Tag Archives: Jan Troell

Filmmaker Interview: Liv Ullmann

At last month’s Chicago International Film Festival I had the great pleasure of interviewing legendary actress and filmmaker Liv Ullmann after the U.S. premiere of her new film adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. During an hour-long round-table discussion (in which three other writers participated), she came across as warm, funny, compassionate and wise in speaking about everything from her charity work to her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman. I am, however, only including the portions of the interview that involved my direct interactions with her, which mainly concerned Miss Julie, the method acting of her lead actress Jessica Chastain, and her old friend and former director Jan Troell.

100_2838Liv Ullmann with Chicago International Film Festival founder Michael Kutza at the U.S. premiere of Miss Julie

MGS: I think this film is a very powerful exploration of sexual politics as well as class politics. The play was written by a man, obviously, and I believe all of the previous film versions were directed by men. I was wondering what you think you brought to the film and to the character of Miss Julie in particular that maybe a male director might not have or that Strindberg himself might not have.

LU: Well, Strindberg, he wrote a long essay about how he hated women, more or less. So I wanted (Julie’s) voice and the inner voice to come through. I used music very much: Schumann and Schubert and Arensky. Arensky’s more John’s music, but Schubert is hers. I (also) gave her some lines that he didn’t write. She says, “Do you ever feel that you are no one?” Things like that that I feel is not against what he wrote when he gave her the lines but maybe what she thought or maybe what Strindberg didn’t even know she thought. But I know he should have known what she thought because he was very aggressive towards women. And I think maybe I saw that better than the male directors. I took away all the servants that come in the middle of the play and they do a lot of sexual games and so on. I didn’t want that. I wanted the isolation and the tunnel vision to be part of who they were. The ones living on the top, claustrophobic, cannot have contact with anyone else, at least not anyone down there. The ones in the kitchen, claustrophobic, because they have no contact with the ones up there. And even to be hidden from the ones up there; they have to go through a tunnel, which is the truth. Because the ones up there will not see them when they are coming into the castle. They don’t want them to walk in the gardens. They go through a tunnel under the earth. And when they look out of the window, I had in my first draft, that they were looking at the sun, the midnight sun — a lot of wonderful things will happen there. (laughs) But when we found this castle, it had everything that even Strindberg didn’t have because they lived under the earth. And when they looked out of the window they saw a white stone wall. I gave that; I don’t know if the men gave that. And I also had the idea that maybe she knew she wanted to go, subconsciously. And when she comes for the first time this midsummer night, she was looking for someone who could help her in the absolute non-commitment to whoever she was. And I just said that once to (the actors). I said, “This is just what I feel but don’t play it. Don’t think about it.” And I almost felt ashamed of saying it. But Jessica (Chastain) said in Toronto (at the world premiere), she said, “That to me was incredible. I wrote it in my book.”

MissJulieColin Farrell and Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie

MGS: Two years ago I interviewed Jan Troell at this festival. He was here with his last film The Last Sentence . . .

LU: Right.

MGS: I quoted him something you said in an interview about the making of The Emigrants and The New Land. You said you were never sure what he was filming because he was holding the camera in his hands and moving around, and he said that on The Last Sentence the lead actress said the same thing: Pernilla August said, “We always know what we’re going to do but we never know what he’s going to do.”

LU: Exactly.

MGS: It seems like your style as a director is the opposite of that because in Miss Julie everything feels very formal and very elegant. But I was wondering if there was anything you learned from him that influenced your own approach to directing.

LU: You see, he is both a cinematographer and a director so it was almost impossible to even take something from him except incredible trust, you know? “You act, I observe.” And he’s like all good directors, he allows the actors to create. But my actors, they know, “Okay, I have my close-up and now comes the bigger one.” (laugh) So they know, they really know but with him we didn’t know. You know, the camera was never on my face, it was on my shoes. (laughs) But that also gives a lot of freedom. And for the actors sometimes my way can be more difficult because they don’t know. They don’t know, “Can I keep it and do what I just did in the wide shot now for the close up?” And I have to give them some alternatives then: “You know, although we have it in a wide shot, we do not really know when we are close what is happening in your eyes. So you are allowed — because I am taking (only) one of the two — so don’t be afraid.” And that I knew: “I will never, never fail you. I’m not lying to you. I will never fail you.” So they were safe. Although (Colin Farrell), in a wide shot could have been angrier, he knew I would not take anger, put to milder, back to anger. That I would not do this, they knew that about me. They trusted me.

emigrantsLiv Ullmann in Jan Troell’s two-part epic The Emigrants / The New Land.

