Professor in Film Studies
|The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
|In film nist
|Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmaseb
|Portrait of a Lady on Fire
|The Red Shoes
|Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
|The Night of the Hunter
Nominating my favourite Tarkovsky is like picking a favourite child; but if it has to be done, then it has to be Stalker. Even the fact that I hesitated to nominate a Russian film is a brutal reminder of the disjuncture between Russian politics and the great Russian artists – their poets, authors, composers, filmmakers and more. Tarkovsky’s spiritualism is a constant of his work; in this film expressed in the extraordinary flowing camera movements that accompany his seeker heroes’ musings on life, his vision of the landscape, and the lingering shots of humankind’s lost material objects. In Stalker he predicted a post-apocalyptic landscape that was uncannily prescient of our own despoilment of the environment. One of the film’s greatest scenes is its near final one, where the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) lifts his child onto his shoulders, the film drifts into colour, and with his wife (Alisa Freindlich) he walks along the water’s edge, through the polluted landscape, towards the industrial towers, their dog circling them as they go. They say nothing, but Eduard Artemyev’s uncanny music on the soundtrack fills the silence better than words.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Full disclosure – after writing a biography of Rex Ingram I'm especially drawn to his films. However, I don’t think anyone would argue with Four Horsemen as not just an extraordinary piece of filmmaking but also an influence on some of the great works that were to follow it in the sound era. Laughton studied it when he was planning Night of the Hunter, Michael Powell was a devotee and acolyte of Ingram, and Martin Scorsese watched Four Horsemen while he and Thelma Schoonmaker were cutting Hugo (2011). I’ve always thought Tarkovsky took certain sequences in Ivan’s Childhood from this film but that’s only a guess. There’s Valentino, doing the tango, whip in hand; a drunkard seeing a fish swimming in his glass; and then the pounding horror of the battlefields. The film moves from one set piece to the next, ebbing and flowing as it builds to the appearance in the heavens of the Four Horsemen on their steeds. Ever the perfectionist, Ingram had 14 cameras running at once to capture his vast creation. Impossible too to underestimate the influence of June Mathis on this and other of Ingram’s films, and on the career of Valentino.
Amazingly, Wings was Ukrainian director, Larisa Shepitko’s, first feature after she had graduated from VGIK (the All-Russian State Institute for Cinematography). It is the story of Nadezhda Petrukhina (played by fellow Ukrainian-born Maya Bulgakova), once a celebrated World War Two fighter pilot and now a middle-aged functionary at a small town educational institution in the Soviet Union. Solid, dedicated and ignored or laughed at by the students, she finds herself an anachronism in the new post-war order. Her daughter is hanging out in her new apartment with a Bohemian crowd who find Petrukhina’s inculcation of Communist aphorisms quaint. Everything she does is awkward. But, as her memories of the war are reawoken, we see how things once were, how she and her pilot lover escaped into the clouds on fighting duty until, one day, recreated in an extraordinary sequence, he was shot down and died in his cockpit. Shepitko was herself the glamorous face of the new Kruschev era and she too was fated to die an early death, leaving a small but extraordinary body of work behind her, including the equally great The Ascent of 1977.
Is this my favourite of the great minimalist, Ozu’s, works, or is Tokyo Story? You can summarise the plot of Late Spring in a couple of lines: the Professor lives happily with his daughter Noriko; her aunt announces Noriko must marry before she is too old; the Professor pretends he will marry so Noriko will not feel guilty about leaving him on his own. She marries. Even this is enough to understand that Ozu’s preoccupation with the precarity of happiness frames his greatest works. Just a glance, the Professor’s (Chishu Ryu) at Mrs Miwa (Kuniko Miyake) during the Noh performance he attends with Noriko (Setsuko Hara), is enough for a swirl of connections to run through Noriko’s mind. Ozu, who insisted on working over and again with the same actors, knows that he need do nothing other than let his camera rest on Hara’s face and her slightest change of expression will tell us more than any words. In the same way, at the film’s end, as the Professor lets the peel falls from his apple and his shoulders slump, we understand what his big lie will mean for him and Noriko forever.
