As often as I am asked, “Why do you spend your precious Saturdays watching indefensible swill at a packed cineplex?” I am commanded to find the most suitable movie for a particular mood. This question almost always means, “What will make me laugh like the hysterical nitwit that I am?” but on rare occasions someone might actually want to see a quality film. Okay, so I don’t really get questions like this, as I am an anti-social monster who does little but grunt and scowl through a dehumanizing workday, but if I did have friends, I’m sure I’d have to deal with such insipid queries. In that spirit, I have decided to provide you, the faithful Ruthless reader with a handy guide for all possible moods, events, themes, and desires. The mere existence of this list does contradict my long-held belief that all of life’s difficulties can be swept away by viewing a grainy, endlessly copied VHS tape of facial cum shots (at least it worked in high school), but I’ll risk being called a hypocrite just this once:
There are many spirited candidates, but nothing has ever captured the very essence of man’s inhumanity to man quite like Apocalypse Now. If you are so dim as to approach this as a treatise on Vietnam alone, then you are bound to be left wanting. But if you have a sufficient amount of gray matter, you will understand that Francis Ford Coppola had much more in mind than a partisan attack on America’s greatest folly. And by daring to admit that bloodlust is the natural order unless artificially washed away, he avoided the pitfalls of political finger pointing. Why does man kill? What does victory entail? Is it ever really possible? In the context of battle, can there be such a thing as “going too far?” Or “madness?” Brando’s Kurtz is, strangely enough, the only character who sees the world as it really is, which means of course that he wants to see it incinerated. I hear you, Colonel!
Wedded bliss has been described thusly: death by a thousand cuts, the end of hope, the triumph of delusion over sanity, and, most memorably by Ambrose Bierce, “The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.” Strong words indeed from someone like myself who is a committed family man (“family,” if by that one means that I’d sooner have rectal cancer than children), but I won’t deny the literature on the subject. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Mike Nichols’ first and best film, is really the only movie concerning marriage that matters, as it features in it’s 2+ hour running time everything a married couple experiences during the average evening: lies, recriminations, pettiness, alcohol abuse, adultery, and the occasionally brandished shotgun. The cast is uniformly brilliant, the direction crisp and patient, and the dialogue so stinging and powerful that I’d be content to kick back, close my eyes, and just listen. George and Martha are more — much more — than aging boozehounds on the cusp of madness; they are every couple who has ever lived. Yes, even you. Especially you. Never has co-dependency ever been this wonderfully entertaining.
Tossing aside great films that have happened to feature the sausage-fingered set (The Station Agent, Ship of Fools, Bad Santa), the most memorable film actually about the damned things is Freaks, Tom Browning’s 1932 cult classic. Fine, the film also brings the contents of our stomachs to the surface with pinheads (not Bush supporters, but gen-u-ine, in-the-flesh pinheads!), bearded women, a caterpillar man (I prefer to call him “Torso Man” or “Tootsie Roll”), conjoined twins, and fat ladies, but it is Harry Earles as Herbert Hoover look-alike Hans who steals the show. Despite being a midget, he’s fabulously wealthy, arrogant, and quite dashing. He’s also one mean S.O.B., taking shit from no one, least of all some chick trying to steal his money and run away with the strong man. “One of us,” indeed.
Robert Altman’s brilliant Short Cuts peels back the foreskin of American life and finds exactly what you’d expect: loneliness, pain, hypocrisy, jealousy, infidelity, and murder. Using his standard vignettes with a cast of dozens, the film (thankfully) never works toward a plot resolution, content instead with behavior; how we talk, how we deal with pain and loss, and how, just as often, we use tragic circumstances to justify the past. From Jack Lemmon to Tom Waits, the cast shines from start to finish, refusing to bow to cheap sentiment or manipulation. And the closing earthquake? Not God’s wrath, silly boy, but a quick jolt to remind us that our “concerns,” seemingly all-consuming and so damned important, are little more than neuroses that keep us scared to death of each other. Whether we live or die, succeed or fail, is just pure randomness, despite our all-too-American sense of invulnerability.
Very specific indeed, but as no list is complete without the best film ever made, I hope I can be forgiven. Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seven Samurai is, at bottom, the real Greatest Story Ever Told, demonstrating the Japanese master’s command of narrative and character development. Patiently weaving his tale over 3 1/2 hours (without a second wasted), Kurosawa introduces us to the peasant community, the samurai warriors, the conflict, and finally the staggering climax, which is all the better because we know the participants so well. Every detail, every shot, and every development speaks with such confidence that it is no exaggeration to say that generations of filmmakers may steal, but no one will ever do it as well. And Toshiro Mifune, perhaps world cinema’s most engaging actor? He dominates the screen as usual, showing vulnerability and honor, but more often making us laugh at his arrogance, vanity, and world-weary cynicism. Having seen it for the first time on the big screen (as a remastered print, no less), I can offer only speechless awe. Food for the mind, yes, but one of the few times I will recommend a film for its sense of fun and adventure alone.
