|Artificial Intelligence A.I.
|Sergei M. Eisenstein
|David Hand, Perce Pearce
|L' EMPIRE DES SENS
|IVAN GROZNI II BOYARSKI ZAGOROV
|Sergei M. Eisenstein
|A Brighter Summer Day
|Sansho the Bailiff
|Histoire(s) du Cinéma
Artificial Intelligence A.I.
It was a struggle to figure out whether to give this top spot to Spielberg or Eisenstein. But while the latter is undoubtably the superior filmmaker, the giant wins this round. Spielberg is arguably cinema's Napoleon, and the closest thing we had to the infamous general in the entire 20th Century. Furthermore, one that proved how far a personal vision can go - so much so that the entire world for nearly 50 years was in awe of his work, demonstrably proving the communicative power of cinema. So why AI? Spielberg once discussed his friendship with Stanley Kubrick and naturally spoke of the effect 2001 had on him - he referred it to "not science-fiction, but science-eventuality." It's hard not to think about that in AI's last half-hour, where the Earth is populated with robots as human life has inevitably gone extinct. Yet, AI's triumph goes farther than just prognosis for the future: we're given the subjective vision of little David, a robot designed to be like a child, and with him we discover happiness, pain, desire and tragedy. Life in all its facets: experiences, ideas, emotions, stimuli. Just like being a human being, or watching a movie.
To date perhaps the height of the potential of montage and cinema as a communicative force, not just as a vehicle for storytelling. Eisenstein wants to show us that the world can change, that equality is possible, that the only true dualism is that of the history of civilization and a new, free world. But a new world also needs to be expressed through new forms and so Eisenstein pushes to unsurpassed limits: the film becomes an intellectual conduit through which one can clearly see the conditions which lead to the need for revolt, all expressed through action. The world as it is, is merely expression of the normative - the normative being the grounded reality of inequality which is unspoken of and unseen. Almost like a simulation. It's about recognizing this, seeing and engaging with truth - which decadence and even time is against. It's from 1928, but it feels like it's from 2050 - and that's not just because we live in such a gridlocked world, but because of the form. As Eisenstein's final title card reads: "Long live the World!"
Another tough one to put into words, part because Antonioni is so successful in translating his ideas into feelings, and part because of the grand obelisk of Antonioni's career - you can't really talk about one without talking about all of them. So naturally my feelings change about what Antonioni film deserved to be here the most - sometimes it's this, sometimes The Passenger, sometimes Red Desert. But today I like this one - perhaps because it's the one you can least mistake his artistic project as expressing the "discontents of modernity" and so on. Rather, it's about being able to recognize reality as what it is, even the reality of the person in front of you within a world and culture desperately intent on deluding you. Not for nothing does this movie have some of the most stunning shots of reflections and mirrors in history - they're just being made explicit since it's all we ever see. Reality as the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave - and how sad and moving that it ends with such a strong expression of fidelity.
Talking animals and children's songs - "What is this doing here?" one might wonder, as if nice, sweet and innocent things didn't deserve to be taken seriously. And maybe Bambi is a little odd in this bunch given the intellectual projects or emotional torments that fill the rest of this list out. No matter that Mr. Disney wants to show us all the seasons of the year and life's little imperfections and tribulations through it, even if just in microcosm. All those tiny tiny concepts like life, death, love and choosing ones destiny. Well, sometimes simplicity is key and even fundamental to such a gorgeous fusion of image and sound, a true polyphonic symphony of life and change. Disney's own artistic credibility would steadily decline following this film, but this one is him at his peak, with fires that turn into monsters or tears which flow to become riverbeds: in other words, the literal expression of poetic language.
L' EMPIRE DES SENS
Aside from the movies virtues on it's own terms - as a work of art - there is something genuinely liberating to see in the explicit, unsimulated sex scenes in that there's nothing pornographic about them. Nothing is gratuitous about them either: sex is literally a normal thing that people do. And being able to *see* it is fundamental to this movie that is more profound than it is necessarily provocative. Without it, we wouldn't be able to see that this movie is about suspension - deliberate suspension through love, sex and even romanticism, a private world to escape from the cruelty of everyday life. While set in Japan in the 1930s, it's portrait of mutually discovered equality only in private when in a fascist and patriarchal society rings true and pertinently - it's obvious the moment we finally see Kichi outside, him holding his head down as fascist soldiers march the streets shouting their patriotic slogans. So then, you both go look for freedom in the bedroom because you can't find it anywhere else.
