A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

Dir: Martin Scorsese, Michael Henry Wilson, 1995. Documentary.

I’ve always mistrusted the adulation that greets Martin Scorsese whenever he makes a new movie. I wasn’t around for the glory days of the New Hollywood generation of film directors making their mark in the 1970s, of which he was, of course, a principle member. His reputation as a master of gritty poetic realism was built on films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Mean Streets and I can understand their importance to American cinema of the 1970s and '80s. But what has always bugged me is his media-appointed status and de facto role as America’s Greatest Living Film Director. I just find such a distinction to be inherently suspicious. He’s a relatively apolitical filmmaker who, in his most successful films glorifies (whatever his intentions) a criminal underclass that is meant to embody the aspirational drive of Americans for success and material wealth whatever the cost. Goodfellas is a seamless rush of images and sound. It’s a great film, but I’ve always felt that some of the greatness accorded it by critics and audiences (and his other films like it) is based in part on an obvious celebration of his one dimensional psychopathic characters. What are we really celebrating when we call him America’s Greatest Living Film Director? I’m not totally sure.

That said, the man knows a lot about movies—he is almost as famous for his films as he is for boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of film history and the way a film’s subtext is made manifest through directorial technique. He also has excellent taste. Scorsese is the perfect guide to the world of American film and this BFI-produced documentary, in which he shares with us some of his favorite films, is a pleasure to watch for its three hour duration. He starts out by saying that this is a project for him to talk about his favorite films and that he can only vouch for their importance to him as part of the formative experiences that shaped him as a film director.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Feb 25, 2011 6:13pm

Leave Her To Heaven

Dir: John M. Stahl, 1945. Starring: Gene Tierney, Cornel Wilde, Jeanne Crain. Classics.

What do you call a film noir without shadows? Is it still noir? Leave Her To Heaven is a total anomaly, a claustrophobic thriller that takes place in the wide open spaces of some of the most serene nature settings imaginable. It’s a murky psychodrama done in Technicolor. This isn’t the blazingly sharp Technicolor of Douglas Sirk, though, where every pink wall and cocktail shaker gleams with vivid detail. Leave Her To Heaven was made a good ten years before Technicolor advanced to what we think of as its signature bold and bright look. The Technicolor process was more primitive when Leave Her To Heaven was made, giving the film a weirdly unsettling brightness like the eerie orange glow before a heavy summer storm.

Cornel Wilde plays Richard Harland, an author who meets a beautiful and wealthy young woman named Ellen (played by Gene Tierney) on a train. Soon they are in love, get married, and Richard is smitten with his new bride. However, Ellen’s behavior becomes bizarre and her treatment of Richard more and more possessive and unreasonable. Much like her attachment to her dead father, her need to possess Richard totally has drastic and murderous consequences for the other people in their lives.

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Matt Messbarger
Feb 25, 2011 12:13pm

Strangers on a Train

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1951. Starring: Robert Walker, Farley Granger, Marion Lorne, Ruth Roman. Classics.

For some perverse reason I’ve never been much of a Hitchcock fanatic. It’s cinephile heresy to say so, I know, but his films, for the most part, just leave me cold. Most are beautiful, icy, and calculating experiments in psychological terror and you can’t really argue with that nifty a gimmick. But it’s the way he approached character in such clinical fashion that has always led me to stick up for his slightly less celebrated contemporaries (Nicholas Ray comes to mind). The artistry of his psychological subtext can be bewitching (as with Vertigo) or chilling (as in Psycho), but I find their formalism alienating or perhaps only in relation to their director’s iconic status. I’d rather watch Johnny Guitar or In a Lonely Place over any Hitchcock film any time.

With Hitchcock plot seemed to take precedence over character. It’s as if he started with the devising of an elaborate trap and then got around to filling it in with a variety of types. I’ve always thought that to Hitchcock characters were victims there to be fixed onto a fresh web of plot and observed as some kind of predator crept up to feast. There is plenty of psychological depth to his characters - think Jimmy Stewart’s unforgettable haunted detective in Vertigo - but not a whole lot of warmth or charm or whatever it is that makes us like a character, monster and hero alike. As a contrast, this was never the way with Welles who reveled in the vulnerability of even his most diabolical heavies. Hitchcock, like his artistic descendant David Lynch, loved to find the perverse in the ostensibly “normal” but the ultimate point was more akin to an extremely dark joke than a tragedy. He was not really any kind of humanist. He is, after all, the director who famously said all actors should be treated like cattle.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Dec 7, 2010 5:17pm

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Dir: Anthony Minghella, 1999. Starring: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Cate Blanchett. Drama.

