Nice story about RELATIVE in Screen Magazine:
I am currently neck-deep in pre-production on RELATIVE, my fourth feature film, which will shoot later this month and I realize that it may be a minute before I am able to make any substantial updates to this blog. In the meantime, you may be interested in checking out this Eric Rohmer Roundtable that I participated in last month for Cinecast, the Cine-file Chicago podcast, with critics Ben Sachs and Scott Pfeiffer. We focus mainly on the “Tales of the Four Seasons”, Rohmer’s great, late cycle of films that has recently been restored/re-released but we also talk about his entire career (and I was particularly gratified to be able to compare THE AVIATOR’S WIFE with the work of Alfred Hitchcock). I think this is a fun listen: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/rohmer-roundtable-malmkrog-new-releases/id1557125005?i=1000520567950
1. Lingua Franca* (Sandoval) – A-
2. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou) – A+
3. RK/RKAY* (Kapoor) – B
4. Gentleman Jim (Walsh) – A
5. Alien vs. Predator* (Anderson) – B
6. Pauline at the Beach (Rohmer) – A+
7. Le Beau Mariage (Rohmer) – A
8. Murder on Middle Beach* (Hamburg) – B+
9. The Aviator’s Wife (Rohmer) – A+
10. I Wake Up Screaming* (Humberstone) – B+
* – first-time watch
Below is a list of my 80 favorite Bob Dylan songs in honor of his 80th birthday later this month. I started compiling this list a year ago and have been continually revising it – as well as the thumbnail reviews accompanying it – ever since. During this process, many songs were on the list at one point, only to fall off and be replaced by other songs that I realized, in my heart of hearts, I loved more. This is not an attempt to be objective or acknowledge Dylan’s most important songs (there are plenty of other lists like that already). This is simply a list of what I consider to be the greatest Dylan songs based on my own personal point-of-view as a Dylan fan of 30+ years. I’ve also created a Spotify playlist that functions as a countdown of the top 80, which you can stream here. Enjoy!
80. Death is Not the End (Down in the Groove, 1988)
Probably best known for Nick Cave’s cover version, this is a gospel song with a sweet melody, a killer sense of humor and backing vocals by Brooklyn hip-hop collective Full Force.
79. Song to Woody (Bob Dylan, 1962)
Dylan’s tribute to his most important formative influence also announced his arrival as a songwriter.
78. What Can I Do For You? (Saved, 1980)
The harmonica solo on this, one of Dylan’s greatest, has a pleading quality that captures the song’s devotional message as well as the lyrics do.
77. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
I’ve always loved the counterpoint between the warmth of Paul Griffin’s barroom-piano playing and the feeling of dislocation imparted by the lyrics.
76. Long and Wasted Years (Tempest, 2012)
A Rolling Stone critic astutely compared this to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman in that it features a narrator who no longer has anything, looking back on a lifetime of regret.
75. Sign on the Window (New Morning, 1970)
Probably the most obscure song on this list, this is Dylan’s most sublime ode to domestic tranquility.
74. Dignity (recorded during the Oh Mercy sessions in 1989, released on Greatest Hits Vol. 3, 1994)
Who but Dylan would write a song taking “dignity” as its subject, not to mention personifying that quality as a character in a detective story?
73. Lay, Lady, Lady (Nashville Skyline, 1969)
Dylan’s sexiest song ever, sung in his “country crooner” voice.
72. Dark Eyes (Empire Burlesque, 1985)
A solo acoustic ballad with highly poetic lyrics, purportedly inspired by Dylan looking into the eyes of a prostitute in a hotel lobby, this stands out like a diamond in a coal mine on the otherwise overproduced Empire Burlesque.
71. Lenny Bruce (Shot of Love, 1981)
A surprising, deeply moving piano-driven tribute to the late comedian.
70. Forgetful Heart (Together Through Life, 2009)
Like a dark sequel to 1981’s “Heart of Mine,” Dylan addresses his heart as if it had a mind of its own.
69. Blowin’ in the Wind (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
Dylan’s most covered song ever, and arguably his most important, this was the “big bang” of the notion that folk music would serve as the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movement.
68. I and I (Infidels, 1983)
This ominous sounding, reggae-tinged blues song nods to Rastafarianism as well as Dylan’s lifelong obsession with Rimbaud’s phrase “Je est un autre.”
67. The Man in Me (New Morning, 1970)
Best known as the main-title theme of The Big Lebowski, this is one of the catchiest creations in the whole Dylan songbook.
66. I Shall Be Released (recorded in 1967 during the Basement Tapes sessions, released on Biograph, 1985)
This gospel-influenced song about a prisoner (perhaps literal, perhaps figurative) yearning for redemption is one of the highlights of the Basement Tapes sessions.
65. Forever Young (Planet Waves, 1974)
Dylan wrote this prayer-like song for one of his children and it deservedly became an instant wedding/graduation/birthday-party staple.
64. Summer Days (“Love and Theft”, 2001)
Next to his 2009 cover of “Must Be Santa,” this is probably the fastest song Dylan ever recorded (as well as one of the most fun).
63. The Times They Are a-Changin’ (The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964)
The ultimate protest anthem, cutting but never preachy, this sounds as relevant today as it did upon its release 57 years ago.
62. One More Cup of Coffee (Desire, 1976)
Allen Ginsberg aptly described Dylan’s singing here as “Hebraic cantillation.”
61. Simple Twist of Fate (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
This sad story-song about a relationship fated not to work out is the broken heart of Blood on the Tracks.
60. Ring Them Bells (Oh Mercy, 1989)
An indelible, descending piano chord progression combines with lyrics that plead for compassion for the less fortunate of this world.
59. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964)
Dylan used a newspaper article about a real-life murder to form the basis of this haunting masterpiece about a tragic miscarriage of justice.
