I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School; Or, How I Spent My Girlfriend’s Summer Vacation

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

For three weeks in July, I was pretty bored and had plenty of free time.  My girlfriend, Emily, had left for the trip of a lifetime.  She went to Europe with her mom and sister, took a cruise, and saw all kinds of incredible places, including Copenhagen (she hasn’t even seen the Pusher trilogy!  How can she possibly appreciate it?) and St. Petersburg, Russia. I, on the other hand, had finished my summer class — I got an A, in SPANISH, so be proud, mom and dad — and only had my part-time job and overweight cat to worry about.  I decided this would be a perfect time to fill in some of my more glaring cinematic blind spots.  Three weeks and 30 movies later, I now have a deeper appreciation for foreign masters (Truffaut, Kurosawa), the silent pictures of Keaton and Chaplin, and some geek classics I should have seen years ago. I thought this would be a fun way to change up the usual Wednesday I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School post.  So, depending on your level of cinema snobbery, be awed by my pretentiousness or scoff at my pathetic inefficiencies with this list (in order!) of my filmic travels while Emily really saw the world.

1. Paper Moon– dir. Peter Bogdanovich

A wonderful little con artist tale.  You can read my thoughts on it here.

2. Eraserhead – dir. David Lynch A movie I’m still struggling to understand and/or enjoy.  Also one I wrote on for this site.

3. The Great Train Robbery – dir. Edwin S. Porter An important early short which popularized the Western genre in the movies.  It may be crude, but it features a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and it does some dynamic things with the camera aboard a moving train.  Besides, it’s not like you’ll have trouble finding a copy.  It’s in the public domain, so it’s free on YouTube, and it’s only 12 minutes, so watch it.

4. Sherlock Jr. – dir. Buster Keaton This is pure joy.  The stunts are phenomenal.  I didn’t strain to find the humor; I laughed the whole way through.  But most importantly, Keaton’s mastery of movie magic is on full display; his dream sequence involving Keaton’s entering a film in progress and interacting with the characters challenges the concept of reality on screen.  Is Keaton really just a down-on-his-luck janitor or does he have wacky adventures solving mysteries?  Being a realist, I knew where I stood throughout it, but that’s the fun of something like this; the audience gets to make up their minds until the end. It’s also fun to see one of the direct influences on Woody Allen’s wonderful The Purple Rose of Cairo.

5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari– dir. Robert Wiene

Short, silent, and frightening.  It features an early twist ending; and a good one at that.  I’d also venture to guess that Batman villain the Joker’s look is partly inspired by this film’s somnambulist, along with The Man Who Laughs.  If not, then this film certainly inspired the entire career of Batman and Batman Returns director Tim Burton.  Everything about its mise en scene serves as a preview of Burton’s work.  There are twisting spires, off-kilter houses, strange colors, and all manner of atypical camera angles at play.

6. Beat the Devil – dir. John Huston While it’s not quite on the level of their previous collaboration, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre — my favorite film from Hollywood’s Golden Age — this Huston-Bogart picture is witty in its subversion of the Hitchcockian brand of international intrigue thrillers.  Instead of his usual world weariness, Bogart grins and philanders his way through the story, a dark comedy I’m amazed made it through the Hollywood system of the time.

7. The 400 Blows– dir. Francois Truffaut

This is one of those films that leaves you dumbfounded.  After sampling a couple Godard pictures — Breathless, which I enjoyed but didn’t understand the devotion surrounding it, and the minor work A Woman Is a Woman — I wasn’t especially into the French New Wave.  Little did I know how much more of a humanist Truffaut was compared to his critic-turned-filmmaker compatriot, Godard.  Godard seems more interested in taking film conventions and spinning them, whereas Truffaut wants to know what makes people tick; and especially in this film, what makes himsef tick.  Taking that psychological, self-analytical approach, The 400 Blows is Truffaut’s early life diary on screen, an act of bravery not too common in filmmaking of any kind.  I don’t mean to keep harping on a movie I don’t even think is bad (see a few movies down on this list), but I can’t believe the British Film Institute didn’t rank this above La Regle du jeu on last week’s “greatest films of all time” list; The 400 Blows is in every way a more affecting movie.

