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Tag Archives: 2001: A Space Odyssey

“Basic” Film Language

Most artistically ambitious film directors in the sound era have dreamed of returning to the aesthetics of silent cinema. Stanley Kubrick expressly stated his intention of creating a “visual, nonverbal experience” when he made 2001: A Space Odyssey. That movie’s lengthy dialogue-free passages (and, for that matter, passages where dialogue is present but ultimately unimportant) are what many critics had in mind when they recently invoked it in discussions of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – not coincidentally another unusually ambitious cinematic attempt to show man’s relationship to the universe. Other films in recent decades have impressed with audacious scenes of little or no dialogue: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge with its epic, climactic heist sequence, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West with its comically drawn-out train station showdown, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger with its virtuosic long take/crane shot accompanying Jack Nicholson’s offscreen suicide, Ken Ogata carrying his mother up the mountain in Shohei Imamura’s The Ballad of Narayama, and entire contemporary art films like Jose Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia and most of the oeuvre of South Korean enfant terrible Kim Ki-duk. Then there is the matter of the curiously similar openings of Pixar’s WALL-E and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, both of which depict the solitary work of a lone protagonist in a harsh and unforgiving landscape. In both instances, more than fifteen minutes goes by before a single word of dialogue is spoken. And this is to say nothing of that earlier generation of directors (Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, et al.) who actually started directing in the silent era and then applied its lessons to sound era filmmaking.

One of my favorite non-verbal sequences in any movie of modern times can be found in Paul Verhoeven’s darkly comic thriller Basic Instinct, which also has the added benefit of being far less ostentatious about calling attention to its virtuosity than any of the examples cited above. In fact, even though I had seen the film several times (including a 35mm print during its original theatrical release as well as the notorious “unrated version” when it bowed on DVD) it wasn’t until I recently watched it on blu-ray for the first time that I even became aware that Verhoeven had plunked down two back-to-back dialogue-free sequences totaling eight and a half minutes of screen time in the middle of his movie. As far as I know this aspect of Basic Instinct hasn’t even been commented upon in any critical writing about the film. This passage of pure visual storytelling is both the high point of the movie as well as a great example of why Verhoeven remains one of contemporary cinema’s unheralded masters.

It has been much commented upon that Basic Instinct is essentially a reworking of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Both films detail the relationships between a psychologically disturbed cop and two contrasting women – the beautiful, mysterious and dangerous blonde woman of his dreams vs. his pragmatic, maternal and glasses-wearing ex-girlfriend. Verhoeven’s movie however is no mere retread. He displays an extreme (and extremely clever) self-consciousness in regard to gender roles that mark Basic Instinct as a defining film of the early 1990s in much the same way that the portrayal of repression in Vertigo marks it as a defining film of the late 1950s. But what is obvious watching Basic Instinct now that was less clear in 1992 is the extent to which it functions, like most of Verhoeven’s work, as a satire. Decades removed from its status as an epoch-making “zeitgeist movie” (with its controversial depictions of bisexual killers and full frontal nudity), it positively delights today as a witty send-up of erotic thriller conventions. Verhoeven takes a prominent subtext of the genre – male sexual insecurity in the face of a powerful, domineering female character – and makes it the explicit subject of Basic Instinct. (Not for nothing does Camille Paglia refer to it as one of her “favorite works of art.”) Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in the aforementioned non-verbal scenes, in which Verhoeven effectively utilizes the “basics” of film language to drive his point home.

The first such scene occurs after Michael Douglas’ character, police detective Nick Curran, has become hopelessly infatuated with Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone in her best performance), a famous mystery writer who also happens to be the chief suspect in a murder investigation Curran is heading. Off-duty, Curran follows Tramell to a decadent nightclub that apparently has been converted from an old church. A breathtaking crane shot introduces viewers to this beautifully designed location, which humorously mixes the sacred and the profane: pink and blue neon lights line the many archways of the club’s interiors as religious icons silently look down from stained glass windows on the swirling mass of frenzied dancing patrons below. The camera eventually picks out Curran, looking remarkably unhip in blue jeans and a green V-neck sweater with no undershirt, stalking through the club. Curran spies Roxy, Tramell’s lesbian lover, and follows her into the men’s bathroom, the site of a wild bisexual orgy of sex and drugs. Roxy enters a stall where Tramell and an unidentified man are doing cocaine. Then, in a series of highly effective eyeline matching shots, we see Curran (himself a former cocaine addict) gaze lasciviously at the forbidden fruit in the stall in front of him. Tramell returns Curran’s gaze but maintains the upper hand by slamming the stall door shut in his face.

