High Noon

High Noon (1952)

Dir. Fred Zinnemann

Written by: Carl Foreman (from the magazine story by John W. Cunningham)

Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges

 

It’s a bit surprising to me how few Westerns I’ve written about so far in this project. There will certainly be more upcoming, but, for a favorite style of mine, the Western genre is somewhat underrepresented in my collection. High Noon is one of the most classic examples of the golden age of Hollywood Westerns, and it stands out in contrast to the later Westerns of Sergio Leone that I’ve already written about, and even to the contemporary output of Western auteur John Ford. High Noon is something of a morality tale, and an allegory for the HUAC hearings led by Joseph McCarthy, with the film using the quintessential American film genre to subvert conventionally understood “American values” of the time. It’s one of the most important movies of its time, both for its content and message, and for its unique presentation of a story unfolding in real time. Watching it for this project, however, I was left wondering how a movie like High Noon might connect with modern first-time viewers.

High Noon takes place in the span of a couple of hours on the morning that Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is married to his new bride, Amy (Kelly), and is preparing to leave the town of Hadleyville for a new life on the frontier as a storekeeper. However, that afternoon brings the news that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a murderer whom Kane had jailed, has been released and is set to arrive in Hadleyville on the high noon train with a score to settle. The town elders, along with Amy, a Quaker pacifist, urge Marshal Kane to flee the town and Miller’s gang, but he finds himself duty-bound to protect his town until the new Marshal arrives. In the short amount of time that he has left until Miller’s train arrives, Kane tries to round up a posse of deputies to head off the gang, but one by one, the townsfolk turn their backs on him, including his deputy, Harvey Pell (Bridges), and his new bride. When high noon comes around, Kane is left alone to defend the town he swore to protect, despite their unwillingness to fight alongside him.

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Taken on its own merits, High Noon is a pretty great Western. It features Gary Cooper in a signature performance, one that would codify the trope of the stern, virtuous lawman. The cinematography is beautiful black and white, and it captures the essence of the stock frontier town perfectly. In fact, I think when most people picture a town’s main street from a Western movie, it’s the main street of Hadleyville that they envision, complete with Marshal Kane striding across the boardwalk towards his fateful confrontation. The film’s theme, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” is featured throughout the film, echoing its plot points, and kicking off a trend of Western films featuring country theme songs. The film builds suspense throughout, delaying the gratification of its central conflict until the final few minutes, but constantly teasing its villain’s arrival through the highlighting of clocks and other markers of the passing of time. This device of a film playing out in (almost) real time must have seemed incredibly novel at the time, as the audience is put into the same mindset as Kane, counting down the minutes and seconds until Miller arrives, bringing with him vengeance and destruction. In short, High Noon is one of the most influential and innovative Westerns of its time period. Though there are a handful of other 1950s Westerns that could stake claim to this title, it’s not hyperbole to mark High Noon as the archetype of the classic Hollywood Western film.

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Digging below the surface of the film’s production, and exploring its historical context, one in which cowboys became culture warriors, reveals a deeper level of significance and importance to High Noon. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, a one-time member of the Communist party, had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had refused to implicate others, resulting in his blacklisting from Hollywood. The incident resulted in the dissolution of his partnership with Hollywood mogul Stanley Kramer, and in Foreman’s eventual expatriation to Britain along with a handful of other blacklisted screenwriters and directors. Though High Noon was currently in production when Foreman was called to testify before the HUAC, it isn’t difficult to read between the film’s lines and see it as a critique of the Red Scare, generally. Like those accused of Communist sympathies and associations in McCarthy’s witch hunt, Kane is abandoned and disowned by longtime friends and family. Though she returns to his side in the end and plays a pivotal role in Kane’s defeat of Miller’s gang, even Amy abandons her husband. Kane is forced, largely, to stand on his own, defending his values and principles in the face of unpopular public opinion. The film’s political allegory was publicly acknowledged at the time, and John Wayne famously turned down the role of Marshal Kane because he thought that the film was un-patriotic, later publicly relishing his role in chasing Foreman from the industry. In films like High Noon and Wayne’s response film, Rio Bravo, the frontier provided a historical context for a debate over modern American ideology.

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High Noon shows further progressive leanings in its treatment of the character of Helen Ramirez (Jurado). Helen is the only Hispanic character in the film, and, though it isn’t made explicit, she is clearly a prostitute. Despite this, she is granted a position of great importance in the film’s narrative, and also within the hierarchy of the town. Helen has been romantically involved in the past with both Frank Miller and Marshal Kane, and when High Noon starts, she is with Deputy Pell, however her promiscuity isn’t judged by the film or the characters in it. She’s a source of wisdom and strength within the community, and she’s respected as a businesswoman by the town’s elders. When contrasted with Kane’s wife, Amy, Helen is shown to be more loyal and pragmatic, reminding Amy that if Kane were still her man that she would stand by his side. By choosing her battles, Helen remains above the fray, and, from this vantage point, she seems to have the best perspective on the town’s conflict. I’m not exactly sure what to take away from High Noon’s treatment of its only ethnic minority character, but I think that it’s an honest and unusual characterization for the time, and I appreciate that the filmmakers made it a point to include a character this complex in a film that is otherwise fairly straightforward.high noon 8

It was nice to have an excuse to go back and rewatch High Noon, because it had been at least a decade since the last time I really watched it all the way through, and I doubt that the urge to pull it off the shelf would have otherwise presented itself anytime soon. For Western fans, I think that the movie is still pretty enjoyable, but I imagine that many other audiences might have a bit of trouble getting into it. Although it’s briskly paced, clocking in under 90 minutes, there is little action to speak of. I think that most modern audiences might find the film’s central conflict to be boring, rather than fraught with tension, and that the subtext of the Hollywood blacklist might be less interesting to viewers not already invested in film history. Still, though, it’s difficult to underestimate the importance of a film like High Noon at the time it was released. It introduced progressive ideologies into what was, to that point, a fairly reactionary and conservative film genre. High Noon also transformed film style and introduced a radical new storytelling device by letting its story unfold in real time. However, I think that these stylistic innovations would probably be lost on most modern audiences because we’re so far removed from the film’s initial release. I enjoy High Noon, and I was glad to have the opportunity to watch it again, but it will probably be another ten years before I decide to revisit it. It’s a great movie, and deserving of the praise that it’s received throughout the years, but there are other Westerns of this period that I just enjoy a bit more.

High Fidelity

High Fidelity (2000)

Dir. Stephen Frears

Written by: D.V. DiVencintis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, Scott Rosenberg (From the novel by Nick Hornby)

Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Lisa Bonet

 

“Which came first, the music or the misery?” This maudlin bit of dialogue opens High Fidelity, and it came to be something of a mantra for me in my teen years. I imagine that there were quite a few young, nerdy, socially maladjusted misanthropes who took Rob Gordon’s words and neuroses to heart after seeing High Fidelity. It seemed like the perfect movie for me at 15 or 16 years old, justifying my obsessive interest in music, movies, and pop culture ephemera. Though Rob is certainly meant to be seen as a shallow, narcissistic protagonist, one who can even identify those qualities in himself, I consistently misread the film’s message as a young person. By my late teens, I think that I started to understand the film’s third act, in which Rob starts to accept some responsibility for his own shortcomings and becomes a better person and partner, but I still saw more of myself in the Rob of the early film, who is so wrapped up in the minutiae of collectorship and curation that he fails to fully form a personality for himself. Watching High Fidelity in my thirties is almost cringe-worthy, as it reminds me of my early attempts at romance, of the person who I was nearly twenty years ago, but it’s also a powerfully nostalgic trip that does provide some wistful smiles and laughs.

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The movie opens with Rob Gordon (Cusack), fresh on the heels of a break up with Laura (Hjejle), trying to take stock of his life and his failed relationships. On the cusp of middle age, Rob is more grown child than man, defining his personality and interpersonal relationships through his encyclopedic knowledge of music and pop culture. Rob has parlayed this knowledge into a job running his own record store, Championship Vinyl, where he spends his days trying to impress customers and one-up his fellow music-nerd employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black). Rob’s self-examination takes the form of an exhumation of his loves and losses, Top Five style, as is his wont throughout the film. We see Rob grow from an immature, elitist, young hipster, into an immature, cynical, older hipster and along the way meet some of the women who he blames for turning him into the self-loathing, but still self-obsessed, ball of neuroses and music trivia that he is. Eventually, Rob’s soul searching brings him back to Laura, and the two reconcile as she tries to rekindle not only the spark in their relationship but in Rob’s personal life, as well. High Fidelity finishes up with a conventionally happy ending, but its always struck me as fraught with uncertainty, much like the ending of The Graduate.

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I’m probably being unfair to Rob as a protagonist, but that’s only because I can sometimes see so much of my younger self in his character. As I mentioned, High Fidelity was an early touchstone for myself, and I embraced its esoteric hipster-dom. It was the movie that made me feel ok to be as wrapped up in music and movies as I was as a 15-year-old kid, but I think that it also gave me a pass to become too maudlin and too self-involved for a while in that period of my life. There’s only so long that you can substitute depression, teenage alcoholism, and a record or movie collection for an actual personality. Rob is a prick when we meet him, a prick in his own remembrances, and he remains at least a bit of a prick until the movie’s end, when he does manage to, at least partially, redeem himself by embracing a more healthy, positive outlook on life. I think that I stopped watching High Fidelity almost entirely after my high school years simply because it was too difficult to stomach Rob’s elitism and moping. His attitude reminded me of a phase of development I was desperately trying, and often failing, to grow out of. Ironically, if anything, I probably became more of an ivory tower elitist in college than I had been in high school, although I couldn’t see that particular forest for the trees of academia that were surrounding me.