MGS: You’ve said Jessica Chastain was in character the whole time you were shooting. It must be exhausting as an actress to be in character all the time like that.

LU: Exactly! I think she turned on something within herself. We didn’t party at night, so she went to her room. We did it in 29 days so, you know, there was no party time. I didn’t know Jessica well. From (the moment) she came on the set she was Miss Julie but I didn’t know she was Miss Julie. I thought, “Oh this is Jessica. She may not be so easy.” (laughs) And she was easy to work with because, as she actually said in Toronto, “Liv and I, we played this together.” I don’t know why she felt that because it wasn’t like that; she had enormous freedom to do what she did. But I found her maybe somewhat difficult, the way she was with other people, and I thought, “Okay, this is Jessica.” And sometimes when we were editing, I’d talk to her. I said, “This is marvelous, Jessica, but I wish we could have had more warm contact or something.” (laughs) Then I meet her in Toronto and she is the sweetest young girl — nothing to do with that person I met during the whole production. And I talked to Colin about it and he said, “You didn’t know?” “No, I didn’t know.” He said, “It was tough, it was tough.” So, it’s the first time I have experienced that: “Nora becomes Nora” not only in front of the camera . . . but that part is so difficult and she chose to do it and that’s what I wanted but she chose even more so to be this person. She stands in the doorway and we just see her to be this torn woman, torn on the inside, a woman of non-consistencies. And I think to keep that, she had to have it privately. So, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. And Colin did it in a different way. He was very reserved, kept to himself in between takes, but if you came to him, he was this nice, pleasant, you know . . . Only when the camera went, he was the servant. And he would never be shattered out of the servant’s role. So I love Jessica for what she did and I admire (her) and I think Colin is also a genius. And Samantha Morton, she’s an actress the way I was an actress: she lives it when the camera is there, then it’s “Nora,” but when the camera’s off, she’s Samantha Morton. That’s the kind of actress I was. I think the two of them (Jessica and Colin), you know, they’re showing it in December (for an Oscar-qualifying run); I truly wish that they would have the money to somehow promote them because I think it’s Oscar-worthy. I, as a director, did not know that “Nora was Nora” outside of when the camera went. I think she is fantastic and I told her that in Toronto. This little, young girl, you should hear how she talks!

missjulieMethod actress Jessica Chastain in Miss Julie

MGS: So you didn’t know her before you made the movie. What was it about her that made you want to cast her? Had you seen her in other films?

LU: In all the films I saw she was different, and I thought, “What an incredible actress.” In one film I saw I didn’t even know it was her although she played one of the leads. The Debt. I couldn’t believe it. And so when I met her and we talked and she was very literate — she knew a lot — I was very impressed. And she looks like Miss Julie. I didn’t know so much of her inner story. I know now more about her life story, which I didn’t know (then). And had I known that, I may have known what happened to her during the shooting. I adore her.

MGS: She looks a little like you as well.

LU: Yes. I wasn’t aware of that but she said other directors used to say, “Oh you look like a young Liv Ullmann.” I was not aware of it.

MGS: You should act with her. She could play your daughter!

LU: Right, we could do that! Well, she said we did it together but that’s not the truth. This is her creation. I’m just happy I gave her the opportunity.

MGS: Thank you very much for talking with me. I loved the movie.

LU: Thank you very much. You make me very happy.

Miss Julie will receive a limited theatrical release in the U.S. beginning on December 14.

