The Last Picture Show (1971)

Peter Bogdanovich | 2hr 6min

Perhaps in the days of the Old West, the tiny Texan town of Anarene may have been a bustling hub of oil mining and transportation. By the time The Last Picture Show picks up the story of teenagers Duane, Sonny, and Jacy in 1951 though, that landscape of idealistic prosperity is nothing but a sad, faded memory, whistling in the wind down the empty main road and faintly recalled in the crumbling facades of old storefronts. The adults who keep it running are an assortment of disillusioned schoolteachers, small business owners, and blue-collar workers, parenting a generation of children who have no frame of reference for anything greater. Whatever the American Dream looks like for them, it is not going to happen here.

Bogdanovich’s creative and thoughtful uses of his deep focus lens to capture compositions like these, making full use of both the background and foreground to build out the small town of Anarene.

As a film historian, Peter Bogdanovich does not so much pioneer cinema in The Last Picture Show as he does reflect on its past and the cultures it has represented. It should be no surprised that Orson Welles acted as his mentor during production, and the influence there extends far beyond the mere fact that he encouraged him to shoot in black-and-white. The deep focus photography that so beautifully captures Bogdanovich’s ensemble layered through frames in strikingly staged compositions directly calls back to Welles’ own distinct visual style, and the thick air of melancholic nostalgia that has settled over this once-glorious town at times even feels like a post-war Southern transposition of The Magnificent Ambersons. Car doors and diner blinds become frames through which we watch characters haunt these streets like wandering ghosts, drifting down lonely roads or otherwise congregating with peers to pass the time, waiting for the day they either escape this town or die in it.

The town’s infrastructure becoming frames trapping its inhabitants within its own boundaries, whether through a set of blinds or a car door.

For the teenagers living here, that is essentially the choice they are presented with, and the end of high school is the deadline for it to be made. Accordingly, anyone over the age of eighteen is part of the population that decided to stay, whether out of some sentimental loyalty or lack of prospects. As wonderful as the younger cast is here with Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms, and Cybill Shepherd each affectingly capturing the ennui of youth, there is an even deeper poignancy to the performances from Bogdanovich’s older actors, with Cloris Leachman and Ellen Burstyn both stealing scenes as disillusioned housewives, Ruth Popper and Lois Farrow, each living inert existences. “Everything gets old if you do it long enough,” laments Lois to her daughter, Jacy, actively trying to corrupt her naïve idealism into the same tired discontent that has taken over her generation, and it is only a matter of time before she is successful.

Ben Johnson similarly has a world-weariness about him as Sam the Lion, though as the small businessman keeping the local pool, movie theatre, and café alive, he also carries a spark of the town’s old pride about him. He is stern but kind towards the local teenagers, evidently caring more about their growth than anyone else, and even spending time with them out at the “tank”, a bleak fishing spot depleted of fish. It is the flat, bleak Texan scenery which entices him there, and as he sits rolling cigarettes with Sonny and Billy, a mentally disabled neighbourhood boy, he wistfully reminisces the “old times” just twenty years ago when he took a past lover out to this same pond. Bogdanovich slowly dollies his camera in on his face, inviting us into his story of how they skinny dipped and rode horses across the water, and telling of the bright zeal for life he saw in that woman. “You wouldn’t believe how this country’s changed,” he wistfully ruminates, and given the later reveal that this woman was in fact Lois, we can infer that he is mourning the cultural shift in its people just as much as he is the physical landscape.

Flat, rural Texan scenery on the outskirts of Anarene, with dead trees and overcast skies making up Bogdanovich’s mise-en-scène.
Dollying in on Ben Johnson’s affecting monologue, reminiscing a long-gone past.

Cynical as she is, it isn’t hard to imagine a younger version of Lois behaving much like her coquettish daughter. Back then she might have flirted with men she wasn’t supposed to, but by the time we meet her here she is more or less representative of the adults in town, neglecting the widening emotional gap between her and her child. With little guidance from their elders, the teens of Anarene meander from one social gathering to the next, hoping to lose their virginity just for the sake of saying they have done it. All across the town, through cars and diners, Hank Williams’ twanging country vocals provides the diegetic soundtrack to their lives, matching their own lonesome struggles with bluesy musings over lovesickness and longing. Breaking this monotony does not prove to be easy though, with even sex proving to be dissatisfying and attempts to stir up controversy brewing nothing but shame.

Superb blocking of both actors and set dressing across layers of the frame, bring visual depth to the town and its community.

Still, what else is there to do? We get the sense that Sonny’s affair with Ruth, the wife of his school coach, has little to do with any genuine romantic feelings, and more to do with a desire to rebel, though even when word about it gets out into the community the reaction is disappointing. Meanwhile, Jacy is on a fruitless quest for attention, strip teasing at a pool party and choosing to date whoever she thinks might make for a good story. Shepherd is simply luminous in this role, naturally drawing the eye even in crowds, and challenging our sympathies when she so thoughtlessly discards the emotions of others in favour of her own self-centredness. Much like virtually everything she does, her elopement with Sonny is nothing more than an attempt to win the attention of her parents. When she catches sight of a police car on the road to Oklahoma, a little smile appears in the corner of her mouth, grateful that she is being stopped before following through on her small rebellion.