58. I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You (Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)
This beautiful recent song can be interpreted as addressing a lover, a higher power, or Dylan’s own fanbase.
57. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
I always felt that the groovy organ playing and snappy drumming on this rollicking number were exactly what Dylan had in mind when he described Blonde on Blonde as featuring “that thin, wild mercury sound.”
56. Born in Time (Under the Red Sky, 1990)
Dylan’s most mystical love song.
55. When He Returns (Slow Train Coming, 1979)
Jean-Luc Godard has used this song in three different movies in three different decades.
54. Tears of Rage (recorded in 1967, released on The Basement Tapes, 1975)
One of Dylan’s most multitudinous lyrics — it manages to contain the Bible, King Lear and the Declaration of Independence — set to a gorgeous melody by The Band’s Richard Manuel.
53. Every Grain of Sand (Shot of Love, 1981)
The highlight of Dylan’s entire gospel period, the Blakean lyrics are best served by the minimalist acoustic-guitar-and-piano-arrangement of the demo version included on The Bootleg Series Vol. 3.
52. Things Have Changed (single, 2000)
The song that inaugurated Dylan’s great late period (which saw him bring his Never Ending Tour band into the studio for the first time and serve as his own producer), this Oscar-winning acoustic rocker is also quite danceable.
51. Sara (Desire, 1976)
One of Dylan’s most nakedly autobiographical songs, in which he looks back on a family vacation from the vantage point of estrangement from his first wife, I sometimes find this too painful to listen to.
50. Girl from the North Country (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
A simple, perfect love song.
49. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine (John Wesley Harding, 1967)
My favorite cut from John Wesley Harding, which I’ve always loved for the sparseness of the arrangement (just one acoustic guitar, bass and drums) and the dreamy, parable-like quality of the lyrics.
48. If You See Her, Say Hello (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
Another devastating song: “She might think that I’ve forgotten her / Don’t tell her it isn’t so.”
47. It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
Some lamented that Dylan had abandoned “protest music” after 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ but a track like this, featuring an astonishing, seemingly never-ending torrent of words, proved that he had merely broadened his concerns in order to protest the insanity of living in the modern world.
46. Pay in Blood (Tempest, 2012)
This Rolling Stones-esque rocker is as musically infectious as it is lyrically vicious.
45. Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) (Street-Legal, 1978)
The most underrated song on Dylan’s most underrated album (which, more than Blood on the Tracks, is his real “divorce album”), this desperate-sounding track is pop music at the end of its tether.
44. Tomorrow is a Long Time (live recording from 1963, released on Greatest Hits Vol. 2, 1971)
Dylan justifiably cited Elvis Presley’s version of this as his favorite cover of any of his own songs.
43. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
A moving song about rambling through the world, this features two fantastic “electric” harmonica breaks in which the sound of Dylan’s harp was driven through a distortion box.
42. Shelter from the Storm (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
I’m obsessed with the hard-rocking live 1976 version of this song about seeking refuge in the arms of another person, featuring one of Dylan’s most impassioned vocals and his sick, but rarely displayed, slide-guitar playing.
41. Chimes of Freedom (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964)
A lyrical tour de force about looking at a thunderstorm and imagining that the lighting is somehow flashing in solidarity with everyone who has ever felt downtrodden or dispossessed.
40. High Water (For Charley Patton) (“Love and Theft”, 2001)
A tribute to one of the great Delta bluesman that is, perhaps perversely, not a blues itself but rather a banjo-driven folk song full of memorable apocalyptic imagery.
39. Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) (Street-Legal, 1978)
The most famous song on Street-Legal, and the one Dylan has played live the most often, this minor-key ballad is dark, brooding and awesome.
38. Boots of Spanish Leather (The Times They Are a-Changin’, 1964)
Not many songwriters have even attempted to write an epistolary song but this is one of the greatest examples of the genre.
37. Abandoned Love (recorded during the Desire sessions in 1975, released on Biograph in 1985)
Left off the album for which it was recorded and shelved for a decade, this violin-driven love song would’ve been the crowning achievement of anyone else’s career.
36. Positively 4th Street (single, 1965)
Dylan’s ultimate “fuck you” song, this catchy 1965 single convinced Joni Mitchell that lyrics could be literature and that she could become a professional singer/songwriter herself.
35. Most of the Time (Oh Mercy, 1989)
The rhetorical genius of this song is that, by relentlessly repeating how content he feels the majority of the time, the narrator makes the listener acutely aware of how heartbroken he secretly is by what he doesn’t say (i.e., describing how he feels the rest of the time).
34. Nettie Moore (Modern Times, 2006)
So memorable for the vocal melody, which sees Dylan’s voice rise and fall with every line in the verses, and a sparse musical arrangement highlighted by George Receli’s metronomic, heartbeat-like drumming.
33. Lay Down Your Weary Tune (recorded 1963, released on Biograph, 1985)
An incredible early song about communing with nature and hearing “music” in the sounds of the natural world.
32. Highlands (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
Dylan’s second longest song ever sees him talk-singing over a blues riff: he laments his vanished youth, gives shout-outs to Neil Young and Erica Jong and, for one uproariously funny verse, has a sexy and tense flirtation with a waitress in a Boston restaurant.
31. Caribbean Wind (recorded during the Shot of Love Sessions in 1981, released on Biograph, 1985)
Dylan spent a lot of time in the Caribbean in the early 1980s, which inspired some great wordy songs, and this galloping number, with delightful “wind” sounds provided by the female backup singers, is one of the best.
30. It Ain’t Me, Babe (Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964)
An exquisite anti-love song and a farewell to the purists in the folk-revival movement all rolled up in one.
29. Black Diamond Bay (Desire, 1976)
One of the best of the long story-songs on Desire, unforgettable for its crazy “wrap-around rhymes” (“veranda…and a”) and a surprise ending that shifts from the third to the first person.