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Filmmaker Interview: Jan Troell

Last week I had the great privilege of interviewing the Swedish director Jan Troell when he came to the Chicago International Film Festival for the U.S. premiere of his new movie The Last Sentence. This screening was hot on the heels of the world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival where Troell deservedly won the Best Director prize. Unfortunately, Troell, a contemporary of Ingmar Bergman and one of the greatest living filmmakers, remains too little known outside of Scandinavia. In the U.S. he is probably best known for his early 1970s masterpieces The Emigrants and The New Land, a long out-of-print two-part epic starring Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman, and Everlasting Moments, his terrific 2008 film, which is available in a superb Blu-ray edition via the Criterion Collection. The Last Sentence is a worthy addition to Troell’s body of work; it tells the powerful true story of Trogny Segerstedt — brilliantly played by the Danish actor Jesper Christenson — a Swedish journalist who crusaded against Hitler from 1933 (long before it was fashionable) until the end of WWII.

Jan Troell is more vigorous and youthful-looking in person than his 81 years might lead one to believe; although he told me he thought Everlasting Moments might be his last film, he has also recently spoken of beginning a new film — an autobiographical drama based on his family’s relationships with their hired help over the years — that one hopes will come to fruition. During the course of our nearly 30-minute face-to-face chat, Troell was soft-spoken, forthright and very friendly. The last thing he said to me during the interview is a compliment I will always cherish. Accompanying Troell to CIFF was his whip-smart daughter Yohanna, who is in the process of finishing a documentary about the making of The Last Sentence. Yohanna occasionally made valuable contributions to our conversation and, less frequently, helped her father translate a stray word or two of Swedish into English. One also hopes that she will continue in her father’s formidable filmmaking footsteps.

MGS: Your best-known films are period pieces. Is there something you find especially compelling about making films set in the past?

JT: I know that I’m a very nostalgic kind of person. I think it’s a great pleasure – this sort of feeling of living in another period that for some reason fascinates me. That I guess is one reason. But the most practical reason is I started out with an epic film by a Swedish author, Here is Your Life, and that led to another big epic film, The Emigrants, which I was asked to do. So in a way I ended up in this niche, so I got other offers of that kind. But there are a couple of feature films that are contemporary too and I also all the time work parallel with documentary short films.

MGS: So you’re saying producers think of you as someone who does period films?

JT: That’s one part of it, yeah.

YT: I guess it also has to do with the fact that you make a lot of films about real people who have lived and you’re fascinated by their stories and usually they’re dead by now. (laughs)

JT: I think it’s fascinating to try to get inside people who really existed once, to get to know them. I also feel very comfortable having something I believe in myself. I believe in the story. It’s not the result of some other person’s imagination. That’s part of it. And so there are several different reasons for it.

MGS: What initially attracted you to Trogny Segerstedt as a subject for a movie?

JT: That it came at a very crucial moment in my life. I was offered to do it. I had just finished the film before (Everlasting Moments) and it might very well have been my last film because it’s not easy to get a film through. It takes years. And so I welcomed the invitation and the invitation came from the author of a biography (on Segerstedt) who’s name is Kenne Fant, who was also the head of the Swedish film industry who produced so many of Ingmar Bergman’s films. And he was also the head of that company when I made the first feature film Here is Your Life and The Emigrants and The New Land and so on. So we knew each other rather well.

MGS: You said in the documentary Troell’s Magic Mirror that in 1940 the Swedish people were very afraid Germany might invade Sweden. And you said you think that affected your personality as a child. Did you use any of your own memories of that time in the making of The Last Sentence?

JT: Just the feeling of it – the people, the way they looked and so on. I’m sure this film gives a very good feeling of the period. But the real memories of the war started with the war. I remember very, very well seeing the headlines in the street when I was walking to go swimming. It was a very hot day. And the letters on the papers were as big as this (holds fingers six inches apart). It just said “WAR.”

MGS: There was a moment early on in the film that surprised me where a character says that the Swedish Jews are more cultivated than the German Jews. But it made sense because I thought this must be how people in Europe outside of Germany rationalized the persecution of the Jews in Germany. Was that a widespread feeling in Sweden at the time?

JT: Yeah. I think also that many of the Jews in Berlin, they came from Poland and were poor people. This line in the film is taken word-by-word from what this man who says it in the film had written in a letter to Segerstedt as early as 1932. So I had it from the page. He (also) says “If the Jews are annihilated, it would not be good for business.” (chuckles in disbelief)

MGS: Wow, that’s scary. Something else that surprised me was seeing how forceful Segerstedt’s language was in denouncing Hitler as early as 1933. Today it’s common to hear people say that no one knew what a threat Hitler posed until it was too late and yet 1933 was early in Hitler’s career. Segerstedt clearly knew very early on . . .