8. Blue Velvet– dir. David Lynch

This is “conventional” Lynch.  It’s still plenty strange, what with dead bodies standing up and Dennis Hopper, but it’s as accessible — and great — as anything he would ever do.  Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern turn into stars here, and the twisty, trippy plot doesn’t let you turn off your brain in order to just enjoy the ride.  You need to engage it, and even then you probably won’t fully understand everything.  I need to own this in order to revisit it and unpack it further.  That devotion is exciting to me.  That’s the type of interaction I look for in a movie.

9. Carrie – dir. Brian De Palma While it’s a heavy-handed indictment of religious fanaticism and teen cruelty, De Palma’s indebtedness to Hitchcock manifests itself in the bravura climactic sequence at the prom, where the camera voyeuristically follows every station of the elaborate prank set by Carrie’s tormentors.  The way he plays with time — slow motion is key in this segment — and his use of split screen shows a director with more on his mind than adapting a cheap paperback horror novel.  Seeing how Sissy Spacek uses her eyes in this sequence is reason enough to see the film.

10. The Magnificent Ambersons – dir. Orson Welles No amount of studio interference could completely destroy Welles’ tale of a bitter heir (Tim Holt) who squanders his family’s fortune.  It lasts a truncated 88 minutes, and the pacing often suffers from its studio-mandated expeditiousness — including a laughable sequence involving what’s supposed to be an extended, years long trip (built up as a wrenching, there’s-no-going-back moment) that turns it into a two-minute jaunt, no more excruciating than a trip to the grocery store — but Welles’ visual flair and character work shine, perhaps more than his other masterpieces, Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil.

11. Poltergeist– dir. Tobe Hooper (but everyone knows it’s really Steven Spielberg)

Now here’s one I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen in its entirety.  I remember one time watching it on TV when my older sister, Kelly, told me it wasn’t very good — I assume this is because I was about seven at the time and it wasn’t appropriate for my age group — and changed the channel.  I never bothered trying it again until a couple weeks ago.  Spielberg, always the master technician, digs deep and finds some genuine scares using his typical stock characters, the suburban American family.  Made at the same time as E.T., it takes the opposite of the same coin; instead of Elliot’s family breaking up, Poltergeist explores the horrors of keeping a family together, even if they do manage to get through the (supernaturally heightened) adversity.

12. Delhi Belly – dir. Akshat Verma My friend Yabrell graduated in May as the first Truman State University student with a film studies minor (next May, I will be one of the first few, as well, not to toot my own horn).  His last film class was a course on Bollywood.  While visiting recently, he suggested we watch Delhi Belly, which he described as Bollywood’s answer to the vulgarity-laced American comedies like The Hangover; it’s a huge departure from the hyper conservative storytelling (according to him, actors were not allowed to be shown kissing until the last decade) and musical numbers of traditional Indian films.  In that, it’s important.  However, the movie’s a bit of a mess.  It’s entirely in English, which is a huge detriment for comedic timing for these non-native speakers.  Its caper plot comes off as aping nineties Tarantino.  I had some fun with it, though, and I saw my friend, so it’s not an entire waste.

13. The Grey– dir. Joe Carnahan

Here’s a movie I had avoided while it was in theaters earlier this year.  I’d heard plenty of raves that couldn’t stop using the words “awesome” and “bad ass,” so in my contrarian way, I rolled my eyes and put it out of mind.  What a mistake.  After renting The Grey with my buddy Justin, we got pizza and basked in the glow of Carnahan’s survivalist tale.  Liam Neeson furthers his late-career surge into Charles Bronson territory, playing a character who can’t give up no matter how much he wants to; his stubbornness and fate intervene every time.  The film’s uncompromising look at the survival instincts of society’s downtrodden, brutal tundra setting, and top-notch acting raise it head and shoulders above most early-year fare — and maybe a lot of year-end fare, too — and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up on my 2012 top ten list.

14. The Graduate– dir. Mike Nichols

The Graduate is two-thirds of a great movie.  Everything involving the affair between Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is wonderfully acted, and it’s an interesting concept.  When Katharine Ross’ Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, enters the picture, it feels like a cowardly way to soften the story for a mass audience believed to be easily scandalized.  “Why, of course Ben would fall for her!” the filmmakers must have said to themselves.  But the only way they show this is, at a strip club on their first date — Ben had promised Mrs. Robinson that he’d make sure Elaine would never want to see him again — he feels guilty and confesses he’s not the type of person to bring a date to a nudie bar.  Then he kisses her.  The entire reason he falls in love with her is because he felt a pang of guilt for a dumb hoax; she, herself, never does anything to prove her worth to him.  It’s a stupid idea that creates unearned drama and an unnecessary climax, which should have focused on the film’s most compelling elements, Ben and Mrs. Robinson.

