Better than BFI’s Top 100: 40-36

For a brief introduction and a running list of movies covered in this project, click here


40) Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), directed by Nagisa Oshima

A pair of character foils anchor this movie, which lacks the household recognition of Bridge on the River Kwai but which is superior in most aspects. (The music is no exception. Give me Ryuichi Sakamoto’s haunting, gorgeous score over “Colonel Bogey” any day of the week.) Hara and Lawrence, played by Takeshi Kitano and Tom Conti, are the matter-of-fact survivors who have a conscience when it’s affordable. Hara does his duty at the POW camp, which is enough to get him executed after the fighting as a war criminal, even though, as Lawrence agrees, his excesses were not exceptional. (If there is a clear difference between Hara and Lawrence, it’s in their polar opposite levels of understanding about each other’s culture. Lawrence gets why no Japanese soldier with honor would allow himself to be captured; Hara is dumbfounded that he’s helping to run a POW camp at all.) All the same, Hara is the reason why Celliers and Lawrence are not put to death around the Yuletide of ’42; one can imagine him, in a gentler time, as an equally tough but far more humane man. Lawrence is a gadfly to all parties, the only one of the King’s subjects who speaks Japanese or has any understanding whatever of Japanese culture. Naturally this puts him in the difficult position of trying to intercede for the Commonwealth prisoners with the all-powerful Japanese guards while simultaneously needing to explain to his superior, the Nicholson-wannabe Captain Hicksley, that Japanese culture is, surprise, different from whatever performative Englishness he’s brought with him to Java. The gruntwork of the movie belongs to those performances. Hara’s gruff conversations with Lawrence, who in turn acts as a conduit for every meaningful action at the prison camp, are the meat of the movie. And yet for as much work as they do in carrying the plot, there are some tender moments featuring those men. Lawrence tells Celliers a story about the way he learned something about cultures other than his own and the appreciation of people not like himself. Hara bares his soul a little bit to Lawrence when the Brit comes to visit the condemned Japanese, on Hara’s request, on the night before he dies. You were very sure you were right, Lawrence tells Hara, and these men who have condemned you are equally convinced of their own rightness.

The stars, though, shine most brightly on Yonoi and Celliers, played by Sakamoto and David Bowie. Both officers, both lightning rods, both patriots, both showmen, and both filled to the brim with regret. Yonoi’s great wish is that he had been executed along with some brother officers in a failed coup some years before. Celliers, despite his instant status as talisman for his fellow prisoners, cannot forget that he let his beloved younger brother down in a moment of need many years ago, finds himself driven to greater and greater feats of daring. The movie soars with this pair. There are two strands that work well here. The first is the recognition that in wartime the men in charge (and women, obviously, though in this movie it’s really about men) bring their pasts and prejudices to command in ways which can be disastrous for their inferiors. And the second is the recognition that men definitely fall in love with each other during the war. The beginning of the movie features the trial, such as it is, of a Korean guard who tried to have sex with a Dutch prisoner. It ends badly for both men, and there is a scene which brings the brutality of ritual suicide to light in a way I’ve never seen before or since on film. Yonoi’s military way of life, imprinted with the echoes of the samurai, cannot allow for that kind of intention, but it doesn’t stop him from clearly becoming attached to Celliers. The dance the two of them do is ethereal, more felt than said. The scene where Yonoi collapses with indecision after Celliers forces his hand with a pair of kisses is the more famous, but I find Celliers’ escape, aborted by Yonoi wielding his sword, the more potent. Celliers has only a knife, and he throws it down when he sees Yonoi with his symbolic full erection in front of him, daring him to come on, disappointed when he surrenders without a fight.

39) Edward II (1991), directed by Derek Jarman

Perhaps, if Jarman had lived, he might have ultimately turned away from his idiosyncratic, anachronistic, and supreme depictions of the art of bygone times. Maybe there would have been more movies like The Last of England or The Garden or, in inventiveness and audacity, maybe even like Blue. But what his too-short career leaves us peaks here, I think, with a piece in which he is entirely in his element. Edward and Gaveston and Spencer are tortured, ultimately murdered; Mortimer’s soldiers, cops in riot gear, attack member’s of a gay rights group who fight back tooth and nail. Jarman’s allusions to his own time are as clear and brazen as ever, and it’s a good chunk of what makes the king a sympathetic character. He is murdered with that poker in the bowels for several reasons, but Jarman never shies away from showing us the primary reason why. It’s as much a lynching of a gay man in love with another man who cannot understand why he shouldn’t love Gaveston first and foremost and only as it is anything else, and Jarman takes Marlowe’s history play and makes it deeply relevant. The world before photography makes hate crimes mythic for us the hoi polloi rather than quite real, and Edward II uses potent imagery to make clear the horrors done to its queer characters. They don’t always have to be all that likable. Andrew Tiernan’s Gaveston is much the hotheaded, overconfident man that he has come down to be in the legend, sneering when he ought to play nice, and it’s difficult to like him. But Edward, played by Steven Waddington, is a man surrounded by tragedy and played with great sympathy. It would not take much for him to be able to live the life he wants with Gaveston: it would only require him not to be the king, but we’re more than six centuries from Wallis Simpson.