Cybill Shepherd is luminous as Jacy, always the centre of attention in Bogdanovich’s framing and lighting.
Sam’s funeral is a sombre affair, sunk low in the frame in this wide shot with Jacy once again standing out in her white dress.

With the death of Sam and the closing of his movie theatre, there is little hope left that this town will ever return to the glory of its old days again. Red River is the last film to play there, projecting a vision of the Old West up on the screen for the tiny audience of Duane and Sonny witnessing this part of the town’s history die out. Not long after, the two friends part ways, their decisions made regarding whether they will continue to haunt this limbo or make their way into the larger world beyond its borders. Given that the Korean War is Duane’s destination, it is tough to say whether he will find the meaning in his life that he is searching for. Still, at least it is a change of pace from Anarene’s dreariness, growing even more mundane with each passing generation.

In the end, Bogdanovich leaves us exactly where he picked us up at the start – stranded on the dusty, windy streets, panning across its desolate infrastructure as if searching for some lingering sign of life. It might be a barren beauty which infests The Last Picture Show, but as we grow to understand the small lives and histories dotted through its community, Bogdanovich also sensitively paints it out as a tactile landscape of feeble dreams and disappointments.

The deteriorating architecture of Anarene photographed beautifully in these wides, turning the town into its own crumbling character.

The Last Picture Show is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

Camera Buff (1979)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 52min

It isn’t that Krzysztof Kieslowski lacks a sense of humour, but it is surely no coincidence that whenever small pieces of comedy emerge in his films they are placed in the capable hands of his muse, Jerzy Stuhr. Camera Buff capitalises well on those talents, sending Stuhr’s amateur cameraman into inappropriate situations that he hopes might prove interesting to audiences. He doesn’t discriminate between subjects – when asked what he shoots, his reply is simply “Anything that moves.” Given the success Filip finds in competitions and inspiring others, there is no doubt he possesses the talent to back up his hobby. But there is also an insidiousness to his singularly focused obsession, throwing off his balance of responsibility and passion, and slowly disintegrating his once-happy family life into a fable of poignant tragedy.

Camera Buff remains firmly in the world of social realism that Kieslowski is very familiar with at this point in his career, though his political critiques aren’t immediately so overt. Filip first picks up his camera just before the birth of his daughter, intending to use it to document this precious time in his and wife’s life. If there is one thing that he never loses sight of throughout the film, it is the beauty of mundanity, and it is evident that his ability to preserve these moments in time and share them with others is a truly valuable gift. Problems arise when his camera turns away from his loved ones and towards others, thereby avoiding any opportunity for self-reflection. The lens is his portal into other lives, disconnecting him from his own “quiet life” to the point that it no longer feels like enough.

Kieslowski and Stuhr achieve a fine balance here in their sympathetic development of Filip, never distancing him so much from the audience that he becomes entirely repugnant, even when he acts purely in his own self-interest. His habit of framing his fingers like a camera viewfinder is an amusing mannerism we warm to, though when he is caught out imagining how he might shoot his wife storming out after an argument, it only worsens the situation. Even when he is happy to let his baby keep crying for the sake of a good shot, we still resist despising him too much when his excitement exudes such a genuine innocence.

There is also something of an underdog persona about Filip as well that ingratiates us to his cause. As a labourer working within the rigid structures of Communist Poland, the opportunity to seize on something creative and be recognised for it feels like a victory, and it is within this social context that Kieslowski begins to turn Camera Buff to more serious political critiques of censorship and control. At the factory where he works, the local Communist Party boss enlists him to film its jubilee, and besides a few requests that he cut shots considered too invasive, he does receive praise both from superiors and judges at a film festival. Later when he takes more initiative to capture subjects of his own interest, the pushback grows stronger. Given his value to the Party he is relatively safe from their threats, though his supporters are not so fortunate.

Even as Filip loses his family, Kieslowski still draws out an affecting beauty in his documentaries, suggesting that his obsessive efforts are not entirely fruitless. “It’s beautiful what you guys do. A person’s no longer alive… yet she’s still here,” contemplates one man upon seeing footage Filip shot of his late mother, overtaken with gratitude. Another man, a dwarf with whom he works, is similarly moved by seeing his humble life depicted on film and broadcast on Polish television.

It may be virtuous work, offering others the opportunity to reflect on their lives, though it is also a tool of distraction, letting Filip point the lens in every direction except towards himself. For Kieslowski, neglecting the personal aspect of creation is to disregard its most fundamental foundation, and so it is with that one mind that Filip finally steps in front of the camera to examine his own lonely life. In its dark lens, Kieslowski captures a faint reflection of his face, infused with the very instrument of his obsession. With the closing shot letting Filip dominate the frame in a close-up though, he becomes the independent centre of his own focus, prepared to take responsibility for his actions by finally his own story.