JT: From the very first day. He wrote this article maybe five days after Hitler came to power. But he had written some article already in the Twenties warning for Hitler.

MGS: I’d like to ask you about the visual style of the film. It looks very different from Everlasting Moments, which had a lot of film grain and very warm colors. The Last Sentence was shot in digital black and white and the images are very clean and crisp. Is it important for you to try and do something different in terms of style each time out or does the style grow out of the subject matter?

JT: I think the style grows out of the subject, definitely. First, I wanted to shoot on 35 but we couldn’t afford that. We didn’t have enough money. So I had to decide on Super 16 as we had on (Everlasting Moments). We made tests on 16 and on 35 and I was more or less persuaded to try a new camera – Alexa. I said it’s almost like a real film camera. I didn’t intend to use that (initially) and then I saw the tests. There was no question about it. The Alexa was even better than the 35. It’s so sensitive to light that you can shoot in almost no light at all. And also it’s made to, if you shoot digitally, you can add the 35mm feeling, that it’s not 100% crisp. You get the grain. You can put any kind of grain on it.

MGS: In camera or in post-production?

JT: Afterwards. And we talked about that. We thought we would make tests but I decided not to because I liked this very exact feeling for this film. And that was my very vague thoughts from the beginning; I didn’t want any handheld camera, I didn’t want a lot of movements – in a way like he (Segerstedt) was.

MGS: Right, so it reflects his personality. There’s a great quote from Liv Ullmann where she said she never knew what you were shooting during The Emigrants because you were always holding the camera in your hands and panning around with it. In The Last Sentence, the style is more static and, like you say, exact. Is there any camera movement in the film? I can’t remember.

YT: Yeah, there is. But you don’t notice it.

JT: Oh, yes. Of course, I pan and so on but not many traveling camera shots.

YT: I made the behind-the-scenes film and I interviewed the actors and they’re all saying the same thing. Even in this film, for instance, Pernilla August, who plays Maja (Segerstedt’s mistress) and Jesper, of course, they’re talking about how it always keeps them on their toes because, even though they’ve made up exactly how they’re going to do it, they never know . . . My father might stop on the way, and then he comes to them, and so it’s still like shooting a documentary.

MGS: So they still don’t know exactly what he’s going to do?

JT: That’s one reason for me operating the camera myself. Because I don’t have to decide 100% in advance how or if to move the camera. I always get a focus puller who knows the way I work so he’s prepared to change the focus. It depends on what’s happening in front of the camera; suddenly I feel I should go here or there.

MGS: You go with how you feel in the moment?

JT: Not completely but very much, yeah.

MGS: One movie I thought of while watching The Last Sentence was Gertrud by Carl Dreyer. Was that an influence on you at all?

JT: Oh yes, I’ve seen it but, well, you never know where you get the influences from. I hadn’t thought of that.

MGS: There was something about the quality of the black and white and the dialogue scenes of well-dressed people speaking to each other in rooms and the rigorousness and precision of it all that made me think of that.

YT: Good Night and Good Luck was one of the films we saw.

JT: Oh yes. I love that film. That is in beautiful black and white. I had a DVD with extra material, where you see people interviewed, you see the location, that’s in color and it’s not at all as good. I didn’t decide 100% to end up in black and white (for The Last Sentence) but I thought from the beginning, “I hope I would end up in black and white.” And for the first time in my working life, the producer did not oppose it. So that made me a little bit worried. (laughs) Now it’s all up to me, it’s a big decision. Anyway, before, there were a couple of films I wanted black and white but it was impossible because of money and because of television. They demand color. Or did.

MGS: What do you think has changed that now black and white is more acceptable?

