Better than BFI’s Top 100: 10-8

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


10) Don’t Look Now (1973), directed by Nicolas Roeg

As a mystery in English, I’m not sure there’s another picture that compares to Don’t Look Now until Mulholland Drive, and even then those two movies take such different approaches to solving mysteries that I don’t love the comparison. Perhaps a better one, with that sense of completion and explanation in mind, is the movie that Don’t Look Now is a successor to: Vertigo. In either case those are heady and well-earned partners, and what all three of them have in common is a willingness to let us step outside reality in order to make the viewer catch up. In Vertigo, there’s a brightly colored dream sequence which is a little odd-looking sixty years later, but also a searing couple minutes. The mind reels with possibility: Scottie is going mad, surely, but is it possible that there’s something supernatural at play, some catching insanity that spread from Madeline to himself? In Mulholland Drive, the madness is simply “the final third of the movie.” But Don’t Look Now does it the best, I think, and it’s so perfect that I despair of ever seeing it done this well again. John (the perpetually underrated Donald Sutherland) has decided to stay on in Venice and finish the restoration of an old chapel while his wife, Laura (arguably Britain’s most important cinematic actress, Julie Christie), returns home to Britain to check in on their son. Their time in Venice has been mixed, to be sure. They’ve had some profoundly intimate sex, which sounds trite but which is shot not to titillate us but to characterize the depth of the feeling they still have for each other. (Can’t wait to reel in all the clicks from “don’t look now sex scene.”) Alternately, the Baxters have been grieving for a little daughter who drowned, whose body was pulled out of the lake by John himself. Laura’s chance meetings with a medium have opened her hopes again to the possibility of communicating with her daughter; John has been deeply skeptical of this budding relationship. In any event, having undergone a seance in which her daughter’s spirit warned that her father was in serious danger in Venice, Laura is gone. Unquestionably she is gone. The scaffolding practically explodes underneath John while he’s working, and he cheats death in a harrowing scene which mostly involves him hanging on for dear life. Unquestionably this is the danger from the seance, if John even believed in seances. So why does he continue seeing a little person in a red coat wandering around Venice, about the same size and about the same red as the coat his daughter was wearing when he pulled her body from the water? Even worse: why does he see Laura in Venice when he knows she’s gone? That first shot where we see Laura, stern-faced, all in black, standing tall and still at the bow of a little boat, is deeply unsettling for us. Don’t Look Now has given us the sensual over and over again, and at this point in the movie we have reason to trust our senses. John, whose job description calls for knowledge and technique and attention to the minutest detail and grandest edifice alike, has never doubted his senses. But when he sees Laura and then calls home and gets her on the phone in England, something is wrong. His senses have failed, which means our senses as an audience have been fooled, and that’s why people call Don’t Look Now a horror movie.

For as much attention as the last few minutes of this movie gets (and boy do those last few minutes deserve our attention!), it seems to me that the first few are equally important, and they do absolutely everything right largely in terms of insinuation. There’s a girl in a red jacket meandering around the grounds of a nice house. A boy furiously pedals his bicycle through the grass, dodging trees as he goes. A woman sits with her face to the fire and her back to her husband as she bounces between giant books. The man has his projector out, going through slides, making closer inspections with a lightbox. Roeg (and frequent collaborator Anthony Richmond, who has the misfortune of being the DP on a movie made by a former DP and thus unlikely to get the credit he deserves) are awfully good about making this wet afternoon look just that, but also keeps it from appearing drab or depressing. It’s the distance that makes us wonder, the distance between husband and wife and all the furniture and pillars and whatnot that get in the way. It’s the distance between the girl and her brother as he checks his bicycle; he’s just gone OTB and he wants to make sure the bike is okay, but his back is to the sister who is more than running distance away from anything bad happening. Still the connections are there. The red coat the girl wears is the red of the ball that lands in a little patch of water; the red coat the girl wears is echoed in a picture of a parishioner sitting in the pew in the church, which runs when the slide gets wet. Then all the connections, all the cross-cutting and general sense that something isn’t right even when nothing’s really wrong, shines through. John runs outside. The ball is there. He falls into the pond—it’s much deeper than we’ve imagined—and the red on the slide begins to move of its own volition, seemingly against gravity. The red of the coat appears out of the pond in multiple slow shots. It’s all connected for us in barely six minutes and with virtually no dialogue of import, and the images we see here matter again and again for the remainder of the picture..