Verhoeven then elliptically cuts to moments later on the club’s dance floor where Curran is watching Tramell and Roxy dance with and fondle one another. As Tramell turns her attentions to Curran, Roxy walks off in an angry huff. It should be noted here that Michael Douglas, admittedly a handsome man at any age, was forty-seven years old at the time (and thirteen years older than Sharon Stone), which makes Nick Curran look distinctly uncomfortable in this milieu. Curran’s attempts at dancing consist of nothing but light swaying and repeated attempts to kiss Tramell on the mouth, advances that she initially, playfully rebuffs. As Roxy looks jealously on from a distance, the viewer becomes acutely aware of the power dynamic between this trio. In hindsight, the protests that met the film’s original release look particularly misguided; the purpose of the Tramell/Roxy relationship isn’t to paint bisexual women as psycho-killers. It’s to highlight Curran’s insecurity about the fact that Tramell is the one who calls all of the sexual shots. Because Roxy is a woman, she can provide Tramell with something that Curran can’t, which heightens the viewer’s sense of the hero’s emasculation.

The next scene is the most infamous in the film – the first sex scene between Tramell and Curran, one that is so explosive that it will cause him to refer to her repeatedly as “the fuck of the century.” This is also the scene that was censored upon its original theatrical release in order to ensure an R rating, causing Paglia to memorably formulate that American audiences couldn’t fully appreciate the “choreography of the combat.” Far from being gratuitous, the point of this precisely storyboarded, Hitchcockian sex scene is to show, without dialogue, the struggle for power between these characters while simultaneously building suspense as to whether or not Tramell is the killer. At one point during their lovemaking, Curran becomes the dominant partner by initiating the missionary position but Tramell turns the tables on him by clawing his back with her nails and drawing blood. She then climbs on top of him and ties his hands to her bedposts with a white silk scarf. (This, of course, mirrors the murder scene that opens the film and thus causes our suspicions to grow that Tramell is indeed the killer.) After rocking spasmodically back and forth on top of him, we see Trammel reach beneath the sheets for what we assume will be an ice pick, the killer’s weapon of choice. Instead, Trammel merely falls forward, empty-handed, as the tension deflates and the two characters engage in a post-coital embrace. The non-verbal spell is finally broken in the following scene when Curran repairs to the bathroom and realizes that Roxy has been voyeuristically spying on them, with Tramell’s knowledge, all along.

Basic Instinct briefly made Paul Verhoeven the unlikely king of Hollywood but the Dutch master’s intensely cinematic, envelope-pushing style wouldn’t remain in synch with American tastes for long. His next film, Showgirls, would prove to be his most bitter satire, a remake of All About Eve that used the world of Las Vegas strip clubs as a jaundiced metaphor for the Hollywood star system. As with Basic Instinct, it too is full of wonderful cinematic conceits but audiences and critics expecting genuine titillation howled the movie right off of cinema screens. The critical and commercial failure of Showgirls unfortunately sounded the death knell for the mainstream viability of the NC-17 rating as well as Verhoeven’s Hollywood career, although he did stick around long enough to complete one more masterpiece (Starship Troopers) as well as a mediocre and impersonal genre exercise (Hollow Man). Since then he has returned to his native Holland where he triumphantly reunited with his old screenwriter Gerard Soeteman for Black Book, a highly subversive take on the Dutch resistance to the German occupation during WWII and arguably his greatest achievement. The two are currently working on another Dutch production, Hidden Force, that is scheduled for release in 2013.

The club scene from Basic Instinct can be seen on YouTube below. For the sex scene that follows it, you’ll have to rent the DVD or Blu-ray (or surf websites that exceed YouTube’s PG guidelines).