Camera Buff is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

The Scar (1976)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 52min

Somewhere deep in the heart of Poland, loggers, developers, and civil servants are hard at work discussing plans. Their silhouettes stand behind columns of trees, splitting the frame into fragments that will soon coalesce into whole images as the natural vegetation is cut down. It might look as if the forest is collapsing in on itself, though down below we can clearly see men with chainsaws carving out a blank canvas for their associates to build on. Krzysztof Kieslowski had experimented in the realm of documentary and television before this point, but his theatrical feature debut The Scar acts as a launch pad for an illustrious career that would only go on to reach grander heights, probing questions in the realm of politics, metaphysics, and religion.

Relative to his great masterpieces of 80s and 90s cinema, The Scar is a modest piece of social realism, so grounded in the details of Communist Poland’s bureaucracy and use of non-professional actors that one might mistake certain scenes as being entirely real. At town forums where locals protest the development of the new chemical factory, dialogue spills out chaotically, and it isn’t hard to believe that the constant stumbling and interruptions might just be authentic expressions of anger. Though we are sympathetic to their plights, it is Party member Stefan Bednarz whose journey is placed at the forefront here, struggling against both the short-term thinking of the angry townspeople and the inefficient administration of his own co-workers. Kieslowski’s scathing critiques of Poland’s attempts at progress are organically woven into these interactions, each one chipping away at Stefan’s idealism until all we are left with is a frustrated, disillusioned man.

From behind glass windows, Stefan looks out at the industrial results of his efforts. Steel beams and towering concrete structures imprint against the frigid white landscapes of the Polish winter where trees once stood, like colossal monuments to human progress. Though The Scar is rooted in a realistic style like most of Kieslowski’s early work, there is something a little otherworldly in his sparse musical score, particularly memorable in the scene of Stefan switching the lights on and off from within his office. When it is dark, we can see the industrial architecture outside, though when the lights come up we catch his reflection in the glass, infused with the modern development that, depending on any character’s perspective, has either destroyed this small town or given it a future.

“We haven’t accomplished all we wanted to here. And neither have I,” laments Stefan towards the end of the years-long project, wishing to leave it at the earliest possible opportunity. Seeing his colleagues kick out a reporter with whom he has developed a casual friendship is one of the last straws. The government’s lack of openness not just with the public but within its own ranks is its ultimate downfall, failing to connect with the state of the world in any meaningful way.

That detachment is one that pays off towards the end as the men in suits stand multiple storeys above the congregating factory workers below, staring in fear at what possible unionisation might be taking place to dethrone them from their tower. The sequence is wordless but powerful, delivering both a sense of unease and a taste of hopeful change on the horizon. Perhaps this potential uprising could have been averted had there been more men like Stefan in the Party, though that may be too optimistic for Kieslowski. As far as we see in The Scar, Poland’s soulless, corrupt bureaucracy is operating exactly as it was intended.

The Scar is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Werner Herzog | 1hr 34min

At one point in the final act of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after each member of Don Lope de Aguirre’s expedition has either succumbed to the ruthless Peruvian wilderness or their own madness, one of them makes note of seeing a wooden ship lodged high up in the branches of a tree. Another brushes it off as a hallucination, and we may believe that to be the case, until we cut right to that surreal image.
 
Up until this point, Werner Herzog has held back from submerging us into the confusion of his explorers, grounding the piece in handheld camerawork that allows us to see them as they are – an absurd band of conquistadors who are dressed more appropriately for the royal courts of 16th century Spain than the unforgiving jungles of South America. And yet in this moment, at the peak of their insanity, this boat perched in a tree forces us to reconsider our own assessment of reality. If it is real, then this is a fearsome demonstration of the forest’s true destructive capability. If it isn’t, then these men are mentally too far gone to navigate their way home, let alone to the fabled country of El Dorado.

A hint of surrealism – is this vision a demonstration of nature’s raw power or humanity’s confounding delusion?

Above them, low-hanging clouds shroud rocky mountains with steep slopes dropping into thick, verdant jungles. High-pitched choral harmonies accompany these epic images, and yet there is something off about this music. In fact, these aren’t voices at all, but rather a choir-organ hypnotically ringing out an inhuman drone, lingering in the uncanny valley of sound. This may have once been a spiritual realm, but God has long abandoned this part of His creation. Now, it has grown into a dense mass of foliage, broken up only by coursing brown rivers which can always be heard even when they are not visible. This domain of natural chaos does not stand down peacefully for foreigners trying to introduce their own ideas of order.

The camera tilting down a Peruvian mountain in the opening shot as an inhuman choir rings out, before settling on the trail of conquistadors and nobles hiking a dangerous path.