28. Mother of Muses (Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)
Perhaps inspired by the engraving on the back of his Nobel Prize for Literature medal, Dylan explicitly invokes his muse on this lyrically majestic, melodically intricate and tenderly sung song.
27. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
The delicacy of Dylan’s finger-picking and his emotional singing reveal an affection for the object of this song that is missing from the spiteful lyric.
26. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973)
Three simple chords and Dylan’s most unforgettable sing-along chorus have made this so famous that a lot of folks don’t even know that he wrote it.
25. Standing in the Doorway (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
The most potent song about heartache on an album chock-full of songs about heartache.
24. I Want You (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
Everyone should hear this ecstatic love song and feel like it describes how they’ve felt about another human being at least once in their lives.
23. Man in the Long Black Coat (Oh Mercy, 1989)
Almost indescribably spooky and divine, like a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story set to music.
22. Workingman’s Blues #2 (Modern Times, 2006)
The way Dylan’s vocal melody confidently rolls and flows over the chords from Pachelbel’s Canon – as he poignantly pays tribute to the working class – rarely fails to bring a tear to my eye.
21. Red River Shore (recorded during the Time Out of Mind sessions in 1997, released on Tell-Tale Signs, 2008)
Jesus Christ, Bob: “Some of us turn off the lights and we laugh in the moonlight shooting by /
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark to be where the angels fly.”
20. Jokerman (Infidels, 1983)
I was a child when this came out and, although I didn’t first hear it until later, its provocative mixture of socio-political commentary and biblical imagery conjures up the early 1980s for me like no other song.
19. A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963)
If “Blowin’ in the Wind” proved popular songs could address social issues and “Don’t Think Twice” gave birth to the singer/songwriter “confessional” genre, “Hard Rain” showed it was possible to write epic songs influenced by serious literature (in this case, Romantic, French Symbolist and Beat poetry).
18. Hurricane (Desire, 1976)
Thank God Dylan had to re-cut this with altered lyrics in order to avoid being sued for libel — the version that ended up on Desire, with its faster tempo (and Ronee Blakley’s valiant attempts to sing along on the chorus), is the definitive version of this supremely cinematic song.
17. Mr. Tambourine Man (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965)
Incomparably lovely for Bruce Langhorne’s subtle electric guitar playing and some of Dylan’s finest ever lyrics (the “Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind” verse, in particular, is solid gold).
16. Mississippi (“Love and Theft”, 2001)
If the musical genre known as “Americana” didn’t exist, it could be recreated entirely by using only this song as a seed.
15. Changing of the Guards (Street-Legal, 1978)
Mixing imagery drawn from Tarot cards and the life of Joan of Arc, this wild song features a wailing saxophone and call-and-response vocals with a female chorus that will get your adrenaline pumping like nothing else Dylan has done.
14. Series of Dreams (recorded during the Oh Mercy sessions in 1989, released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, 1991)
The best song anyone ever wrote about dreaming, the feeling of which is accurately conveyed through the surreal lyrics and the elaborate, wall-of-sound production.
13. Desolation Row (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
One of Dylan’s most ambitious works, the 11-minute-plus opus that closes Highway 61 Revisited weaves together a large cast of characters (from history, the Bible, literature, etc.) into a chugging, panoramic epic that single-handedly expanded the artistic possibilities of popular song.
12. Blind Willie McTell (recorded during the Infidels sessions in 1983, released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3, 1991)
Dylan’s soulful piano playing, Mark Knopfler’s nimble fretwork, a melody inspired by “St. James Infirmary Blues” and lyrics that address the ghosts of slavery and the cathartic power of the blues are the ingredients of this timeless masterpiece.
11. Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
The principles of Cubist painting applied to narrative songwriting — where the story of a man and woman splitting up (and perhaps reconnecting) in the wake of the death of the ’60s counterculture — is told alternately in the third and first person, and is somehow more effective because of it.
10. Murder Most Foul (Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)
Dylan’s longest song is also his largest song. It’s less about the assassination of JFK than it is about the healing power of art in a time of collective trauma (you know, like the COVID-19 pandemic). It’s his grandest poetic statement, the centerpiece of his most unified album, the Damascus to which all of the other songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways lead. To give oneself over to it for the entirety of its 17 minutes is to become hypnotized and feel time flowing forwards and backwards simultaneously. There’s nothing else like it in the history of recorded music — by Dylan or anyone else.
9. Like a Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965)
The greatest rock and roll song of all time, or “La Bamba” for intellectuals.
8. Tempest (Tempest, 2012)
This isn’t a song about the sinking of the Titanic. It’s a song about someone dreaming about the sinking of the Titanic, an ingenious conceit that unmoors Dylan’s long narrative song from historical reality and allows him to fill it up with crazy, Hieronymous Bosch-like visions. There is incredible variety and expressiveness in his singing, and the delightful Celtic melody always makes me want to sway a mug of beer to and fro and try to sing along.
7. Not Dark Yet (Time Out of Mind, 1997)
The lofty peak of Time Out of Mind, released after Dylan had contracted a near-fatal fungal heart infection, which colored its reception forever after. As the great literary scholar Christopher Ricks points out, this poignant and beautiful song features a narrator, like John Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” who is “half in love with easeful Death.”
6. Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
Tom Waits said this song made him think of “a drifter around a fire with a tin cup under a bridge remembering a woman’s hair.” And I think I know what he means.
5. Ain’t Talkin’ (Modern Times, 2006)
Dylan’s darkest ever song, in which a first-person narrator wanders a post-apocalyptic landscape that has seemingly been abandoned by God (“The gardener is gone”). The popular-song equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman film.