JT: I think the first thing, maybe, it has become a trend. It’s been a trend in commercials, advertising, on T.V. It’s supposed to be very artistic. So people see that and sometimes think it’s a plus. That is one thing. Of course, there was the Austrian director (Michael Haneke) who made this film The White Ribbon. It’s so beautiful. That was filmed in color too. And he didn’t know for sure that it would end up in black and white. But he managed to get it through all the way. As the Coen brothers did for The Man Who Wasn’t There. That was released as a DVD in both versions. Have you seen it?

MGS: I’ve not seen the color version but I’ve heard the color is very desaturated.

JT: Yeah, I prefer the black and white. But this doesn’t mean I always prefer black and white, of course. But for this (The Last Sentence), I’m sure it’s the right choice because, for me anyway, this period in life is black and white: my parents, the images, all the photographs of me as a child, all the documentaries from the war, all those things. At that time every film was in black and white.

MGS: All of the recent films you just named are period films too, so I think we all think of the past in black and white.

JT: That’s right.

MGS: What about the use of the documentary inserts? Why did you decide to include them?

JT: Well, that I knew from the beginning I would use. I was thinking a lot of how to use it because it’s so overdone. You’ve seen those scenes from the war. You see it almost every day on T.V. Many of them are so well known. I tried to find some that I didn’t think had been shown too much. I decided to not make it as technically perfect as possible. So I filmed with a film camera – we projected the films and I used the camera to shoot since I could move inside the image and I also had zooms, which I didn’t have in those days.

MGS: There’s one shot in particular of Hitler petting a dog that’s very brief . . .

JT: Yeah, yeah, I panned in that.

MGS: Did you include that because of Segerstedt’s relationships to his own dogs?

JT: Of course.

MGS: I thought it was interesting that the most poignant relationship in the whole film was between him and his dogs.

JT: Yeah. I’m sure it was like that in his life too. It has been witnessed.

MGS: I have one final question for you. There are two ideas in this movie that I think are related that are very powerful: one is the importance of having a free press, the other is in the line of dialogue about how silence is acquiescence. Do you think these ideas are particularly relevant in the world today?

JT: Definitely, yes. Also in Sweden (specifically), because there’s no censorship but there is, I think, some self-censorship. There are things that are so touchy to write about.

YT: I think, especially now with the internet, you can get so harassed, which is a big threat. If Segerstedt had been on the internet, I think he would’ve been in much bigger trouble than he was. (laughs) So there’s definitely a parallel.

MGS: Well, hopefully, there are still some people around like Segerstedt today. Thank you so much for your time. Your answers were great.

JT: Your questions were great. They weren’t the usual questions.

Music Box Films has acquired U.S. distribution rights for The Last Sentence. Hopefully, it will return to Chicago soon.


48th Chicago International Film Festival Preview, Part 1

As someone who has been attending the Chicago International Film Festival regularly since 1993, I can honestly say that the forthcoming 48th edition offers a shockingly good array of films, maybe the best I’ve ever seen. Not only will CIFF soon play host to regional premieres by major international auteurs like Leos Carax (Holy Motors), Abbas Kiarostami (Like Someone in Love), Raul Ruiz (The Night in Front), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Mekong Hotel) and Jan Troell (The Last Sentence), it also snagged an impressive number of buzzed about prize-winners coming out of this year’s biggest European film fests, from Berlin (the Taviani brothers’ Caesar Must Die) to Cannes (Matteo Garrone’s Reality, Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills) to Venice (Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air). And this is to say nothing of the exciting titles on offer that are more off the beaten path, including documentaries (Room 237, The Final Member), experimental animation (Consuming Spirits), cult items (John Dies at the End, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files) and strong local work (F*ckload of Scotch Tape). At the 48th CIFF there is truly something for everyone. Below is the first of several previews I’ll be offering of the festival, which begins on October 11th and runs through the 25th. Any of my students who attend any of the screenings (and staple their ticket stubs to a one to two page screening report) will receive extra credit. Refer to the extra credit page of your course website for more information.