Leading the cast as the delusional Aguirre is Klaus Kinski, whose pale blue eyes seem to be both glassed over as if in a trance, and widened in sheer, haunted terror. The combination of both these expressions suggests a man who quietly registers the danger around him, and yet who cannot help but bury his fear deep into his subconscious, lest it should distract from his own ambition.
 
The overgrown branches, trunks, and vines of his environment frequently obstruct and crowd out frames, consuming Aguirre and his fellow conquistadors in the rainforest’s overgrown vegetation as they try to hold farcical trials and elections. Herzog often blocks them in staggered compositions, sketching out their disorientation which only serves to fuel their self-defeating acts of meaningless violence. They burn down a village with no clear purpose, kill a native when he expresses ignorance of the Christian bible, and push their only horse off the raft when they start to find it annoying. Even the diary entries which have structured this narrative through an organised measurement of time are eventually lost, as one man drinks the ink thinking it is medicine. In a pathetic attempt to reinvigorate the spirits of his men, Aguirre encourages his musical companion to play his pan flute, but this breathy, jaunty tune simply feels like a cruel taunt as it underscores rhythmic montages of the sprawling jungle.

The thick, verdant vegetation, low-lying clouds, and brown rivers at direct odds with these Spanish invaders. This seems to be an important text for Francis Ford Coppola in the production of Apocalypse Now.

In bookending this film with two all-time magnificent shots, Herzog contrasts the start and end of Aguirre’s maddening journey. No longer can he sit and be awed by the terror of his environment – now, he is completely consumed by his own ego, and Herzog’s dizzying 360 shot effectively turns him into the centre of his own world. Around him, the monkeys of the forest snatch away the remaining supplies, and the bodies of his companions drift away down the river to decompose. In these final seconds, all at once, nature has never been so frightening, and humanity has never been so stubbornly delusional.

A 360-degree tracking shot circling Aguirre’s meagre raft in the very last shot, isolating him as a god in his own mind, destined to perish like the others.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.

The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola | 2hr 55min

Did Francis Ford Coppola realise in 1972 what he was putting out into the world? Surely there was a sense that he was creating something that would be critically successful, but the reverence for The Godfather has become so much of its own beast that he himself has admitted to feeling dwarfed by his creation. To praise this any further would be to contribute to the discourse that has tragically sapped his stamina as a director, but regardless – it remains one of the greatest pure narratives put to film in its sheer economy, and that it manages this while unravelling such a dense and sprawling story speaks to the monumental ambition that underlies its cinematic execution.

Though The Godfather is based on the Mario Puzo novel of the same name, it is often Greek mythological conventions which feel more baked into its structure, with archetypes of sons replacing fathers, an overseas journey leading back home, and fatal flaws spelling out the end for several characters. In transposing such classical storytelling traditions onto a 1940s Italian American crime family, Coppola effectively creates an epic poem for the twentieth century, captivated by the details of an underworld established by men who did not find the equality or justice they were promised when they first immigrated to New York. Perhaps this complex interaction of dreams and values is most pointed in the scene of Paulie’s assassination that sees him driven out to a wheat field and shot in the back of the head, with Coppola’s wide shot catching the Statue of Liberty quietly rising up over the horizon like a silent witness to the mafia’s crimes. 

The first truly shocking murder of the film, with the Statue of Liberty framed as a tiny figure in the distance.

Even the very first words of the film set up these thematic aspirations, with Sicilian undertaker Bonasera’s immortal line, “I believe in America.” Though he is a minor character, he is our way into the world of the Corleones, coming to Don Vito on his daughter’s wedding day to ask a favour as per cultural tradition. Bonasera is a man who has drifted too far from his roots, though in realising how America’s institutions have failed him, he falls back on the Corleone family’s loyalty and sense of justice, both of which are far more powerful than anything the United States might offer.

Shrouded in darkness and delivering a monologue with hints of repentance, one might initially presume that Bonasera has come to a small chapel to confess his sins to a priest, but even when the actual context becomes evident, Coppola still maintains that air of religious authority and reverence around Vito. These pitch-black backgrounds pierced by pinpoints of lights and faces are typical of cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose moniker “The Prince of Darkness” is well-earned by his work here on The Godfather. Perhaps even more shocking though is its visual and tonal contrast to the bright, rambunctious wedding of Connie Corleone that lies right outside, its joyous festivities just as integral to the Corleone empire as their quiet, underhanded dealings. This nearly half-hour long sequence sets the stage for the film’s expansive ensemble of characters, each line and shot serving a purpose right down to Paulie eyeing off a purse of cash, tipping us off about his treacherous, greedy aspirations.

Gordon Willis, “The Prince of Darkness” earning his credentials here with superbly lit interiors and close-ups, turning the room into a quiet space of deep reverence.

