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Monthly Archives: October 2010

D.W. Griffith: Opening Act for . . . Bob Dylan?

For most of the shows on Bob Dylan’s current U.S. tour, he’s had an unusual opening act: a lengthy excerpt of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 masterpiece Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages. Approximately thirty minutes before showtime, the first twenty minutes of Intolerance has been shown, without musical accompaniment, to the apparent bewilderment of most concertgoers. While this has been a staple of all the earlier shows on Dylan’s fall tour, he regrettably opted not to show it last night before his concert at Chicago’s historic Riviera Theatre; in a simple twist of fate, it turns out that Griffith’s film already played the Riviera 91 years ago.

Although the Riviera has been a concert hall since 1986, it was originally built as a movie theater in 1917. When Intolerance initially opened in Chicago, it screened from the holidays in 1916 through March of 1917 at the Colonial Theatre, which was the old Iroquois Theatre (and where the Oriental is now). However, Intolerance was a notorious commercial flop (like Dylan’s Street-Legal album, you could say it was ahead of its time); in an effort to recoup expenses, Griffith released a re-edited version in 1919, The Mother and the Law, which focused on only one of the film’s four narrative strands. This version played the Riviera in November of that year:

Intolerance is an important film for several reasons. When it was released in 1916 it was probably the most complex and ambitious movie ever made by anyone, outdoing Griffith’s own groundbreaking The Birth of a Nation from a year earlier (and to which it was intended to act as a sort of corrective). Intolerance tells four separate, unrelated stories that take place in four different eras of history: ancient Egypt during the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at Golgotha, the massacre of the Huguenots in 16th century France and a contemporary American story about a man wrongfully convicted of murder. The editing in the film is mind-blowing because Griffith does not present the stories consecutively. Instead, he freely intercuts back and forth between them, enticing viewers to use their imaginations to understand how the stories may be thematically linked.

Unfortunately, the commercial failure of Intolerance was one of the contributing factors to Griffith’s decline, as this 1921 notice of bankruptcy filing in the New York Times makes clear:

New York Times,
(Sat., February 19, 1921), p.15
WARK PRODUCING CORPORATION, moving pictures, at 1,476 Broadway, has filed schedules in bankruptcy, with liabilities of $298,910, unsecured claims and assets of $125,042, consisting of films, pictures, prints, &c., $65,000; accounts $13,927 and deposits in banks $47,016. Copyright on motion picture play, “Intolerance,” is given as value unknown. Among the creditors are D. W. Griffith, $84,334; D. W. Griffith, Inc. $975; D. W. G. Corp., $60,230; H. E. Aitken, $8,136, and Norman Hall, $6,610.

But the film’s posterity is ensured. It is a staple of film history classes everywhere (including mine) and its artistic influence has been incalculable; it profoundly effected everything from the Soviet Montage films of the 1920s (whose directors were inspired by Griffith to use editing as the primary basis for creating and understanding movies), to German Expressionist classics like Paul Leni’s Waxworks and Fritz Lang’s Destiny, to Scandinavian art films like Benjamin Christensen’s Witchcraft Through the Ages and Carl Dreyer’s Leaves from Satan’s Book, to Hollywood parodies like Buster Keaton’s Three Ages.

Exactly why Dylan chose to treat his audience to a little pre-show Griffith is anyone’s guess but clues may be found in some recent interviews given by the Bard. In a Rolling Stone interview from last year, Dylan, a long time fan of classic American film, professed a fondness for John Ford, using language striking in its intensity:

“I like his old films,” Dylan says. “He was a man’s man, and he thought that way. He never let his guard down. Put courage and bravery, redemption and a peculiar mix of agony and ecstasy on the screen in a brilliant dramatic manner. His movies were easy to understand. I like that period of time in American films. I think America has produced the greatest films ever. No other country has ever come close. The great movies that came out of America in the studio system, which a lot of people say is the slavery system, were heroic and visionary, and inspired people in a way that no other country has ever done. If film is the ultimate art form, then you’ll need to look no further than those films. Art has the ability to transform people’s lives, and they did just that.”