4. Brownsville Girl (Knocked Out Loaded, 1987)
Buried on Dylan’s worst ever album, Knocked Out Loaded, is one of his finest ever songs. Co-written with Sam Shepard, this is a widescreen western epic that is funny as shit (note how the backup singers continually undercut the narrator’s pomposity) while also being, somehow, inexplicably moving. My favorite line: “I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran.”
3. Visions of Johanna (Blonde on Blonde, 1966)
Ever wonder what it must have felt like to be stoned in a cold Greenwich Village loft circa the mid-1960s? This song will transport you. Dylan’s lyrical genius reaches its apex with the “Inside the museums” verse.
2. Idiot Wind (Blood on the Tracks, 1975)
Often described as an epic “breakup song,” I’ve always felt “Idiot Wind” was much more than that. I suspect that Dylan was thinking of his hero Woody Guthrie, for instance, in the “Down the highway” verse. In any case, the pronoun change in the final chorus (from “I” to “We”) shows an impressive humility that tempers the righteous anger on display elsewhere in the song.
1. Key West (Philosopher Pirate) (Rough and Rowdy Ways, 2020)
Dylan’s very own “Over the Rainbow,” a song about which I already wrote a mini-essay here. What else can I say? This is the final song on my deathbed playlist, the one I hope to be listening to at the exact moment my soul leaves my body.
I recently gave an hour-long Zoom presentation on the “Art of Alfred Hitchcock” for the 19th Century Charitable Foundation in Chicago. I talked about the relationship between voyeurism and film editing and showed clips from THE LODGER, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO and PSYCHO. You can now watch it on YouTube:
1. Remember My Name* (Rudolph) – B+
2. Pursued (Walsh) – A
3. The Hand (Wong) – A-
4. 2046 (Wong) – A-
5. A Tale of Winter (Rohmer) – A+
6. Happy Together (Wong) – A-
7. In the Mood for Love (Wong) – A+
8. Just Before Nightfall* (Chabrol) – A
9. Coup de Torchon* (Tavernier) – B+
10. Round Midnight* (Tavernier) – A
* – first-time view
I had a blast talking about MERCURY IN RETROGRADE, which continues its virtual run at the Music Box Theatre through 4/30, on the CinemaJaw podcast. We also play some fun games and I ramble enthusiastically about Mizoguchi’s SANSHO THE BAILIFF, all while getting increasingly bombed on red wine. It’s a fun listen – check it out here!
I reviewed Éric Rohmer’s A TALE OF WINTER for Cinefile Chicago. A restored version opens for a virtual run at the Music Box Theatre today.
Éric Rohmer’s A TALE OF WINTER (France)
Available to rent through the Music Box Theatre here
A TALE OF WINTER is the second film that Éric Rohmer made in his “Tales of the Four Seasons” series — the third and final of his major film cycles, after “Six Moral Tales” and “Comedies and Proverbs” — but, thematically and according to the narrative’s placement within the calendar year, it feels like the true end point to the series. (For the record, the films can be enjoyed when seen in any order.) It is also a special movie in the director’s canon, one that begins atypically with an extended wordless montage as two newly acquainted lovers, Félicie (Charlotte Véry) and Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche), cavort in a French seaside resort town while on vacation before they become separated by a simple twist of fate. Even more atypically, Rohmer then flashes forward five years into the future to focus on Félicie’s day-to-day life as an unwed single mother living in Paris. She’s now involved with two new men, the snooty academic Loic (Hervé Furic) and the more down-to-earth hairdresser Maxence (Michel Voletti), but she refuses to fully commit to either of them since she has never gotten over Charles, the man she considers to be her soulmate in spite of the fact that their time together was so brief. In many ways, A TALE OF WINTER feels like a more female-centric remix of Rohmer’s beloved 1969 film MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S. Both are set during Christmastime and feature “Pascal’s wager,” the philosophical argument that it is logical to “bet” in favor of the existence of God, as a prominent plot point. But WINTER is also arguably a more mature and profound reworking of the earlier film’s ideas: in contrast to Jean-Louis Trintignant’s mathematician-protagonist in MAUD, Félicie has never even heard of Pascal — whose name is only invoked by Loic, a character portrayed as an annoying mansplainer — so that she works through her dilemma regarding faith on the level of emotional intuition rather than intellectual calculation (and thus allowing Rohmer to keep his philosophical themes more on the level of subtext). It is not giving anything away to say that the lovably stubborn Félicie is ultimately rewarded for her faith and that the film climaxes with the depiction of a miracle that is as moving as any scene Rohmer ever directed. As in A MAN ESCAPED, an otherwise very different kind of movie by another great French Catholic director, Robert Bresson, the outcome here seems preordained from the beginning, with Rohmer generating suspense not by making viewers wonder what will happen but rather how it will happen. The result is Rohmer’s most purely romantic film, a balm for the heart as well as the mind. (1992, 114 min) [Michael Glover Smith]
I wrote the following piece on AMERICAN SNIPER a few years ago for a book of essays dedicated to different aspects of Clint Eastwood’s controversial film that was to have been published by a University press. I was specifically asked to analyze the movie through the lens of “reception studies.” Unfortunately, the book was postponed indefinitely, so I’m offering the piece here instead. I enjoyed researching and writing it and I hope some of you find it interesting.
American Sniper: A Critical Historiography
By Michael Glover Smith
While American Sniper was an unmitigated success at the American box office upon its initial theatrical release (it was in fact the highest-grossing domestic film of 2014), its critical reputation has been far more controversial, drawing praise and ire in equal measure. Interestingly, the movie’s divisiveness has extended beyond the realm of traditional film criticism, as many cultural commentators have also felt the need to weigh in with editorials and “think pieces” on whether it is a xenophobic and racist recruitment tool for the United States military, a thoughtful examination of post-traumatic stress disorder with a decidedly anti-war bent, or perhaps, most maddening of all, somehow a combination of both of these things at the same time. Interestingly, as in the movies of the late, great Samuel Fuller, Clint Eastwood appears to have succeeded in the difficult task of angering viewers on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum simultaneously, arguably the surest indication that he has done something right.
