Tongues Untied (1989)

Tongues Untied

“In this great, gay Mecca, I was an invisible man. I had no shadow, no substance, no place, no history, no reflection. I was an alien unseen and seen unwanted.”

There’s a power surging through Tongues Untied. It demands the attention of its viewer, and it is successful through the use of wondrous poetry and compelling images of the gay black experience in America. It’s a concise but important film that addresses a severely underrepresented topic in cinema, and it does so in a beautifully personal way.

The film is mostly comprised of either poetry or anecdotes from gay black men recounting their experiences. These narrations are complemented by video footage, typically recreating or poetically representing the narration itself. It’s another documentary/poetry video similar to my last watch Koyaanisqatsi, although the films are hardly similar beyond that point. While Reggio was seeking a grander, more philosophical experience about the human condition, Tongues Untied director Marlon Riggs is far more “micro”, using the personal as political.

The movie is surprising in a lot of ways. It’s clearly a low-budget, small-team passion project with its low-fi camera quality and its scarce collection of actors, but this only enhances the movie. It feels like something you’d stumble upon on an old VHS tape, as if it were made for the smaller, more intimate viewing experience. There are also several pieces of footage in the film that surprised me, namely an old Eddie Murphy stand-up clip that is very dated and homophobic: highlighting the complicated issue of identifying as both black and gay in America where discrimination seems to come from everywhere.

The poetry is well-written and emphatically spoken. Although the movie can get repetitive in its structure, it never seems boring due to the passion behind every word. There’s touching imagery and a mastery of the English language from every speaker, willing the audience to sympathize with the hardships expressed. The movie is also sexually charged, with an unapologetic display of lust and love in a number of the stories, which was really great to see.

Tongues Untied is short (around 50 minutes) but undeniably significant. It uses hard-hitting cinematic techniques to build a powerful, often sensual plea for love and respect. It’s an excellent example of the power of the cinematic art.


Films Left to Watch: 837

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Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Koyaanisqatsi

“It’s not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.” -Godfrey Reggio, director

Scored by Philip Glass and completely without narration, Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental documentary that explores the imbalance of the world: how humans have grown apart from nature and built a separate way of living. While it’s somewhat unorthodox (although still very accessible), I found it to be an insightful work of visual poetry that lands its message clearly and beautifully.

The first portion of the film glorifies the wonders of nature. Director Godgrey Reggio mostly uses landscapes or other wide-shots that he will employ for most of the film, giving it a very “macro” feeling. He’s mostly uninterested in the nuances of a person’s life or the wings of a particularly butterfly. His scope is the world, both natural and unnatural. The second portion of the film moves into the postmodern human condition: the hustle of city living and the machines we’ve built from nature. Towards the very end, we get the implications of this disconnect: a sad series of images documenting the despair that often goes along with our way of living.

I claimed that the movie is accessible because it still feels like a familiar work of poetry. The only thing strange about it as a documentary is that it doesn’t use narration (not completely uncommon) and it has a grander, more philosophical intent. Reggio builds his case using images, and he selects them wonderfully. His landscapes and cityscapes are so impressive that you won’t just ponder the imbalance of man and nature, you’ll be reminded how beautiful the world can be sometimes.

Philip Glass is invaluable to the film’s distinct mood. I found myself audbily laughing at the fun, zippy tunes of quick urban life and “hmm”-ing at the more somber moments of reflection. Reggio clearly worked closely with Glass to match image with music, because the movie seamlessly sways you from one reaction to the next without ever feeling heavy-handed. I imagined the movie would be sadder when I read the synopsis, and it is sad, but there are moments of joy, wonder, and impassioned observance of the world that really make it more dynamic than it seems. The music also has this beautiful symmetry, beginning with a deep, lulling chant of the film’s title and ending with the very same in a different context, suggesting a powerful unity between man and nature despite the disconnect.

It may take five or ten minutes to really get on board, but by the end of the film, you’ll be lulled into a wondrous appreciation for the world around us and Reggio’s measured talent as a documentarian. I felt more like I was reviewing fine literature than work of film, and that’s something I love about films like this: their poetic hold on the cinematic medium. For a thoughtful, meditative experience, I would certainly recommend Koyaanisqatsi.


