Monday, January 9, 2012
I started this because I thought it would be fun, and it was, before it got existential. Am I alone for the rest of my life here? What am I going to want on a desert island? Pure escapist pleasure or challenging stuff to keep my mind sharp? Would tragedy have any use? Would I want to remember romance or would it be too painful? Wouldn’t nostalgia be that much worse alone forever? Should I find the ten films with the most survival potential? Or the ten longest films to provide the most distraction? Maybe the ten that would inspire me most to achieve whatever I could achieve on this island? So I guess that’s my state of mind, right now, but it can be partly blamed on a cold, partly blamed on cold medicine, and the rest chalked up to midnight.
This all started with Matt Zoller Seitz's post, so I'm going by his rules, 10 features, 1 short, and 1 TV season. I don’t know how I settled on my choices, but from my combination of adventure pulp, gay films, romantic tragedy, and the rest, I guess I’d say my desert island films are united in that they excite my imagination. I stayed away from the really depressing films but nothing here is pure relaxation, either. Move along, therapists. Nothing to see here.
Short film: “Un chant d’amour” by Jean Genet – 1950
Speaking of exciting my imagination, my short slot goes to this 25-minute drooling over ripped dudes in (and out of) wife-beaters. What? It's art. Runners up: “Partie de campagne,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
Television season: The Twilight Zone Season 1 – 1959-60
I could have easily gone with Freaks and Geeks or Arrested Development Season 2, but in the end I needed the variety of The Twilight Zone. Which is also why I settled on that first season, not its most consistent but one with such varied highs: the wistful power of “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby,” the fun mindfucks of “Where is Everybody?” and “The Hitch-Hiker,” the sweet pulp stories “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” and “The Lonely,” the hard, cool pulp “Judgment Night” or “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” and classics like “Time Enough at Last” and “The After Hours.” Who needs one thirteen-hour epic when you can have a little space story and a little cowboy story and a little war story and a little ghost story all in one stream of consciousness? [Caveat: I may have to switch to Season 3 once I fill in my viewing gaps there. Stronger overall, just less wild variety.]
1. L’Atalante by Jean Vigo – 1934
My list starts off surprisingly romance-heavy, and they’re all French and moody. You could almost say my first three films cover each other, but really, they each stake out subtly different territory of the forlorn romantic longing that apparently I can’t live without. First up, the masterpiece of the ‘30s, Jean Vigo’s Sunrisey capital-R Romance starring a tempestuous Jean Daste. Wickedly funny and emotionally overwhelming, not even Remorques could surpass the power of L’Atalante, but not to worry, Gremillon fans . . .
2. Gueule d’amour by Jean Gremillon – 1937
Ever since last summer’s Jean Gabin day on TCM, I haven’t been able to get this one (or several others) out of my head, a vivid, stirring romance—and the even deeper male friendship—decorated with the pulp flair of the French Foreign Legion. I’ve seen Casablanca plenty. For eternity, I’d rather have this new treasure to pore over.
3. La ronde by Max Ophuls – 1950
I nearly left off Ophuls—at the last minute I cut The Third Man only because I’ve seen it enough already—but I couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life without Ophuls’ ostentatiously swooping romances. And this one’s got, like, 12 for the price of one. Like many of my desert island movies, this isn’t my favorite, but it’s the kind of rapturous pleasure I’ll need, from tragifantastic turn-of-the-century Vienna to the comical flourishes, from the wistful longing to the bittersweet endings, and of course the ringmaster, standing off to the side to remind us that life goes on but that doesn’t take anything away from the euphoria of careless love.
4. Touch of Evil by Orson Welles – 1958
Here’s a film I’d take purely for the artistry. I love Kane and Ambersons and The Trial and Chimes at Midnight and—literally—every feature Welles directed, but stuck on a desert island, I’d most want Touch of Evil at my side. The delirious black-and-white photography, that recurring jingle, the audacious camerawork, the spellbinding performances, Welles and Dietrich and Leigh forever preserved in their grungy bordertown carnival. Of all Welles’ films, the one I think I’d never tire of is Touch of Evil.