For the complete line-up, as well as ticket info, showtimes and directions to festival venues, visit: www.chicagofilmfestival.com

The Last Sentence (Jan Troell, Sweden/Norway) – U.S. Premiere
Rating: 7.8

Torgny Segerstedt was a “failed theologian” who became one of Sweden’s most respected — and controversial — journalists after he began crusading against Hitler in a left-wing newspaper run by friends in 1933. Segerstedt continued this mission undaunted for over a decade even though both the Prime Minister and the King of Sweden tried to convince him to tone down his rhetoric for fear of a German reprisal. While a powerful reminder that silence is acquiescence, this is not just another WWII-related history lesson but also a powerful character study that focuses on Segerstedt’s intimate relationships with three women (his mother, his wife and his mistress), all of whom appear as literal ghosts at one point or another in the movie. Beautifully shot in crisp black and white digital, the latest from 81-year old Swedish master Jan Troell (The Emigrants, Everlasting Moments) has some of the stateliness, grace and intense interiority of late period Carl Dreyer. Troell is scheduled to attend the screenings on 10/19 and 10/20.

F*ckload of Scotch Tape (Julian Grant, USA) – World Premiere
Rating: 7.0

In this impressive Chicago-shot crime tale, Benji, a petty criminal who resembles Macaulay Culkin on steroids, earns $50,000 for his part in a kidnapping plot only to find that he’s been double-crossed by the man who put him up to it. Writer/director Julian Grant shows an appreciation for the sordid atmosphere of rank desperation that characterized the best PRC programmers of the 1940s but updates it for the 21st century by adding a healthy dose of homoeroticism as well as an unexpected string of musical numbers; the film develops a darkly funny, singularly nutty quality as the fresh-faced Benji incongruously lip-synchs the songs of gravel-voiced Tom Waits sound-alike Kevin Quain while embarking upon his bloody rampage of revenge. With minimal production values and money but a few well-chosen visual motifs (a lollipop, a mask, the eponymous adhesive) and a fuckload of filmmaking heart, Grant has deftly crafted 84 minutes of brutal, sleazy neo-noir fun. Grant is scheduled to attend all three screenings of the film.

Consuming Spirits (Chris Sullivan, USA) – Chicago Premiere
Rating: 7.2

This experimental animated epic concerns the intertwined destinies of characters named after colors (Blue, Gray, Violet) in a small Midwestern town over a period of several decades but only gradually does something like a narrative emerge from the carefully honed rural/Gothic atmosphere. Imagine Tim Burton at his early imaginative best making a film adaptation of A Prairie Home Companion and you will have an inkling of what writer/director Chris Sullivan (perhaps best known to local cinephiles for playing the creepy guru in Melika Bass’ Shoals) is up to. The consistently inventive visuals (the images are comprised of cutout, stop-motion and traditional hand-drawn animation) are a delight from beginning to end even if I must confess that at 136 minutes this occasionally tested my patience. But given that Sullivan shot Consuming Spirits in 16mm and HD over a 15 year time span, he brings a whole new and awe-inspiring meaning to the word “painstaking.” I certainly enjoyed the end result more than most of the animated films I’ve seen from Hollywood in recent years. Sullivan will attend the screening on 10/16.


Top 25 Films of the 1970s

25. The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, Spain, 1973)

24. F for Fake (Welles, France/Iran, 1973)

23. Love in the Afternoon (Rohmer, France, 1972)

22. Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978)

Reclusive, secretive director Terrence Malick’s second — and best — movie is this bucolic 1978 study of the lives of migrant farm workers. The plot updates the love triangle between Abraham, Sarah and the Pharaoh of Egypt from the Book of Genesis (incarnated here by Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard) to World War I-era America although it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood film being less plot-centered than this. The true value of Days of Heaven is as a sensory experience: images of the farmers at work against the backdrop of the growing, harvesting and reaping cycles — captured with an aching, painterly beauty by the great D.P. Nestor Almendros — reference everything from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper to the films of F.W. Murnau and Alexander Dovzhenko, while recreating a vanished America with an almost transcendental splendor besides.