15. The Battleship Potemkin – dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Of course it’s bombastic propaganda.  In fact, it’s propaganda for a revolution that put its country in far worse shape than it was before the fighting started.  However, historical relevancy aside, Eisenstein’s briskly paced film leads the way toward the style of editing we see today.  I don’t mean that it’s a rough precursor to what we have now; its editing looks like most current movies.  Everyone talks about the Odessa steps sequence but that’s only a well-done part of a whole that utilizes a revolutionary form of quick cutting at every juncture.  Camera shots are only about three or four seconds long, which must have been as intensely foreign to its original audiences as Citizen Kane was 16 years later.  Actually, its editing is even more modern than that of Kane and the majority of American films until the late 1970s.

16. The Gold Rush– dir. Charlie Chaplin

After seeing Keaton’s masterpiece, I knew I had to see my first Chaplin movie since I was a small child (I don’t even remember which one I’d seen then).  This is a bit of a letdown after Sherlock Jr., but then again, so are most movies.  That’s not to take away from this film’s charm.  Chaplin’s Tramp character this time is known as The Lone Prospector, and his whimsical work is impossible to ignore.  He’s nervously charming around women and his bumbling encounters with the villainous Black Larsen provide laughs and more than enough peril to invest us in the Tramp’s fate.  I’m eager to see more of Chaplin’s work in order to appreciate it better as a grown-up.

17. Nosferatu– dir. F.W. Murnau

Besides Metropolis and — a couple days before this one — Potemkin, I don’t think I had ever seen any silent dramas.  That is probably because I’ve long been prejudiced against old movies like most people from my generation, and/or I always found something else to watch that interested me more at the time.  Technology in the silent era had kept the camera from being as mobile as I prefer, and I always thought the acting is always so over the top so as to go against the naturalism of the actors I prefer today.  Of course, then I saw Nosferatu and my hesitancy now looks silly.  This is a terrifying movie.  Max Schreck is not the pretty kind of vampire we laugh at today.  His bulging eyes, dagger-like fingernails, and fangs strike an imposing image.  His looks aren’t the scariest thing about Nosferatu, though.  His gait, agonizingly slow, suggests a calm, confident monster.  He doesn’t have to rush; he’ll get you when he deems it necessary.  For someone who’s always in a hurry to get places, the patience he displays is really what unnerves me.

18. Shoot the Piano Player – dir. Francois Truffaut

Of the three Truffaut movies I watched in this span, this is the least important.  Yet again, though, I’ve been shown that cinematic and cultural importance is not always the key to enjoying a movie.  Shoot the Piano Player has its artistic flourishes, but it’s mostly a pure and simple pulp story.  And Truffaut enjoys himself telling a story about a slumming concert pianist who wants a different life for himself.  He wants love, and he seems to find it, but his small-time criminal brother and some inadvertent murder get in the way.  It’s a quickly paced thriller with heart and some surprises, and it’s one of many from this experiment I can’t wait to own.

19. Stranger Than Paradise– dir. Jim Jarmusch

I wrote about this for last week’s I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, so you can read it here.  If you’re noticing a trend, that’s because a lot of these movies will probably be showing up here in expanded reviews in the coming weeks and months.

20. Jules and Jim– dir. Francois Truffaut

This is a story about how messy human relationships can be.  These three characters love each other deeply, but they can’t stop stepping on each other’s toes to get what they want.  The problem, though, is that when one gets what he or she wants, one or both of the others suffers.  Throw obvious mental illness into the mix — Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine is a force of uncertainty and instability — and the complications grow exponentially.  While it’s not perfect (there are two or three too many changes of heart for who wins Catherine’s love), my interest never waned.  The third Truffaut film I’d seen in a week solidifies him as a new favorite of mine, especially after he helps his own cause by narrating the work in a calm, detached voice that prepares you perfectly for the story you see.

