaken—until at last his mother climbs the ladder to beg him to come down, presumably several hours later.

As I said, this is the film’s opening. The following day, the two brothers are playing with some of the same riffraff and, after some hazing about the navigation tower, they decide to race home—whereupon they are greeted at the front door by their mother, who holds a silencing finger to her lips because their father is asleep. No big deal, presumably... but for the small problem that their father hasn’t been seen by any of these people for twelve years, and hadn’t announced that he was coming. Indeed the boys are so thunderstruck by this turn of events that they clamor to the attic to retrieve the only photograph they have, carefully scrutinizing it as a way of verifying that the person sleeping downstairs (Konstantin Lavronenko) really is him.

Without a first word of explanation for where he has been, why he has come back, or what his ongoing intentions might be, the father announces at the dinner table that he will be taking the two brothers on a fishing trip, and early the next morning bundles them into his car and drives off. The boys quickly discover that this version of their long-remembered father is curt, inexplicably ill-tempered, and implicitly authoritarian, but also prone to afford them numerous privileges (wine at the dinner table) that they have heretofore not had, as a result of which it doesn’t take long for the preexisting alliance between Andrei and Ivan to start to fray at the edges, with Andrei reveling in the attention of his long-absent male role model while the younger and less trusting Ivan continues to feed his own simmering unease.

We are meant to understand at some indeterminate point in their journey that the car ride to this fishing spot is taking far, far longer than it should—not least because the boys and their mother live at the sea—and that there seems about this older fellow a strangely specific purposefulness in reaching one particular spot in the vast immensity of interior Russia. Along the way they encounter wallet-stealing hoodlums, a stuck wheel, a pretty waitress, and an intermediate fishing spot that seems, to Ivan at least, perfectly serviceable. But at all events the driving source of tension inside that car is strictly coming from inside that car. “If he is our father, then why did he leave us?” Ivan asks Andrei in their tent on night at lights-out time, to which Andrei responds, stoically, “Get some sleep, squirt.”

Other movies to make this list have enormous turns-of-plot in them (Usual Suspects, Fight Club, Oldboy), and other movies to make this list are playfully un-answerable mysteries (just who did write the pink letter to Don Johnston in Broken Flowers? What was in that briefcase that Jules and Vincent had to retrieve?), but I know of no other movie that includes both such devices—let alone includes either one of them so seamlessly and so un-self-consciously. Moreover, the twist is the mystery—they inhabit a coincident space in the film’s universe, goading us in just that very special, stirring way that only a great unanswerable, Lady-or-the-Tiger mystery can, without the slightest hint of how the question will be posed, or when it’s being posed, almost until the final credits have started scrolling up the screen. The boys and their father will, in fact, make it to the chosen fishing spot their father had in mind for them all along, that much I can say. But they won’t all be fishing when they get there, they may not all be coming home, and not everything that will be suggested out there in the remotest reaches of the Russian countryside will ever be answered to the audience’s satisfaction.

So many people who've written about this film have made it a point to slip-in a mention or two of the word "Tarkovsky" that it feels to this author like something not a million miles from a burden on the young and cleverly self-empowered Zvyagintsev, especially since his work is so very different. Where Tarkovsky was always about long dialogues, Zvyagintsev is much more likely to be about long silences. Where Tarkovsky finds fascination in how light can turn to shadow, Zvyagintsev's chemistry is vastly more fluid: happy moments turn unhappy—and the other way 'round—with far less warning and none of Tarkovsky's signature finality. In a Tarkovsky film, when another character decides to hate you, you have a nemesis for life. In The Return, when another character decides to like you, you'd better cash it in right then and there.

Shooting with a total budget of less than $500,000, Zvyagintsev found himself having to milk each scene for what was there beneath the surface, rather than to splash the place with lots of film-burning expositions and evocative but difficult-to-compose wide-shots. Instead the film seems almost to whisper its truths to us—the quietly menacing score and the tightly circumscribed points of view telegraphing the need for full participation by the audience. Fortunately the acting talent makes this job easy on us, with a believability and a stirring personal edge that will leave even the most cynical student of the art form curling involuntarily against the armrest of his chair.

Interestingly, nearly all of The Return is shot with indoor lenses, despite taking place outdoors—rendering the entire picture in a suffused, icy-blue light that infects even the most innocuous of vignettes: a palpable, visual metaphor for the unresolved emotions with which the boys must grapple, oscillating between their need for this man and all that he represents, and their unadulterated fear of his unpredictability and strangeness. And always, the droning questions: Why did he leave; why has he come back? “Was it out of love,” Dobronravov muses in the trailer’s voice-over, “or to punish us? To teach us to be men? Or was it for some other reason?” You’ll have to watch for yourself to decide—and even then you probably won’t.