Michael Corleone’s place in this family is teased here before we even meet him, with Vito stopping a family photo from going ahead without his son. Just the sight of Michael arriving late with his military uniform and non-Italian girlfriend, Kay, tells us all we need to know about his semi-estrangement. Here is a model of American citizenry, reserved in his interactions and denying involvement in his family’s sordid affairs, though clearly not so ostracised that he has started an entirely new, separate life altogether. The cold-blooded transformation that Al Pacino puts into motion from this point on is simply remarkable. There are a multitude of scenes that could be picked out to exemplify his tour-de-force performance, from Michael’s first murder to his chiding of his brother, Fredo, though it is in the gradual progression from the quietly disconnected man we see at the wedding to the one ascending to the role of Godfather at the end of the film that the full force of his acting achievement lands with its full weight. 

Al Pacino and Marlon Brando battle it out for the best performance of this film. Both are unforgettable.

Arguably the only other actor to outdo Pacino here is Marlon Brando himself, whose mumbling, bulldog-cheeked Vito Corleone stands powerfully above every other character, including those who try to cut him down to size. Though it is only really in the first scene where we see him at his full power before the attempt on his life, his presence and influence hangs over so many others as well, most of all those in which his children struggle beneath the weight of his legacy. Where the hot-headed Sonny lacks the wisdom of his father and the weak-willed Fredo lacks the nerve, we come to realise during Michael’s hospital visit that he alone carries the virtues necessary to lead. While Vito is recovering in bed, Michael uses his wits to fend off further attacks, and as he lights the cigarette of a trusted ally shaking in his boots, Coppola cuts to his perfectly still hands, revealing a cool, keen propensity for handling high-pressure situations. 

At this point in his arc though, he still has a long way to go to attain the same authority as his father. Long dissolves are often Coppola’s tool of choice in visually setting Vito up as the powerful man pulling the strings, with a particularly notable one landing after the scene of a movie producer waking up to find his prized horse’s head in his bed, fading from the exterior of his house to a close-up of the Don himself. There is a weighty implication in the merging of such images, as those shots of his face dominating landscapes and wides vividly turn him into a larger-than-life being. 

Coppola setting himself up as one of the great film editors of the 1970s with these long dissolves, an effective device he will later continue in The Godfather: Part II and Apocalypse Now.

Michael also eventually receives special treatment in the editing room when he takes over the family business, though it is also at this point where Coppola’s style takes a sharp turn. His reign is not defined by graceful long dissolves, flowing gently from one shot to the next, but is rather brought in with a montage, cross-cutting between scenes of violence and religion with one thing in common – the birth of a new Godfather, both to Connie’s newborn son and to a community of Sicilians. 

A landmark of cinematic montages. The complex display of parallel cutting here is a masterful balance of wrapping up several lingering plot threads, violently setting Michael up as the new Godfather.

It is here that Nino Rota’s sly, winding waltz of oboes, trumpets, and strings that has defined the Corleone family momentarily takes on an entirely new timbre – that of a deep, resonant church organ, adopting pieces of the main melody and twisting them into something truly ominous. Coppola’s style of depicting murders also dramatically shifts, taking a step back from the shocking bursts of violence which give us only a few seconds of warning, and instead drawing the suspense of multiple assassinations out over several minutes. As Michael confesses his belief in the Catholic Church, renounces Satan, and pledges his duty as Godfather to the baby screaming in the background, so too does he mark his ascent to the role with a vicious massacre of all those who underestimated him, solidifying his power with a single, devastating statement of his dominance.

As questions of keeping personal and business lives separate roil through this deft screenplay, the door that closes between Michael and Kay in Coppola’s final shot effectively severs the two in such a way that Vito certainly never intended. To him, business was inherently personal, inviting family members and friends into his inner circles with trust and generosity, though in Michael’s damning decision to lie to Kay about his work when she asks for the absolute truth, he carries on almost everything from his father’s legacy, save for his passionate Sicilian heart. The Godfather is a story of generations handing power from one to the next, but in the dynamic culture of mid-twentieth century America, these natural cycles are perverted by a new, corporate society, born from the same ancient traditions they inevitably end up destroying.

An ice cold final shot – Michael’s ascension to Godfather severing his personal and business lives for good.

The Godfather is currently available to stream on Stan and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Nashville (1975)

Robert Altman | 2hr 39min

It is difficult to think of a film as organically structured as Nashville, with its gentle progression from one narrative thread to the next carrying the impression that Robert Altman could point his camera in any direction and still find just as equally fascinating characters as those who make up his main ensemble. On the surface, the only thing that these people might have in common is their connection to the city’s country music scene, though as each storyline is teased out and interwoven around others, we discover a unifying motivation emerge in each of them – a simple yearning for recognition, whether through fame, respect, or love.

