Now is a time when, not only is it hard to see many movies once, it’s hard to get through movie trailers. But there are rare movies that are worth seeing many times, movies that it’s hard, if not impossible, to exhaust. Here’s a few. The cast of dozens who follow this column will know, but if you’re new to this, each entry is followed by an estimate of how many times I’ve seen the movie. And roll…
Kwaidan (1965) - Not a movie, but four. Four short films on supernatural themes based on the Japanese folktales collected by Lafcadio Hearn. All are powerful and resonant, but the standout is Hoichi The Earless, in which a monk-musician is commanded by ghosts to sing of the deeds they committed when they were human. Hoichi’s fellow monks paint scriptures all over his body to protect him from ghostly harm, but fail to include his ears. The ghosts appear ritualistically and frequently, but they never lose their quality of otherness and strangeness. In A Cup Of Tea, a man drinks another person’s soul and lives to regret it. Masaki Koboyashi’s masterful direction of the tales ensures that their weird and disturbing nature is always realized in striking imagery which arises organically from the material. Here the supernatural is captured in ways that are never gratuitous and therefore highly effective. The supernatural has never been more beautiful than it is in Kwaidan. That is part of why it entraps its victims. 3 times.
Gandhi (1982) - Director Richard Attenborough spent most of his life trying to make a film about the founder of modern India. That he succeeded is almost miraculous. Almost no one wanted such a film, and he was assured by nearly everyone that it would be a money loser. It took him decades to raise the money. That it became a critical and commercial onslaught is one of the many ironies of Gandhi. Gandhi, the man who made MLK, and therefore modern Birmingham and America possible, thought of himself as a scoundrel. and that’s why he had such patience with British oppressors and unreliable fellow Indians. The film is part of a small handful of movies that limn spirituality in a credible manner, avoiding sentimentality, overreach and hagiography. When I saw it in its initial theatrical release, the audience—men, women, children—gasped and cried in near-unison. It was an extremely powerful and cathartic experience. Some militantly secular (or militantly cynical) critics have gone on record gainsaying Gandhi but it has outlasted them, quietly perching on British best movies lists. That Gandhi was played brilliantly by a half-British, half-Gujarati (Ben Kingsley) is something that I think Mohandas Gandhi, who appreciated irony, would have appreciated. Kingsley’s portrayal is, by turns, knowing, serene, cantankerous, and grounded; it’s always believable. One of the most indelible roles in film history, it really is one for the ages. It’s British epic filmmaking in the grand manner, but not lacking in intimacy. British epic film—now there’s an extinct category for you. About 10 times.
Mommie Dearest (1981) - From the sublime to the ridiculous. Well, sort of. Another biopic, but one that unwittingly became a camp cause celebre. Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of Joan Crawford is hilarious and shocking, but after quite a few viewings, its darker moments do add a counterpoint to her Himalayan over-the-top lead performance. I’m not trying to give much gravitas to this shock-horror extravaganza, but fair is fair. John Waters, who knows a thing or two about camp, admits in the commentary track that Dunaway’s really is an amazing performance. Except for the rosebush scene (“Tina—bring me the axe!”). Though Dunaway-as-Crawford has been parodied by legions, there are a couple of scenes in Mommie Dearest that are so dark that they’d make even a jaded drag queen blink. Dunaway isn’t everything, though. Diana Scarwid as Crawford’s adopted daughter is the very picture of cowed codependency. A signal performance. The gestalt of Hollywood as fake, empty, and glitz-dead is very effectively, even damningly, conveyed. Cringe-worthiness never had it so good, but there’s more going on here than that. At least some of the time. Hamlet’s flaws make it stronger, and, though Mommie Dearest sure enough ain’t no Hamlet, it does have enough contradictions, odd resonances, and a dark sensibility that it is…No, not great. Not something that won’t embarrass you. Just compelling. And interesting. And reckless and potent and fun. How many movies can you say that about? It’s just too bad it destroyed Faye Dunaway’s career. No, she isn’t on the commentary track. Around 6 times.
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