1. The Godfather, Part II (1974). I toyed with the idea of deferring the announcement of film-number-one for one more column. But then I remembered that one of my longest-suffering friends here in Gainesville predicted that this film would occupy our top slot when I uploaded the very first entry in the series—so to put it off any longer would’ve robbed the matter of any of its suspense, anyway, at least for him and the fellow readers he knows. Never mind: We’ve all waited long enough to talk about the single most amazing work of motion picture art that has ever, or will ever grace a screen.

The greatest movie ever made is, of all things, a sequel—the second chapter in the saga of the Corleone family, with flashbacks to the power-amassing glory days of a young Vito (played at top-of-his-career perfection by Robert De Niro) juxtaposed in just the right meter with the long and gritty descent into abject isolation that comes with son Michael’s (Al Pacino) assumption of absolute power. Populated by a galaxy of players too wide and with too many complex interrelationships and allegiances to exhaustively summarize here, The Godfather Part II is, in the end, a picture about the costs, in particular the self-poisoning influences, of a life spent at the pinnacle of organized crime: The constant fear for one’s own safety and that of one’s family, the periodic need to collaborate with odious adversaries to attain a larger objective, the careful management of the need for loyalty against the need to seem gracious and accommodating.

In Vito’s story, the execution of his father and older brother by the local mafia don in Corleone, Sicily, prompts the young boy to escape on a steamer to Ellis Island, from whence (after a customs’ official has committed the obliging mistake of swapping his home town for his surname) he eventually offs the don of Little Italy and, at a stroke, assumes the job of running the New York City underworld. Meanwhile in Michael’s story, resumed thirteen years after the chronology of the first film, the family has moved west to a sprawling compound on Lake Tahoe, there to oversee the transition of the Corleone empire from narcotics to gambling.

After celebrating the First Communion of his son, Michael and his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) survive an attempted hit, prompting Michael to leave the compound for safer surroundings—entrusting to consigliare Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) the well-being of those he must leave behind. Eventually Michael meets and chats-up one Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), an unprepossessing but, make no mistake, Darth-Vader-powerful crime boss in his own right, to work out the terms of a partner-sharing arrangement that will see Roth turning a blind eye to Michael’s penetration of Las Vegas and Havana, in return for a share of the proceeds. While in Havana, however, Michael begins to doubt the permanence of the Battista regime against the insurgent communist guerrillas, and demurs on the making of any lasting commitment to the sprawling nightclub scene that defined Cuba’s capital city in the late 1950s.

At precisely the same moment as the old regime is being overrun in its own city, Michael pulls just a little too hard on the thread of that leftover question of who’d been trying to kill him in Tahoe, discovering in the process that he has been betrayed by his own brother, Fredo (John Cazale), who ultimately confesses that Roth is still trying to destroy Michael by having him scapegoated as the principal target in a US-Senate crackdown on organized crime. Having bought a Nevada Senator by implicating him in the death of a prostitute, and with the benefit of Fredo’s tips, Michael is able to sidestep the investigation—thanks in no small part to Tom Hagen’s discovery that the star witness against them, Frank Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo), has a brother living in Sicily, whom Hagen brings unexpectedly to the hearing room on the day that Pentangeli is supposed to finger the don.

But the magic of the film comes when, with all the principal threats to his safety and livelihood now effectively neutralized, Michael finds himself unable to exhale a much-deserved sigh of relief, instead choosing to exact ever crueler and ever more calculated reparations from those who have wronged him to lesser and lesser degrees—from Pentangeli, whom Hagen convinces to commit suicide in the bathtub of his safe-house, to Michael’s wife Kay (unforgiven and un-divorced, after admitting to Michael that she’d gotten an abortion while he was in hiding), to none other than Hyman Roth himself, whom Michael dispatches his capo to shoot and kill upon his return to the United States, despite the fact that Roth is dying, about to go to prison, and will be heavily guarded and almost impossible to kill. “Mike,” Tom Hagen implores, “it’d be like trying to kill the President.” And then, after a pause, “You’ve won, Mike; do you wanna wipe everybody out?” A question to which Michael, staring straight ahead—perhaps no longer even sure of the loyalty of Hagen himself--replies, “No, Tom. Not everyone. Just my enemies.”