Films Left to Watch: 838

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The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Passion of Joan of Arc

“You claim that I am sent by the Devil. It’s not true. To make me suffer, the Devil has sent you… and you… and you… and you.”

Some films are bathed in magic. I first heard about this movie about a year ago when I heard its incredible story: that the only original print of The Passion of Joan of Arc was destroyed in a fire, until Dreyer’s actual original (before censorship) was recovered in a mental institution in Oslo. It’s an entrancing tale for an entrancing film: a spiritually charged tour de force from the legendary Carl T. Dreyer.

The movie depicts Joan of Arc’s final hours. She is interrogated by a slew of religious officials who implore her to denounce her self-proclaimed miracles. In one of the greatest performances in cinema’s history, however, she refuses. Renee Jeanne Falconneti weeps and argues her way from an uncomfortable interrogation to a fiery death in a jarring affirmation of faith.

I once argued that Sunrise is the finest silent film: one with enough artistry to rise above its silly contemporaries and to rival any film that has since followed. I would now throw The Passion of Joan of Arc into the discussion as well. It’s more experimental than Sunrise, and I think the payoff is greater as a result, even if it’s a hair less entertaining for me. That said, it’s a brisk film. You’ll probably spend more time pondering Dreyer’s formal choices than anything about Joan of Arc, and the movie is short enough to reward you for doing so. You could take a “film school” reading of the movie without sinking too much of your time away.

In any case, you’ll notice right away that 90% of the film is shot in close up. It makes for one of the most personal movies you’ll ever see, and it would seem like a poor decision if it weren’t for Falconneti. Her eyes are the key to the movie. Every teardrop is heartbreaking, and it’s like you can hear every shriek through the screen. The movie is acted over-dramatically, as silent films always are, but it has the humanity that these other spectacles laugh. Häxan is entertaining, but it’s not human. Joan of Arc feels human. I kept waiting to get tired of all the close ups, but I just found myself wanting more. Every second Falconneti fills the frame, it’s cinematic bliss, and Dreyer takes full advantage of this talent.

It’s not really my niche, but I still found myself glued to my humble TV screen during this movie, which begs to be seen on a bigger screen. It’s one of cinema’s greatest treasures in my opinion, and I’d really recommend the Criterion release for what it’s worth. (In case you’re curious where to start, I watched the movie at 24 fps with the Voices of Light score, and I found it very affecting. I’m curious to try a different score in the future, maybe at 20fps as well.)


Films Left to Watch: 839

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Hoop Dreams (1994)

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“My mother, God bless her, she’s always said in America you can make something of your life.”

There’s nothing like a fine documentary, and Hoop Dreams is one of the finest. The premise hooked me right away. I often wonder about all the young people in America with dreams of playing big-league athletics. I saw it constantly in middle and high school, and I’ve always wondered what it’s like to hit a point where you realize you just aren’t going to “make it.” Hoop Dreams hits this question, and many others, in such a powerful, ambitious way by following the stories of two young men through their high school years. I hate basketball, and I loved this movie.

The film leads into its two subjects, juveniles in Chicago with dreams of playing in the NBA, by starting from as far back as time will seem to allow. A man recruits young pick-up ball players to attend the well-known St. Joseph High School for basketball. The two heroes of our story, William Gates and Arthur Agee, hope to end up like the NBA great Isaiah Thomas who started at St. Mary’s in a similar circumstance. We then follow their struggles and passion for ball all the way to their college selection process.

I like to think in statistics, and Hoop Dreams really helped me see what a gamble it is to become a great basketball player. Talent is an obvious factor, but countless other complications seemed to serve as roadblocks for Gates and Agee. Financial aid failing to come through, sporadic injuries taking away months of practice, and countless other random occurrences served as tiny tragedies on the road for these two boys to chase their dreams. In a way, Hoop Dreams feels like a classic American tragedy: the basketball equivalent of Death of a Salesman, if you will. I’ve always believed that making a career out of athletics was mostly a meritocracy, but now I’m not so sure.