This echoes something that Dylan had said earlier on his excellent but short-lived radio show Theme Time Radio Hour about Ford being one of his “favorite directors,” a statement made after playing an audio excerpt from the film version of The Grapes of Wrath.

In an interview with Robert Hilburn in 2004, Dylan spoke with reverence about famed 19th century songwriter Stephen Foster and expounded on the importance of artists being exposed to the roots of the artists they admire: “But you can’t just copy somebody. If you like someone’s work, the important thing is to be exposed to everything that person has been exposed to.” Ever the archaeologist, Dylan’s apparently recent “Ford phase” probably led him back to studying the films of Griffith, as Griffith, the “Father of Film,” was unquestionably the biggest single influence on Ford. (On one of the rare occasions when Ford publicly accepted an award, he turned his eyes to the heavens and simply said, “Thank you, D.W.”)

Whatever the reason, thank you, Bob, for taking Intolerance on the road with you and showing it the way it should be seen – in large-scale projected form. And even though you didn’t show Intolerance last night, the concert you gave was, in its own way, a Griffith-like “super-production”:

1. Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
2. The Man In Me
3. Things Have Changed
4. Positively 4th Street
5. Summer Days
6. The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
7. Cold Irons Bound
8. Simple Twist Of Fate
9. High Water (For Charley Patton)
10. If You Ever Go To Houston
11. Highway 61 Revisited
12. Tangled Up In Blue
13. Thunder On The Mountain
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man
(encore)
15. Jolene
16. Like A Rolling Stone
17. Forever Young

Thanks to Adam Selzer for help with research on this post.

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Putting Out Fire with Gasoline (First Time Around)

In honor of Halloween, today’s post concerns one of my favorite horror movies – the RKO production of Cat People from 1942, produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur.

Beginning in the early 1940s, RKO Radio Pictures released a cycle of low-budget but poetic horror movies designed to compete with the wildly successful monster movies that Universal Studios had been churning out for over a decade. Cat People is the first and probably the most famous example of this unique and celebrated breed of horror. Although directed by Jacques Tourneur, a great director in his own right who would go on to make Out of the Past (one of the masterpieces of film noir), Cat People today is more often than not discussed as the work of its producer, Val Lewton, rather than Tourneur. In our auteurist age, where movies are typically thought of as personal expressions of their directors, even by casual movie fans, this makes Lewton something of an anomaly.

When the Ukrainian-born, former MGM writer Lewton was given his own B-horror production unit at RKO early in 1942, he was given three rules to follow: he had to use titles for his films that were supplied by his superiors, he had to work with a meager budget of only $150,000 per picture and he had to bring in each film at a running time of under 75 minutes. Within those parameters, Lewton could do as he pleased and he had a talented group of writers, directors, actors and technicians under his command. He would re-use this team (including writer DeWitt Bodeen, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and directors Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson) over and over through classic chillers like Curse of the Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man and, my personal favorite, The Seventh Victim. If Lewton is today considered the primary “author” of these movies, it’s because they have more in common with each other than any of them do with other films made by the same directors that were not produced by Lewton. Also, as Kent Jones points out in his excellent documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, Lewton was the definitive hands-on producer who practically “pre-directed” his movies on paper before shooting began.

So what are the hallmarks of a Lewton production? First of all, he worked exclusively in the horror genre but he had unique ideas about how horror should be conveyed. The horror in the RKO cycle is almost always supernatural in nature and yet there’s also a certain amount of ambiguity surrounding the supernatural elements – Lewton liked to keep these elements off-screen and out of sight. Cat People, for instance, is about a “cursed” young woman who literally turns into a giant cat when driven to extreme emotional states. However, you never see her as the “cat person” because after the transformation has taken place, she is either kept off-screen or hidden in shadows onscreen (as is the case with the film’s justifiably famous indoor swimming pool scene). Low-key lighting was very important to Lewton’s films because he felt that keeping crucial visual information shrouded in darkness would allow the audience to imagine what was there. Lewton knew that the horror you can imagine is more frightening than anything you can be shown.