The denouement that occurs at the conclusion of the picture is at once eerily evocative of the one that concludes its predecessor, and yet utterly un-self-conscious and sincere, too: yes, the resolutions of the two films follow the same track; no we aren’t bothered in the least by this fact, since this particular resolution is the only one to which such characters, leading such lives, can channel their own narratives. Indeed not a single element of this enormous, heaving, 200-minute odyssey calls even the slightest attention to itself, from the exquisitely self-alienating opulence of the Corleone compound, to Carmine Coppola’s palpably menacing score, to the selfless contributions of a cavalcade of A-list Hollywood acting talent, many of whom had no choice but to shelve their own typically scene-stealing personas to play both literal and figurative underlings to Michael and Vito, as we switch back and forth between their parallel rises to the pinnacle of their family profession. Perhaps not surprisingly, a whopping four separate actors were nominated for supporting-role Oscars (with De Niro winning in what may yet be the least suspenseful envelope-opening ceremony in the history of the sport), and the film itself waltzed away from the 1975 proceedings with nods for Best Picture, Best Director (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Screenplay (Coppola again), Best Score (another Coppola), and Best Set Decoration (Tavoilaris, Graham and Nelson).

But for all its arresting size and sweeping scope, The Godfather Part II is, in the end, a “family portrait” picture, albeit the most atypically mesmerizing family portrait ever conceived. Michael is a big man with big reach and big ideas for how to use it, yes, but what makes people like him, we gather through the seemingly effortless storytelling craft of Puzo’s novel and Coppola’s adaptation, is the interactions he carries out within the family: The petty grievances, the wayward siblings, the dejected head-shake at the news that a sister will be marrying someone of low character, the lifelong adherence to doing what’s right by those with whom he shares blood. I mean, let’s face it: They don’t call these outfits “mafia” (literally, “my family”) for nothing.

Along the way to this point I was tempted to drop-in several whole scenes from the various films we've been discussing, courtesy of YouTube, and nearly always thought the better of it. The films must stand as complete works, for one thing, and it's unfair to the director's vision for another--like eating the icing off the top of a chocolate cake and throwing the rest of the cake away. But here, at the end of our long and amazing ride, I must make an exception to include a link to what is, beyond a shadow of doubt, the single most powerful and affecting scene in the history of motion pictures. On the commentary track Coppola says that they hadn't even expected it to snow. Well, I guess that only proves that this is obviously God's favorite movie, too.

...And, just like that, we have reached the end of our long and exciting journey through the Key Grip’s choices of the hundred greatest movies of all time. Just like that, it's over.

This project would not have been possible without the encouragement of several local friends and non-local well-wishers, and for that I am truly grateful. I hope that those who’ve been cheering all of this on don’t feel either swindled by any lack of critical heft to the final entries, or let down by the meandering prose, either one. Goodness knows the whole thing would’ve been impossible to finish without the benefit of a constant awareness that someone out there was logging-in to check for a next installment.

Special thanks are due to a certain Michael Patterson and his wife Gretchen who, on the occasion of a visit to the part of south Florida where I was living at the time, asked me what my favorite movie was and, to their immense and enduring credit, didn’t laugh me out of my own car when I said Apollo-13. (Though, really, Apollo-13 is still a pretty fucking-good movie, people.)

Special thanks also to Bill Stephenson, whose embrace of the entire exercise included several unilateral mentions of where things stood in general, and of how many of the listed movies he had- and had not seen, in particular. Ditto Richard Dickson, who has not had as many occasions to comment face-to-face, but who’s been dutifully chronicling the list, sans commentary, for eventual bullet-pointing in some future column. My mother, naturally, has spent long- or short segments of every morning for a month, either scanning in vain for the next chapter along our journey, or devouring every last word (and somehow missing the fact that on many occasions fifty or sixty of them at a time came rushing straight at her without a period to break them up).

I hope that some among my few remaining readers will take it upon themselves to contribute a review or two of their own—not just because I think it would be a lot of fun to upload someone else’s thoughts about some other movie that escaped mention in these columns, but also because the movie in question may well be something that I myself have not yet seen. Just send me an e-mail with the review typed into the body of the message, and I’ll be tickled indoor-lenses-blue to publish it, here.

Above all, thanks for reading: Thanks for commenting; thanks for wondering what’s next; thanks for sharing this experience with me even in some small and un-perceived way. It’s been a hell of a month, sitting here on this end, thinking more-or-less continually about all my favorite movies. It’s been thrilling, at times more than a little daunting, sometimes downright scary. But we’ve made it through at last.

…Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go watch all hundred of these flicks again, back-to-back, and then go to bed for about a year.

Dave O’Gorman
(“The Key Grip”)
Gainesville, Florida


Anonymous said...

What an amazing journey through the movies: intelligent, insightful, at times moving, and above all entertaining. Thanks for a great ride!

Dave O'Gorman said...

Thanks for reading!