IVAN GROZNI II BOYARSKI ZAGOROV
The screenplay for Eisenstein's never completed third part of his Ivan the Terrible trilogy concluded with the most simple and common of cinematic techniques: the shot-reverse shot. First, Ivan standing at the edge of Russia, waves crashing at his feet as he stands triumphant over his enemies. Then the reverse shot: Ivan, still gloating, as a decimated Russia stands behind him. As any student of intellectual montage would know, the combination of these two shots produce a dialectic whereupon a new idea is formed - an invisible "third shot" so to speak. As fate would have it however, Ivan the Terrible remained a diptych. But while fate is a questionable idea to hang something on - at worst dangerous - do the two films not ultimately work in dialectic with each other as to produce the same result? Would a third film have been necessary? Of course choosing Ivan 2 is just personal preference, but my inclusion is a stand-in for both films. The final work of perhaps the greatest of all filmmakers is firing on every cylinder: idealism and despondency, life and death, expanse and contraction, hero and dictator, light and shadow.
A Brighter Summer Day
I can still quite vividly recall skipping the last two classes of the day one afternoon in 11th Grade, realizing my father was home so I couldn't go there, going off to a nearby library and stumbling on a stream of this movie long before it had been restored (I'd read about it before of course, having come across it one of those "Greatest movies of all time" books or maybe even earlier while perusing Sight and Sounds 2002 lists) and decided I'd go ahead and watch it because now I'd some time to kill. So I sat for four hours, watching heavily compressed stream of an already low resolution Laserdisc rip, and was totally mesmerized. The characters were Taiwanese yet I related so heavily to that search for identity and sense of alienation. In the years, since it's only grown for me and become more meaningful - it's a genuinely profound study of a social ecosystem, our daily lives and its relation to a political situation, the hopes and dreams of youth we have despite it, and the mistakes we make when we believe the world is incomprehensible.
It says enough that this film remains as provocative as it did in 1996, and while it's not a movie which leaves me without words, it's the only one here that leaves me uncertain if I should say what I really want to say about this movie, at least in public. A more conventional writer and director than Cronenberg probably would have left it at, "People go to extremes to feel something to deal with the relentless mundanity of modern life" or something - which is true, but that's also just the surface of this movie. Primal sex as something closer to coping mechanism, experimentation as method of escape. Authenticity eroded to the point of no return, so the only option is chasing danger. And after all, haven't the two most common subjects in the history of storytelling been simply sex and death? "Maybe the next one," indeed.
Sansho the Bailiff
Probably the film which left the most profound impact on me in my youth, and the only thing here which leaves me virtually wordless. A man frees himself from slavery, obtains great power, returns to free the slaves, and then relinquishes his power. What's not to like?
Histoire(s) du Cinéma
Perhaps this is a stand in for Godard's entire oeuvre - and if it wasn't this, it would be La Chinoise or Every Man For Himself, or maybe even Film Socialisme. But it's impossible to get around this mammoth achievement - a giant work of poetry which moves beyond it's initial concerns of cinema's irrevocable impact on the 20th century (and its consequences) into the fundamental question at the heart of Godard's over a half century of output, one that goes even beyond his own political understanding. Rather, it's almost innocent and childlike in its incomprehension: "Why is there so much suffering in the world?"
Of course, there are many "more than honourable" mentions that are either important to me or at least deserve the recognition: the entire oeuvre of Charles Chaplin, Bertolucci's The Conformist, George Lucas's remarkable and innovative Star Wars prequels, Spielberg's E.T, Edward Yang's Yi Yi and of course the remaining works of Abbas Kiarostami and Michelangelo Antonioni - in particular Taste of Cherry & Red Desert respectively. And of course some space for certain foundational works of modern cinema, like Rossellini's Voyage to Italy. And since the original invitation stated that "we are not setting paramaters as to how 'film' is defined," perhaps there's space here for Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 2. I'd like include that one given the incorporation of cinematic elements into a video game (as has been Mr. Kojima's artistic project for some time now) into something that is totally new. The fact is, movies have only been around for just under 130 years now - it's a remarkably young medium, and one that is constantly evolving. Since the Lumiere's invention in 1894 we've seen the incorporation of narrative art, which turned the medium into a business powerhouse, as well as television, video games, streaming off of computers or phones - all within that relatively short span of time. None of us can really say for certain where cinema is going, and as the emphasis shifts from movies to media it's also possible that "cinema" was just a tiny blip in history. I'd like to think that's not the case, but maybe that's also out of comfort - and after all some of histories greatest innovations were produced by adapting to new technology, like when Eisenstein invented montage by applying his background in engineering to the brand new career possibility of the early 20th century: making movies. Of course, this is maybe a bit much for a list of which the purpose is to determine "the greatest of" but "where we've been" at the moment, has little interest to me. What does interest me is what remains from the past that can give us a sign as to where we're going, and I hope this list reflects that.