21. Killer of Sheep (Burnett, USA, 1977)

The directorial debut of UCLA film school grad Charles Burnett (it was in fact his Master’s thesis), Killer of Sheep is one of the great American films of the 1970s. This plotless examination of the lives of a handful of residents of South Central Los Angeles served as a conscious rebuttal to the negative stereotypes of African Americans then prevalent in the American cinema. Effortlessly alternating between comedy and tragedy, as well as realistic and poetic modes, Burnett’s episodic narrative focuses primarily on Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker who struggles to provide for his wife and children. Though this impresses because of the insider’s view it offers of life in a working class black neighborhood in the mid-1970s, the scenes of children goofing off, throwing rocks at one another and playing in railroad yards never fails to bring tears to my eyes because of how much it reminds me of my own childhood growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina in the 1980s (where we played in abandoned houses and had “dirt clod” wars). The awesome soundtrack provides a virtual audio tour through 20th century black American music, from Paul Robeson to Louis Armstrong to Little Walter to Earth, Wind and Fire.

20. The Magic Blade (Chor, Hong Kong, 1976)

Chor Yuen is one of the most neglected of the major Hong Kong directors. He started off as an independent in the ’50s and ’60s, directing low-budget but charming Feuilladean mysteries like Black Rose and The Spy with My Face. But Chor really hit his stride in the ’70s after signing a contract with the Shaw Brothers and making a series of stylized swordplay films based on the period novels of Ku Lung. This outing, about rival swordsmen teaming up to find a mysterious weapon known as “the peacock dart,” is his best – a beautifully directed action film that combines the conventions of traditional wuxia with elements from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone as well as the James Bond franchise.

19. Turkish Delight (Verhoeven, Holland, 1973)

18. The Emigrants / The New Land (Troell, Sweden, 1971)

emigrants

17. Touki Bouki (Mambety, Senegal, 1973)

A wonderfully colorful, vibrant and occasionally surreal lovers-on-the-lam crime/road movie (think of an African Pierrot le Fou), Touki Bouki was only the second of three feature films in the career of its great director Djibril Diop Mambéty. The story concerns the love affair of a female college student, her motorcycle-riding boyfriend and their various plans to make easy money and escape to the mythical paradise of Paris, France. Like Senegal’s other legendary filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, Mambéty loads this with of social criticism (in which Senegalese and French characters remain unspared) but, unlike Sembene’s more classical approach to narrative, this is a wild, experimental journey for characters and viewer alike.

16. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974)

15. The Ascent (Shepitko, Russia, 1977)

ascent

Larisa Shepitko was a director of enormous intelligence and integrity who tragically died in a car accident at the young age of 40 (with many more great movies undoubtedly ahead of her). The final film she completed before her death is this harrowing, indelible masterwork about the persecution of partisans in Nazi-occupied Belarus during World War II, which some feel is the finest Soviet film of the 1970s. In adapting a novel by Vasili Bykov – about the two Soviet soldiers and their futile mission to find supplies in a bleak, snowy landscape populated by Nazi collaborators – Shepitko has crafted an experience so austere, and infused it with so much Christian symbolism, that she makes Tarkovsky look both secular and populist. The drastically different way that her two protagonists meet their fates allows for Shepitko to engage the viewer in a dialogue of uncommon moral complexity. For sheer intensity, this wartime drama is topped only by her husband Elem Klimov’s Come and See from eight years later.

14. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976)

The qualities most associated with the New Hollywood/Film School Generation are 1. an innovative visual style 2. an awareness of film history (especially classic Hollywood and 1960s European art cinema) and 3. revisionist genre films centered on anti-heroes. Taxi Driver has all of these qualities in spades: the location photography turns pre-Disneyfied New York City into an Expressionist nightmare corresponding to the disintegrating mental state of protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro). Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader deliberately draw upon film noir as well as the Hollywood western (the plot is essentially a rehash of The Searchers — with the crazed Bickle’s obsession with rescuing a teenage prostitute an updating of Ethan Edwards’ obsessive search for his kidnapped niece) while also adding a troubling dose of Robert Bresson-style spiritual redemption. One of the key films of the 1970s.

13. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy, 1975)

12. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Japan, 1979)

11. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973)

Robert Altman’s masterful but wildly unfaithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic crime novel takes the legendary “hard-boiled” detective Philip Marlowe, has him incarnated by nebbishy Elliot Gould and deposits him in an incredibly absurd 1970s Los Angeles. The L.A. Altman portrays is one of pastel colors, where women eat hash brownies while practicing yoga, mobsters travel in curiously multiethnic packs and the local supermarket has too much of everything — except for the one brand of cat food that Marlowe desperately needs: the tone of the film, both elegiac and ridiculous, is set by the opening scene in which Marlowe attempts to trick his cat into eating a new, unfamiliar brand of cat food). Altman’s career was always hit or miss but this, for my money, represents one of the twin peaks of his career alongside of 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Neither the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski nor Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice would have been possible without it.

10. Le Boucher (Chabrol, France, 1970)

My personal favorite Claude Chabrol movie is this masterpiece about the relationship between a butcher and a schoolteacher in rural France. The plot involves a series of murders, which allows the film to function as a “whodunit,” but Chabrol deliberately and brilliantly leaves no doubt as to the killer’s identity, directing the viewer instead to contemplate the movie as a study of the collision between forces of primitivism and civilization.

9. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium, 1975)

8. Stalker (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1979)

7. Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971)

While 1969’s Easy Rider may have captured the zeitgeist at the time, Monte Hellman’s existential road movie from two years later looks a hell of a lot better — and more modern — from a 21st century vantage point: James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (pop musicians who favorably impress in their only acting roles) are a couple of long-haired gearheads who illegally drag-race their beloved 1955 Chevy for money. Warren Oates is the mysterious owner of a yellow GTO who challenges them to a coast-to-coast race. Laurie Bird is “the girl” who vies for all of their affections. Much of this film’s haunting power comes from the shape-shifting nature of Oates’ character, who invents a new identity for every hitch-hiker he picks up (and who thus resembles the narrator of Nog, the cult-classic novel by Blacktop‘s screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer). Austere, beautiful and infused with an irresistible deadpan humor.

6. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, France, 1972)

5. Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974)

Robert Towne’s complex original screenplay (one of the finest ever written) combines with Roman Polanski’s taut direction and Jack Nicholson’s charismatic but subdued lead performance as private eye J.J. Gittes to create this definitive neo-noir. As with the classic films noir of the 1940s — and the detective novels on which they were based — this begins with what seems like a “routine case” (of marital infidelity) that soon opens up a hellhole of political corruption involving land and water rights, murder and family secrets too terrible to be true. Released during the height of the Watergate scandal, and shortly before Nixon’s resignation, Chinatown captures the paranoia and mistrust of authority that characterized the era better than any other single American film. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.

4. The Mother and the Whore (France, 1973)

3. A Touch of Zen (Hu, Taiwan, 1971)

2. A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, USA, 1974)

John Cassavetes was the godfather of independent American cinema. His 1959 debut, the self-financed Shadows, tackled taboo subjects involving race and sexuality with a “DIY” spirit before the concept in American cinema even existed. While his entire filmography is a limitless treasure chest, this 1974 domestic drama probably deserves to be called his supreme masterpiece. Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ wife, muse and perennial leading lady) gives one of the greatest acting performances ever captured on celluloid as Mabel Longhetti, a woman somehow driven inexorably to madness by her status as the housewife and mother of a blue-collar Long Island family. Because of the stark realism, the emotional honesty, the refusal to bow to Hollywood conventions (much less cliches), I’ve never felt more devastated watching a movie than I have this one.

1. Out 1 (Rivette/Schiffman, France, 1971)

Jacques Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman’s legendary 12-and-a-half-hour serial is Feuillade made modern, where the directors use an expansive running time to tell various mystery stories, most of them unresolved, which also serves as a psychic x-ray of the 1960s French counterculture and the apotheosis of the entire Nouvelle Vague. Rivette and Schiffman intercut between four different plots: two seemingly unrelated theater troupes rehearse different Aeschylus plays while two seemingly unrelated con artists (Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto) ply their trades in the cafes and streets of Paris. The con artists each receive information about “the 13,” a secret society with its origin in Balzac that may or may not currently exist. Their investigations lead them to interact with various members of the theater troupes as Rivette and Schiffman slowly bring their narrative threads together and remind us why paranoid conspiracy theories not only exist but are paradoxically comforting: they make us feel that disparate, unconnected events may be related and therefore part of a meaningful design. An intellectually vigorous, terrifying, funny, challenging and life-altering work.


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