Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Robinson Crusoe

Later this month, Sight & Sound releases their international poll of the Greatest Films of All Time, probably the most anticipated of such lists since they've been conducting it every 10 years since 1952.

Like most film lovers, I tend to treat any such list with curiosity and skepticism, taking issue with some choices, other omissions, and seeing how the canon has (or hasn't) shifted over time.  For the last 5 polls (or half-a-century), Citizen Kane has been at the top of the S&S polling, though I'm suspecting that this is the year it will be unseated.

By what?  A few candidates are possible, including two that would be on my own list, and which I've discussed in this blog already: Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)

For me, however, I never presume to be an arbiter of "Best"; I simply go with the films I would miss the most.  A Desert Island tally, one that inevitably would have some painful absences but the balance I know I'd need if I could only rely on 10 films to get me through the rest of my life.

So, the other eight?  Top of the list would be The General (Keaton/Bruckman, 1926), quite possibly my favorite film ever, Buster Keaton's meticulously constructed Civil War epic that combines his exquisite comic timing with sweep, spectacle, some curious romance, and glorious visual compositions.  It has a little bit of everything, and while some of his other films may be just as funny (Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill Jr.,), I would unquestionably miss this one the most.

For sound comedies, The Marx Brothers and Some Like It Hot would be serious contenders, but the emotional themes that run through Preston Sturges' divine and hilarious The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941) make it the one I'd want in close company.  It also has perhaps the sexiest seduction scene ever, and Barbara Stanwyck may be my favorite actress, too.

When it comes to my favorite Italian and Japanese directors, I'd probably say Antonioni and Ozu, and films like L'Eclisse and An Autumn Afternoon are undeniable masterpieces among a body of incredible work.  But in truth, I would probably have greater regret if I didn't include the emotional roller-coaster and spirited energy of La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 1960) and The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954) in my sandy oasis. Marcello Mastroianni's first scene and Toshiro Mifune's last remain unforgettable.

Both Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, 1947) and Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1962) ostensibly deal with women at a crossroads of personal crisis and commitment, but while the former takes an operatic approach to the cultural and sexual discord among a group of nuns in the Himalayas, the latter is like a soulful jazz standard, full of bright Parisian energy and experimental riffs, but grounded in a need for love and connection in the shadow of our mortality.

I suppose I should choose one film made in my own lifetime, so I'll pick The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1973), a beautiful, tranquil, tremendously poignant meditation on family, politics, and the power of the movies, as the imagery of the original Frankenstein informs the way a small Spanish girl sees the world around her.

That's 9.  So what gap do I fill?  A western?  A french film?  Hawks or Rohmer, perhaps?  But what I notice I'm missing the most is Jazz.  And so I pick Norman McLaren's miraculous Begone Dull Care (McLaren, 1949), maybe the 10 most perfectly abstract and delightful minutes ever committed to film.  McLaren's animation style was to paint and scratch the film stock and emulsion itself--essentially, a camera-less process.  With lines and patterns dancing to Oscar Peterson's wonderful music, it is a feast for the eyes and ears.  When I die, it's the film I'd want to have played at my wake.  Enjoy.

Buster Keaton was part of the Stars of the Silent Screen, Scott # 2828.  In the American Filmmaking series, the stamps for Directing and MakeUp are # 3772b and -e, respectively.  The San Marino stamp for La Dolce Vita was released in 1988 and for The General, in 1995.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


"Then last week, as it must to all men, death came to Charles Foster Kane."

It was over 10 years ago now, but I still remember the phone call vividly. Catching up with mom like I always did, the content of the conversation wasn’t any different than usual—she was fine and Dad (an invalid, bedridden, and suffering from dementia for years) was no better or worse.

But there was something about the tone in her voice that was unusual, though impossible to pin down. And even though I couldn’t put my finger on it (and didn’t even know if she realized she had sounded different), I knew what I had to do.

So within a few hours, I was on the road, driving the 500 miles overnight to head back to the house I grew up in, surprising her that following morning at the door. I spent an hour just holding his hand, and then took a quick nap. After waking up, I joined her again in his room, and with each of us by his side, clasped hands again, we watched him peacefully pass. He was 93.

The end was simple. No profound last words, like Kane’s “Rosebud”. No frogs from the sky (though Jason Robards’s incredibly moving portrayal in Magnolia often reminded me of Dad’s last moments of lucidity, before his mind disappeared beyond our grasp). It was death at its most quiet and solemn. And for my Mom, who was his caretaker for years, and for him, a shell of his former self, it was a freedom for which I had long prayed for. He had had a good run, but that day was painfully overdue.

I got my blue eyes from him. My love for tennis (watching and playing) and travel (he visited 60 countries over 40 years working in the U.S. state department). We went to the same alma mater, graduating 63 years apart. Most of the life he lead before my Mom he kept close to his vest. But I do know that when he was my age, his first marriage hadn’t failed yet (mom was his second, and last). So a belief in second chances is something I might slowly learn to embrace from his example, too. We had few things in common, but a need for redemption from past failures is one of them.

He was born on the 4th of July, just like the song's Yankee Doodle Dandy (Walter Huston’s final scene w/Cagney’s George M. Cohan, in the film of the same name, is another beautiful cinematic deathbed moment, father and son saying goodbye). So when I celebrated Independence Day, it really was more about my Father than our Founding ones. The fireworks were always for him in our eyes. And when he died, my interest in the holiday largely died with him. It was nice and musical and colorful, but just wasn’t the same.  And never will be.

The 3 American flag stamps joining Captain America (Scott #4159e ) date back to 1957: Scott #’s 1094, 1132, and 1320. The US Citizen Kane stamp (Scott #3186o) I paired with one from Guyana. Bernard Herrmann’s first film score was for Kane, as was Orson Welles’s only Oscar (but for screenwriting, not directing).  The Scott #’s are 3341 & 3772b, respectively.