In film nist
At the time of writing, the great Jafar Panahi has been ordered to serve a six-year jail sentence in Iran after enquiring about fellow director, Mohammad Rasoulof. Panahi has expressed his defiance of Iran’s regime before, both in his filmmaking (The Circle, 2000; Offside, 2006) and his participation in demonstrations against the government. Life and art come together brilliantly in This is Not a Film. Forced to spend Persian New Year alone in his apartment following his house arrest, Panahi passes the evening on his phone with his lawyer and his family. But he’s also using his phone to film himself. In an equally courageous gesture, his friend, filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, drops by at Panahi’s request and turns on his camera. Amidst interruptions from the outside world – a neighbour calls by, a young man comes to pick up his rubbish – and the distraction of his daughter’s pet iguana, Panahi muses on his past films, paces his apartment, and attempts to map out a new film on his floor. At once provocation, home video, and of course a nod to the history of surrealism, this is equally the most ordinary and most extraordinary of (not) films.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Of all the women filmmakers who are insisting that female, queer, and othered lives deserve to be at the centre of the frame, for me Céline Sciamma is the one whose every new work changes the way we look. Girlhood (2015) was a celebration of being young and female and streetsmart in the Paris banlieux, while 2021’s Petite Maman was the most delicate of ghost stories woven around the lives of two small children across time. But it is Portrait of a Lady on Fire that shines the brightest of all. Set in Brittany in the eighteenth century, Sciamma’s story of three women thrown together in a remote country house, one the painter, one her reluctant sitter, and the third their maid, is most of all a celebration of the ties of female friendship. It is a lesbian romance played out through small moments of intimacy, of touch and of looking. The blues, greens and reds of the women’s costumes, the mellow light thrown from the fire in the hearth, and the clarity of the Breton skies render every sequence beautiful. As much as it is a political statement, it is a true work of art.
I almost didn’t include it. As great as Citizen Kane is as bravura filmmaking, so too does its reputation rest on the myth of the maverick white man as singular genius. But, then, it seemed curmudgeonly to delist a work that took Hollywood and turned it upside-down, like the house in the snowglobe, just because the concept of the auteur is out of critical favour. I suspect everyone has their favourite Citizen Kane moment. Mine is the breakfast table montage, where the nine-year marriage between Welles as the young Kane and the first Mrs Kane (Ruth Warrick) falls apart over six scenes and two minutes and eleven seconds of running time. It’s so famous it hardly needs explanation but the speed of the swish pans, the blurry clutter of flowers and other household paraphernalia coming between them, the increasing formality of their costumes, the edginess of the dialogue, combine to tell the viewer all they need to know as to why the marriage, ‘just like another marriage’ in Leland’s (Joseph Cotton) words, ends. And yet, isn’t Emily, like Susan (Dorothy Comingore) a whingy nag, while the only good woman, Kane’s mother, is silenced by death?
The Red Shoes
Not just for the 16-minute ballet sequence, but for every delirious frame of their composition, this is deservedly regarded as one of Powell and Pressburger’s finest collaborations. Whether or not Powell saw himself mirrored in the controlling perfectionist that was Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), it was his legendary persistence that finally coerced Moira Shearer into playing Victoria Page, and so creating a performance that defined her legacy. Page’s equivocation over whether to settle for marriage or pursue a career makes the film as contemporary now as it was in the immediate post-war years. If the film’s ending is one of pure pain, the ballet sequence is a hypnotic balancing act between control and the escape into fantasy. Set against Hein Heckroth’s surreal set design, we at once watch the ballet, and at the same time the projection of the ballet dancer’s mind onto the objects that surround her. She can be a great dancer but, when the cunning shoemaker (Léonide Massine) tempts her to slip on the red shoes, she unhesitatingly does so, crossing the line between the everyday and pure art.
