Thursday, April 09, 2015

Heavy Rotation

I’ve written two previous blogs on this site about my favorite repeat-viewing movies, "Movies Built To Last" and "Can’t Wear ‘Em Out." But I still had to leave off titles that are just as vital to me as those I already covered. Like the previous films, these are the ones I turn to when I don’t want to see anything new and do want to see something reliable, that holds up very well, that will reveal new facets and depth, that’s still fun. Cinematic comfort food, if you will. I will. Here goes something. Like last time, I’ve put the number of times I estimate I've seen the movie at the end of each entry.

Excalibur (1981). John Boorman dared to direct a straight King Arthur movie only six years after Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Naturally he had to avoid all the lead weight that movie satirized so well. He did that and infinitely more. It’s a revelatory take on the Grail legend and hasn’t dated one whit since its release. It didn’t have a large budget or any of the special effects we take for granted now, but it still looks ravishing. It focused on script and acting like these projects should but seldom do. The performances are top-caliber British. Nicol Williamson as Merlin is traditional and a fine critique of traditionalism. Nigel Terry as Arthur shows grand breadth. Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart perform some of the first roles that got them noted as film actors. The Wagner soundtrack converted me to Wagner. One critic called it glorious and it is. I can’t understand why this film isn’t more popular. About 8 times.

Black Narcissus (1947). Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece is about a group of nuns sent to staff a remote Himalayan convent. The monastery there failed. We don’t know why. Can the nuns do better? Deborah Kerr plays the head sister who has to make this work and it’s the best thing she ever did. The nuns move in. The wind howls. The village nearby presses in. Nothing can be done, it seems, without local help, especially from a handsome jack-of-all-trades. In the convent, discipline can’t be maintained. There is enormous tension between repression and expression. Who could guess that a G-rated movie about convented nuns could be one of the sexiest movies ever? The psychological terrain is strictly hothouse. Very little is shown, much is implied. The story arc is exhilarating and tempestuous. Beautifully photographed with fantastically rich color that you’d expect from this duo. About 5 times.

Fellini Satyricon (1969). By this time in his career, Fellini’s name had become so well known that his movie titles in America started off with it. And by this time, he was pulling out all the stops on his cinema organ. Designs were fantastical. So were stories. Everything was shot in the studio so that the master could have no checks on his visions. Danilo Donati’s sets and costumes on Satyricon were incredible, taking full advantage of late-sixties freedoms (they don’t look dated). Almost any still from this movie could work as a painting. Some have called it excessive, but you have to open the floodgates to do justice to imperial Rome at its most opulent and decadent. Based on the ancient novel by Petronius, the story follows the picaresque adventures of two friends/rivals as they tour this hallucinatory world, a world that is seductive as well as repellent. It’s finally unknowable in the best sort of way, proud in its ancientness. About 6 times.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982). When I saw this on its initial release, I went with two friends. One fell asleep almost immediately, the other after a few minutes. It galvanized me, though, seducing me and winning me over. No telling how it’ll affect you. Eighty-six minutes of images and soundtrack. Godfrey Reggio, the director, said the intent was to make a movie where the visuals and the soundtrack were equally important. There’s no plot, story, dialogue, script, intended message. Not a drama, not a documentary, either. Deliberately open-ended, a code for viewers to unlock however they wish. The first time a full-bore experimental film made it to the mainstream audience, or something like it. Images are slowed down to various speeds and speeded up likewise for maximum effect. Philip Glass’s hieratic, relentless music inspired the act of picture-making and was in turn inspired by it. All this created a sound-image marriage unlike anything that has ever existed in cinema. This coupling, and the perfect Ron Fricke editing that was also a part of the indivisible whole, make for an experience (and it is an experience first and foremost) that is by turns hallucinatory, celebratory, elegiac, rollercoaster. Many people watch it over and over again. When it was out of print it fetched crazy prices. No problem with access now. Jump in—don’t just watch it. About 10 times.

Richard Grooms
Fiction Department

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