Obviously anything with Christy Canyon or Jenna Jameson would top an honest list, but we’re not necessarily talking about good sex here, or even straightforward eroticism. Reducing sex to its essential elements — raw force, power, need — is the name of the game, and Last Tango in Paris does it best, as I doubt anyone alive or dead has ever been turned on by Marlon Brando’s bare ass. There is something brutally honest about what Paul and Jeanne do in that dank apartment, and at no point is the act of intercourse meant to be joyful. A reminder of why one is alive? Perhaps. A fleeting grasp at reality when so much else has fallen away? Probably. A way to experience carnal bliss without risk and fear of exposure? Absolutely. Anonymous sex no doubt appeals to most people, and what better way to reveal the inner tortures of one’s mind than through a captive audience of one that arrives without judgment? The scenes without Paul are, admittedly, stilted and dull, but I imagine that director Bernardo Bertolucci intended them as such, so as to point out that Paul’s world was not perverse or sick, merely sad. And, most importantly, it is more truthful that any other relationship we see in the film.
I could be pretentious and select Truffaut’s Day for Night (as good as it is), but I’d rather nominate Ed Wood, if only because I admire the hell out of him. He was untalented, deluded, and more than likely disturbed, but his determination would inspire even the most hardened cynic. As played by Johnny Depp, Wood is a true believer; describing his schlock as “inspired” and “captivating,” even though we know he’s merely pasting together cheesy 50s sci-fi flicks. Filmed in crisp black and white and never played for cheap laughs (in that director Tim Burton doesn’t wish to mock Wood), it brings out remarkable performances from Oscar-winner Martin Landau, Bill Murray, and real-life pedophile Jeffrey Jones as the ridiculous Criswell. But as a film about film, we are literally in the trenches with Wood and his gang of fools — whoring for dollars, casting calls, script changes, crises on the set, hunting for props, and finding a way to stumble to the big premiere. Above all, the film holds a genuine reverence for the craft; not romanticizing a hack like Wood by saying he’s on par with Hitchcock or Kubrick, but showing the proper respect for the process, and the struggles all of us face in trying to do it “our way.”
Does a film need to feature endless bloodletting in order to qualify, or can the sweet release come near the end, after not really appearing at all? In Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, death only comes to a single character, yet it haunts the proceedings in as powerful a fashion as I’ve ever seen. It’s in the form of a picture, representing a young woman’s husband lost to war; it’s in the eyes of an aging patriarch as he watches his comforting routine quietly slip away; and it’s in the unspoken fears of the children, who resent their parents for acting as physical reminders that the big sleep comes to us all. The story of an aging couple and their ungrateful children has the makings of a sappy melodrama, but Ozu never shows his hand, preferring subtlety and ritual rather than frequent explosions of drama. There are so many memorable scenes — all shot with the standard, defiantly still, low angle — and yet they sneak by you as an overbearing voice telling you how to feel is conspicuously absent. And when we reach the end, and a character we have come to understand so well faces the remainder of his days with acceptance and grace, we don’t have to be told that he’s shattered. True talent lets us find the emotion for ourselves; and it’s there.
Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, his best film, is the grandest of all morality plays, largely because it insists that such a thing doesn’t even exist, except as an external, man-made threat that can be discarded at will. If an individual isn’t bothered by murder, for example, and has managed to elude the authorities, then he has truly gotten away with it. There is no God to punish our transgressions, and one’s conscience — seemingly indestructible — is remarkably pliable in the face of humiliation or exposure. The murder angle is Martin Landau’s story, although Woody throws in a comic subplot, which in its own way is as tragic as the “crime” of the title. There, we watch an otherwise sensible woman (Mia Farrow, who could only have sensibility forced upon her by a screenplay) wed an insincere narcissist (Alan Alda) rather than adhere to principle. Therefore, we usually choose what is expedient and comfortable rather than what is “right,” although the film isn’t willing to declare absolutes in a Biblical fashion. In many ways, then, deliberately falling in love with a man who covets Emmy awards is more reprehensible than knocking off one’s mistress. And so it is.
Is this possible? Aren’t we usually forced to choose between hateful, homoerotic flesh feasts like The Passion of the Christ and dull, heinously overlong pageants such as The Ten Commandments? In the case of 1997’s The Apostle, one of the few films even touching on religious belief that would be acceptable to stone-cold atheists, the intent is not to promote or endorse, or even show that redemption through the Lord is a good thing, but rather present a character — flawed, imperfect, horny, and yet true to his beliefs, as loony as they might be — and the people he meets. Small Southern towns are revolting to the eyes and ears, and actor/director Robert Duvall thankfully doesn’t romanticize the “little man.” Instead, he shows a man on the run, trying to earn a little money to survive, but just as committed to continue working at the only thing that has ever really made him happy. Duvall understands that it is better to portray these people as they are, not as he wants them to be, and as such we get the entire picture — the charm, the enthusiasm, and the humor, as well as the loneliness and pain. And despite the fact that I’ll never set foot in a church unless I’m hand delivering a Molotov cocktail, I was captivated by the scenes of worship. These people might be off their rockers, but I’ll be damned if they don’t put on one helluva show. I might find little but brainlessness next to godliness, but I’d be a shallow critic indeed if I didn’t recognize a great character study.