But still, uneasy self-revelations aside, I found a lot to enjoy about High Fidelity watching it for the first time in at least a dozen years. While Rob might not be an easy guy to root for or sympathize with, High Fidelity is an easy movie to settle into and enjoy. It’s light and funny, it has a fittingly great soundtrack, and the grand gestures of love depicted in the movie seem perfect to its target audiences of young people and hopelessly romantics. I’ve never been a big fan of traditional romantic comedies, but High Fidelity injects enough pessimism and cynicism into its saccharine core that it avoids turning my stomach. The movie walks the line between loathing and loving, and it depicts the balance between the two sentiments as existing within all of Rob’s relationships, including the one that he has with himself. That seems like a much more honest depiction of love to me than most romantic comedies of the early 2000s were peddling. By the film’s end, Rob and Laura are in love again, and, while it’s not difficult to envision a future where they really do share a fairytale happy ending, it’s more likely that their relationship will continue to be defined by the careful balance of their very different, but complimentary, personality types. Throughout the film, Rob’s relationship with Laura was shown as having elements of humor, affection, contention, and understanding, depths that clearly aren’t represented in any of the previous relationships that he posthumously examines for clues as to his failings. That depth is what builds a strong and lasting relationship. I like that High Fidelity depicts this sort of relationship as a continuous work in progress. It feels genuine and affirmational, especially when that work leads to an ecstatic moment such as the one depicted in the film’s musical finale where Rob proposes to Laura. It’s a really good scene and it feels like a great payoff for the cast of characters who have all grown in some way.

high fidelity 8I’d also kind of forgotten what a pleasure the supporting cast of High Fidelity is to watch. Jack Black’s performance in the movie always sticks out in my head, and certain line deliveries of his tend to pop up in conversation for me still, but I had forgotten how much of his humor is drawn from the perfect interplay between his character, Barry, and Todd Louiso’s Dick. The two actors are perfectly paired, with Louiso embodying the introverted, nerdy stereotype of the record obsessive, while Black’s Barry is the brash, know-it-all music nerd. I’ve known several people who fit into both sides of this stereotype, and the actors chosen are perfect for their roles. Louiso lurks quietly in the background of scenes, mumbling lines both pithy and sincere, and, seemingly in compensation, Black’s mania is ratcheted up to 11, with the actor dancing and bouncing through the record store, while bursting into gleeful song. Both characters are genuine and fun, and it’s a pleasure to watch them grow a little bit throughout the movie, with Dick finally getting a date with his crush and Barry finally getting to sing in a band, by the film’s end.

On a similar note, Lisa Bonet deserves acclaim for her role as Marie de Salle, a musician whom Rob develops a crush on while he and Laura have split up. Bonet also feels genuine, tapping into her sensuality and performative streak when Marie is on stage, but revealing a natural, fun side to the character when she’s off it. Marie feels real in a way that none of Rob’s previous girlfriends have, and I attribute much of that to the inherent warmth in Bonet’s performance. She exudes coolness, but also caring, seeming to develop a real connection with Rob in just a short period of time. She also nails her performance scenes, and the cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” still sticks in my head sometimes. Overall, I think that High Fidelity shortchanges most of its female characters because they’re being imagined through the prism of Rob’s post-breakup mindset, but Marie de Salle is allowed to exist fully on her own terms as a character, and Bonet brings that character to life vibrantly.

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I found this rewatch of High Fidelity to be something of a mixed bag, which is a fairly common theme among the movies in this project. Sometimes art that we love when we’re young doesn’t age so well, but High Fidelity is largely as I remember it, for better and for worse. I suppose that it’s fitting for me to have such a nostalgic affection for a movie that is so obviously steeped in nostalgia already. The laughs and the funny characters are just as I remember them from so long ago, but part of those characters being just as I remember them means that I’ve also largely outgrown them. A movie that I used to strongly identify with has become one that I merely enjoy, and even then I doubt that High Fidelity is a movie that I’ll be pulling off the shelf again any time soon. When it’s good it’s really good, and it still brings a big smile to my face, but the movie also feels incredibly dated, not just in its content but in its style, as well. High Fidelity has more in common with studio romantic comedies from earlier than it does with newer, more interesting movies like Her. This isn’t a terrible thing, because High Fidelity largely delivers on the promises of its genre, and, as I mentioned, I think it presents a realistic and relatable portrayal of romance, but it does mean that the movie was far less influential than I probably felt like it was, or should be, when I was 15 years old. That’s probably a good thing, though.

Her

Her (2013)

Dir. Spike Jonze

Written by: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara

 

Her is one of the most recent movies in my collection, and it’s one of the very last movies that I ever purchased on home video. By the time Her came out on DVD in May of 2014, I was already primarily consuming all of my media through streaming services. My DVD collection had seldom grown in the past couple of years, but I was compelled to add this particular movie to my collection. Despite knowing that with the breadth of streaming services and premium channels available to me, I could likely dial up a popular, recent movie like Her at any time, I needed to own it. Such was the impact that this movie had on me when I saw it in the theater in early 2014, after having just experienced a recent minor heart break. I clung to the movie after that first viewing, declaring it one of my favorites of 2013, a year in which I made it a point to see a great many of the critically-acclaimed films. In the weeks after seeing Her, I played over small moments from the film in my head, comparing them to my own experience of loss. Admittedly, nearly five years later, watching the movie again I realize how short-sightedly maudlin my initial appreciation of it might have been, but I still find Her to be a richly evocative movie that plumbs emotional depths and treats the audience to a sumptuous imagining of a tech-driven near future. Spike Jonze crafts a heartbreakingly beautiful love story in his first solo script, and he further explores the nuances of modern love that he explored in his early collaborations with Charlie Kaufman. It’s a lovely movie that I’m glad to have fallen in love with, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

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The titular Her is Samantha (Johansson), an operating system on a tablet with whom introverted, romantic, lonely poet Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) falls in love. Theodore lives in Los Angeles, sometime in the not-too-distant future, in a world in which people have become even more enamored with their PDAs and other screened devices. Theodore is adrift in this impersonal world, still reeling from the dissolution of his marriage over a year ago, working a dispiriting job in which he pens happy couples’ love letters for them. He has alienated his few friends, including his close friend, Amy (Adams), preferring to spend his evenings alone with his personal assistant and his video games. That all changes, however, when Theodore’s, and everyone else’s, computers are updated to feature a new artificial intelligence-based operating system that will function as a personalized virtual assistant and colleague. Theodore’s OS names herself Samantha, and, within a matter of weeks, the two have sprouted up first, a friendship, and then, an uneasy romance. Though it lacks the physicality of a traditional romantic relationship, the bond that Theodore and Samantha form is emotional and real, and the affections that the two share for one another are, too. Samantha is the coolly unattainable, but imminently approachable woman who Theodore desires, and Theodore provides a human outlet for Samantha to begin to experience the world. Inevitably, though, Samantha, with her computer brain’s limitless ability to expand and process experience and information, begins to outgrow Theodore. He is left devastated, trying to pick up the pieces of a relationship that, on the surface, seemed so immaterial.

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The premise of Her would be laughable if we weren’t in a pervasively digital era, in which people are free to meet and bond online, sharing mutual interests and experiences. In the age of online dating, long distance relationships, and catfishing, meeting someone on the Internet and allowing a friendship or romantic relationship to bloom has become extremely commonplace. Jonze simply takes this idea and stretches it to its most extreme iteration, essentially crafting a love story in which a man falls in love with a personification of the Internet itself. It’s conceptually daring and high-minded, to be sure, but at its root, Her is a fairly conventional love story. Theodore and Samantha form an unlikely pair, but the stages of their courtship would be familiar to anyone who has ever fallen in love, and the ups and downs of their relationship are blissfully and painfully real. Jonze is careful to depict their love as being rooted in deep and true emotions, rather than some tech fetish, as he allows the audience to contrast Theodore and Samantha’s relationship with Theodore’s unsuccessful attempts at connecting with real humans through virtual means. Their relationship is certainly untraditional, but it seems almost quaint in its simplicity and earnestness, and in the unabashed love that the two exhibit for one another.

This central relationship wouldn’t ring as true, though, without the stellar performances of Phoenix and Johansson. I don’t know that I had really recognized Johansson for the great actress that she’s become until I saw Her. I had often enjoyed her performances in movies that I’d seen her in, but her performance as the disembodied voice of Samantha elevated her status as an actor in my mind. Through a purely vocal performance, Johansson is able to fully flesh out Samantha’s character and personality. Her vocal inflections and expert timing lend a layer of humanity to the OS that feels slightly unnatural, at first, but then becomes unmistakably warm and inviting. She gives Samantha sass, feeling, and depth. Her performance is memorable, and it made me realize just how unmistakable her voice is. She plays Samantha as coy and playful, but also vulnerable, searching for meaning and identity. Jonze’s excellent script helps to provide Samantha with some of her layers, but its Johansson’s performance that truly brings the character to life and turns her into a relatable, sympathetic presence.