21. Rio Bravo – dir. Howard Hawks

I don’t care for John Wayne.  Never have, and I probably never will.  He sleepwalks through every role with a dead stare and a voice nobody on the face of the planet uses, yet everyone — but confused ol’ me — loves him for it.  The best Wayne movies are the ones where he doesn’t have to carry the weight of the story.  Full disclosure, I’ve never seen The Searchers, so maybe his lead performance is great in that.  In Rio Bravo, though, despite being the nominal lead, Wayne isn’t the thing that makes the film work.  That would be Dean Martin.  His drunk former deputy is the only character with a true arc — Wayne and Ricky Nelson’s characters have moments, but no real through-line — and his charming and cocky Dude is someone interesting to latch onto.  He has that vaunted magnetic screen presence that can’t be taught; plus, he looks awesome with that tired five-day scruff.  Hawks and company take the structure of High Noon — gang members lay siege to a town to bust their leader out of jail — and ratchet up the tension and suspense until you’re not sure if everyone will make it out all right; something that’s hard to make me think in the studio system films.

22. Asphalt Jungle– dir. John Huston

Sterling Hayden is the coolest.  Usually.  His turns in Kubrick classics like The Killing and Dr. Strangelove and especially in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye are great man’s man roles.  And for most of The Asphalt Jungle, he’s incredible, too.  However, there are moments — mostly in the early portions — in the movie when he stands awkwardly and stares dumbly at the camera while using a weird accent that sounds nothing like middle America, which is where he’s supposedly from.  It’s distracting and contrary to the calm, slightly menacing thug he plays in the rest of the movie.  Weird acting choices aside, the caper picture helps cement John Huston as one of my favorite filmmakers.  The heist story is plenty of fun, but it’s the strange, darker elements Huston incorporates that make it great.  Emmerich’s (Louis Calhern) insistence that his much younger mistress (an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe) call him “Uncle Lon” reeks of an incest fetish, and that’s followed up by Doc Riedenschneider’s lasciviously watching a young girl dance in a bar to songs paid for by him.  These were hard things to sneak into the movies in 1950, and they make for a more mature, rounded film.

23. The Dark Knight Rises– dir. Christopher Nolan

Another one about which I wrote for this site.  It’s a very flawed movie, the most of Nolan’s trilogy (perhaps his career), but I couldn’t help getting swept up in the spectacle.

24. La Regle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) – dir. Jean Renoir

I mentioned this last week when talking about the British Film Institute’s newest best films of all time list, and I probably came off as a contrarian jerk.  I don’t think it’s the fourth best movie ever, but I recognize its immense value as a work of art.  A lot is said about Renoir’s use of deep focus, and that’s put to really neat use in the movie.  There are a bunch of characters doing subtly comic things in the background of many scenes, and I’m sure that rewards multiple viewings.  What doesn’t make me want to see it a bunch of times is the story.  It’s about a group of upper-class French people just before the start of World War II gathering in a large house for a weekend party.  Everyone’s having affairs with everyone, they think too much of themselves and too little of each other, and their selfishness explodes in violence at the end.  That’s a wonderful artistic statement, but I guess I should feel like a moron for that not being enough for me as a viewer.  But the fact remains that it’s not.  The thought that kept returning to me throughout the movie was, “This feels like the less interesting precursor to Altman’s Gosford Park.”  I say less interesting because there’s not much plot thrust to it.  It meanders through the house guests’ pointless affairs and everyone is just mopey and closed off until the admittedly great finale.  Usually, I couldn’t care less about finding a connection with a character, but this is a film about romantic entanglements.  Those usually require some connection to characters, and that’s hard to get when everyone is a selfish idiot.  At least in Gosford Park there’s the murder mystery angle to add a level of intrigue to the characters who are essentially the same people as in La Regle.  I’m sure one day once I’m sufficiently mature as a critical-thinking film viewer, I’ll look back at this list and laugh at how dumb I was for writing this, but currently this stands as a good, not great movie in my book.

25. Dracula– dir. Tod Browning and Karl Freund

While it’s not as scary as the other Bram Stoker-inspired movie on this list, Dracula is certainly the more iconographic.  Obviously I knew about Bela Lugosi’s voice and look from hundreds of Halloween Draculas over the years, but seeing the original in action is breathtaking.  Lugosi’s Dracula is the guy whose icy stare makes you willing to give him everything he wants if only to get away from him as soon as possible.  The problem for John Harker (David Manners) is that what Dracula wants is for him and his lover, Mina (Helen Chandler), to stay close.  The production design and music work wonders for the tone, but a rushed pace and glossing over of Dracula’s seafaring journey make it a flawed but imminently watchable film.