The concept of sprawling narratives that follow concurrent plot threads between large groups of strangers was still in its relative infancy in 1975, as it wouldn’t be until a few decades later that it would be dubbed hyperlink cinema, with the impact of the World Wide Web extending our understanding of lives beyond our own. Not only is Altman’s interpretation of this narrative structure fully matured before its rise in popularity, it also makes for a perfect fit for his own style of filmmaking, where the individual lines of dialogue matter less than the impression they collectively form in overlapping others. We can choose which conversation to listen to at any time, and his camera zooms often helps us in this decision as it pans through crowds and pushes in on individuals to pick out some above the others, but it is more often the holistic blend that gives each scene its own unique acoustic texture.

Altman capturing large ensembles in his shots, overlapping conversation to create an organic environment where everyone wants to be heard.

The impression we quite frequently get from this is chaos, though never to the extent that we doubt Altman’s loss of control. It hits us right from the first few seconds when a radio announcer begins reading out the opening credits over the top of several country songs fading in and out, mimicking the sound of a radio flicking through stations, each one a taste of what is to come. And true to its musical commitment, Nashville affords us the time to listen to each of these country music pieces in full, at times leading from one right into another like a concert. Not one to micromanage his cast, Altman let many of them write their own songs, allowing an authenticity into their performances that turns each number into a natural extension of their characters.

Patriotism and music so tightly bound up together all through Nashville. It isn’t the first movie you think of when the musical genre is brought up, but by definition it most certainly fits in, and is one of the best.

The most prominent of these country ditties is one that is formally repeated several times through the film, until it becomes an anthem for the city itself. “It Don’t Worry Me” is an assertion of freedom and the right to stay cool in the face of adversity, sung as a gentle reassurance in quieter moments, and every so often marking a significant disaster. Its first appearance follows a car pileup on the highway that we can assume almost certainly results in serious injuries, though as it plays in the background our attention remains on those who are only tangentially affected by the incident. BBC journalist Opal uses it as an opportunity to interview locals, in search for a decent story. Kenny Frasier, a mysterious traveller carrying a violin case, hitches a ride with Star, whose wife, Winifred, has taken the chance to run off, resolved to pursue her singing ambitions. All through the film, there is a pattern of unifying events like this, frequently bringing characters together in concerts, church services, and unexpected disruptions. It is within them that Altman’s editing is at its most finely balanced, relishing the interconnectedness of each individual narrative thread.

Winifred and Kenny briefly meeting following the highway pile-up, just one of many narrative threads transiently crossing over in Nashville.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of seeing these characters evolve through shared experiences is realising how much these incidents take on separate meanings within each story. When Tom vaguely dedicates his song “I’m Easy” to “someone who might just be here tonight,” L.A. Joan, Mary, and Opal quietly smile to themselves, teasing the notion that it could very well be them. For gospel singer Linnea, who has been slightly more resistant to his charms, it becomes a sensual seduction. As she sits at the back of the audience, Altman slowly zooms into her mesmerised gaze of guilt, disbelief, and adoration, picking her story out above everyone else’s as the one worth paying attention to.

Altman has always found great use for his zoom lenses, and although they aren’t quite as wild here as they are in MASH, they bring such remarkable visual dynamism and a sense of wandering curiosity to the film.

And compared to the rest of this wild ensemble of musicians and super fans, Linnea may be our most quietly grounding force. In the case of Sueleen, a humble waitress with a terrible voice, it is crushing to see her degrading humiliation in a room of chauvinistic men, who force her to strip when her singing proves unsatisfactory. In Barbara Jean, who represents the sort of musical success that so many other characters aspire to, we observe the pressures of fame crack open that charming sweetheart image she has spent years cultivating. The celebrity worship culture that pervades Nashville projects an idealism that almost every character is blinded by on some level, and through his ensemble cast Altman comes at it from several angles, trying to get at the social problems it smoothly glosses over.

Perhaps then we might find some sense of reality in the disembodied voice of presidential hopeful Hal Phillip Walker that echoes through the streets from a campaign van, although even his politics appear to be defined by the same populist appeal as that which underlies Nashville’s music scene. He promises a vague sort of change and throws out catchy slogans, but not once in the film does he make a physical appearance. As such, he might as well stand in for the city itself in all its cultural idealism.

Great narrative form in constantly returning to Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign van, tying Nashville’s music scene closely to the political turmoil of the 1970s.

His fundraising gala concert thus sets the perfect scene for Nashville’s epic finale, whereby each storyline arrives at a single location to find their resolution. Though we have followed the mysterious Kenny since the start, it is still a complete unknown as to why he chooses to shoot Barbara Jean. Perhaps he is seeking his own sort of fame, or maybe he harbours resentment towards the culture she represents. But Nashville is not the place to investigate why such bad things happen. The focus must always be on the aftermath. Not just in the rebuilding of this community, but in recognising how each affected individual in some way finds their own meaning in the tragedy.

Altman setting up the perfect final set piece of the film, where each storyline collides beneath a giant American flag.