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Theodore is a somewhat thornier character, not entirely sympathetic, but played to excellent pathos by Phoenix. I’ve long felt that Phoenix was a great artist, and I think that in time he’ll be recognized as one of the best actors of his generation. He is able to shift seamlessly from character to character, channeling different facets of the human experience for each role. The change up in demeanor that he shows from a signature performance in The Master, released just a year before Her, is indicative of the range that he possesses as an actor. Gone are the outbursts and the primal, animalistic rage that he displays in the latter film, replaced here with a gentleness and a reticence previously unforeseen. There’s a bit of the everyman in Theodore, but his social development is stunted just slightly from the trauma of his failed marriage, and Phoenix displays this interiority subtly and masterfully. Though he spends much of the film closed off, watching Phoenix unfurl his easy smile as Theodore’s world begins to open up through his relationship with Samantha is one of the film’s small pleasures. Once his walls begin to come down, Phoenix plays Theodore with a weightless, if nerdy, charm. Theodore is a somewhat unlikable character, prone to self-defeat and neurosis, but it’s hard not to be won over by Phoenix’s nuanced performance.

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Jonze creates a sumptuous visual world for his characters to inhabit. The Los Angeles that he imagines is familiar, maybe a decade or two advanced beyond our world, but filled with just enough technological advances and novelties to give it a sense of whimsy and wonder, placing the film squarely in the realm of speculative fiction. Technology in Her is pervasive but never insistent. Jonze uses screens and virtual reality to give us a glimpse of life in his near-future, but they are merely the window dressing on the human love story that he wants to tell. Technology exists all around, and as such, its presence doesn’t hamper Jonze’s desire to explore a breezy, sun-splashed world. The exteriors of Her are bathed in warm light, and Jonze uses a summery color palette full of warm hues that reflect the film’s inherent romanticism. A love story between a man and an operating system could certainly be an interiorly-focused film, and one without many humanistic touches, but Jonze’s direction and mise-en-scene breathe warm life into Her. Much like in his work with frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman, Jonze’s visual work provides a grounding and inviting element to a script that could otherwise become esoteric and inaccessible.

Her is a movie that still feels incredibly real and raw when I watch it. I’ve watched and rewatched it a half dozen times in the last few years, and though I’ve grown past the disappointment that I was feeling from a rejection on my initial viewing, it’s a movie that manages to make me feel emotions that few others can. A beautiful relationship, whether it be romantic or platonic, should be about growth and learning, and supporting a partner as they grow and learn, too. The only thing constant in life is change, and as humans we are always changing and growing through experiential learning. In Samantha’s awakening, Her depicts exactly the sort of growth that we should all hope for our partners, but it also accurately depicts the pain that can be caused when one half of a partnership outgrows the other, or grows in new and different directions. Love can be scary, and it can be beautiful, and it can feel immensely overpowering, opening up new experiences and ways of being, and I think that Her captures all of that perfectly. It’s a movie that calls into question what it means to feel, what it means to be human, and it finds the core of humanity in the desire and ability to connect. That connection can be physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual, or, at times, all of the above, as we see in Her through Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. It’s an earnest and honest movie, one that isn’t afraid to wallow in the depths of sadness and explore the dizzying heights of euphoric love, and it’s a movie that I likely won’t ever tire of returning to when I’m looking to feel affirmed of my own humanity.

Heart of Glass

Heart of Glass (1976)

Dir. Werner Herzog

Written by: Werner Herzog

Starring: Josef Bierbichler, Stefan Güttler, Sonja Skiba

 

Heart of Glass is the fourth Werner Herzog-directed film that I’ve written about for this project, and it’s one of the ones included in the Herzog box set that I own that I actually hadn’t watched before. As is typical with my first experience with a Herzog film, I was left with a curiosity, a sense of wonder, and a desire to watch the movie again almost immediately. The film isn’t likely a great introduction to the work of Herzog, but it is typically Herzog-ian in its themes, its presentation, and its formal and narrative strangeness. The film is somewhat famous as one in which Herzog hypnotized nearly his entire cast, and had them perform their scenes while in a trance state, but, to my knowledge, it’s not nearly as widely seen as many of his other films. I can see why the film’s somnambulant tone and pacing, plus its highly esoteric subject matter, might turn off casual viewers, but fans of Herzog shouldn’t miss this hidden gem. It seems to have missed out on classic status, but it provides a richly rewarding cinematic experience, and it’s a movie that I will certainly be thinking about for many days to come.

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Heart of Glass is set in a pre-industrial Bavarian village, whose citizens’ livelihood depends on the highly valued “Ruby glass” that is produced in their factory. At the film’s outset, it is discovered that the foreman of the factory has passed away without bestowing on any of the villagers the secret of making the beautiful rose-colored glass. The factory’s owner (Güttler) tries in vain to find someone in the village who can recreate the Ruby glass, but as it becomes more and more apparent that there is no replacement for the deceased foreman, the villagers become increasingly depressed and erratic. All the while, the village’s seer, Hias (Bierbichler) is prophesying doom and destruction, perhaps not only for this village and its people, but for all mankind.

This is an exceedingly simple plot synopsis, but aside from a few highly impressionistic passages, and a visual coda at the film’s end that could serve as a sort of allegory for the preceding narrative, it’s accurate. Heart of Glass is a simple film, but it’s certainly not direct, and, as always, the real value of a story lies in the telling. Though it isn’t as decidedly abstract as Fata Morgana, this film finds Herzog operating a similar mode, privileging feeling and mood over narrative clarity. Though I think that the events of the film are meant to be taken at face value, they also operate just as well on an allegorical level. The fate of the villagers can stand in for the fate of humanity over the ensuing centuries, as humans’ worth became more and more closely tied to their ability to produce goods through heavy industry. Hias’s visions are specific to the village, its inhabitants, and its treasured factory, but his dark proclamations seem to ring with resonance for the modern world, as well. The hypnotized actors are stand-ins for modern workers, and the secret of the glass is the only thing that gives their labor some small purpose. Without that drive and purpose, the villagers have lost all will to live. This fable breaks down a very modern conundrum to its core essences, and presents many of the problems of a modern industrial society with such shocking frankness that they’re rendered almost unrecognizable.

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At the heart of the film’s inherent strangeness are the haunting, affected performances of the hypnotized actors. Through the hypnosis, Herzog gets pure performances, stripped of any artifice or emotionality. It’s a daring directorial choice, and it leads to some highly uncomfortable moments throughout the film, but it also leads to a uniformity of performance and mood throughout the film that is enveloping. The actors register less as characters, or even as people, than as types, vessels through which Herzog can articulate his philosophies on the nature of man and work and life. Some directors would seek to explore these themes emotionally, through heightened character/audience identification, but Herzog breaks in the other direction, seeking to get to philosophical truth through a stripping away of comfort and identification, and the extreme use of cinematic devices aimed towards a particular sort of distancing effect. I’m sure that the style isn’t for everyone, and this performance decision might be why Heart of Glass is less seen than other Herzog films of the period, but, for me, the dreamlike acting style was perfect. I won’t forget the hollow eyes and disimpassioned line delivery of these actors any time soon.

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Despite being a rather pessimistic and dour film, Heart of Glass contains several moments of absolute sublime beauty. As in Fata Morgana, Herzog captures scenes of immense natural beauty, and, in so doing, creates a deep sense of awe and wonder, and causes the audience to question the role of man and society within nature. The drab village, and its strong association with ideas of society and industry, is the purview of man. As we see in Heart of Glass, lacking for purpose, man becomes his own worst enemy and society cannot thrive. The woods around the village, which Hias calls home, and the other natural locations that Herzog highlights are associated with magic, visions, and spirituality. Through his association with nature and his visions, Hias is freer than the villagers, and more in tune to the natural rhythms of the world. It is important to note, also, that Hias’s visions are not associated with any religious belief. Natural mysticism is given priority, and though the film doesn’t make any explicit claims about organized religion, there are several telling symbols that pop up on the fringes of scenes which give clues as to Herzog’s position on religion’s role in spoiling the decency of a pure and natural society. The film’s coda could potentially throw into question the primacy of nature, but I think that it even more underscores the point that man must seek to find himself within nature, rather than attempt to bend the natural world to his will.

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I wish that more people, particularly more people who are somewhat familiar with Herzog’s work, would see Heart of Glass, but it’s also a difficult film for me to recommend unequivocally. Though I think that it is a film approaching masterpiece territory, it’s also a dense, meditative, and difficult film, and one that isn’t likely to appeal to most, or many, viewers. It is a film that is designed to make the audience uncomfortable, to jar them out of a sense of complacency and understanding, and awaken within them a desire to receive a particular message. Herzog’s delivery method is unique, but the themes that he is exploring appear time and time again in his body of work. For Herzog fans, Heart of Glass is richly rewarding, and not to be missed. For fans of experimental or art cinema, it’s a challenging film worth exploring. I know that I’m anticipating my next opportunity to submit to this film’s particular brand of hypnosis. I don’t think that I totally understand everything that I saw and experienced while watching Heart of Glass, and I know that I’ve done a poor job in adequately discussing the film, but it’s a movie that crawled under my skin and it will take a long time before I’ve shaken it.