9) Naked (1993), directed by Mike Leigh

When I wrote about this movie a couple years ago, I was significantly less familiar with the concept of being “redpilled” than I am now. I don’t think Johnny would accept the premise that he has been redpilled, because I don’t think he would accept any premise about himself that most other people are willing to accept about themselves. He acts like it, certainly. He is not much of an “ask for permission” type. He just shows up places and tacitly expects to stick around. It’s instructive to watch the way that each of the three women in the apartment he sort of vaguely revolves around react to him. Louise is visibly tired dealing with him, never on solid footing, always forced to counterpunch. Sophie is rapt with him. And when Sandra comes home from her African adventure, she turns out to be the only person who can manage him in any lasting way, and that is by basically ignoring the worst of him. Or, as in the beginning of the movie, he appears to rape a woman and then bails on the entire metropolitan area in response. He’s not like Jeremy, who rapes Sophie and then continues his reign of terror over the flat by simply refusing to leave; maybe this is a statement about Johnny’s conscience, although he’s not likely to lose any kind of battle with Jeremy on that front. Johnny does not simply disagree with people who have not taken his word as gospel: he berates them into silence, if not outright agreement. An onlooker who has fallen under his spell, or at least is sympathetic to this sort of firebrand persuasion, is taken as much by the performance art as by the argument. There are a bunch of scenes where he just rails, revving like a lawnmower hungry to chew up the grass, but none of them are given the effect that a scene with Brian the night watchman is given.

The two of them have already gone from bottom to top of this building together, Johnny keeping this lonely security guard company, such as it is, When they reach this floor, the lights are down, and what has been a reasonably intimate, stairwell-heavy conversation turns into a conversation shot from distance, in darkness. Silhouettes, the taller belonging to Johnny (who I refuse to believe is that much taller than Peter Wight), gesticulate while never quite straying from their marks. Brian believes too much in the future, according to Johnny, although Johnny seems to have given the matter some thought himself. The Book of Revelations, he tells Brian, has predicted barcodes. Wormwood will poison the Earth, too: “chernobyl” is the Russian word for “wormwood.” On August 18, 1999, the planets of the solar system will align in the shape of a cross in what are presumably the four zodiac signs associated with the beasts from Daniel which are supposed to be the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We’re running out of time! he tells Brian. Here’s the thing—and this is why one ought to extremely wary of any man in particular who thinks that one of Johnny’s defining qualities is his intelligence—all of that is pure nonsense. When he shouts it, when the camera shoots him dramatically, when Brian has had some time to be taken in by this raving, unwashed plank of charisma, it all sounds good! That line about “chernobyl” in particular is really a haymaker. But all that Johnny has shown us is that he is more taken by half-possibilities than any sort of fact. One of the great signs that someone doesn’t know their Bible is calling it “Revelations” instead of “Revelation.” Barcodes don’t all include “666.” The etymology of “Chernobyl” translates to “mugwort,” which is synonymous with “wormwood,” but that’s sort of like saying that every time we talk about a “disaster” that’s synonymous with “bad stars.” And so on. Hokum and superstition and their peddlers are as old as humans themselves, but there’s an edge to Johnny’s approach which is ahead of its time and deep within our own.

In the past I’ve compared him to Diogenes, which gives him a too much credit as a thinker. He’s more like one of the Old Testament prophets, one of the fellows whose reports from God scan more as enmity than a warning, who blames the nation and its individual members all at once, who is the only man alive who foresees the doom about to befall these morons.) And like them—Hosea, who married an unfaithful woman on God’s orders—Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale and whose shade was taken away in the desert—Jeremiah, who was thrown into a cistern—Johnny is bound to suffer. We see him beaten on multiple occasions, watch him push the kindness of others to tremendous limits just to have it snap back on himself like a mousetrap. A prophet must not belong to any place, to any person. He must continue forth into the wilderness, which is why at the end of this movie, too hurt to walk, Johnny limp-jumps monstrously through an empty street to go to the next place. It’s a brilliant choice by Leigh and Thewlis to make this hop-pogo-lurch so performative. Either people who are hurt this badly don’t walk under their own power, or Johnny is hoping someone is watching from a window and will feel bad for him. His catchphrase, sort of like Jesus’ “I tell you the truth,” is “Are you with me?” The movie is wise enough to let us figure out that answer for ourselves.

8) The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Heaven knows that not all of W.S. Gilbert’s quips from The Mikado have stood the test of time. If I’ve heard one version of “A More Humane Mikado,” if I’ve heard ten, and nine of them are trying to cover up the use of a really nasty word in the song. That same ugly epithet is in fact in the same stanza of “I’ve Got a Little List,” a song which has one sentiment I admire. Somewhere between deciding he would execute the people who puff peppermint into your face and the ladies who don’t think they dance “but would rather like to try,” Ko-Ko has a surprisingly lucid thought:

Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,

All centuries but this, and every country but his own.