There is an amusing irony that the last time we see the story-seeking journalist Opal she is asking around about what just happened, having missed the incident entirely. Meanwhile, Barbara Jean fan Pfc. Glenn Kelly is the first to disarm the shooter, Sueleen is fortunately denied the opportunity to embarrass herself again, and country superstar Haven quells the disturbance in the crowd, angrily affirming that “This isn’t Dallas!” In this sly reference to the assassination of JFK, still fresh in the minds of these Americans, there is also a reluctant acknowledgement of political woes existing out there in the world. But of course, Nashville is a city of music, and any politics that makes its way in must be filtered through its culture of bright idealism.

Within the chaos, it is Winifred who somehow ends up with the microphone and is told to calm the crowd, fate finding its way into her arc just as it does the others. Perhaps if we had heard her sing earlier in the film, we might have been able to guess that she would become the new Barbara Jean. In holding out until these final minutes to take on the final rendition of “It Don’t Worry Me” though, the song arrives in its entirety for the first time with both a fresh revelation and a biting indictment, cheerily underscoring the revolving door of celebrities that has now revealed a new idol to replace the one who died just mere minutes ago. Altman doesn’t cast heavy aspersions here, but whether we read this uniquely Nashvillian brand of optimism as the bedrock of a thriving community or a mass delusion, it still remains a powerful force of culture-defining magnitude in this sprawling city.

A brilliant wide shot and a tilt upwards as a new star emerges, bringing the film to a magnificent end.

Nashville is currently available to rent on iTunes, or to buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Video.

The French Connection (1971)

William Friedkin | 1hr 41min

There is a lot resting on the detective instincts of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. If we had any less faith in his assumptions, he might come off as a far more incompetent character than he is. Even though he proves his resourcefulness right from the very first scene in getting the information he seeks from a suspect, we still harbour some reservations around his methods and the extreme lengths he will often go to. At his loudest and most persistent, he will speed down a busy highway, destroying several cars and risking his own life to hunt down a dangerous assassin, though he is also just as willingly to stand patiently outside in the freezing cold for hours on end, waiting to catch sight of a suspect. There is no spectrum of possibility or effort in his work – everything is either a lead worth following to its bitter end, or not worth his time at all. 

All it takes is one of those hunches for Popeye to latch onto a $32 million shipment of heroin arriving in New York in a few weeks’ times, and then he’s off, spinning himself up in a cat-and-mouse chase with a drug syndicate led by French mobster Alain Charnier. Around them is a vision of America’s most populous city grounded in raw cinematic realism, flooded with stagnant puddles of muddy water and coated in at least a few layers of grime. Working in the same vein as the French auteurs of the 1960s who moved their films beyond artificial studio sets to shoot on location, William Friedkin takes to the streets of New York to capture a level of authenticity that cannot be replicated anywhere else, right down to the steam billowing out from underground vents. Its instantly recognisable cityscape looms tall in backgrounds, and he often washes it in a natural blue light which, while certainly beautiful at times in its softness, more frequently works to encase these detectives and criminals in the harsh frigidity of the New York winter. 

Inspired by the Italian neo-realists, Friedkin uses his shooting location as a derelict character unto itself, often washing it in this blue natural light that emphasises its cold, gritty authenticity.

It is also a city of remarkable disparity though, and we can gage a lot about where these cops and criminals stand in how Friedkin works to contrast them in his editing. While Charnier is fine dining with associates in a high-end restaurant, Popeye is staking out the building with his partner, Cloudy, standing outside for hours on end, eating nothing but greasy pizza and coffee. At another point while Charnier stands atop skyscrapers overlooking magnificent views, Popeye remains down on ground level, barely allowing himself any time off the job to relax. Where Charnier’s dialogue is refined and mannered, Popeye proves himself to be a true New Yorker in his fast-talking mix of shouts and mumbles, offering a magnificent Gene Hackman the chance to improvise entire sequences with extraordinary vigour and naturalism.

Magnificent form in how Friedkin shoots Popeye on the ground versus how he shoots Charnier against the towering New York cityscape.

Where the two sides of this city are bound together is in their incredible intelligence and patience, relying on their wits to outsmart each other in this complex dance of crime and justice. Popeye is methodical in his manipulations, shifting his tactics to either befuddle, intimidate, or give his suspects false confidence depending on what the situation calls for, and though this works for low-level crooks who lack judiciousness and restraint, Charnier makes for a fairly equal match in his crafty machinations. In a sequence of pure tension and visual storytelling, Popeye stalks the mobster through the streets and underground stations of New York, and in Don Ellis’ grumbling staccato underscore of cellos and double basses he accompanies each glimpse of Charnier’s silver umbrella with a metal clang. Friedkin’s editing jumps lightly between both men, matching the movements of their legs as if racing the two against each other, and finally ending this dance when Popeye falls a second behind, letting Charnier make his getaway.

Repetitive rhythms in the editing – Charnier’s legs, Popeye’s legs, Charnier descending the stairs, and the next shot following Popeye right behind him.