Hard Eight

Hard Eight (1997)

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson

 

Hard Eight is the story of a friendship that begins when an older man meets a young man, down on his luck, and offers him a cigarette, a cup of coffee, and, eventually, a path to a new lease on life. John (Reilly) is sitting on a curb outside a diner, having come to Las Vegas to win money to bury his mother, when he meets Sydney (Hall), a longtime card shark who sees something in the desperate young man, and offers him help. Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature begins simply, lacking the bombast and import that would come to define his masterful later work. It’s a small, character-driven drama that explores the seedy world of small time cons and the seedy characters who pull them in casinos and pool halls. It’s an aimless, meandering sort of picture for the first hour, allowing the audience to really get a sense of who these characters are and what their relationships are to one another, and to completely get a sense of place as the action shifts to small town Reno, Nevada. The film’s final act picks up the pace, providing a few surprise reveals and some violent retribution, but at its core, Hard Eight is a movie about four desperate people and their desires and shortcomings. It isn’t a pretty movie, or a fancy one, but when I’m looking to briefly dip my toes into the type of world peopled by figures both sad and seedy, it’s a perfect choice.

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I’ve written about a lot of first features and debuts in this space, but I think that Hard Eight is the most accomplished yet. Though it offers only fleeting glimpses of the cinematic mastery that Anderson would eventually display, the film stands on its own as a tight and entertaining caper. The thing that I’m always impressed by when I return to Hard Eight, which I do fairly frequently, is the efficiency with which Anderson builds up these characters and their relationships. A few lines of perfectly written and delivered dialogue are enough to make the audience feel that they know each of the principals and their motivations. Though each of them keep secrets until the end, these characters are familiar and, mostly, endearing. In a way, these characters are tropes – The Benevolent Grifter, The Down-on-his-Luck Loser, The Hooker with a Heart of Gold – but Anderson’s narrative subtlety and the excellent performances of the entire cast, elevate them beyond thin stereotypes.

Anderson managed an impressive assemblage of talent for his debut feature. Hall, who also starred in the short film Sydney, from which Hard Eight is adapted, is perfect in the role of the paternalistic, wise conman. His lined face speaks to the years of experience Sydney has had and the things that he’s seen in those years, existing on the fringes of underworld societies. Watching Hall take a long, patient drag from a cigarette is akin to taking a master class in world-weariness. There is a hardness at the core of his performance, but it never registers as cruel, rather that hardness is earned through experience, and in his interactions with the other characters, it manifests itself as a persistent, paternalistic care, especially for Reilly’s John. The two make a good pair of foils, obviously forming a father/son pairing as Sydney takes the place of the father who John lost many years ago. John is a typical Reilly character, kind and sweet, but more than a bit naïve. I’ve always been impressed by the vulnerability that Reilly often shows as an actor, and that openness and vulnerability is on full display here, as he plays a character completely set adrift in the world, looking for any harbor.

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Though the film is, without a doubt, the story of Sydney and John, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson round out the supporting cast and are each given a few scenes in which to shine. Both characters are used to reveal deeper characteristics of the two principals, with Paltrow’s Clementine falling for John, and vice versa, and helping to introduce a stronger, more independent side to his character in the film’s third act. Clementine has an inner strength that’s belied by her made-up exterior, a quality that Paltrow fully puts on display in the film’s pivotal scene. She and John have beaten and kidnapped a john who refused to pay Clementine after sex, and they call Sydney for help. Though she’s understandably emotional and hysterical, Clementine is pulling all of the strings in the scene, urging John and Sydney to kill the man, remaining singularly focused on her money and her besmirched dignity while John is spinning out of control in the face of a situation he can’t comprehend. This is Paltrow’s only featured scene in the movie, but she makes the most of it, revealing a nuance to her character that wasn’t readily apparent earlier in the film. Likewise, Jackson isn’t afforded many opportunities to really shine in Hard Eight, but he plays the role of Jimmy, a small-time hustler and keeper of an important secret, perfectly. Jimmy’s big scene comes near the film’s end, when he confronts Sydney about a secret from his past, and demands that Sydney disappear. To this point, Jackson has played Jimmy as an affable, if sleazy, character, whose sinister side is well contained. However, when he confronts Sydney in the parking lot, he seethes rage and righteous anger, delivering the sort of monologue that Samuel Jackson has become known for. Jimmy is intimidating without ever becoming unhinged, and his malice is all the more potent, because Jackson’s restrained performance gives the impression that it could be wielded as a club, if need be. It’s a short scene and a small role, but it’s vintage Samuel L. Jackson, and the venerable character actor nails it.

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Beyond just crafting realistic, relatable characters, Anderson also brings Las Vegas and Reno to life in subtle ways. His casinos feel lived in, a bit worn down at the heel, but authentic. He isn’t interested in the glitz of the strip, but rather in the second-rate casinos and the seedy, extended stay motels that proliferate throughout the rest of Las Vegas. Hard Eight does every bit as much examining and extrapolating on the character of Nevada as does Casino, but the stakes here are smaller, simpler. When Sydney introduces John to a particular hustle early in the film, the object is not to get rich quick but to get a comped room, and maybe a free meal voucher. The scene in which Anderson introduces the con is brilliant, Hall breaking down the intricacies of the simple grift in voiceover while Anderson meticulously documents the ins and outs of the scheme, which involves John appearing to spend more than he is by cycling his chips and a small amount of cash through different cashier windows and getting a player’s card stamped for money that he isn’t really spending. It’s a simple but effective con, and the scene is, likewise, a simple but effective way of suturing the audience’s interest to this particular world and expanding their understanding of it. The rest of Hard Eight is understated and murky, while this early scene is insistent and direct, but it serves as the perfect introduction to the film’s world. Anderson does the one thing a gambler should never do, by tipping his hand early, but it works.

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P.T. Anderson is one of my favorite filmmakers, and I think that he will be thought of as one of the greatest directors of all time, if that consensus hasn’t already been cemented. Hard Eight, of course, falls short of the cinematically sublime level that a few of his more recent pictures have achieved, but it is a great achievement in and of itself. It might be easy to dismiss this small film as an inauspicious debut, but it’s such a well-crafted, fully formed work, one that features hints of the greatness that Anderson would go on to achieve. Hard Eight is, honestly, the Anderson movie that I end up rewatching most frequently, probably at least once a year. It simply never disappoints, and when I’m looking for a taut, character-driven drama, there are really few better in my collection. It’s a movie that I suspect is still rather underseen, but it really deserves more attention, even outside of the context of Anderson’s larger body of work, or his auteur status. From its well-written characters, to its perfectly established and envisioned world, and impressive performances across the board, Hard Eight has a lot to like on its own. It’s a somewhat forgotten movie worthy of reflection and reevaluation.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Dir. Wes Anderson

Written by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan

 

I think that Wes Anderson is one of the more polarizing filmmakers working today. He has achieved a distinct and instantly recognizable visual and narrative style over the course of his twenty-year career, and is often recognized by contemporary critics as a visionary and important filmmaker, but it seems to me that when I talk about his movies with people in the real world, they don’t share this universal admiration. Anderson’s films seem to engender a love it or hate it reaction, with many people I’ve met finding his aesthetic to be too twee, too precious, and too affected. To them, Anderson is the quintessential hipster director, making ironic and precocious art meant to be taken seriously by those for whom cultivating a perfect vinyl collection and sourcing the best knit fabrics for a sweater vest are matters of grave concern. Conversely, I’ve met an equal number of people who feel that Anderson’s humor and sensibilities reflect the sarcastic, wry, and ironic zeitgeist of the 21st century, and that his vintage aesthetics and concern with evoking a sense of place in time through mise-en-scene and music are perfect for a digital age in which nostalgia is only a click away. I find myself firmly in the latter camp, having been a fan of Anderson since the late 1990s, but I suppose that I can see why some people can’t seem to penetrate his filmography and have trouble relating to his movies. One thing that I think shouldn’t be up for much debate, even among those Anderson detractors, is that The Grand Budapest Hotel is a great movie. It marks Anderson at the height of his powers, and seeing one of the last quarter century’s most important and recognizable auteurs turning in a masterpiece is what makes it one of the greatest movies of the young 21st century.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel is a nesting doll of a caper that unfolds over several distinctive period settings, telling the history of the titular hotel and its staff and inhabitants. The tale is related by the hotel’s proprietor, the aged Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), and it centers on his arrival at the Grand Budapest Hotel where he gained employment as a lobby boy under the supervision of the hotel’s famed concierge, M. Gustave (Fiennes). The young Moustafa, whose first name is Zero (Revolori), shows promise as a lobby boy and Gustave takes him under his wing, teaching him the ins and outs of hospitality. Shortly after Zero begins his employment at the Grand Budapest, Gustave receives notice that Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of his many elderly paramours, has died under mysterious circumstances, and he and Zero travel by train to her estate to witness the reading of her will. Madame D. wills Gustave a priceless painting, enraging her family, particularly her son Dmitri (Adrien Brody). Though Zero and Gustave are able to safely return the painting to the Grand Budapest, Dmitri frames Gustave for his mother’s murder and he is subsequently jailed. Gustave manages to escape from prison with the help of his fellow inmates, and also Zero and his new fiancée, Agatha (Ronan), a baker’s apprentice with a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her cheek. Zero and Gustave then set off to find the identity of Madame D.’s true killer, and, so doing, clear M. Gustave’s name.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel takes many of Anderson’s directorial quirks and dials them up to 11. It’s certainly a treat for the initiated, but I think that it’s also a film that can be enjoyed by just about any fan of movies. While it features much of Anderson’s stock cast, and expands upon his visual and narrative style, Grand Budapest sticks out among Anderson’s filmography as somewhat less precious and precocious. Though the Grand Budapest Hotel is one of Anderson’s most exquisitely realized dollhouses come to life, the story that he tells about the hotel and its inhabitants is darker, more action-oriented, and more steeped in actual history than any of Anderson’s earlier films. In Grand Budapest it seems that Anderson has managed to adhere his style onto a skeleton of classical Hollywood references and a more traditional structure. Though he still utilizes familiar cutaways, intertitles, and meticulously crafted miniatures, Anderson eschews some of his other trademarks, such as his frequent use of 1960s and 1970s pop music for the soundtrack. This pairing of Anderson’s whimsical tendencies with more traditional, grounded influences is a marriage for success, and makes for Anderson’s richest, most cinematically rewarding film.