Also key to Lewton’s universe is having a strong-willed but sympathetic female protagonist. In Cat People it’s a young Serbian woman named Irena (played with an appropriate mixture of creepiness, stubbornness and vulnerability by the wonderful French actress Simone Simon), who suffers from the aforementioned ancient curse. Or is it simply a figment of her imagination? After a whirlwind courtship with Oliver (Kent Smith), a successful, blandly handsome engineer, the disturbed young woman gets married but, fearing the transformation that may take place in the heat of passion (paging Dr. Freud!), she refuses to consummate the marriage. As time goes by, Oliver grows impatient with his beautiful but frigid bride and enters into a relationship with Alice (Jane Randolph), an attractive co-worker.

It is within these characters and their interrelationships that the film’s modest genius resides. Oliver comes across as a nice guy on the surface but the closer one looks the more he seems uncaring and a little too quick to jump into the arms of the next attractive woman who comes along. The moment in the film when he and Alice give Irena the brush-off in a museum is genuinely heartbreaking. For her part, Irena comes across as both killer and victim; Cat People may be typical of the 1940s in that it “others” female sexuality but the tension between the filmmakers’ conflicting desires to make Irena the character of whom we are afraid and with whom we are meant to most closely identify makes the film look unusually complex today. The one time Irena acts on her murderous impulses is when a psychiatrist, Dr. Judd (winningly played with repugnant self-satisfaction by Tom Conway), betrays her trust and makes unwanted sexual advances towards her. In other words, the good doc gets what’s coming to him. This strategy of having the viewer identify with “the other” character is unusual even in today’s horror movies (see my recent post on Guillermo del Toro) but it is also precisely what makes Cat People a beautiful, poignant and, finally, tragic film; Val Lewton knew how to make us locate the horror within ourselves.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Bicycle Thieves (de Sica)
2. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
3. Fantomas (Feuillade)
4. The Devil’s Wedding Night (Batzella)
5. Point Blank (Boorman)
6. Hereafter (Eastwood)
7. Psycho (Hitchcock)
8. Wolf Creek (McLean)
9. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)
10. The Innocents (Clayton)


46th Chicago International Film Festival Report Card

From my perspective, a member of the ticket-buying public who also happens to teach film studies, this was the strongest CIFF in years. Of course, the opening night slot was again taken by a would-be prestige film with no real “awards season” prospects that was predictably dumped on us by a major studio (Stone) and one could always nitpick the absence of such major 2010 festival players as Carlos, Film Socialisme, Hahaha, Poetry, The Strange Case of Angelica, Mysteries of Lisbon, Another Year, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Road to Nowhere, etc. On the other hand, it was a major coup to land such heavyweight titles as Cannes winners Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and On Tour. Combine those films with Chicago premieres/gala screenings of genuinely anticipated titles like Black Swan, Tamara Drewe and Hereafter, not to mention a “Visionary Award” / Q&A session with a director who actually deserved the honor (Guillermo del Toro) and you have the recipe for a successful festival.

Unfortunately, I was able to only take in 8 screenings (out of over 100 available). I tried to diversify as much as possible by going with films by directors I admire (Uncle Boonmee, Certified Copy), recommendations from friends (Caterpillar, Heartbeats) as well as a few stabs in the dark based on catalogue descriptions (Shorts 4, Devil’s Town). The one screening I really regret missing is Tuesday, After Christmas, the latest buzzed-about film of the Romanian New Wave. But it wouldn’t be a proper festival experience without “the one that got away.” Here is a report card of my festival experience:

