Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Written by Kōbō Abe
Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
Hiroshi Teshigahara was the son of an ikebana master (the art of flower arranging). This craft informed Teshigahara’s work as he was intentional and meticulous about filmmaking. He would eventually shift from narrative to documentary in the 1970s. In 1980, his father died, and Teshigahara assumed the position of headmaster at the ikebana school his father had run. He would focus on creating stunning bamboo art installations, eventually moving on to calligraphy and ceramics. Such an eclectic life is inevitably going to produce unique, incredible art. Woman in the Dunes is precisely that: a strange masterpiece that uses a deceptively simple situation to examine human existence.
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The Greasy Strangler (2016)
Written by Toby Harvard and Jim Hosking
Directed by Jim Hosking
What makes a film successful? The most common metric we use to measure success would be box office returns. However, there are plenty of movies that we consider works of art that were not tremendously financially successful. It doesn’t matter because we value them for artistic merits rather than economic ones. So, where do you place a movie like The Greasy Strangler? I had to give it five stars on Letterboxd because it does accomplish what the director set out to do. From that perspective, it unsettles and provokes shocked laughter, precisely what Jim Hosking is going for. Your specific taste in art may not mesh with Hosking’s, it likely will not, but you can’t say his film failed to deliver on his goals in the making.
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Written & Directed by Robert Bresson
In the early days of cinema, movies were just filmed as stageplays. Over time, filmmakers came to develop a language of film, understanding that the camera could be moved closer or further away from the performers. There could also be cuts to different places or flashbacks in time. Today all of these things seem standard, but they are part of a craft and had to be developed. Robert Bresson was a French director who worked to break away from the performance-centered model of filmmaking and refocus on the techniques. He saw that many movies were just someone aiming the camera at a performance but not really saying anything through the craft. He came to refer to his actors as models, implying they were posed by him and more like props in the stories he was attempting to tell. It probably won’t surprise you to learn Bresson had no interest in the acting schools that were coming up in the 20th century, and he hated performances that stole away from the whole picture.
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They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Written by Robert E. Thompson and James Poe
Directed by Sydney Pollack
Capitalism and the constant need to keep working/hustling/grinding feels like it is at a fever pitch. The divide between the Haves and Have Nots has grown in the United States to a historical level, worsened by inflation and stagnant wages. However, a growing number of labor unions are forming, and workers in the service industry are becoming emboldened to stand up for themselves, often collectively. That gives me some hope while I worry the powers that be will undermine these movements every day. All of these events parallel the Great Depression, one of the bleakest periods in American history. People were desperate for food, shelter, and any money they could get. This constant living on the edge of death and survival led to dance marathons, sometimes going on for days or weeks, where couples attempted to remain moving and conscious. The last couple standing would win a cash prize, but along the way, many people would be physically and psychologically harmed by the strain. Writer Horace McCoy was a bouncer during the Depression and witnessed these marathons, which inspired him to write the novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
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The Trial (1962)
Written & Directed by Orson Welles
The legal system doesn’t consistently deliver justice. Since 1989, over 2,400 people have been found to be wrongfully convicted in the United States. Even back amid the first World War, writer Franz Kafka understood the absurdity of the legal system and its accompanying structures. Sadly, he would pass at the young age of 40 in 1924, but a year later, one of his friends would cobble together the fragments of The Trial and posthumously published the text. While Kafka’s final vision for the book will always remain unknown, it was clear he was using it to examine the systems he lived within, particularly how cruel and cold they can be to the ordinary person. Orson Welles would be approached by producer Alexander Salkind to make a film based on a book in the public domain; this was what the director’s eye drifted to. The result is a masterpiece of visual and narrative excellence.
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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Written by Edward Albee & Ernest Lehman
Directed by Mike Nichols
I can’t imagine how shocked audiences were when they saw this movie in 1966. It doesn’t have gratuitous nudity or sex, barely any profanity, no violence or gore. However, it features such bitter, hateful characters that this is a complicated picture to get through even by today’s standards. It wouldn’t be until 1968 that married couples on television would be shown. However, film and theater have always been ahead of the curve in pushing content boundaries. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a couple like this before. The rancor that is already overflowing when the movie begins just explodes. We’re given some moments of reprieve, but they fade quickly when the ceasefire ends, and the games begin again.
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The Last Picture Show (1971)
Written by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
We continue our “The World is Hell” series with this look at decaying rural life in an increasingly industrialized and inhuman America. Peter Bogdanovich has directed one movie, Targets (1966), and was searching for his next film. One day waiting in line at the grocery store checkout, he spied a paperback copy of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. Reading the back cover, he noted it was kids growing up in Texas and didn’t really feel any immediate connection and put it back. Weeks later, actor Sal Mineo shared a copy of the book with Bogdanovich’s then-wife Polly Platt and the director wondered if he wasn’t being led to do something with this text. McMurtry would come on board to help with the screenplay, and the film was shot in his hometown of Archer City in north-central Texas. The combination of this profoundly New York filmmaker and a story of the loss of innocence in Texas would be a perfect match.
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Bicycle Thieves (1948)
Written by Oreste Biancoli, Suso D’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gherardo Gherardi, Gerardo Guerrieri, and Cesare Zavattini
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
The world is hell. But it didn’t just become hell. It’s been that way for a long, long, long time. Right now, the world is experiencing a significant shift in the world order, and when that happens, it is a harrowing experience. There are a lot of unknowns as a result. That uncertainty isn’t unfounded. When we don’t have guarantees about day-to-day life or even year to year, the opportunity for suffering is increased. The privileged pockets of the Western world finally feel this, while the developing world has been perpetually crushed under the boot. Nothing new for them, though they will likely be harmed more by the fallout of this changing of the order. The last time we had such a big shift was the collapse of the Soviet Union, but places like the United States didn’t really miss a beat, and Western Europe was definitely okay. The last time Western Europe went through “hell” was the aftermath of World War II, as large swaths of the region had been absolutely decimated by bombings. This is the world we enter into with Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.
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