Another way that Anderson deviates from his established norms is by sidelining the majority of his stock cast of actors. While Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, and Owen Wilson all appear in The Grand Budapest Hotel, they, and many other Anderson regulars, take a backseat to a trio of actors who are making their first appearances in a Wes Anderson film, led by Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave. I’m not overly familiar with Fiennes body of work as an actor, aside from some of the obvious roles that he’s most well-known for, but this is my favorite performance of his. He completely plays against his usual type, playing Gustave as a somewhat effete, surprisingly capable, and mildly authoritarian figure. He is the efficient center of power that propels the Grand Budapest Hotel, and Fiennes’s performance is the celestial body around which all of the other elements of the film’s universe orbit. He embodies the Old World elegance that is beginning to fade from existence in the time period Anderson depicts in the film. Fiennes’s clipped delivery and quick wit help to inform the film’s sense of humor and reflect the incredibly efficient pacing that the film adopts in its second half. Once The Grand Budapest Hotel goes into full caper mode, it’s propelled by the energy of Fiennes’s Gustave, and drops its mannered comedy for a full screwball turn. His performance is a delight to watch and the movie would likely wouldn’t work as well as it does with another actor in its most prominent role.

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If Fiennes is the propulsive engine driving the plot of The Grand Budapest Hotel forward, then Tony Revolori and Saoirse Ronan give it its emotional depth, and the romance shared by their young characters, Zero and Agatha, provides its beating heart. I’m fairly certain that this movie was the first time I’d seen either actor in anything, and I can remember leaving the theater really impressed with both of them, but particularly with Revolori. His performance provides the film with much of its physical comedy, with his large eyes and expressive face often giving humorous counterpoint to the antics going on around Zero. Though the lobby boy is fairly meek, when the chips are down and his friends are threatened, Zero draws from a well of strength and comes through to protect them. Ronan provides a steadying presence in the film, balancing the energy of Fiennes and Revolori with her more grounded performance. Agatha is resourceful and smart, and Ronan imbues her with a natural goodness that makes it easy to see why Zero would fall head over heels for her. Though both characters are endowed with obvious Anderson-ian affectations – Zero’s penciled on mustache and Agatha’s birthmark in the shape of Mexico – the young actors’ performances shine through. They both radiate kindness and affection, and their characters’ dedication to one another, and to M. Gustave, is the glue holding the film together.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel also marks a shift in Anderson’s sensibilities towards a slightly less cynical tone and point of view. Much like in Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson allows young actors to explore and express more genuine displays of affection and romantic love than are present in his first few films. Whereas in movies like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic, romantic love is viewed extremely suspiciously, and in nearly all of Anderson’s films up to and including The Darjeeling Limited, familial love is basically nonexistent, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, we see an example of a truly powerful love between Zero and Agatha, and a functioning surrogate family formed between the two of them and M. Gustave. This shift is likely a product of Anderson simply maturing and his views on love and life changing as he has evolved as a person and an artist. In Grand Budapest Hotel the romantic subplot and the film’s occasionally raw emotionality provide an inroad for viewers who might have trouble connecting with Anderson’s earlier, more ironic output. That being said, The Grand Budapest Hotel is still very much a “Wes Anderson movie,” and for all of the deviations from what might seem to be his stock pallet, Anderson hasn’t changed his formula, so much as enriched and perfected it. It’s a movie that checks off all of the requisite boxes for me, both as a fan of Wes Anderson and as a fan of cinema, in general. The world building here is typically rich, and that world is peopled by some of Anderson’s most memorable, relatable, and tragic characters to date. The stakes in the film seem high, and Anderson proves himself more capable of creating narrative tension and directing visual action scenes than he previously had in his career. The Grand Budapest Hotel represents a big step forward in artistry for one of my favorite, and, objectively, one of the best, filmmakers of the early 21st century. It’s both a pleasant diversion and a film that rewards multiple viewings, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who has an interest in cinema.

Good Night, and Good Luck.

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005)

Dir. George Clooney

Written by: George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey, Jr.

 

Good Night, and Good Luck. came out at a time in my life when I was rapidly expanding my viewership. In 2005, I was starting my second year of college in Pittsburgh, and I was diving deeply into the Film Studies program at Pitt, filling my schedule with courses that required constant engagement with cinema and encouraged me to explore filmmakers, genres, and national cinemas that I otherwise wouldn’t have considered. I spent that year of school living alone in a single room, in a dormitory where it seemed no one was particularly interested in socializing or meeting a new friend, so I turned, instead, to my movies, watching three or four in a day sometimes. I signed up for a Netflix account and attempted to maximize the efficiency with which I could receive, watch, and return those little red envelopes and the discs inside of them that contained a passport to other worlds. I watched a half dozen movies every week just for the classes I was taking. I rented as many DVDs and VHS tapes as I was allowed every single week from the Carnegie Library’s impressive collection. All the while, I still managed to find the time to make it out to the theater to see the latest new releases, both popular and independent. It was something of a solitary year for me, but it was also a year in which my interests and tastes in movies began to crystallize, and during which my dedication to a scholarly pursuit of the movies was strongest.

I say all of that to illuminate the point that while I was spending so much time collecting stories and images, there were certainly moments where I caught lightning in a bottle and experienced a film that would stay with me for years and through which I would gain a better understanding of the medium and of myself, there were other films that simply didn’t stick and whose plots and characters have been lost in the shuffle entirely, and then there were films that felt incredibly impactful to me at the time, but which have proven not to have the staying power that I assumed that they would. Though I think that it’s an enjoyable, and somewhat important, film, Good Night, and Good Luck. largely falls into this latter category.

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Relating the true story of CBS journalist Edward Murrow’s (Strathairn) public feud with notorious U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, Good Night, and Good Luck. is a stylish, artfully produced period piece. It’s the type of film that seems destined for mainstream award recognition, an Important Drama, and it was rewarded with several Academy Award nominations, but no wins. It’s a film that is designed, with its star-studded cast, serious subject matter, and black and white cinematography, to be appreciated as a serious work of art, but one that stops just short of truly challenging its audience, at the same time. Seeing the movie in the winter of 2005, I felt that Good Night, and Good Luck. was an immensely important movie, and one of high quality, and while it certainly is quality entertainment, its vitality seems to have faded over the course of a decade, and like many other prestige films, its brief run as a must-see movie seems to be all but forgotten. I don’t mean to deny the film any of its artistry, or to suggest that the telling of Murrow’s insistence on speaking truth to power is any sort of frivolity, but there is something about going back to watch this type of prestige film from the mid-2000s that feels absolutely quaint to me. As a commentary on the role of journalism, the film might be more prescient in 2018 than it was in 2005, but watching it again after not having seen it in so long I couldn’t shake the feeling that Good Night, and Good Luck. is simply the product of a radically different time. That’s really neither a bad or good thing, but a truth about the rapidly changing nature of studio cinema, and something of a reflection on my own changing habits as a movie-watcher now compared to 13 years ago.

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What I mean by the first part of that last statement is that shortly after the release of Good Night, and Good Luck., models of distribution began to change radically, as did the consumption habits of the public. Home video was in its heyday and streaming services were beginning to emerge on the horizon, giving audiences access to more and more content in their own homes. The subsequent, relative leveling of the distribution playing field was a definite blow towards the idea of a monoculture, and a single taste-making entity, such as the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences, that acts as an imprimatur of filmic quality. In the age of Internet streaming and distribution, the content consumer reigns supreme, with a plethora of viewing options at her fingers. With so many services designed to satiate every individual artistic taste, the idea of prestige films that audiences and the industry rally around is an idea that exists largely in think pieces such as this one, rather than as a reality in practice. These films are certainly still being made, distributed, widely seen, and lauded with awards, but their impact and importance seems more fleeting by the year. One such film, Spotlight, which bears many similarities to Good Night, and Good Luck., was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture recently, and it is a fine movie that tells a story that deserves to be told. However, when it comes to rewatchability and cinematic importance, to me, it doesn’t hold a candle to other memorable films from that year, including Tangerine, Anomalisa, and Carol. Aside from Tangerine, these are somewhat high-profile, mainstream indie movies, but I think that they are also movies that likely wouldn’t get distribution in 2005. Their success is contingent on a shift in the industry towards niche marketing, which isn’t new, but which has intensified thanks to the increased accessibility offered by alternative distribution models.