American Sniper is therefore an ideal candidate to be looked at through the lens of reception studies; this essay will provide an overview of the many articles, scholarly as well as more pop-culture oriented, that have appeared in print and online examining Eastwood’s controversial film, and will illustrate how American Sniper’s formal complexity and thematic ambiguity ultimately provide a kind of Rorschach inkblot test for the political and philosophical points-of-view of each individual viewer.
American Sniper is also important as a case study for how reactions on social media – not only by film critics but also celebrities and ordinary people – can shape the cultural conversation surrounding a movie and help to lift it into the zeitgeist as a subject of proverbial “water-cooler conversation.” American Sniper had its high-profile world premiere at the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles on November 11, 2014. This “secret screening” was publicly announced by the AFI only one day before it happened, which meant that the instantaneous reactions to the movie’s first public exhibition on Twitter, even at (or especially at) 140 characters or less, were scrutinized more closely than they otherwise might have been. The immediate narrative created by these tweets had nothing to do with the film’s perceived politics, as would later be the case, but instead focused on the fact that American Sniper was simply Clint Eastwood’s “best work in years” as a director.
Context is important: Eastwood’s reputation as a filmmaker had undergone a period of major critical reappraisal between the years 2003 and 2007: from the release of Mystic River to the Oscar glory of Million Dollar Baby one year later to 2006’s “Iwo Jima diptych” comprised of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, the latter of which, a predominantly Japanese-language movie seemingly conceived of as a more modest afterthought to the former film, scored a surprise but well-deserved Best Picture Oscar nomination. Between 2008 and 2014, Eastwood produced and directed an additional six feature-length motion pictures (Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, Hereafter, J. Edgar and Jersey Boys), all of which, with the exception of 2009’s Gran Torino, had failed to generate the same positive critical and/or commercial response as those from his earlier “miracle run.“
Late-period Eastwood (like the divisive work of “late Ford” or “late Hawks” in the post-Hollywood studio system era just before Eastwood directed Play Misty for Me in 1971) had become, and to a certain extent still is, something of a litmus test for critics subscribing to the auteur theory – with only a small cult of diehard Eastwood aficionados willing to testify to the director’s ingenious, “Brechtian” use of terrible pop songs in his Nelson Mandela biopic Invictus. One could practically hear the sigh of relief then in a typical post-American Sniper premiere tweet like this one from the Hollywood Reporter critic Jon Frosch: “Following a couple of sub-par efforts, American Sniper is a pretty major return to form for Eastwood. Bradley Cooper superb #AFI”
This “return to form” theme was also emphasized in the first two reviews to appear in industry trade publications. Justin Chang’s review in Variety, which was posted on the website of that venerable daily paper on November 11 at 11:30 pm (i.e., at the exact moment that the end credits had begun rolling at the AFI screening), noted that the film was “arguably the director’s strongest, most sustained effort in the eight years since his WWII double-header of ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima.’” Todd McCarthy’s Hollywood Reporter review, which was posted online one minute later at 11:31 pm, likewise announced in its opening paragraph that American Sniper was “Eastwood’s best in a number of years” before correctly – and impressively – predicting that it would go on to become a box office phenomenon on the basis that “its ‘God, country, family’ aspects . . . will draw that part of the public that doesn’t often go to the movies.”
Ironically, American Sniper’s AFI Fest screening had immediately followed the world premiere screening of another important new American movie, Ava Duvernay’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma. Going into the 2015 Oscar race, some journalists would pit these two films against one another in think pieces based on the dubious premise that they constituted an ideological dichotomy of contemporary American cinema – with DuVernay (young, African-American and female) representing its more “progressive” side and Eastwood (old, white and male) representing its more “reactionary” elements. This contrast would become even more pronounced after Eastwood’s film earned triple the Oscar nominations and nearly seven times the box office gross of Duvernay’s movie. But in the days immediately following this provocative double feature at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, most of the press focused not on contrasting the films with one other on ideological grounds but on merely pointing out that their jointly positive reception meant that they were likely to “shake up” an imminent awards season whose potential candidates were previously thought to have been set in stone.
Between American Sniper’s world premiere and its limited theatrical release in the United States on Christmas Day of 2014 (a launch that indicated Warner Brothers executives felt they had a sure-fire Oscar contender on their hands), the vast majority of the reviews were positive and echoed the main talking points first laid out by Justin Chang and Todd McCarthy: that it succeeded as a powerful portrait of the psychological toll of modern warfare, that it fit snugly into the Eastwood canon as a meditation on masculinity and the consequences of violence, and that it featured a terrific performance by an almost unrecognizably bulked-up Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. David Denby’s review in the New Yorker, published in the December 22, 2014 issue, was typical: in a positive dual review alongside of Selma, titled “Living History,” he praised Eastwood’s assured and economical directorial style, which he claimed “makes most directors look like beginners,” and hinted at the film’s thematic ambiguity by noting that it “is both a devastating war movie and a devastating anti-war movie,” without bothering to delve too deeply into what such a seemingly contradictory statement might mean.
One of the first articles to find American Sniper problematic from an ideological perspective was Keith Phipps’ mixed review that appeared on the popular but now defunct website The Dissolve on December 23, 2014. Phipps linked to an article in the Washington Post that understandably questioned the veracity of some of the “unverifiable” stories that Chris Kyle had told, both in his memoir on which the film is based (American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice) and during his interviews to promote the book, while also implicitly criticizing Jason Hall’s adapted screenplay for never addressing this issue and “adopting an uncomplicated print-the-legend attitude toward Kyle, who’s portrayed as unfailingly kind, humble and courageous, if prone to the occasional funk.” Later in the review, Phipps also points out that “Kyle never stops referring to Iraqis – enemies and otherwise – as savages, and the film presents them as such, a mostly undifferentiated mass of anger out for American blood.”