Certified Copy (Kiarostami, France/Italy/Iran)
Grade: A+ / 10

Who could’ve guessed that austere Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami would end up doing his best work by shooting a warm, gentle and wise comedy in Italy with French superstar Juliette Binoche? An English writer (opera singer William Shimell) and a French antique store owner (Binoche) meet at a lecture given by the former on the topic of his new book – the qualitative difference between original works of art and their reproductions; she invites him on a tour of a nearby Tuscan village, during which time they converse about life, love and art. Midway through the film, they begin to play-act that they are a married couple for the benefit of a café owner who is under that mistaken impression. Only the longer they carry on the act the more it seems as if they really are married and perhaps they were merely play-acting to be strangers in the beginning. I don’t know how “original” this brilliant cinematic sleight of hand is or how much it intentionally “reproduces” Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Bunuel in general (acknowledged most obviously by the presence of his longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere). But I do know this film is a genuine masterpiece, one that haunted me for days. I can’t wait to see it again.

Cinema of the Americas’ Visionary Award – Tribute to Guillermo del Toro / The Devil’s Backbone
Grade: A+

Me, Guillermo del Toro and my wife, Jillian

In receiving the festival’s Visionary Award, del Toro, a witty raconteur, regaled the capacity audience with tales of his adventures in filmmaking across Mexico, Spain and the U.S. and was abetted by surprise guest Ron “Hellboy” Perlman. The genuine affection between the two was touching to behold (Perlman’s deferred salary helped del Toro complete his first feature Cronos and del Toro repaid the favor years later by insisting against vociferous studio exec objections that only Perlman could play Hellboy). Both were even gracious enough to put in a little face time at the requisite “after party” held at a nearby nightclub. A rare screening of The Devil’s Backbone in 35mm was the icing on the cake; for me, the true highlight was watching del Toro kiss my star-struck wife on the cheek.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Grade: A- / 8.9

A man searches the jungle for an elusive “monkey ghost” before sprouting hair and blazing red eyes and becoming one himself. A princess copulates with a talking catfish. An orange-robed Buddhist monk checks his cell phone. Welcome to the wonderful world of Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, the international face of Thai art cinema. Joe’s latest is a gentle, meditative fable about the titular character, dying of kidney disease, who not only can recall past lives but is also attended to by the ghosts of dead family members. God, it can be so refreshing to see a movie that does not aspire in the least to follow any sort of Hollywood-style narrative formula, especially when that movie is presided over by a director whose employment of image and sound is as masterful and poetic as this.

Heartbeats (Dolan, Canada)
Grade: B+ / 7.5

Francis and Marie are best friends. He’s gay and she’s straight. Their friendship is put to the test when they meet Nico, a handsome, seemingly bi-sexual Adonis-type who conforms to both of their romantic ideals. As a statement on young love today, this arty, candy-colored rom-com is funny, tender and very, very sweet. Derided in some circles as “style over substance,” I was only too happy to see a new movie packed with enough filmmaking smarts to fill half a dozen others. At just 22 years old, writer/director/actor Xavier Dolan is clearly someone to keep an eye on.

On Tour (Amalric, France)
Grade: B- / 6.6

Rumor has it that On Tour has yet to find a U.S. distributor due to expensive music rights so I was grateful to catch this at CIFF. The wonderful actor Mathieu Amalric directs and stars as Joachim, a formerly successful television producer who has since fallen on hard times and is forced to hustle a living by producing a traveling burlesque show. A genuine sense of warmth develops between Joachim and the American burlesque performers (all real dancers playing themselves) as he shuttles them along the coast of France, booking venues and hotel rooms by the seat of his pants. However, this unfocused ramble doesn’t quite achieve the depth of characterization of its obvious model, John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and one suspects that Amalric’s Best Director win at Cannes was possible only because he also plays a director-type character in front of the camera. Still, Amalric is fun to watch as a variation on his usual fuck-up character and the dance routines are magnificent.

Caterpillar (Wakamatsu, Japan)
Grade: C / 6.3

An odd, genuinely disturbing Japanese drama about a soldier returning home to a small village after losing both his arms and legs in WWII. He attempts to assuage his anguished memories of rape and murder through overindulging in food and sex and ironically finds himself pronounced a “living war God” by the local villagers. I didn’t quite know what to make of this film; as a statement about how war dehumanizes everyone it touches, it’s undeniably effective. But there’s also a pointed lack of humor as well as the kind of sociological insights that a director like Imamura would’ve brought to the table. In fact, Imamura’s great final film (the short, cryptic Japan), accomplishes much more in the span of just a few minutes.