A lot of directors working today try to ape Hitchcock. His films are the gold standard for artful forays into psychological terror. Christopher Nolan is just the latest celebrated director trying to tap into a rich vein of Hitchcockian malice for his own films. But while Nolan succeeds with astonishing set-pieces within his films—think of the face-to-face interrogation room sequence between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight—his films are, for the most part, long on disorienting gimmicks and rather low on psychological depth. He also doesn’t go near the subject of sex and Hitchcock’s films are full of sex—sexual obsession, sexual dread, sexual paranoia—the one exception being sexual fulfillment which seemed to exist only within the arms of his most beautiful and iconic star couplings in films such as Notorious and To Catch a Thief.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is a first-rate Hitchcockian exercise from the late director Anthony Minghella and it has all of the corrosive sexual dread you could ask for as well as a disturbingly convincing subtext on the kinds of identity games Americans are always involved in. It’s glamorous and dark and manages to top Hitchcock in at least one respect—its undercurrent of eroticism is explicitly homosexual.

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Matt Messbarger
Nov 24, 2010 11:06am

Frozen River

Dir: Courtney Hunt, 2008. Starring: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Charlie McDermott. Drama.

Neo-realism is having a bit of a renaissance within the American indie film world of late. Perhaps as a reaction to how Hollywood has all but ignored the working poor - or the just plain destitute - for decades there’s a new interest in stories about how middle Americans are coping with increasingly dire odds to surviving in a country where manufacturing jobs have left en masse to be replaced by meth labs and fundamentalist Christian churches. There’s a hopelessness about our future that has been encroaching for decades—wage stagnation, the credit crisis, the decline of labor unions, and the housing bubble are all symptoms of the decline of our much mythologized way of life. These new stories feature white, non-urban females in the lead roles. They have been deserted by deadbeat males who are overwhelmed by the stark realities of poverty.

The American Dream used to mean owning your own car and home and having a few vacations now and then. At some point it came to be synonymous with the tacky, greasy exploits of the Donald Trumps and P. Diddys of the world. Is it any surprise that economic mobility is harder to achieve than ever even as gross shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians are still pulling in viewers desperate for a fix of escapism? I think this is the most confusing time in this country since I started paying attention and I have no idea where things are headed. I think this national malaise is making us hungry for stories about people struggling to keep from losing everything. They are people who make up a majority in this country and their voices are seldom heard.

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Matt Messbarger
Nov 16, 2010 5:42pm

Ed Wood

Dir: Tim Burton, 1994. Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker. Cult.

I readily admit that among my favorite films some are more naturally enjoyable than others. I’ve enjoyed the films of Guy Maddin and Godard and Bergman I’ve seen, but their films are generally not those I’m going to put on after a few drinks on a Saturday night. That sacred time slot is reserved for The Girl Can’t Help It or All about Eve or True Romance. A really brilliantly made film designed to be popular with lots of people is my favorite kind of film, truth be told. Ed Wood is a superb film that should have been a hit with audiences but was inexplicably not. I’d lump similarly marvelous entertainments, Quiz Show and L.A. Confidential, into this category as well. The fact that they were celebrated by critics and not particularly popular with the public is just another piece of evidence that I don’t understand the American public very much at all.

Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s lost classic. He was sent into movie director purgatory because of its dismal box office performance and it took several films (mostly remakes) to regain his stature as an auteur with box office clout. Ed Wood is Burton’s ode to the auteur, in this case a hopeless kind of auteur. It’s a celebration of the kind of director who stays defiantly, naively, but always sincerely true to his own cinematic vision. Ed Wood the man is notorious as one of the worst directors who ever made movies in Hollywood. Burton uses Wood's life and career as a means to examine the pressures on an artist as he tries to turn his vision into reality. The film is also a touching story of friendship between a Hollywood monster movie has-been (Martin Landau playing Bela Lugosi) and the ultimate Hollywood outsider working on the fringe of the poverty row film industry. It’s also a love letter of sorts to a Hollywood that no longer exists—Hollywood the small town with its crazy hat-shaped restaurants and eccentric, seedy show people. Not since Edward Scissorhands had Burton made such a personal film about the life of an artist.

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Matt Messbarger
Nov 11, 2010 11:05am

Go

Dir: Doug Limon, 1999. Starring: Katie Holmes, Sarah Polley, Jay Mohr, Scott Wolf. Comedy.

A lot of films about drugs and drug users take an exploitive yet ultimately moralistic tone about their contentious subject matter. Actors are given scenery to chew as either addicts or dealers. Junkies waste away tragically, but elegantly, and the dealers are suave thugs making the most of their Faustian bargain of a career. So often we are meant to envy the way the characters give a middle finger to societal rules and yet, when they ultimately reach their downfall, we are encouraged to feel morally superior. Call it a cultural byproduct of our country's draconian drug laws where all drugs are equally bad. (Except for alcohol which never causes any problems whatsoever.)