These are mere asides, however, in a review that stops short of calling the movie outright propaganda, and Phipps, who also praises the power of Eastwood’s direction and Cooper’s central performance, concludes his piece by arguing that American Sniper’s primary flaw is its failure to invest Kyle with greater psychological complexity: “Eastwood flirts with the idea of exploring the toll Kyle’s time in hell takes on him, but then backs away as the gunfire and the talk of duty overwhelm more tender human feelings. It’s ultimately a film about putting a kid in crosshairs, pulling the trigger, and learning not only to live with that action, but to live without regret. Is that possible? In the end, American Sniper doesn’t really care. It’s hard not to leave all that chaos with an admiration for Kyle’s heroism, but just as hard to not feel like Eastwood missed a chance to make a more substantial film about the man’s experience, the experiences of all the others who volunteer for duties most would do anything to avoid, and what it’s like to come back from it all to resume the life they fought to protect.”
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review in the A.V. Club, which appeared online the same day as Phipps’ Dissolve piece, nimbly argues that the movie does achieve a degree of psychological complexity while also making the crucial point that Eastwood’s perspective as a filmmaker was subtly at odds with Kyle’s point-of-view as the protagonist. “American Sniper never undermines the sincerity of Kyle’s worldview,” Vishnevetsky writes. “This isn’t a man haunted by guilt or violence; as far as Kyle is concerned, he did necessary but troubling work in a necessary but troubling war. What the movie does, instead, is complicate that sincerity; much of the direction and script – by Jason Hall, who wrote David Mackenzie’s very underrated and ambivalent Spread – hints at the idea that Kyle isn’t really cognizant of the effect killing so many people has had on him. Instead of giving him an ah-ha moment of self-awareness, the movie preserves this essential part of his character, and then plays it against him, perhaps too subtly for most tastes.”
Prior to its theatrical release, it was still possible for a true Hollywood liberal like Jane Fonda to show support for the film on social media, with either little or no fear of a public backlash. On December 21, she tweeted: “Just saw ‘American Sniper.’ Powerful. Another view of ‘Coming Home.’ Bradley Cooper sensational. Bravo Clint Eastwood.” Among the nearly 100 responses to this tweet in the days that followed were comments ranging from those who predictably called out “Hanoi Jane” for her supposed hypocrisy in praising Eastwood’s ostensibly patriotic movie to film critic Sean Burns who hilariously evoked the gruesome, head-exploding opening of one of David Cronenberg’s most notorious movies when he imagined the response of certain right-wing pundits: “Fox News now a scene from SCANNERS.”
The December 29 issue of New York Magazine featured a mixed review by David Edelstein that amplified both the kind of criticisms and praise seen in Keith Phipps’ review; Edelstein lauded American Sniper for Eastwood’s command of film form but condemned it for its supposedly propagandistic content. On the plus side, according to Edelstein, “It’s a crackerjack piece of filmmaking, a declaration that (Eastwood’s) not yet ready to be classified as an Old Master, that he can out-Bigelow Kathryn Bigelow.” On the minus side: “Morally, though, he has regressed from the heights of Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) . . . The people Kyle shoots always represent a ‘savage, despicable evil,’ and the physical and mental cost to other Americans just comes with the territory. It’s a Republican platform movie.”
But it was not until after American Sniper’s wide release on January 16, 2015 that the furor over its perceived politics truly exploded. Without mentioning American Sniper by name, Fahrenheit 9/11 director and outspoken liberal pundit Michael Moore implicitly criticized the film in a tweet on January 18 in which he stated that his uncle had been killed by a Japanese sniper during World War II and that, as a result, he had been “…taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot you in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes.” This tweet inspired over 10,000 responses on Twitter alone, many of them hostile, including one from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who suggested that Moore would better appreciate American Sniper if he spent “a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram.” (This is, of course, hardly a fair suggestion since neither of those terrorist groups are among the “enemies” actually depicted in Eastwood’s movie). After the Hollywood Reporter and Deadline Hollywood reported on this Twitter controversy, Moore took to Facebook to elaborate, presumably because of its option of unlimited characters, and praised some aspects of the film (Cooper’s performance and some “anti-war sentiment”) while also criticizing Eastwood for getting “Vietnam and Iraq confused in his storytelling” and “having his characters calling Iraqis ‘savages’ throughout the film” (though this latter criticism again makes the assumption that Chris Kyle and other characters serve the function of being mere mouthpieces for the filmmakers).
Just as controversial was a tweet by actor and comedian Seth Rogen, also published on January 18: “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious (sic) Basterds.” This tweet, which referred to the faux Nazi propaganda documentary Nation’s Pride, created by Quentin Tarantino expressly for his celebrated 2009 World War II film, was “liked” by over 16,000 people, retweeted over 9,000 times and elicited nearly 5,500 replies on Twitter alone (again, many of them hostile). Following the outrage, Rogen quickly walked back his jokey criticism by claiming, rather disingenuously, that his words were only meant to compare two movies that both happened to be about lethal snipers and insisted that he was not implying Eastwood’s film was in any way propagandistic. But these controversial celebrity tweets were only the most high-profile examples of a culture war that was being waged by ordinary men and women across the United States at large. An article by David Boroff in the New York Daily News on the Monday following the sensational opening weekend of American Sniper’s wide release claimed that the movie had sparked a “hateful reaction to Arabs on Twitter.” Among the offensive and bigoted statements in the tweets that Boroff cited: “American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some fucking Arabs,” “Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are – vermin scum intent on destroying us,” and “American sniper made me appreciate American soilders (sic) 100x more and hate Muslims 1000000x more.”