Shorts Program 4: Together Apart (Various directors and countries)
Grade: C-

As with all “shorts programs” these days, this was the usual international mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly, with everything being shot on video. The one obvious standout was White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug, a terrific documentary about a curiously under-documented era: the Bronx in the early days of hip-hop. Let’s hope director Travis Senger is able to turn it into a feature.

Devil’s Town (Paskaljevic, Serbia)
Grade: D / 4.1

A wannabe Altmanesque comedy about the crisscrossing lives of a dozen or so citizens of Belgrade over the course of one long day. I’m sure this was intended to be some sort of dark social satire but I was repulsed by the lightness that writer/director Vladimir Paskaljevic made of rape, cruelty to animals, violence towards women, child abuse and pedophilia. The sooner I forget this movie the better, a sentiment with which I’m sure Serbia’s Board of Tourism would readily agree.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Devil’s Town (Paskaljevic)
2. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston)
3. Detour (Ulmer)
4. Out of the Past (Tourneur)
5. The Maltese Falcon (Huston)
6. The Changeling (Medak)
7. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh)
8. The Devil’s Backbone (del Toro)
9. Cat People (Tourneur)
10. Heartbeats (Dolan)


Giving The Devil’s Backbone Its Due

Tonight the Chicago International Film Festival will be honoring Guillermo del Toro with their “Visionary Award.” The evening will include a rare 35mm screening of del Toro’s 2002 film, The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo), followed by a Q&A with the director. In advance, here is my own appreciation for del Toro and the movie.

Among general audiences Guillermo del Toro is best known as the director of the Hollywood comic book adaptations Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Among cinephiles, del Toro is better known as the director of Pan’s Labyrinth, the Spanish fairy tale/political allegory that won a surprising 3 Oscars in 2007. Personally, I celebrate the man’s entire catalogue (to borrow a phrase from Office Space); even Blade II occupies a place of honor in my home video library. Part of the fun in admiring del Toro is noticing how the same themes and visual motifs run through his entire body of work; these cinematic threads end up weaving their way through a lot of otherwise disparate movies that have been made in different film industries all over the world.

Del Toro was born and raised in Mexico but the only film he made in his native country was his first, the wonderful vampire movie Cronos from 1993. Since then he’s become a true international auteur, seemingly at home both inside of the Hollywood mainstream as well as with more arthouse-oriented fare such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both of which were made independently in Spain. One of the things binding del Toro’s movies together is an interest in the supernatural; fantastic elements manifest themselves in very different ways in each one of his films. For example, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone were designed as companion pieces, with Pan’s Labyrinth conceived of as the feminine “sister” film to the more masculine Devil’s Backbone. This is most obvious in that the earlier film centers on a little boy as protagonist and the later film centers on a little girl. But the supernatural elements in Pan’s Labyrinth can be seen as “feminine” in their fairytale nature whereas the supernatural elements in The Devil’s Backbone are “masculine” in that they’re closer to pure horror.

The Devil’s Backbone is indeed the closest that del Toro has ever come to making a straight horror film, but it isn’t quite that, in spite of the director’s obvious love of monsters and the grotesque. This is in part because del Toro’s project is to always try combining different genres. First of all, The Devil’s Backbone is a melodrama. (In del Toro’s own words, all of his movies are melodramas because he’s Mexican.) But the primary genres combined in the witches’ brew that is The Devil’s Backbone are the gothic horror film and the war film. The gothic horror arises from ghost story elements that are very conventional in a lot of respects: the story involves a ghost who cannot rest until the secret behind his death is brought to light and justice has been served – a classic ghost story narrative, to be sure. But del Toro puts his own spin on the tale by setting the story in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, a unique juxtaposition. Del Toro well knows the importance of satisfying the audience by acknowledging genre conventions in their broadest outlines while simultaneously making the movie his own through the accumulation of small details.