I’m not Steven Pinker, I promise, but something about this sentiment has always rung true for me. In our haste to denigrate our own time, we excessively valorize the past. In our haste to point out the sins of our own nation, we can forget about what our nation does well. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is filled with the prejudices of the early 1940s, and in this British movie made when the outcome of World War II was still uncertain, it is blasé about England’s sins. However, it is not so quiet about England’s foibles and weaknesses in this tremendous time; this movie is famous because Churchill didn’t think it was patriotic enough. Colonel Blimp does not overly criticize its country in a time of crisis, but chooses its spots for maximum effect. What makes this the greatest of Powell and Pressburger’s movies is its incredible deftness in walking a line that is absolutely razor thin: it can define patriotism with nuance. This is a beautifully made movie, but I would say that The Tales of Hoffmann is more advanced, let alone The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus. Anton Walbrook is flawless in this picture, but he is more magnetic in The Red Shoes; the same could be said of Deborah Kerr for Black Narcissus. What makes this a truly exceptional picture are moments which trade flash for potency, like Theo’s explanation of why he’s come to Britain for asylum, or Candy’s sad little epitaph which closes the movie, or a dinner that turns into a debate about how England must move forward in its most pressing hours since the Spanish Armada was broken up. Compared to obsession in The Red Shoes or libido in Black Narcissus, the stakes are just higher in Colonel Blimp. England’s past is as threatened as England’s present; England is far from blameless, but the fires it refuses to allow Germany to extinguish are fires that ought to be kept alight.

Colonel Blimp is at its most lush and exciting when it’s gone to Berlin in 1902, for a headstrong young officer named Clive Candy to pick a fight with a German man who claims that the British committed significant atrocities during the Boer War. Three years later A Matter of Life and Death, once the war was over and it was safe to criticize, made some real jabs at England’s imperialist history (before historically backsliding in Black Narcissus.) In this movie not a peep is said about it unless it is to defend England’s conduct in the Boer War. At one point Candy out-and-out denies the existence of concentration camps; I can’t imagine that particular thrust held up then. There’s certainly less said about the camps and the war crimes once Candy arrives. There’s a woman there, Edith, played by Deborah Kerr by way of Professor McGonagall; Candy is sort of amazed by her but also quite taken by her energy and, presumably, the fact that she looks like Deborah Kerr. He ends up fighting a duel with a similar German officer who feels similarly honor-bound to defend his nation’s pride. (The duel itself is brilliantly kept offscreen; the camera pulls up and away, through a window and into the snowy night; the fight itself is never what mattered, only that the men finally got to meet each other.) It seems like for a young man of means, it would be an awful lot of fun to live in those dashing times, recreated in scenes that emphasize the courtliness of the times, the basically identical perspectives of England and Germany. It is also a time that the movie recognizes is seriously naive, filled with people who have no ability to imagine a pair of world wars, totalitarianism, apocalypse. The people in the present are not necessarily happier, but they are much wiser.

If England is to survive the war with Germany, Clive poses to Theo, then it must win the war by playing fair, the way they did twenty-five years ago. (This is one of the more jingoistic flourishes of the picture, proven by the fact that I don’t expect many high school students in England or France or America would bat an eye hearing it.) Theo is incredulous. Clive, he says, if you think that fighting fair will win against the Nazis, or that restricting yourself to fairness to fight them is noble, then the only way of life will be the Nazi way of life. Theo has always known that Clive has learned the wrong lessons. When they fell in love with the same woman in Germany forty years ago, Theo won her heart. When the British won World War I, they were all so eager to get Germany back on their feet again that they misread how the Germans themselves might have reacted, misunderstood the British proletariat’s lasting distaste for the nation they had fought for four years. (Colonel Blimp didn’t have to do much of the reading because Grand Illusion already did, but it’s so telling that the upper classes in Britain, represented at a dinner party Clive has POW Theo as a guest at, are so cordial and friendly with this German officer.) And when Nazism lands bomb after bomb on British soil after having obliterated the majority of continental Europe, Theo implores Clive to think differently. That war my country lost, he said, had a moral. “But you lost something, too. You forgot to learn the moral.” Clive’s respect for the past—his knowledge that he has a silly mustache for a reason, his regret at not having gone to dinner with an officer who chewed him out—is what has kept him anchored through years of turmoil. Here is the lake, and he still hasn’t changed. But it’s people like Theo who understand the present, who know that the now is just as worthy of preservation as the then.

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