The thing I love about Go is the refreshing lack of judgment on the characters. It’s a movie about a random assortment of relatively amoral young people in L.A. in one insane 24-hour period. They work dead end jobs, they go to raves, and they take ecstasy. They’re basically good kids, just young and broke and out for a good time. They get into trouble, but not the kind of finger-wagging clichéd trouble that a bad screenwriter would normally concoct for these characters. It's more of the absurdist kind of trouble that Quentin Tarantino used in various plotlines of Pulp Fiction.

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Matt Messbarger
Nov 10, 2010 2:47pm

The Woman in the Window

Dir: Fritz Lang, 1944. Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey. Film Noir.

Have you ever had a dream where you committed a horrible crime or just got into some really big trouble and then wake up and for a few moments actually think it really happened? That is a terrible feeling. My first impulse is to make a contingency plan for what I’m going to do next. There is nothing like the relief of realizing it was just a dream. Your sense of identity, your subconscious, and your grasp on reality are all kind of in flux in that momentary state. I find that fascinating—the way our minds play tricks on us.

I remember once seeing an episode of a crime show where real footage was shown of the interrogation of a 13-year old boy after his sister was found murdered. The boy learned of the murder from them. The detectives kept grilling him for hours. All they told him was that his teenage sister was found murdered and they knew he did it. They said they found the murder weapon—a knife with dried blood on it with his fingerprints all over it. At first he pleaded that he didn’t know what they were talking about. He pleaded his innocence loudly and repeatedly; the tears were streaming down his face. But after a few hours he started to question his own memory of things and he became much more subdued. Finally he confessed that he did murder his sister because of some latent resentment over something in their past. They had convinced him of something a few hours before he knew to be untrue and they got a confession out of him. He supplied them with details as to how he did it. As it turns out, the boy didn’t murder his sister and the detectives were sued by the boy’s parents who had no knowledge of what they had planned to say to him.

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Matt Messbarger
Nov 2, 2010 2:53pm

Capote

Dir: Bennett Miller, 2005. Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Shindle, Catherine Keener, David Wilson Barnes. Drama.

2005 was my favorite recent year for American films. We had Batman Begins, Brokeback Mountain, and a re-release of Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows from 1958. (That technically shouldn’t count but it’s such a cool movie I have to include it.) As much as I liked those films, though, Capote was the one that made the biggest impression on me. It’s got a fearless Academy Award winning performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and it’s both a fascinating true crime story and a keenly observed morality play.

Capote traces the genesis of Truman Capote’s masterpiece "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood, from the shockingly violent mass murder in a small Kansas town that was its subject to Capote’s ascendance as one of the most revered authors of his time. What transpires in between is a disturbing account of an artist manipulating the source of his inspiration - his death row muse, if you will - into providing him with the necessary materials to make an undisputed literary work of art. In Cold Blood is one of the most important books of the 20th century, not only for its brilliantly paced tragic story but also for its resolute humanization of its despised protagonists. But it’s not left wing agitprop; it’s a chilling glimpse into the depths of darkness. What director Bennett Miller does with his film is to posit that Truman Capote crossed an ethical line by getting in the middle of his story and that, for all of the success it brought him, it sowed the seeds of his later ruination.

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Matt Messbarger
Nov 2, 2010 2:20pm

8: The Mormon Proposition

Dirs: Reed Cowan and Steven Greenstreet, 2010. Narrated by: Dustin Lance Black. Documentary.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry about a political issue in my lifetime as the issue of how Proposition 8 came to be law in the state of California. I’ve been mildly politically engaged for most of my life. I grew up in a house full of good liberals and I marched in a couple of Iraq war protests, but I’ve never really put anything on the line for a cause I believe in. Prop 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that defined marriage in California as solely between a man and a woman, made me really mad and I got involved in the fight against it. It confirmed my mostly cynical take on politics because everything about the way it played out seemed so frustratingly predictable.

I absolutely knew it was going to pass when I was listening to NPR one day in my car and heard a Yes On 8 spokeswoman say that if gay marriage was legal than kindergartners would be forced to learn how to gay marry one another. The NPR host, the comically awful and journalistically toothless Larry Mantle, had no follow up question and there was no one from No On 8 or any informed listener who bothered to call in and state that that particular allegation was completely made up. But listener after listener called in to instead say that while they had nothing against gay people it just wasn’t right to teach that in schools. It couldn’t have been planned any better for Yes On 8 if they had scripted it. It was a classic bait-and-switch strategy by the architects of their campaign and it worked like a charm.

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Posted by:
Matt Messbarger
Oct 27, 2010 5:02pm
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