On the audio commentary track to The Devil’s Backbone DVD, del Toro says something simple and profound – that the best horror tales are those where the teller of the tale is in love with the monster. What a succinct definition of what makes a horror movie work! This is also arguably an explanation of why horror movies today are not as successful as horror movies from previous generations. Think of the Universal horror movies of the 1930s or the Hammer horror films of the 1950s. The main object of interest in those movies is the monster. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Wolf Man are objects of repulsion and fascination but they are inarguably the stars of the show. Today, the predominant form the horror movie has taken is that of the “slasher” film. In the slasher, the killer is more often than not faceless and silent and the primary sense of characterization in these movies falls solely onto the victims and drawn-out scenes of their suffering.

Del Toro elaborates on his theory that in a good horror tale the teller must love the monster by saying that he thinks the horror genre is the most humanistic of all genres because, at their best, horror movies ask us to sympathize and identify with “the other.” While it’s debatable whether del Toro had “torture porn” (the subgenre favored by Hollywood these days) in mind when he made this statement, the notion of identifying with the other is unquestionably a strategy at work in his own movies. Think of the lovingly detailed way in which the ghost, Santi, is presented in The Devil’s Backbone – with his pale, translucent skin and the blood pouring out of his cracked skull that floats upward as if traveling through water. Combine this with the film’s appropriate tag line, “The living are always more dangerous than the dead,” and you’ll have more than a glimmer of what del Toro is up to.

Another important recurring del Toro motif is the heavy burden of responsibility his characters feel in the face of difficult moral choices. For instance, in Blade II Wesley Snipes is a vampire, essentially at war with his own nature, who has chosen to fight other vampires. In Hellboy, Hellboy is a demon who has been conjured from hell by the Nazis but who has ultimately chosen to use his demonic powers for good. This aspect of the film is wonderfully symbolized in the scenes where we see Hellboy literally filing down the horns on his head to prevent them from growing into full-blown devil horns.

In Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone the moral choices the characters have to make concern more real world horrors as both films take place during the Spanish Civil War. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the climax of the film revolves around the main character, Ofelia, having to make a difficult choice in the face of certain death. In The Devil’s Backbone, the setting is the aforementioned orphanage in the earliest days of the war, several years before the action of Pan’s Labyrinth begins. The orphanage functions then as a kind of microcosm of Spain and the choice that the main characters have to make is whether to go along with the rising tide of fascism that is sweeping the country or whether to resist it. Like Douglas Sirk and other great Hollywood melodramatists of old, del Toro knows that the best way to get audiences to examine similar questions with respect to their own lives is to smuggle these kind of moral dilemmas into entertaining films that communicate with audiences in a simple and direct way.


Other parallels between The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth:

– Both films employ circular structures where the first scene is repeated as the final scene.
– Both feature voice over narration only during the opening and closing scenes.
– The narrative proper of each movie begins with a child arriving at a new home and then being visited on the first night by a magical or fantastic creature.
– Both lead characters spend the majority of each film trying to solve a mystery posed by the creature on that first night.

Also drawn from del Toro’s commentary track on The Devil’s Backbone DVD, here is an illuminating list of the diverse influences on the film:

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Charles Dickens in general
H.P. Lovecraft in general
Luis Bunuel in general
Mexican melodramas starring Pedro Infante
Alfred Hitchcok in general and Sabotage in particular
Mario Bava in general
Sergio Leone in general
John Ford’s westerns and The Searchers in particular


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. The Ruins (Smith)
2. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
3. The Thin Red Line (Malick)
4. Shorts 4: Together Apart (various)
5. Citizen Kane (Welles)
6. On Tour (Amalric)
7. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul)
8. Certified Copy (Kiarostami)
9. Far From Heaven (Haynes)
10. Street of Shame (Mizoguchi)


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