I suppose since it’s so short, it won’t be too hard to put them down here, in no particular order (though I must admit I’m leaving out the adolescent selections, as they’ve not remained with me into adulthood, and rarely stand up to a more mature scrutiny***):
- “Master and Commander”—stepping into the lost world of the age of sail, with exquisite cinematography of battle sequences straight out of a Winslow Homer painting
- “The Thin Red Line”—some have expressed frustration with the ponderous voice-overs, but Malick created something utterly fascinating with the cast of celebrities who fell over one another for bit parts in one of his films. The intensity of this film is achingly, painfully beautiful.
- “Punch Drunk Love”—the first serious acting I ever saw Adam Sandler do. A truly funny film, alternately cross-eyed and sympathetic toward the quirky, neurotic cast. “I have a love that makes me stronger than you can imagine. . . I would just say ‘that’s that,’ mattress man.”
- “The Dark Knight”—just watched it again at the beginning of the summer. While I am more inclined to side with reviewers that suggested it could’ve used some more judicious cutting, I stand by my fascination with this mythical story.
- “The Big Lebowski”—delight in disorder.
- “Children of Men”—I was shocked by how powerful this film was for me.
- “Lonesome Dove”—a made-for-TV adaptation of McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winner. An epic western that managed to capture the tragic side of the open range and its codes, tinged with glory.
- “Princess Mononoke”—a Miyazaki anime feature, bizarre and outrageously imaginative, and masterful in the use of silence as the aura of the sacred.
The most recent entry on this list is entitled, ironically, “Once”. What I have to say about it won’t make much sense unless you’ve seen it, so I wouldn’t bother reading further if you haven’t—besides, you should already be making your way to your Netflix queue to get ahold of it.
I was first turned on to this film by Barb Nicolosi’s review (back when her blog for her work with the screenwriting guild Act One was still up and running). The soundtrack proved to be the hook for her, and so it has continued to be for me. Piping it through my stereo last week inspired me to return to this little film, shot for cheap on the sooty, overcast streets of Dublin (though it could’ve been anywhere) . It tells the story of a busking guitarist who, meets a gal on a lonely street while cutting his chest open for everyone to see (lyrically speaking). Her musical talents quickly become evident to him, and they mutually ignite a unique creativity that helps the guy to record a demo of his truly talented songwriting, and for both of them to get their lives back on track, discovering what they truly want and living up to the situations in which they find themselves.
What unfolds is something like a cross between a musical and a documentary on music production; you almost expect the camera to cut to a face-to-face interview with the characters who then explain what they were thinking at the time and how crazy all that was and how they pretended to like the gal’s mother-in-law but really didn’t, etc. But of course, it never does, because these people are not being asked to step out of their subjectivity and feed it back to the viewer. They thrive in it, steeped in the confusion and ambiguity of their attraction to one another amidst deeper and more lasting commitments to other people. Neither is ever given a name, but these characters take on a warmth and charm that got me to root for them in a way I usually can’t when it comes to film (now novels, on the other hand. . . ).
This was clearest for me in the sequence when the Guy decides to record a demo before leaving for London. There is an amusing and kind of adventurous feel to the work that must be done in order to book a recording studio, including persuading a loan-officer-turned-songwriter to lend him the money to book a recording studio for a weekend. In a spare yet rich scene, the studio engineer skeptically looks on as the unimpressive cadre of backing musicians and immigrants prepares to record their first take. There was a rush of adrenaline as I watched them step up to lay themselves on the line. This guy was taking a real risk—the music wasn’t just a dream anymore, pondered morosely in the upstairs room of his da’s house. There was money on the line. There were consequences to this performance. And what comes forth from the various voices and instruments in that moment of risk is stirring. In unison with the engineer, who had settled in for a long weekend of coddling some amateurs, we realize that this is something good. They’re doing it, I said to myself. This is a moment each of these strange people has been preparing for. A moment of kairos, where time ceases to be a mere succession of “nows” and whirlpools into an axis of destiny—foreseen, intended, rejoiced over. And honestly, it was beautiful to see them doing it—musicians played by real musicians, who knew the thrill of being thrown together with unfamiliar players at a moment of truth, and who could therefore create a believable now-or-never moment that drew out of me an unconsidered, unrestrained, fist-pounding burst of tears. I said there and then, in a kind of prayer, This is real. This is real. This is real. I believed every second of it, rehearsed as it was, in spite of never having experienced any of that myself . . . yes, I believed every second. I drank it in through my eyes, thrust forward in the lazy boy, heart pounding like this was battle footage. Watching people making music.
This, my friends, is filmmaking.
In the bleary, waking unconsciousness of overwork, relationships evolve rapidly, and the film did a fine job of capturing the meandering, miscellaneous energy of creative collaboration in which the hours and days melt into one another. But it also managed to help me see the joyful rest on the far side of it. The Guy sits on the car hood, watching these familiar strangers goofing on the chilly beach as the sun rises, the fumes of a fresh success still swimming through him—a success that had nothing to do with recognition or payoff, but of the joy that came from being the lynchpin in the bringing into the world of something genuine, something marvelous in its exuberance and nuance. It is in this moment that the Guy is really, truly enviable—having stepped forward into uncertainty and the possibility of failure, he was proven worthy to proceed, worthy to have led these nobodies into somebody-ness.
They disband as quickly as they were assembled, without much explanation. So pass our successes, recognized perhaps only by a few. But those few matter to us. They matter deeply. “We cannot speak to ourselves the words we most need to hear.” Those who speak them may be deeply attached to us, like fathers; they may be nothing more than familiar strangers with an eye to see the goodness in what we do, and the credibility to speak with authority—like the recording engineer who almost becomes a part of the band he is being paid to assist. It is a deep mystery of human existence that we receive our flourishing not from within but from without. It is given to us as a gift, a word of love that confirms to us beyond any doubt that it is good that we, that I, exist.
The filmmakers should be very, very proud of this film, and I encourage whoever has gone ahead and read this post without having seen the film to take advantage of the first opportunity to do so.
*** I am not and never will be ashamed of my devotion to “The Last of the Mohicans” throughout most of my teens.