Director Steve James also has a beautiful eye for context. Everyone’s story gets told: Gates and Agee’s families, their friends, the basketball coaches – everyone has a dream. It’s a wonderful scope that drags the movie past the three hour mark, but it’s worth it. It elevates Hoop Dreams from an insightful film about achieving greatness to an epic evaluation of the American dream.

I imagine that this movie rings true for anyone who once dreamed of playing major-league athletics, but it will likely resonate to anyone who ever dreamed. It’s a moving, profoundly honest portrayal of the hardships we face in the hopes that we might become something special, and what happens when our delusions inevitably fade.

Seriously, this movie is beautiful, and you have to see it.


Films Left to Watch: 840

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Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead

“I ‘ought to drag you out there and feed you to those things.”

I think the remarkable thing about Night of the Living Dead, the first great zombie movie, is that it digs so deep; it’s hardly a movie about zombies at all. Every review or essay takes a different approach to breaking apart its careful, nihilistic tension, taking a different stab at what Romero is saying about the world. He’s confessed that the rebellious spirit of the 60s found its way into the movie, and it adds a richness that great horror should always strive to achieve.

The dead are – uh – walking, and it’s up to Ben (Duane Jones) to stop them. Well, he mostly just wants to stay alive. He boards up a house where he is joined by a handful of strangers trying to achieve the same goal. In a struggle for power inside the house, Ben and Harry (Karl Hardman) find themselves at odds, and Ben finds that his biggest threat may just be the living.

I’ve written numerous times about my love for single-setting films, and this movie largely fits the bill, with little deviation from the barred-up house where the characters take refuge. I’ll reiterate what a fun character study this creates, like a game theory problem where everyone wants something and thinks their ideas are the best in the room. The movie reads more like 12 Angry Men than The Walking Dead, and it’s all the better for it. There’s this tinge of discomfort, of pieces not quite fitting, and it makes for some of the most unsettling scenes horror has to offer.

Sometimes I spoil endings and sometimes I don’t. It’s probably a bad habit, and I should just make a decision one way or the other. Part of me thinks if you haven’t seen a 50 year-old movie, you’re on your own avoiding spoilers. Part of me, though, also doesn’t want to spoil anything about the ending to Night of the Living Dead. For this reason, I’ll just say that it got me. It’s a knockout, gut-punch ending that rings true in a somber, surprising way.

After one viewing, Night of the Living Dead has carved a place among my favorites. A lot of movies are beloved for establishing genre tropes, but this movie doesn’t just establish them, it does them better than anyone while also subverting them in a discomforting way. It’s creepy, consuming, and loads of sinister fun.


Films Left to Watch: 841

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Rebecca (1940)

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“He had a theory that if you should find one perfect thing, or place or person, you should stick to it. Do you think that’s very silly?”

Rebecca snatches from a lot of classic literature in true Gothic style. At times, I felt I was reading Jane Eyre, with its mysterious, brooding man elevating a girl of charming lower class through marriage, only for her to find he has kept dark secrets. So, then, I also felt as though I was watching A Place in the Sun (based on a classic 1925 novel), with its desperate plea for a happy ending, even though the past has yet to catch up with its protagonist. Rarely did I feel like I was watching Psycho or North by Northwest, although I was just as entertained, speaking to Hitchcock’s mastery of cinematic storytelling.

A charming but naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine) finds work in Monte Carlo where she meets the handsome aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). They fall in love and marry, only for the newly titled “Mrs. de Winter” to find that she is constantly compared to Maxim’s former wife, the original “Mrs. de Winter.” Everyone in the manor seems to question the new wife’s place as a housekeeper, especially the cold, calculating housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) who seems to be undermining Mrs. de Winter at ever turn, furious at her attempt to replace a woman she deemed superior.