The Night of the Hunter
Choosing this production allows me to slip in my own homage to Robert Mitchum, one of my best-loved stars of the classic era. If it hadn’t been The Night of the Hunter, it might well have been 1947’s Out of the Past. Mitchum was the master of the languid gaze, a couldn’t-care-less attitude that, in Laughton’s hands, made the allure of evil totally understandable. Shelley Winters’ Willa might have been a foolish woman for falling under the spell of the preacher with Love and Hate tattooed on his knuckles, but he offered her something otherwise unimaginable in her depression-era West Virginian small town.
Laughton’s masterpiece was at once his greatest failure, dismissed by audience and critics alike. Its visual compositions led it to be suspected of artistry, while its refusal to conform to genre was box office death. The dreamlike sequences of the children’s escape down the river viewed through an enormous spider’s web contrast with the angular shadows of the light falling into their room, and all pathways lead to Lillian Gish’s final appearance cradling a gun on the veranda as she waits, singing hymns, for Mitchum to come for his prey.
It used to be a national embarrassment, the summation of all that was repressed and class-bound about British filmmaking. In fact, by the time of his death, Lean was little loved by the taste-makers of his national cinema (the editorial in Sight and Sound that marked his passing makes this clear). It didn’t take long for his great epics to be hailed for the magnificent works they were; and then Brief Encounter was re-evaluated. The French critics may have laughed at guilt-ridden Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and weak but well-intentioned Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) for not getting on with it, but that’s why this film is so great. Laura may dream, and the settings on trains, in the train station, in the cinema and at Boots lending library allow her to do so, but really, would she have been happy with Alec? Would trading one husband for another have fulfilled her? Or, in another ten years, would she have sat with him in their middle-class drawing room, listening to Rachmaninov and wishing it had all been different?
I can’t think what the ten greatest films of all time are. I’m not even certain that I agree with my own selection.
I’ve slightly revised my list of a decade ago. In part, it reflects what I’ve been viewing, and most of all, teaching. My choices are still tilted toward non-Hollywood films but I like to think of the influences from one flowing into the other. So, Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is an inspiration for Michael Powell, working with Emeric Pressburger, on The Red Shoes. The latter is set in the South of France where Powell’s first film job was with Ingram at the Victorine Studios. Later again, Martin Scorsese, working with Thelma Schoonmaker, widow of Michael Powell, would describe how the films of Ingram and of Powell fed into his own practice, and from there into the wider life of American postclassical cinema. Arriving in America to make The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton sat in a darkened room working through the greats of silent cinema, including The Four Horsemen, before launching on his own, brief, film career. For the Iranian filmmakers, Ozu has long been an influence, his minimalist storytelling chiming with their own poetic cinema. And then there are the mystics, Tarkovsky in particular but also Shepitko, whose experiences of censorship are shared by several of the directors on this list. Geography may separate them but much more connects them.
The two films by the two female directors are to me exemplary. Both Larissa Shepitko and Céline Sciamma have made works that command the female gaze, but neither Wings nor Portrait of a Lady on Fire ever feels didactic. On the contrary, these are films that understand female friendship; in a wonderful set-piece in Wings, two middle-aged women dance together in a restaurant under the bemused eyes of the men looking through the window from the street. They also are concerned with the fantasy of love, something many of the films, for better or worse, on this list also explore.
As I said, my hand hovered over Citizen Kane. Of all my choices it seems the one most rooted in what makes a man. Or maybe, what makes an American. There’s nothing unusual about that, but it interests me less than the other stories. At the same time, Welles’ film is a virtuoso display of what cinema can do and an exploration of technique that qualifies it unarguably as great.
So what guided my selection was the sense that formally each of these films has made, or in the case of Portrait of a Lady on Fire is still to make, an important impact on the language of filmmaking. With that comes the possibility of telling our stories in different ways and opening up our worlds to different stories. In this particular political moment this seems more pressing than ever.