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As to my own personal viewing habits having changed, I’m not nearly as consumptive of media as I was in 2005. To be honest, I really haven’t been since that time, which is probably a good thing in most respects. While I do still try to eventually see major awards contenders, my limited available time to consume movies necessitates being much more choosy than I was in the past. Trips to the theater are limited for the movies that I really feel I must see immediately upon their release, or the type of blockbuster action movies that really benefit from a viewing experience on the big screen. I do the bulk of my movie watching at home, and I subscribe to a plethora of different streaming services which provide me with a pretty wide range of new release and classic movies. I watch whatever I want to watch when it becomes available, largely unaffected by the cinematic zeitgeist, because so frequently I’m watching these movies a year or more after they were released in theaters. The experience of watching Good Night, and Good Luck. seemed vital in 2005, so much so that I felt the need to purchase the movie on DVD after having seen it in the theater, but only a decade later, Spotlight received little more than a cursory watch on a Redbox disc on a random, snowy Tuesday night. This divorce from the prestige picture as a theatrical event in my life has shifted my attentions towards movies that might otherwise have gone under my radar. Just like studios keep making safe, awards-friendly fare, I still watch these movies, but frequently in a fashion that is far removed from their moment in the cultural spotlight.

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This post is obviously short-changing Good Night, and Good Luck. which is actually a pretty good movie. I think that its level of cinematic artistry rises significantly above that of many films in the “Oscar bait” category, which is a term that I think I’ve danced around a bit here. The cinematography is beautiful, and Clooney makes an interesting directorial decision to include actual footage of McCarthy, rather than represent him with an actor. Strathairn’s interactions with McCarthy’s image, which is seen on television screens, which abound throughout the film, have an odd quality that is at once truthful and false, piling levels of representation upon one another, creating some disorientation. Strathairn’s performance is powerfully understated, and it’s matched by great work from the rest of the film’s cast. As I’ve alluded to, the film, with its political commentary being matched by the realities of the world today certainly seems prescient and contemporary. In the era of “fake news,” a movie about a journalist risking his career to condemn and expose a hypocritical, cruel bully who found himself in a position of political power rings true, indeed. One of the purposes of this project was to explore movies from my past in a new context, and watching Good Night, and Good Luck. in 2018 certainly changed the way I think about that movie, but also it prompted me to think about the way that I relate to movies in general in 2018, versus the way I did in 2005. My world has expanded so much since then, and, luckily, so have my viewing options. In 2018, I long for a more varied cinematic experience, which is likely a consequence of my voracious media consumption in college. There’s still room for movies like Good Night, and Good Luck., which is to say, movies that are fine to good artistically, and which gain the mainstream approval of what is left of a rapidly dispersing monoculture, but there’s increasingly less and less so as new, and more varied, entertainments come streaming into my life.

Goodfellas

Goodfellas (1990)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi (from Pileggi’s book)

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco

 

I have been procrastinating and struggling with the idea of writing about Goodfellas for several weeks now. I’ve written before that I’m not much of a fan of writing about movies that I don’t like, but, sometimes, it’s just as difficult to write about a movie that you really love, one that’s universally accepted as a masterpiece, and that has been lauded to death already. I don’t know what more I could add to the conversation surrounding Goodfellas, a movie that is often brought up as a contender in the debate over the best films of its ilk, if not the best films of all time. There’s really no debating for me; Goodfellas is quite near the top of my personal favorites, and I think that it’s almost a perfect movie. It’s a combination of cinema as high art and as mainstream entertainment, an accessible masterpiece that absolutely builds consensus among almost any movie fans. When I was watching Goodfellas for something like the hundredth time to prepare for this post, I sent a friend of mine a message that simply said, “I could watch Goodfellas every day and be happy,” and that sentiment is absolutely true. It provides everything that I need in a movie, and though it probably isn’t my absolute favorite movie of all time, it would likely be my desert island movie pick.

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Based on the true story of his involvement with the mafia, Goodfellas follows Henry Hill (Liotta) from his first forays into organized crime as a boy growing up in New York City, to his rise to the pinnacle of the criminal underworld. Along the way, Scorsese introduces a memorable cast of characters and details the inner workings of a well-oiled criminal empire. More than any other movie, including the most classic and lauded of all gangster films, Goodfellas acts as a thorough and immersive tutorial in the operations of the mafia. I’m largely dispensing with a plot synopsis for the movie not only because it’s a movie that anyone reading this post should already be familiar with, but also because its narrative has become the ür-text for the gangster film since its release nearly thirty years ago. The story of Goodfellas will be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the archetypal trope of the individual struggling to define and achieve the American dream, but it’s the telling that makes the movie so memorable. So many lesser movies have quoted and lifted from Goodfellas that it almost seems to have birthed the genre anew, and though it obviously owes a debt to the other giants of gangster cinema, it stands out as an original and vital push forward for the genre.

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Clearly, Martin Scorsese was already established as a master by the time that he made Goodfellas, but this is a film that no doubt vaulted him into another stratosphere as a visual and narrative artist. The movie takes its audience on a 140-minute thrill ride, visually and aurally matching the opulence and the chaos that would come to define Hill’s life as he ascended through the ranks of an organized crime family. The film features the familiarly expressive camera work that would come to define Scorsese’s cinema, and the whiplash editing of longtime Scorsese collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, with both the cinematography and the montage combining to underscore the film’s haphazard narrative. Scorsese has also chosen to tell this tale episodically, condensing thirty years of action into a handful of vignettes that chart Hill’s rise and the increasing unraveling of himself and those around him. These directorial choices give the film a sense of urgency and immediacy, while the ever-present voice over narration lends it its credence and position of authority. While The Godfather is told as a grand epic of Shakespearean proportions, Goodfellas feels thoroughly modern, charting a similar story of criminal enterprise and demise, but doing so in a more engaging and more vital way. It’s a movie that eschews rumination in favor of dragging the audience along by the throat, forcing the audience to see and absorb, and, in essence, experience, the things that Hill is experiencing. When the movie does slow down a bit to let the viewer catch her breath, it’s typically in the form of a freeze-frame, highly constructed to hammer home some point or moment of great narrative import. Goodfellas is full of these and other cinematic visual tricks, a tour de force of image paired with narrative meaning, with Scorsese pulling out all the stops and incorporating every bit of cinematic flair he had developed to that point in his career.

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Scorsese also assembles one of the best casts of any of his films, with Goodfellas combining a who’s-who of established actors, many of whom Scorsese had never worked with in the past, and a panacea of up-and-coming actors, who would go on to people the next generation of mafia media. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci both turn in typically electric performances, with De Niro officially beginning a phase in his career where he started to play the elder statesman, and Pesci being rewarded with an Oscar for his unhinged performance as the ruthless gangster Tommy. Relative newcomer Liotta acquits himself well to a meaty and difficult role, aptly charting Hill’s physical and mental degradation throughout the course of the film. He is by turns charming and suave, and then haggard and harried, a life lived on the fringes of society having obviously taken its toll on his character. Hill is the closest thing the movie has to an audience surrogate, because even though he’s on the inside, he acts as a tour guide through this dark world and his engaging performance encourages the kind of identification that leads to the stomach-turning excitement of the film’s final act as everything starts to crumble around him and his family.

Lorraine Bracco deserves special mention for turning in a varied and stellar performance as Hill’s wife, Karen. Karen is an outsider when Hill first meets and approaches her, but Bracco never plays her as helpless or naïve, instead choosing to make her character uneasy, but ultimately tacitly approving of the madness unfolding around her. Karen is obviously taken in by the lavish lifestyle that Henry introduces her to, with the possibilities of life as a mobster’s wife literally unfolding in front of her eyes in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, as the camera charts an unbroken course through the Copacabana, showing Karen and the audience the kinds of pleasures that abound for those willing to bend a rule. Though she’s a wide-eyed observer, Karen is always aware of the work that her husband does to afford them their lifestyle, and soon enough her own character trajectory starts to mirror that of her husband. By film’s end, Karen is just as strung out and paranoid as Henry, and Bracco sinks her teeth into these later scenes, showing the once prim and proper Karen starting to come apart at the seams. Hers is a powerful performance in a film that largely relegates its female characters to the sidelines.

