Alonso Díaz de la Vega
|Meshes of the Afternoon
|Maya Deren, Alexander Hackenschmied
|La FORMULA SECRETA
|Au hasard Balthazar
|Djibril Diop Mambéty
|Fear Eats the Soul
|Rainer Werner Fassbinder
|Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
|Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
|Pier Paolo Pasolini
|Dalla nube alla resistenza
Meshes of the Afternoon
Maya Deren is such a foundational, fascinating figure – director, producer, editor, actress, dancer, choreographer, ethnographer – that I picked her first and possibly greatest film to represent the avant-garde tradition. What's particularly extraordinary about Meshes of the Afternoon is its ambiguous distortion of reality. A woman's shadow, a key, a loaf of bread and other quotidian sights become defamiliarised in a manner that keeps us simultaneously in and out of everyday life, just like a dream that becomes stranger by the second and that keeps us in its grip even after it ends.
La FORMULA SECRETA
Rubén Gámez's experimental film The Secret Formula is important jnot ust for its extraordinary cinematic form but also because it represents an idea of filmmaking which is as strong in my country as melodrama or popular comedy. Fuelled by the idea of Coca-Cola as a colonial signifier, the film is a strange, devastating voyage through Mexican geography and culture as it violently depicts the end of identity under the omnipresent power of the United States.
Au hasard Balthazar
Au Hasard Balthazar is about so many transcendent things: human cruelty, the sanctity of animals, innocence, faith. Perhaps everything has been said about its themes, but I wonder if we have entirely fathomed its silence, that is, not just the recurring absence of sound but the muteness of its imagery, which refuses clarity in favor of an enigmatic – Nathaniel Dorsky might call it devotional – experience. Bresson understood that since cinema's uniqueness lies in showing the material world, a true poet must use the camera to make reality immaterial, unknowable.
Touki Bouki is such a revolutionary film that as much as it acknowledges the influence of Godard it also surpasses him by refusing entirely to become a mere offshoot or a didactic film like much of his greatest work. While it's hard to claim that La Chinoise or Pierrot le fou are explicit in their meaning, one can at least say they hint at their director's thought. Mambéty, on the other hand, prefers absolute strangeness and a more radical idea of montage which goes back and forth in time, challenging the audience to even understand the sequence of a scene. Distrustful as I am of the notion of beauty, I do believe that every single frame in the film is an attempt at making it palpable and enduring through mystery: every shot is a painting which attempts to recreate not the world but the experience of watching it with intense devotion.
Fear Eats the Soul
What I find most affecting about Fear Eats the Soul is its Brechtian humanity. While the characters might often seem to freeze, to be posing for the camera in order to reveal their innate artificiality, the love between Emmi and Ali produces a moving contrast that emphasises the questioning, cruel gazes around them. And yet the film is anything but sentimental as it ends in the triumph of assimilation over difference. Thus, Fear Eats the Soul is a sad, brilliant expression of Fassbinder's micropolitics which should remain important until we reach utopia, whatever that is.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Most people will describe Jeanne Dielman as a film where nothing happens but I differ sharply: Akerman's triumph is directing our attention to the microscopic choreography of everyday life. Since there isn't much melodrama to the protagonist's routine – although there is a bit – her movements become both a narrative form and a means of signification. The body of this oppressed woman houses so much that it becomes a language more powerful and eloquent than words and it reminds us that representing is an act of subversion against spoken and written language: to show something, it seems to tell us, is much more important and affecting than spelling it.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Pasolini found in Salò a most enduring expression of evil that is both classical and intensely contemporary. Dante's theological concerns and Greco-Latin ideas of the body are combined with a sophisticated conception of fascism which does not deny its historical roots but also encompasses Deleuze and Guattari's idea that it didn't end or perhaps even begin with Mussolini and Hitler. This makes the film transcendent and shocking, no matter when it is watched. Someday it might be destroyed with the rest of us but until then it will remain eternal.
Dalla nube alla resistenza
One might choose any film by Huillet-Straub and, by doing so, represent the most influential body of work in recent film history. Our minimalism is a result of their cinematic adventures and so are the political acuity of Pedro Costa and the muted rhythms of Ted Fendt but, to my mind, From the Cloud to the Resistance is the one film of theirs that does it all: it is still one of the pair's historical pictures of the early 70s while also addressing the context of Italian fascism; the intertextual relationship between images and words is also present, as is their contemplation of space-time. If one single film could explain their legacy, this might be it.
The single Hollywood film in my list comes from the need to represent the biggest industry of all in a single stroke. Since Martin Scorsese embodies both the auteur filmmaking of the 1970s and the classical American movies of earlier decades, the decision was relatively easy. Raging Bull might be his greatest film for grandiosely summing up his themes and influences in a manner both spectacular and discreet. This dualism can also be found in his unholy martyr, Jake LaMotta, who represents the sins of every man and receives his punishment not so much in the form of physical violence endured in the ring but as ostracism. Jake is machismo itself and yet he's no mere concept. He's both fiction and reality: flesh and spirit.
What I've always found most arresting about Edward Yang's work is how intensely melodramatic it is and yet the action is expressed in a manner which defies spectacle as it is usually understood. Bullets might fly, people might get killed, hearts broken, but Yang is entirely restrained and shows it all in still, melancholic frames. Yi Yi is a tad more tamed than A Brighter Summer Day or The Terrorizers but it remains as significant as those films and perhaps even more so as it depicts the diverse life in a family circle which intends to represent the whole of life. In Yang's characters we can see most of the people we know: frustrated and in search of healing, acquiring it sometimes but only partially or not at all.
Greatness, as every other concept, is a matter of subjectivity. Is a film great because it is moving or because of its revolutionary aspects, and are these meant to be subversive culturally, politically or in a strictly aesthetic sense? Who knows. My selection is an attempt, at times pragmatic, at others more self-indulgent, to represent film history as a constant challenge to the status quo: there are only two American titles in it and I tried to include works which traditional film history tends to ignore. They are all significant in one way or another, but I must confess that by choosing them I did what Jean Cocteau in a scene from The Testament of Opheus in which he tries to draw some flowers but ends up making a self-portrait: I chose myself, that is, I picked films that appeal to me and that represent larger traditions of filmmaking which I couldn't sum up entirely in a small selection. Here's hoping they will make the list and guide viewers into the margins, which have always held the future of cinema. If a single critic's list of great films can not change history, but maybe it can change the perspective of a spectator or two who might find in these films a gateway into strangeness and revelation.