If it’s not gray, then it’s a color that highlights something else. The pure red-orange of the fire which will transitively murder the king is unforgettable, and happily matches up with Tilda Swinton’s hair. (Her performance as Isabella is masterful, growing the queen in confidence as she becomes increasingly comfortable with killing in an attempt to cement her power. She comes a long way from the woman who tries to interest her husband but cannot, or the woman who falls for Gaveston’s words and has no recourse when it turns out he’s making fun of her frigid sex life.) Nigel Terry as Mortimer gets a fair bit of deep blue light associated with him, and it’s a similar blue light which surrounds his troops. He is the cloud cover that suddenly darkens a sunny day, a pall that silences a room. Gold glitters frequently on multiple characters. The gray is special, though, soft and inviting in the right light, as when Edward knights Gaveston. Both of them wear white shirts, and the light behind the throne is warm and pleasing. The world may be stone, but it is a stone world with character, where one can trace the lines familiarly in each wall like thread in a garment. But then later on, with high impressionistic shadows on the wall instead of what looks like daylight, with Edward bowed in grief and frustration rather than radiant with love, we can see the coldness of those walls, and more importantly we can see how close they are, and how much closer they will come.

38) Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), directed by Terry Jones

The phrase “too smart for your own good” is thrown around a lot, and I think it could certainly be leveled at Life of Brian, which is as clever and biting a satire as you could hope for. Brian’s time with the People’s Front of Judea is not tremendously funny, although the social commentary about fractious, impassioned groups works well into the present day. The People’s Front of Judea is most memorable because there’s a running internecine argument about whether or not they should support Stan’s desire to get pregnant; it’s a practical question for Reg of where the fetus is going to go, but for Francis it’s an ideological statement about refusing to stomach any kind of oppression. Much funnier, and definitely scarier is Brian’s first interaction with a crowd who’s chosen him as a divinity. Brian, triumphant after having bedded longtime crush Judith, walks out onto his balcony (such as it is) completely naked. He finds an enormous gathering who with one voice anoint him the Messiah. This might be flattering in other circumstances, but this is, as they say, not the right time. These people will continue to call him Messiah despite the protestations of his mother (“He’s a very naughty boy”), and find miracles where there is only the ordinary (“THEY’RE JUNIPER BUSHES, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT!”), and eventually it’s peer pressure as much as anything else that wears him down. It’s a smart enough lampooning of religious faith—how many times have people waved away something terrible by saying “it’s God’s plan?”—but it reminds me more of QAnon or those other legions of redpilled YouTube nimrods more. This is the intelligent, and the Pythons choose their targets intelligently and then open fire. Terry Jones is essential to these moments. Graham Chapman is much more the main character here than he was in Holy Grail, and it works well. His protestations, louder and more hysterical each time, are part of an arc in which he begins as a fairly mild-mannered chap.

Then there’s stuff like this, where if you sneeze you’ll miss the aliens swooping in to accidentally save Brian from a premature death:

I dunno, maybe this movie doesn’t need a two minute interlude in which Brian miraculously survives falling off a tower and a UFO crash, but like, why shouldn’t it have it? This is the warp to the satire’s woof, and the sheer goofiness is probably as memorable as anything else in this movie. “Biggus Dickus” is every twelve-year-old boy’s entry point into Life of Brian, and it’s just a tremendous bit. What if your life literally depended on not laughing if somebody says “Biggus Dickus” in front of you? The answer I’m afraid a lot of us would have is the answer that a bunch of the Roman soldiers have, which is to hold on tight and then explode with a lethal guffaw. Pontius Pilate’s speech impediment is fabulous, fooled as he is that they could wescue Wodewick, but the movie goes the extra mile with the crowd. Wodewick, a member of the crowd cries, is a wobber! Another calls him a wapist! One woman says he’s a pickpocket, and the disapproval of the rest of the crowd is palpable. Pontius, whose mind appears to be as impaired as his tongue, doesn’t catch on. “He sounds a notowius cwiminal,” he says. The silliness and the wisdom of Life of Brian ends, of course, with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” It’s a great ending. It is so odd, and so fitting, and so cheerful, and so bleak. There’s a kernel of good counsel in the lyrics, which know that “life’s a piece of shit,” but argues that we ought to keep our chin up and bear what we can. Meanwhile, the last shot before the credits looks out on a hill filled with crosses; by any standard this is a bad way for Brian to have ended up. This is cognitive dissonance at its funniest and most arresting.