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My own history with Goodfellas probably goes back a little over 20 years. I’m not exactly sure when the first time I saw the movie was, but I can remember borrowing it on VHS from the library, probably sometime shortly after I had borrowed The Godfather for the first time. Because of the close proximity of my first experience to both movies, and I’m sure not unusually, these two classic gangster movies have always been inextricably linked for me. I really liked both movies at the time, and I still do, but when I was a kid, The Godfather reigned supreme in my opinion. That attitude shifted at some point in my teens and early twenties, when I started to recognize the importance and the style of the more modern, and, by that point, more influential Goodfellas. To me, it’s just a more engaging movie. Even though I have its lines of dialogue memorized and I can anticipate every great and memorable set piece, Goodfellas never fails to grab my attention and keep me locked in for the entirety of its runtime. Though I go to see every new Scorsese release in the theaters, Goodfellas is the only one of his classics that I ever go back to rewatch with any regularity. I need to be in a particular mood to want to sit through Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, but Goodfellas is always a welcome escape for me. There are better movies, though not many, in my opinion, but this is one that earns its place as my desert island movie because it so perfectly triggers every pleasure center that a movie can activate in my brain. Its narrative structure and pacing, the stellar performances of its cast, the attitude that the film has, its great soundtrack, all add up to one of the most satisfying movie experiences that I can treat myself to.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000)

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Written by: Jim Jarmusch

Starring: Forrest Whitaker, John Tormey, Isaach de Bankolé, Henry Silva

 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai was my introduction to Jim Jarmusch, a filmmaker who I’d go on to really get into in my early twenties. When I first watched the movie, probably around 16 years old, I picked it up because I knew that all the music had been composed by the RZA and I knew that it combined two of my favorite things: kung fu/Eastern martial arts culture and old school New York City hip hop culture. While I expected to like the movie, simply based on its premise of a modern assassin who lives by the ancient code of the samurai, I didn’t expect it to strike me in such a way. Quentin Tarantino aside, I hadn’t found a filmmaker who seemed this interested in projecting a specific idea of “cool” through his cinema, by way of inscrutable references, impressionistic sequences that seem to exist outside the realm of the narrative, and an insistence on creating mood over narrative clarity. I enjoyed Ghost Dog a great deal, but it was never a movie that I watched very often. It isn’t terribly complex, but I did find it to be challenging when I was a teen, maybe because I wasn’t as steeped in the practices of a post-modern filmmaker like Jarmusch. Going back and watching it today, with a decade and a half of viewership under my belt, and a more than passing familiarity with Jarmusch’s brand of “cool” cinema, I think that I enjoy Ghost Dog even more.

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The film’s protagonist, the titular Ghost Dog (Whitaker), is a contract killer sworn to live his life by the strict code of the samurai. Shortly after the film opens, Ghost Dog is fulfilling a contract for Louie (Tormey), a low-level gangster who employs Ghost Dog, and to whom Ghost Dog has sworn fealty due to Louie’s saving his life when he was a teen. While Ghost Dog carries out the hit on Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), he doesn’t realize that there is a woman in the room with Frank, whom he leaves alive and who gives him a copy of the book Rashomon. It turns out that the young woman is the daughter of Louie’s mob boss, Vargo (Henry Silva), and Vargo puts out the word to his crew to find and kill Ghost Dog in order to distance the mob from the murder. This proves to be more difficult than expected, however, as Ghost Dog only contacts Louie by carrier pigeon and is notoriously secretive about his personal life. While the mobsters have difficulty tracking down a ghost, Ghost Dog begins turning the tables on them and hunting them down to save his own life.

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The first time I saw Ghost Dog, I was taken in by it almost immediately. Its overwhelming sense of cool was enveloping, and its style was unlike any gangster movie I had ever seen before. The movie is a pastiche of so many disparate influences that it seemed specifically engineered to my own personal taste preferences at the time. It blends classic gangster movies, Eastern philosophy and religion, hip hop culture, and classic American pulp, and the end result is a mélange of signifiers and cultural references that add up to a great action movie, all held together by the glue that is Jarmusch’s impressionistic, post-modern directorial style. Scenes fade in and out at random, intercut by passages from the Hagakure, an ancient Japanese text that defines the life and rituals of the samurai. These spoken passages serve as both counterpoint and context for the film, and help to define the personal philosophy of Ghost Dog, who is never outwardly expressive or outspoken. The movie is often dependent on its cultural references, using them to imbue otherwise mundane conversations or happenings with a greater import. This could potentially be seen as a weak storytelling device, but within the framework of the hazy world that Jarmusch has created, within the framework of the film as a dream, reliance on these signifiers is key. Just as in dreams, these cultural signifiers act as markers that help to orient the characters and the viewer, and there are enough delightfully strange elements at work in Ghost Dog that one could certainly support a reading of the film that paints it as one big dream, but I don’t necessarily agree with that reading. I don’t think that Ghost Dog is a film that can so simply be defined as representing a dream or objective reality, but, rather, I think it is a film that is primarily interested in exploring a dreamlike philosophy of existence.

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From its inception, theorists writing about the cinema seemed likely to compare the experience of watching a movie to that of dreaming. The idea of accepting images, sometimes strange and foreign to our consciousness, broadcast through a stream of light onto a screen in a darkened space brought to mind the somnambulant experience of the dream. Since then, movies have seemed to be a perfect medium to explore otherwise difficult to quantify psychological and dreamlike phenomenon, and Ghost Dog is a perfect example of the film working to codify and represent a dreamlike existence. The film explicitly references the dream in one of the interstitial passages in which Ghost Dog reads from the Hagakure, which says, “It is a good viewpoint to see the world as a dream. When you have something like a nightmare, you will wake up and tell yourself that it was only a dream. It is said that the world that we live in is not a bit different from this.” This passage, along with the presence of Rashomon, a classic tale about the illusory nature of concrete reality, indicate strongly that Ghost Dog is interested in representing not an actual dream, but a state of being in which the subject has some control over a dreamlike existence. Ghost Dog is awake, and I believe that the incidents depicted in the film are meant to be objectively real, but through his adherence to meditation and Eastern philosophy, Ghost Dog has achieved a state of being in which he floats through the corporeal world as if he would a dream world.

The film also supports this reading in more concrete ways, as Ghost Dog is frequently treated by all of the other characters as some sort of Other. He famously cannot understand the language of the man he calls his best friend, Raymond (de Bankole), an ice cream man who only speaks French, but the two have no trouble communicating with one another. The mobsters seem totally vexed by Ghost Dog, unable to track his movements efficiently, and unable to understand his strict adherence to the moral code of the samurai. In the film, Ghost Dog exists separately from other characters, communicating on different wave lengths, and often seeming to pass by strangers unnoticed, as would an apparition. It is also important to note that Ghost Dog is sometimes recognized by strangers who appear to be privy to some knowledge of the lifestyle that Ghost Dog has committed himself to. Perhaps this is because he is truly operating on a different psychological and existential plane. He seems to inhabit the place of the waking dream, existing in the real world and able to have a tangible effect on an earthly plane, but also readily able to slip back into an elevated and obfuscated level of consciousness, submitting to the logic of the dream state.

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Stylistically, Jarmusch insists on maintaining a tenuous grip on narrative reality, allowing the story to unfold out of sync, told from multiple points of view, and featuring several elliptically cryptic inserts. This narrative structure is obviously readily identifiable as a dreamlike structure, as are the aforementioned cultural references that Jarmusch packs in relentlessly. Ghost Dog is clearly an homage to several gangster films that came before it, including most obviously Melville’s Le Samourai and Suzuki’s Branded to Kill. These films, as well as Rashomon, heavily influence the movie in the same way that visual media and pop culture have an insidious way of sneaking into dreams. The cultural appropriations also serve to orient the ways in which the characters see themselves, for example all of Louie’s mob friends are paint-by-number gangsters. They lament their ineffectualness as criminals, and respect Ghost Dog for “taking [them] out the right way,” when he goes on his killing spree, but their entire identity is constructed from the gangster archetype established by classical Hollywood. Through a maze of signifiers, Jarmusch has created not only a framework of relevant texts through which to interpret and understand his post-modern gangster film, he’s also revealed the source material through which he, and by extension, his characters have come to understand the world. It’s a very meta- tactic, and the sort of filmic exercise that could certainly turn some viewers off, but it’s one of the things that I love Ghost Dog for the most.

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Of course, all of Jarmusch’s high-minded philosophical import would be largely irrelevant if he weren’t able to craft a film that was equally engaging as a crime thriller, and, luckily, Ghost Dog is certainly that. The movie is a satisfyingly grimy low-stakes crime caper. It reminds me of classic crime films like Cassevettes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Like in that film, the characters in Ghost Dog are down on their luck losers, for the most part, and though the stakes are high, individually, none of the action would resonate in the way that it does in epic crime films like The Godfather. It’s a hard-scrabble vision of the criminal underworld, and it’s peopled by memorable characters played by familiar character actors who all turn in impressive, understated performances. Forest Whitaker is the perfect Ghost Dog, relying largely on gesture and his expressive face to convey meaning in a role with very few lines of dialogue. Though he’s had at least a half dozen higher profile roles, I still always picture him as the stoic assassin Ghost Dog. I’m sure that most people would be content to simply enjoy Ghost Dog for its merits as a great, low budget crime thriller, and would totally eschew the sort of philosophical exploration that the film invites me towards, but, to me, Ghost Dog is the rare movie that is as cinematically satisfying as it is intellectually satisfying, and the ending of the movie begs for a sequel, although I doubt one will ever come. Still, the movie exists wonderfully as it is as an homage to supposed “low culture” art forms, such as kung fu, hip hop, and the gangster film, that combines all of these elements to transcend them in creating a movie that asks questions about the very nature of the human experience.

Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters (1984)

Dir. Ivan Reitman

Written by: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis

Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson

 

This is a big one for me. Ghostbusters has been a strong cinematic constant in my life. It’s definitely in my top ten favorite movies of all time, and, depending on the day, it vies for a spot as my personal favorite movie ever. Born in 1985, I emerged into a world in which Ghostbusters was already a phenomenon, with the movie becoming a big box office success, inspiring a cartoon spinoff, a line of toys and action figures, and a fervent fandom among young children and adults alike. I was all-in on Ghostbusters from the moment I first saw the cartoon, and soon after, the movie. I collected the toys, I had Ghostbusters clothing, and I obsessively quoted the movie to my family. Some of my earliest memories are Ghostbusters related, such as a Halloween when I was only three and I went trick-or-treating as Ray Stantz, complete with a homemade jumpsuit and a borrowed proton pack. It’s really the first, and probably only, piece of nostalgic fandom that I engage in, and I still can’t get enough of it, watching the movie at least a couple of times a year. For me, Ghostbusters represents a perfect intersection of actual cinematic quality and nostalgia. I can’t pretend that the way that I love Ghostbusters and its resultant media properties isn’t painted heavily in coats of nostalgia, but there’s also no denying that it represents a high-water mark for its brand of studio comedy in the mid-1980s. It’s a classic of American cinema and a cult of fandom wouldn’t have sprung up around it so readily were it not, simply put, an all-time great comedy.

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I’ll provide a brief plot synopsis for anyone who might, for some unknown reason, be unfamiliar with Ghostbusters, but if you fall into the category I’d urge you to just go watch the movie and then come back to reading this. The titular Ghostbusters are Peter Venkman (Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Ramis), three out of work college professors with a special interest in paranormal phenomena. After they’ve lost their university jobs, the scientists decide to enter into the private sector, opening up an agency that specializes in the removal of supernatural and paranormal pests. Though business is initially slow, once the Ghostbusters break their first cases, they become a phenomenon themselves, and they’re joined by Winston Zeddmore (Hudson) to help them take on more cases. One of their notable early cases is for Dana Barrett (Weaver), who returns to her apartment one day to find a portal to another dimension opening up in her refrigerator, and whom Dr. Venkman falls head over heels for. As they pursue Dana’s case, the Ghostbusters discover that the portal is intended to welcome Gozer the Gozerian, an ancient God who travels through space and time destroying worlds, onto Earth. The Ghostbusters prepare to face off against Gozer and a host of otherworldly entities to save their city and the world.

There’s not a lot that I will write here that would do anything to affirm or deny the greatness of Ghostbusters. It’s an iconic movie, one that has earned its spot in the pantheon of great movies that will likely never be awarded by an Academy or earn a spot in the curriculum at a film school, but a movie that is widely acknowledged, nonetheless, as one of the best examples of brilliant, consumable, pop-culture entertainment. To me it’s every bit as important or meaningful as Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Though it doesn’t exist in a prestige genre, Ghostbusters stood for many as a gold standard for quality comedy in an era when competition was unbelievably stiff in that particular genre. I’m sure this is a biased opinion because of my age and having grown up watching all of these movies on cable television constantly, but the 1980s were the golden era for studio comedies as so many great and iconic film comedians started to emerge and find their voices, as well as finding writing and directing partners who understood how to harness their comedic energy. While Murray and Aykroyd were emerging as leading men, along with Eddie Murphy and Martin Short, as well as the prolonged great run of genius Steve Martin into the 1980s, directors such as Ivan Reitman and screenwriters such as Ramis were pushing the boundaries of the studio comedy in broad, unexplored directions. There’s a buzz surrounding classic comedies of this era that I just don’t feel in modern comedies. I think that it’s the slapdash feeling that comedies like Ghostbusters give me that I don’t feel in modern comedies, the knowledge that at least 50% of what made the final cut was improvised on the spot by gifted comedians so comfortable with riffing off of one another. There are plenty of comedies that have great chemistry, great scripted lines, and great adlibs, but Ghostbusters will always take the cake for me for the best and strongest comedic ensemble ever assembled.

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The focus of that ensemble, of course, is Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman. Though the film features a balanced ensemble of co-leads, and a supporting cast that receives nearly equal billing and several memorable moments, it’s always Murray who stands out to me in Ghostbusters. Venkman was never my favorite Ghostbuster when I was a child, but even though I related more to Ray Stantz, I could easily recognize that Murray was the movie’s star. He displays the timing, wit, and charm that turned him into a bona fide superstar in the 1980s and a comedy legend ever since. Venkman’s character is equal parts sleaze, cynicism, and off-the-cuff observational wit, and that characterization has largely followed Murray around ever since. Of course Murray has expanded his range and his choice of roles throughout his career, and there are no shortage of wonderful roles and performances for any fan to latch onto, but when I think of Bill Murray it’s Peter Venkman who I picture. His performance in Ghostbusters encapsulates everything that Murray has come to represent in his career and in the public imagination. I’m not particularly a Murray fanboy, but there’s no denying that he deserves a place on the film comedy Mt. Rushmore and that his likeness should include a proton pack.

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Of course, a single performance doesn’t an all-time comedy make, and Murray is backed up by a supporting cast that knocks it out of the park at every turn. Ramis is suitably understated as Egon, the straight man of the team, while Aykroyd brings a hand-wringing, mealy-mouthed character to Ray, the most put-upon Ghostbuster. He’s a great foil for Murray’s outsize confidence, and the dynamic between the two actors feels real, with Venkman taking every opportunity to belittle Stantz. Sigourney Weaver more than holds her own in her scenes with Murray, engaging in quick verbal sparring worthy of the best screwball comedies. She also does a great job creating two different characters when Dana is possessed late in the film and her entire demeanor changes. By far, though, my favorite supporting performance in Ghostbusters is Rick Moranis’s nerdy neighbor, Louis. Moranis is perfectly cast as the nebbish, love-struck Louis, whose only desire is to get his neighbor, Dana, to notice him and come to his party. Like Murray, Moranis proves himself to be a master improviser, and he’s adept at both verbal and physical comedy. After probably 100 viewings, Ghostbusters doesn’t always get as many belly laughs out of me as it used to, but Moranis’s party scene in which he rattles off the market prices of the food that he purchased and introduces his guests based on their jobs, salaries, and the remaining balance of their mortgages, never fails to leave me in stitches.

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That’s the thing about Ghostbusters, for me. Sure I have an obviously strong nostalgic attachment to the movie and its related ephemera, but watching it today it still elicits genuine laughs from me every time. I know the movie inside and out, and I’ve been able to quote it, chapter and verse, basically since I learned to talk, but it never loses its humor for me. The simple brilliance of many of its punchlines, and the joy of watching master comedians riffing off of one another, never ceases to leave me in stitches. The day that I watched Ghostbusters to prepare to write this post, I was having a supremely bad start to the day, with my work encroaching onto the one day a week that I am supposed to get to myself, but as soon as I popped in the DVD and the film’s iconic opening shot of the lion statues in front of the New York Public Library filled my television screen, my concerns were all forgotten. Every time I watch Ghostbusters, I am able to fully submit myself to 105 minutes of pure, unadulterated comedy pleasure, and that’s why I still watch it two to three times a year. It’s a movie that can instantly change my mood, taking me back to a place in my life before jobs and social responsibilities and constant stress. Even though I know every punchline, I find myself laughing at a different joke every time. Ghostbusters provides me with a guaranteed respite and a trip down memory lane like no other movie I’ve ever encountered. I’ve had lots of favorite movies over the course of my life, but few, if any, have had the persistence of Ghostbusters. It’s always exactly what I need when I pull it off the shelf.

Ghostbusters is a perfect movie for this project, and it’s one that I’ve been eagerly anticipating getting to write about since I started doing this work in late 2016. I’ve written about tons of movies that I have various nostalgic attachments to for one reason or another so far, but I don’t think any encapsulate the idea of going back and digging through physical media that I’ve collected so perfectly as Ghostbusters. Last year, writing about Apocalypse Now, I briefly touched on the fact that Ghostbusters was the first movie I ever saw on DVD, and I think that’s interesting because my relationship with the movie has always been related to physical artifacts as much as the film itself. In the 1980s and early 1990s, I was an avid collector of the action figures associated with the animated series The Real Ghostbusters, and my early fandom of the movie was strongly associated with those toys. At that point, for me, Ghostbusters was as much about its ancillary properties as it was the original movie, and I think that the nostalgic bond that I have to the entire franchise extends as much from the toys that I played with, and the good memories that I associated with engaging in the fan discourse of the movie through play and dress up at Halloween, as it does to my early experience of watching the movie itself. I guess it’s fitting that a movie about ghosts would be so associated to me with memory and repetition, now for thirty years playing the movie over and over, engaging with it in so many different contexts and through so many different lenses at various points in my life. It’s a pleasant sort of haunting that I’ll probably never really grow out of.