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Top 25 Films of the 1960s

25. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)

A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.

24. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)

23. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)

22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)

21. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1968)

mauds

20. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)

19. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)

18. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)

17. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)

16. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)

Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.

15. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)

14. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)

13. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)

Cecille Tang’s masterpiece is often cited as Hong Kong’s first “art film” and indeed in terms of style this ascetic Ming dynasty period piece often feels like the Chinese equivalent of Andrei Rublev. Madame Tung (Lisa Lu) is a schoolteacher and widow asked by the government to provide room and board to cavalry Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) who arrives in her small farming village to protect the harvest from bandits. Both Madame Tung and her adolescent daughter develop feelings for the Captain during his stay in a quietly devastating romantic tragedy marked by minimalistic dialogue and haunting, austere black and white cinematography courtesy of Satyajit Ray’s regular director of photography Subrata Mitra.

12. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s best-loved film is this unorthodox but reverential version of the Christ story in which the life of Jesus (hauntingly portrayed by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui) is told in straightforward, realistic fashion – from his birth in Bethlehem to his revolutionary political teachings to his crucifixion, death and resurrection at Golgotha. Some critics have detected a Marxist slant to Pasolini’s take yet this is a movie virtually anyone, even the Pope, could love. The impressively eclectic soundtrack features Bach, Mahalia Jackson and Blind Willie Johnson.

11. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)

Life imitates art and art imitates life in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, a thinly-disguised autobiographical study of a movie director (Mastroianni again) fighting “director’s block.” Guido Anselmi struggles to complete his latest film, a science fiction epic, as fantasies, dreams and childhood memories collide (most of which pertain to Guido’s struggles with religion and/or women). Fellini never again recaptured the greatness on display here (even though he repeatedly mined similar subject matter) but as far as career peaks go, 8 1/2, quite simply one of the most influential movies ever, remains a dizzying high.

10. Charulata (Ray, India, 1964)

My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.

9. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the definitive “spaghetti western,” a popular subgenre of American-set westerns made in Europe, usually Spain, by a typically Italian cast and crew. This is the third installment of a trilogy (preceded by A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, both of which also starred Clint Eastwood) but this Hollywood co-production works perfectly as a stand-alone film. The plot concerns the misadventures of the title trio, all of whom are in search of $200,000 in buried gold, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Director Sergio Leone’s “operatic” visual style combines with Ennio Morricone’s legendarily innovative score to lend The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a singular tone that is at once comical, cartoonish and, in Dave Kehr’s astute phrase, “inexplicably moving.”

8. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)

Few directors have been as adept at capturing physical beauty as Luchino Visconti and The Leopard is his most beautiful and perfectly realized film. Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s equally great novel, Visconti’s movie tells the story of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (a fittingly regal and masculine Burt Lancaster) who maneuvers through the political tumult of 1860s Sicily, which includes marrying his revolutionary-minded nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the beautiful, newly upper-class Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The Leopard‘s climactic ball scene, a virtually non-narrative 40 minute visual feast, is one of the glories of the film medium. The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of this title single-handedly justifies the purchase of a blu-ray player.

7. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)

6. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

A woman, Anna, mysteriously disappears while on a yachting trip with friends. The missing woman’s lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), spend the remainder of the movie looking for her but their search merely becomes the pretext for a love affair as they promptly proceed to forget about her. L’avventura‘s slow pace and lack of narrative resolution have driven many viewers up the wall (including me the first time I saw it) but Michelangelo Antonioni’s stately compositions and underlying philosophical themes have a power as awesome and mysterious as the ocean he so lovingly photographs in the film’s majestic first third. L’avventura‘s 1960 Cannes premiere was one of cinema’s game-changing moments.

5. Le Mepris (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)

The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.

4. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

3. Playtime (Tati, France, 1967)

Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent defender has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?”

2. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a boy oversee the arduous process of casting a giant bell. The boy saves himself from execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that comes off as a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to go on and create his greatest works.

1. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique qualities of stillness, slowness and whiteness are perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.


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