Boroff’s piece was one of many articles detailing a correlation between American Sniper and a fresh wave of hate speech against Arabs and/or Muslims on social media. Which begs the question: if the film had not been intended as a work of jingoistic hate mongering but ended up being misinterpreted that way by ignoramuses seeking to have their prejudices flattered, to what extent (if any) should the filmmakers be held responsible for this misunderstanding? The tenor of the reviews going forward would thus be very different: the question of whether Eastwood, Hall, Cooper and Co. were responsible for inciting hatred against Arabs, even if unintentionally, became a question that no one writing about the film could avoid. This phenomenon was not dissimilar to how critics and other journalists felt the need to address the thorny moral question of whether or not Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty had shown in 2012 that “torture worked” in the CIA’s acquisition of intelligence that led to locating and killing Osama bin Laden. In the instance of the reaction to both films, the uproar seems to have begun first on social media before bleeding over and eventually becoming an important part of the critical discourse surrounding each movie on a journalistic level.
Author and journalist Matt Taibbi wrote an op-ed in Rolling Stone published on January 21, 2015 titled “‘American Sniper’ is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize” – less than one month after that same magazine’s official film critic, Peter Travers, had given the movie a three-and-a-half out of four stars rave. Taibbi, who is not a film critic and was therefore unconcerned with Eastwoodian aesthetics or Cooper’s performance, faulted the filmmakers on moral grounds for creating a simplistic “fairy tale” that he felt should have done more to contextualize the war on terror that it depicted (e.g., they should have explicated its root causes as well as clarified that there was no actual connection between the country of Iraq and the terror attacks on 9/11): “. . . filmmakers like Eastwood, who could have cleared things up, only muddy the waters more. Sometimes there’s no such thing as ‘just a human story.’ Sometimes a story is meaningless or worse without real context, and this is one of them.”
Conversely, Mayukh Sen wrote an essay for Vice titled “Is Jane Fonda Right About ‘American Sniper’?,” published on February 4, that used Fonda’s then six-week-old tweet as a jumping-off point to examine how the film had become “the moral outrage police’s latest punching bag.” Sen noted that some of the think pieces criticizing the film were penned by writers who admitted to not having seen it (like the New Republic’s Dennis Jett) and mounted an intelligent defense. While Sen acknowledges that the act of killing undeniably “thrills” Chris Kyle in the movie, he also elaborates on one of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s most salient points – that “the experience has numbed him in a way he doesn’t entirely understand” and cites as examples a couple of the film’s subtler details: Kyle not feeling like his alarmingly high blood-pressure is a big deal, and the truly disturbing moment where Kyle almost attacks the family dog. Sen then addresses the broader question of “So what if the American public misses the finer points?” and reminds us that Eastwood has never been a filmmaker to provide easy answers.
The final paragraph of this essay, in which Sen doubles down on his critical defense by going so far as to claim that American Sniper functions as a subversive critique of the “pathology of patriotism,” is worth quoting at length: “Fonda is right. The film shows a side of war that Coming Home glossed over: the troubling pathology of patriotism. In one scene in Sniper, Kyle watches the collapse of the World Trade Center on television, and it’s as if he freezes in time. The moment recalls an early scene in Coming Home, when Fonda, before she becomes ‘radicalized,’ stands firm as she listens to the national anthem on television. In those moments, Cooper and Fonda’s faces cut deep, getting at something perversely authentic —the sad, sorry myth of American exceptionalism some of us never outgrow.”
In an era of instant “hot takes,” one critic who benefited from waiting a while to write about American Sniper was J. Hoberman, whose review, titled “The Great American Shooter,” did not appear in the New York Review of Books until February 13 (nearly two months after the film’s limited release and nearly one month after its wide release). This delayed response allowed Hoberman to explicitly incorporate the controversy surrounding the movie into his carefully considered review, which cheekily begins with a bit of misdirection. “A country boy, who is a fabulous, natural shot,” Hoberman writes, “goes to war and neutralizes an unprecedented number of enemy combatants. Books are written. A respected Hollywood director makes the movie that will be the biggest hit of his career: it’s received with near-unanimous praise, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and no small amount of controversy.”
Hoberman’s second paragraph begins by informing readers that he is not talking about American Sniper. Rather, “The movie is Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper as the real-life World War I hero Alvin York, which opened five months before Pearl Harbor, and went on to be the most popular movie of 1941 – a ‘phenomenon of staggering proportions,’ according to Hawks’ biographer Todd McCarthy. The same can be said of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.” Hoberman’s comparison between the war films of Hawks and Eastwood, made over 70 years apart, is instructive. By showing how Sergeant York had become a similar cultural phenomenon in the United States on the eve of World War II, he provides some much-needed context; the popularity of Eastwood’s movie may have been due in large part to the way it stoked feelings of nationalism in a certain segment of the American audience but, as had been the case with the unexpected popularity of Sergeant York, American Sniper may also have ended up fulfilling deep cultural needs in ways that its makers could not quite have anticipated nor even intended.
Hoberman, always one of America’s most astute ideologically minded film critics, goes on to invoke Eastwood’s controversial appearance at the 2012 Republican National Convention (where the filmmaker’s mental health was questioned by liberal commentators for merely reviving the old vaudeville routine of speaking to an invisible guest in a chair), compare and contrast American Sniper to Selma, and quote responses to both films by figures as diverse as Jane Fonda, right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh, and former Alaska governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Hoberman also mentions that a French journalist had asked him if he thought the movie’s popularity was a response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre (“I told him that, on the contrary, the success struck me as symptomatic of American self-absorption”).