5. Day of the Outlaw by Andre de Toth – 1959
I knew I was taking a rip-roaring western already, but I also wanted something more subdued, moodier. I contemplated The Gunfighter, Pursued, and Winchester ’73, but eventually Day of the Outlaw won out. Not only is it gorgeously snowbound and thoughtfully directed by Andre de Toth, who even manages indoor wide shots that reduce characters to actors in a power struggle, but it thoroughly rejects the myth of redemptive violence. Anthony Mann couldn’t even pull that off.
6. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Sergio Leone – 1966
The only slam-dunk I had was this epic, as much for the film as for the memory of first discovering it, each new stop on our journey through this mythical landscape invigorating me to the point that I stopped halfway through just to prolong my ecstasy. Nowadays it’s my comfort food, my rainy day movie, the world I most frequently revisit. If I could just have one desert island movie, it’d be The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
7. Raiders of the Lost Ark by Steven Spielberg – 1981
If I hadn’t seen Only Angels Have Wings for the first time last year, that might be my pick for pure ‘30s adventure. But as it is, I’m going with the one I grew up with, the globe-trotting hero’s journey that isn’t a narrative but a storyboard of vintage travel posters. Come to exotic South America, land of the mystical Hovitos! Cool off in the mighty Himalayas! Explore the pyramids in fabulous Cairo! Not to discredit the artistry of Spielberg (or Ford for that matter), but what I love most about Raiders is the fantasy.
8. The Big Lebowski by Joel & Ethan Coen – 1997
I could almost go with ten Coen films (or at least find room for True Grit or A Serious Man or No Country or . . . ) but at the very least, I must have my favorite comedy. Nothing like The Big Lebowski to unwind with after a hard day, and I’m pretty sure desert islands are full of those. Plus, what an interesting world they built, not just around the slacker bowlers and the wealthy lowlifes but the stranger narrator, too. The sheer imagination could keep me inspired. One stipulation: I demand this come on the DVD with that fake TCM-style intro about restoring it from an Italian print of Il Grande Lebowski. Talk about setting the mood.
9. Beau travail by Claire Denis – 2000
It was a tough call between this and 35 Shots of Rum—no way am I leaving without one of Denis’ impressionistic portraits—but in the end, hot, young, shirtless guys won out. But it’s not all prurient. Beau travail has the skeleton of "Billy Budd," by one of my favorite authors—we haven’t even broached desert island literature!—not to mention nearly silent performances pointing to some big ideas about social organization and repression and geopolitics. Above all, there’s Claire Denis, elegantly weaving together this deceptively small look at French legionnaires in Djibouti with cinematographer Agnes Godard, the first of her brilliant string of fable-myth-photo-essays that continues still today.
10. I’m Not There by Todd Haynes – 2007
More and more, I’m Not There is becoming my favorite film from my favorite film year in the 21st century. I love the cerebral stuff about truth and language and the layers of commentary. I love the purely emotional stuff like the Vietnam montage and the “I Want You” meet-cute and the “Going to Acapulco” concert. I love the Dylan songs, especially the ones I don’t normally listen to, and the performances. But most of all, I love the mystery. I’m Not There is what you make of it. Attention will be rewarded; mindless surfing, too. I’m Not There has it all.
I wish I had found room for at least one soothing, meditative film, say, a Malick or Apichatpong or Tsai, but when push came to shove, I opted for films that spur me to action rather than calm me. Other painful cuts: Certified Copy, Almost Famous, Mulholland Dr., Rancho Notorious, Midnight, Shanghai Express, La bandera, Pepe le Moko, The Red Shoes, Vampyr, Last Year at Marienbad, and Summer Hours. Now when do I get to move in?
Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 4:00 AM