The central theme is duality of identity, and its repercussions. The protagonist is only named Mrs. de Winter, while the original Mrs. de Winter is granted a first name. Meanwhile, Mr. de Winter has a handful of first names, rattling them off jokingly as if he has many to spare. This duality is represented in countless ways throughout the film, such as the East wing and West wing where the two wives live in the manor, or even in other characters such as the straight-laced, bitter Mr. de Winter and the scheming, playful villain Jack Favell (George Sanders).

I’ve never been as charmed by the way these sort of movies always seem to end with a legal proceeding. It’s the very classic notion that movies have to tie up every loose end for an undisputed happy ending, and everything past Joan Fontaine’s big confession speech to Mrs. de Winter feels like the weakest part of the movie. It’s satisfying to see their legal battle play out, but it marks a shift from most of the movie that just isn’t as interesting in my opinion. It’s not a major detractor, but I just feel that the soul of the movie comes from Mrs. de Witt’s notions and frustrations surrounding the almost godlike Rebecca, and when the truth is actually revealed, it takes away a lot of the punch.

That being said, I think this is one of Hitchcock’s most refined movies. It’s neat to see him constrained to such a rigid, conventional source material. It brings out a different style of directing when he has to build suspense without killer birds or a psycho killer roaming about. Shots of the manor are beautiful, but he also does a great job at making Mrs. de Witt feel small by presenting such a large, vacuous space. He also provides pivotal character information through his direction alone, even when those details aren’t mentioned until later (with Jack Favell and Mrs. Danvers being prime examples).

I think I’ll always enjoy looser, zanier narratives more than a conventional romantic drama, but as much as my own personal tastes are holding me back, I still found myself captivated by large portions of Rebecca. It’s a hypnotic film that feels loaded with stakes and marks unquestionable Hitchcockian talent. It impressed me less with its action and more with its “in betweens,” and I’ll always take that as a sign of a great film.


Films Left to Watch: 842

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Cinema Paradiso (1988)

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“Life isn’t like in the movies. Life is much harder.”

The last few months have been strong, with another magnificent film. Cinema Paradiso feels like the heartwarming classic they’d show on movie day in a middle school classroom. It’s very conventional; how it’s written and directed are nothing new, but it seems more charming than most films of its nature. Movies about movies will always strike a chord with cinephiles over anyone else, and if they’re done well, they’ll hit you in that special place where Cinema Paradiso resides.

Salvatore Di Vita, nicknamed Toto, is a famous filmmaker reflecting on his childhood in Italy. As a wily six-year-old, Toto befriends his village’s projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), who urges Toto to rise above his humble beginnings and follow his passions wherever they may lead him. With a familiar structure and a dash of magic, the film is a coming-of-age tale that clings to your heart and inspires you to chase your dreams, feeling at times like a genuine fairy tale.

I’m not sure how much the cinephile-pandering was responsible for my love of this movie, but I imagine it was a big influence. Tornatore films the projection booth with such care, and Noiret brings a powerful performance as the man behind the magic. Cinema Paradiso makes being a projectionist seem like the coolest job in the world, until it doesn’t anyone, and this is where the movie really gripped me. As Alfredo loses his vision and becomes a lonely shut-in, he pushes for Toto to become something greater in a sad but inspiring plea for him to never return to the village, and it resonates as the most genuine moment in the movie.

I also adore the atmosphere that Tornatore creates. I love the scene where the priest has to screen all the films before they are shown to the public, ringing his bell in disgust if two characters appear to be getting intimate. I also love the mob mentality of the village, with Alfredo as a sort of king among them. The scene where he projects the film outdoors to the public is a wonderful moment of triumph and rebellion, reminiscent of the Mozart scene in Shawshank Redemption.

I think the first act overpowers the second, but they’re both beautiful, and I think I’m just somber on the idea of things getting harder when childhood is portrayed so wonderfully. That’s the gut punch of Cinema Paradiso, though, that it lulls you into an illusion of safety and innocence, only to make the claim that at some point you have to be bold and work hard to find beauty, and that it doesn’t always come for free.

This film was a wonderful delight that has such a wide appeal, I would recommend it to just about anyone. It’s among the finest coming-of-age films, and for anyone with a passion for movies, it will only pull you even further into that happy place.


Films Left to Watch: 843

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