37) The Servant (1963), directed by Joseph Losey

The flat that Tony fills with his junk, first in the form of furniture and then later in the form of his psyche, is a claustrophobic little joint. There are mirrors everywhere, a fact that Losey uses again and again to disorient us or to make a point. There’s a shot in here that most directors would give their left arms to steal. Clearly enraptured by Vera, Tony stands a few steps away from her, but his reflection in a mirror puts his body teasingly close to her. Nor is Losey shy about placing some furniture or installation in front of characters to push us away from them. This sounds silly, but it matters so much that this apartment has two stories and a thick, bulky staircase separating the floors (“upstairs downstairs”). So often we’ll see someone above shouting at someone below, as Susan does to Barrett, guarded by the rail and firing her words like bullets at the manservant below. But then again, one of the better scenes in the movie puts Tony and Barrett together on those stairs, in real conflict as the battle goes on about who will be the real master and who will defer. It makes an early scene in the picture, where Barrett wades through that junk while it’s still mostly packed, a little eerie. Tony is at ease in this place, asleep in a chair. His comfort turns out to be carelessness; he cannot imagine that this man standing over him will do just that by the time all is said and done. How sexual this encounter will become is a matter of some conjecture, which I imagine has everything to do with when the movie was made and therefore is an accidental advantage, but the language of dominance and submission is the kind of thing that falls neatly in this line. It’s there from the beginning, the subtle controls that Barrett puts on him, the transgressions that Tony has neither the capability nor will to punish. Tony’s anchorlessness—the girl he’s not terribly interested in, the distant business plans that are on life support, England’s spring into the swinging ’60s—is the sort of thing that Barrett must see he can take advantage of from this interview.

The ultimate shift in power between the idle rich and the supposed underlings becomes inexorable even before Vera enters the picture. Barrett offers Tony Vera’s services as a maid, which Tony assents to without a whole lot of pushback. Another rung on the ladder is attained, and Vera’s actual arrival throws Tony. Susan is thin, plain. The stem of a nagger is in there, in her dismissive tone towards Barrett. (Whether or not her approach would work better on Barrett than Tony’s ill-conceived laissez-faire way is doubtful, but the force she carries herself with couldn’t be less effective than what Tony does.) There’s a scene in a restaurant where she’s smoking a cigarette, and she seems old enough to be an older sister or an aunt. It’s the posture of the cigarette smoker who was jostled once too often in the department store, who is making a roast later. Alternately, Vera surprises Tony when she first meets him. Unannounced and anonymous to him, she comes into his room while he’s still in bed, undressed, and deposits his breakfast. He is on the wrong foot. She is the future, wearing a bold cat eye that Susan could never pull off, attired in simpler clothing which is modest but still leaves little to the imagination. Barrett uses his “sister” as his first roundhouse kick; she is the magician’s assistant to a T, and most of the tricks that Barrett performs use her as the distraction. We’re not incestuous: Vera is my fiancee, not my sister. Vera left me and took my money, please take me back. Tony falls for it even though it’s obviously false, and when Vera does arrive once more at the flat after so many of Barrett’s protestations, the knockout blow is as absolutely certain.

36) Bad Timing (1980), directed by Nicolas Roeg

Towards the beginning of the movie, Milena is excited about something her psychiatrist boyfriend Alex has for her. She wants it now, jumping up and down with excitement. They go to his car, which is this sporty little orange thing, and he murmurs that they really have to do the test on a neutral surface. Happily the car next to his is that off-white you see on cars, and she lays out the color panels to take her Luscher test: red, yellow, green, blue, orange, black, gray, brown. Alex takes notes. He must be translating this. Her basic colors are totally separate from her auxiliary colors. Red and yellow—action, passion, spontaneity, verve, sex—move her. Green and blue—peace, contentment, self-control—are her current mindset. Orange and black—too much life, not enough life—are on the back burner, far away from her. Gray and brown—reticence, withdrawal, sensitivity—are out-and-out ignored. In short, Milena wants an adventure, and she wants it with Alex. Bad Timing is, even for Nicolas Roeg, a masterpiece of color, which is part of the reason that this seemingly random reference to the Luscher test is so wonderful. Aside from its obvious power in characterization, it foreshadows how certain colors will burn through the movie. Milena’s aviators are a purple gradient, one stripe of which is the same color as her violet sheets which will play such a role in the drama. The light of hospitals and hallways is depressingly fluorescent, and it reflects on the dark blood which swells out of Milena’s throat when she gets her emergency tracheotomy. But then there are scenes which are bathed in den light or in the muted tones of lovers entwined.

Alex’s face during Milena’s rapidfire completion of the Luscher test is muted, too. What color would he choose first? What order would they go in? Orange, for the sexual drive he can’t hide? Gray, for his desire to have no responsibility for anyone or anything. So many times someone asks him a question and his response is, “You tell me,” or “Say whatever you want.” The structure of the movie itself allows him to recede into the background. Cuts back and forth across time that aren’t anchored for much of the picture, key moments that highlight Milena’s unpredictability and instability rather than what’s wrong in him, flashes of Milena’s husband she can’t bring herself to divorce with no corollaries in his past affairs. Alex works from an incredible position of power in this relationship, which only goes to make her more erratic and him more dismissive. He can’t have enough of her; he can’t give enough of himself. Art Garfunkel the non-actor is marvelously cast in this role because everything he says seems a little off, somehow wrong. He’s never quite convincing, which is either a limit to Garfunkel’s performance or proof of a heretofore unknown virtuoso. The effect is the same, and what comes off as neurotic in the early goings proves to be out-and-out disease in the final stretch.

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