26. Ran – dir. Akira Kurosawa

Ran is the definition of masterpiece.  It is the greatest film I watched during the making of this list, and I now rank it among my favorites.  Kurosawa’s update on Shakespeare’s King LearRan is a feudal power struggle that follows an aging warlord who abdicates his throne.  The warlord’s three sons begin a beautifully rendered (with some of the best use of color I’ve ever seen) full-scale war to determine who will reign over the kingdom, while their forgotten father wanders the land searching his soul after a life of murder and deceit.  In doing so, Kurosawa turns the warlord into a grotesque husk of a human; the makeup is horrific in the best sense.  For a film with such a large scope, it feels oddly personal.  By 1985, when he made Ran, Kurosawa was going blind and had spent years painting storyboards to what would be his final films because he wasn’t sure he would be able to secure funds to make them.  The decaying warlord’s passing of the torch to his ill-equipped sons must have meant a lot to the director, as he had seen his work shape that of lesser filmmakers like George Lucas, who would make mountains of cash with weaker — don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars, but it’s not as technically or thematically strong as anything Kurosawa made — material.

27. High Sierra– dir. Raoul Walsh

High Sierra takes the romantic Bogart and makes him ineffectual.  He can’t get the girl he wants, and unlike in Casablanca, he’s outwardly upset about it.  When he gives something in this, he expects something in return.  He’s a crook who wants to do right, but his flaws don’t allow him; he can’t help what he wants and he’s not willing to sacrifice anything if it doesn’t benefit him.  When he gets what he needs, a woman, Ida Lupino’s Marie, who not only knows about his criminal lifestyle but approves and wants to join it, he can’t even enjoy it.  So goes the life of Bogart the doomed romantic.

28. High and Low – dir. Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa’s known for his samurai epics, but this two-tiered film noir puts on full display his talents as a master of suspense.  Toshiro Mifune is very Mifune in it, that is to say “Mifune” has replaced the word “great.”  His businessman faces a unique moral dilemma — should he pay a financially crippling ransom for the mistakenly kidnapped son of his driver? — I’d never seen before, and the first half takes place entirely in Mifune’s under-surveillance house.  Every telephone ring hits you like a shovel to the face.  Is the boy alive?  Will Mifune ruin his livelihood for someone he doesn’t have any real connection to?  Are the kidnappers paid by his business enemies?  These questions are answered in surprising fashion during the film’s second-half shift into police procedural, which both explains Kurosawa’s popularity in America and foreshadows future American television.  That second half is very good, but it’s a small downgrade from the heights reached by the first’s perfect (I don’t throw that word around lightly) execution.

29. An American Werewolf in London – dir. John Landis

This one’s probably the greatest disappointment of everything I watched in this span.  I’d long heard of the fun thrills this provides, but the entire thing is hollow.  Sure, Rick Baker’s lauded makeup work is phenomenal, but that’s about it.  The acting is strained, and the horror-comedy tone is never solidified.  Its greatest strength, though, is in its gleefully destructive finale and denouement-free ending.  I like the immediacy of the way Landis ends it, and that saves it from being a bland genre exercise.

30. The Godfather – dir. Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather is the only film on the list I had seen before.  The only problem was that I watched it on a crummy Blockbuster-worn VHS copy when I was 12.  How the hell was I supposed to understand the storytelling depth Coppola used?  The subtle family bonds that lead to not-so-subtle acts of violence?  To 12-year-old me, there was just the violence, which took too long to happen.  Now, though, I can appreciate its greatness.  Gordon Willis’s dark cinematography turning everyone into near silhouettes.  Coppola’s unfussy direction letting the story happen naturally.  Pacino restraining himself.  Brando’s criminal with a code (he’s not wrong: heroin is pretty awful).  It’s magnificent. Oh, and I realized that John Cazale’s inadequate black sheep, Fredo Corleone, is essentially a proto-Buster Bluth.

Whew!  I’m winded.  If you made it through all 4,400+ words, I applaud you and thank you.  The writing’s probably atrocious, but I guess that’s what happens when you work as your own copyeditor.  Anyway, I’m glad to have been able to see these (mostly) great films, and think I should go on more binges like this — as if my regular three-or-four-movies-a-week clip wasn’t enough already.  With my final (!) school year about to start, I may have to resort to more capsule-style reviews, so this may be a preview of the I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School columns of the near future.


1 Comment

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One response to “I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School; Or, How I Spent My Girlfriend’s Summer Vacation

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