Perhaps surprisingly, Hoberman’s review of American Sniper was an unequivocal rave; unlike most other critics writing with an undeniably leftist slant, Hoberman saw American Sniper’s status as a cultural bellwether not as any kind of sop to patriotism but rather as proof of its relevance and vitality. In his concluding paragraph, Hoberman acknowledges that Eastwood’s film performed the unique feat of providing a blank canvas onto which different spectators could project different, even contradictory, desires: “American Sniper embodies a national repetition compulsion, what Freud defined as ‘the desire to return to an earlier state of things.’ For the artist that state may be the memory of watching the unambiguously heroic Sgt. York in the reassuring company of his father. For some members of the audience, American Sniper may offer a similarly comforting sense of a guardian angel and a cathartic righteous anger. For others, the movie may serve to assuage contrition for a war that, twelve years after it was begun, has left Iraq, as well as many of our own returning combatants, shattered. But for many, I suspect, American Sniper may be weirdly liberating — gratifying a perhaps hitherto unsuspected desire to see their pessimism, hopeless and unchanging, projected on the screen.”
The further away from opening weekend a piece of critical writing about American Sniper appeared, the less it seems the author felt the need to claim a stake in a hot-button issue cultural battle. Greater distance from the film has arguably provided greater clarity and objectivity, as evidenced by Matthew Gault’s essay “Reality Check – ‘American Sniper’ is an Anti-War Film,” which appeared on the website War is Boring on August 31, 2016, almost two years after the film’s World Premiere. Gault reconciles the film’s ostensibly contradictory elements by noting that “Kyle, the character, is pro-war and the film does glamorize his achievements” before going on to also claim: “But Eastwood takes pains to contrast those glories with painful scenes of Kyle coming home to a country he doesn’t understand, and a family he has trouble connecting to. It’s an anti-war film and obviously, staunchly so.
“Eastwood’s genius is that he crafted a movie that achieves its anti-war message without becoming preachy or overbearing. Unfortunately, that subtlety blew past viewers in their rush to reinforce their preconceived notions about a man who, by all accounts, killed a lot of people.
“For me, it’s hard to imagine a film that opens with the death of a child, even one cast as an enemy combatant, as anything but anti-war.”
It is perhaps surprising that it took almost two years before anyone felt the need to pen an article explicitly stating the idea that the movie could be anti-war even while its protagonist is pro-war; but Gault not only had the benefit of critical hindsight, he was also able to incorporate statements made about the film by Eastwood himself from a talk that the director had given to students at the Loyola Maramount University School of Television and Film in 2015. In response to a question about whether American Sniper glorifies war, Gault quotes Eastwood’s halting reply at length: “’No I don’t think it glorifies,’ he said before switching track. ‘I think it glorifies it, sure. I mean in the first sequence he shoots down . . .’ he trailed off, choosing his words carefully.
“’Yeah, the sniping part is. But you know then eventually as that scene indicates that he’s getting . . . you can see it’s starting to tell on him, and later on when he visits a psychiatrist and has to talk to him, and the psychiatrist says did you do anything along the way over there that you felt you shouldn’t have? And you could tell by the look on his face that yeah, he’s got some regrets in there . . . I think it’s nice for veterans, because it shows what they go through, and that life – and the wives of families and veterans. It has a great indication of the stress they are under. And I think that all adds up to kind of an anti-war [message].”
Gault goes on to cite scenes from the film that he sees as exemplifying what Eastwood termed the film’s anti-war message, chief among them the startling moment where Chris Kyle runs into his younger brother Jeff in Iraq. When Chris embraces the newly enlisted Jeff and tells him that both he and their father are proud of him, Jeff’s response is to grimace and mutter, “Fuck this place,” before backing away and repeating the same phrase in a louder tone of voice. Gault does not go so far as to claim that the point-of-view of the filmmakers is more in line with Jeff’s disillusionment with the war in Iraq than it is with Chris’ unswerving patriotism; rather, he shows that the complex substance of the movie is to be found in Eastwood’s powerful reaction shots of Chris Kyle’s confusion and incomprehension that “someone so close to him” could ever express such disillusionment in the first place.
If Chris Kyle is a tragic hero, a single-minded, deeply flawed and even racist figure, but one who also nonetheless inspires awe because of how his near-superhuman marksmanship differentiates him from the crowds of civilization, then perhaps the character in American cinema he most closely resembles is Ethan Edwards, the unforgettable protagonist played by John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers. It took decades for critics to understand the full psychological complexity of Edwards and how Ford deliberately presented the character in a negative critical light for his pathology and racism while also simultaneously asking viewers to bask in the awesome glory of his heroic feats. It is entirely possible that critics writing about American Sniper are still too close to the “war on terror” today to understand how Eastwood could have intended to paint a similarly complicated portrait of Chris Kyle.
For now, I’ll leave the final word to Titus Techera whose article “Clint Eastwood and the Recovery of Manliness as a Civic Virtue” appeared in the National Review on June 3, 2017. Techera sees a direct link between American Sniper and Eastwood’s 2016 follow-up Sully in that both tell the true stories of heroic American males who took responsibility for the lives of others in times of crisis (a trend that apparently continues with Eastwood’s next movie, The 15:17 to Paris): “His movies offer Americans worthwhile stories of leadership, and that’s one part of prudence in our times,” Techera writes. “He wants to give America something that it had when he himself was growing up but that it lost somewhere along the way: popular stories that beautify what’s good about America, in order to inspire, and which include dramatic renderings of what’s gone wrong without inducing despair. He has insisted on true stories for the most part to show that hope is grounded in American realities and that escape into fantasies is not the path to take in a time of troubles.”
1. Fallen Angels (Wong) – A-
2. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh) – A+
3. Chungking Express (Wong) – A
4. Days of Being Wild (Wong) – A
5. As Tears Go By (Wong) – B
6. Shockproof* (Sirk) – B+
7. Bitter Moon (Polanski) – A
8. Ulzana’s Raid* (Aldrich) – A-
9. Paisan (Rossellini) – A+
10. The Night Holds Terror* (Stone) – B
* – first-time view