A similar juxtaposition is also set out in one of the greatest car chases committed to film, where we see a hitman run onto a train in the chaotic aftermath of a failed assassination, and Popeye defiantly driving after him beneath an elevated railway. It is a great feat of editing, not just in the fast-moving action of his destructive pursuit along the crowded avenue, but also in the intercutting of his target’s actions on the train, growing steadily more desperate until he commits a fatal error in drawing attention to himself. Friedkin achieves a thrillingly tight balance here, once again pitting Popeye against yet another criminal, though one significantly less competent than Charnier.

Smoothly intercutting between Popeye’s car chase and the hitman making his getaway on the train directly above him. A fine piece of editing belonging among the best of the 1970s.
A bullet in the back capping Popeye’s ruthless hunt, and creating perhaps the film’s most recognisable image.

Outside these high-intensity scenes of life and death, Popeye is playing a game of patience. The same patience is asked of us in Friedkin’s meticulous teasing out of this narrative, with the inbuilt promise that there will eventually be some sort of reward for it, whether that be a victory for the police or the drug traffickers. It is certainly the case in each stake out, as well as the meticulously detailed sequence of a suspicious car being dismantled part by part to discover where the bags of heroin might be hidden, though it also one that Friedkin turns on us in the film’s final minutes, when we find ourselves waiting for the biggest pay-off of all. As we approach the denouement, Popeye’s success in busting the drug operation is abruptly soured by his own need for personal vengeance, chasing after Charnier through a dilapidated warehouse where he inadvertently shoots and kills a colleague. This might as well be a footnote to the rest of the scene though, as the detective barely stops to ponder his guilt before moving onto the next room over. Meanwhile, the camera hangs back, as if finally exhausted by his stubborn persistence.

In this moment, there is no resounding climax where Popeye or Charnier finally face off and decide who dies. Instead, a series of title cards simply informs us of their relatively unspectacular futures, both making it out alive though with nothing to gain or celebrate. In any earlier era of Hollywood filmmaking, The French Connection might have once drawn out this bitter feud to a poetically fateful ending, though in this thrilling tense narrative of sharp, biting cynicism, Friedkin chooses to finally separate us from Popeye’s obstinate need for closure, and instead allows us to simply sit in the disappointment of his demoralising personal failure.

This dark, abandoned warehouse makes for a fantastic set piece, and an especially great final shot as Popeye runs away from the camera into the next room.

The French Connection is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Love and Death (1975)

Woody Allen | 1hr 25min

Two years before Woody Allen left his immortal mark on the romantic-comedy genre with Annie Hall, he pushed another set of narrative and film conventions in Love and Death. Early 19th century Russia is his chosen setting, and those great Russian novels by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are his inspiration, but this is no insipidly self-serious period piece. Anachronisms abound here, as playfully irreverent as they are pointed in their satire, targeting the quaint pretensions of this era with rapid-fire repartee and a good deal of meta-humour.

Subjects of enormous weight treated with such hilarious flippancy, as Boris apathetically goes to commit suicide and then decides against it when he is already hanging.
Anachronisms everywhere – Love and Death pushes narrative and formal boundaries in every scene.

Allen continues the trend of starring in his work in Love and Death, playing the part of a Russian literary protagonist reluctant to take part in his war-bound destiny. Boris Grushenko might as well stand in for Allen himself in all his contemporary sensibilities, as he gleefully belittles those around him while suffering the consequences of his own hubris. The Groucho Marx influence on his work has always been evident, but rarely has it been so palpable as it is here in one of his earliest films, when in the most dire of circumstances of being challenged to a duel he continues rattling off quips with all the speed and impudence of a man who possesses both great intellect and great ego, and can’t help letting both show.

“My seconds will call on your seconds.”

“Well, my seconds will be out, let them call on my thirds. If my thirds are out, go directly to my fourths.”

Quite unusually for Allen, slapstick rules alongside verbal wit in Love and Death, though once again such a smooth integration of both high and lowbrow humour comes back to his love for the Marx Brothers. A sophisticated conversation over moral imperatives is deflated in an instant when Boris and his wife, Sonja, pause mid-way to hit an unconscious Napoleon Bonaparte on the head with a wine bottle, underscoring the incongruency between the lofty philosophical questions and life-or-death scenarios often presented side-by-side in Russian literature.

A sly reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in the editing and imagery, with a cheeky visual metaphor thrown in there for good measure.

Even as Love and Death is drenched in jokes and references to classic novels, Allen’s focus remains on the cinematic applications of his satirical commentary, further building out his movie into a pastiche of European arthouse films. The montage editing of a battle deliberately evokes the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin right down to a shot of broken spectacles, though when Allen cuts to the view of the war from the general’s perspective he amusingly slips in a shot of sheep running together in a flock. Meanwhile, a white cloaked figure representing Death acts a direct allusion to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, even as its austere presence is undercut by Boris’ flippancy, considering his own mortality as little more than an inconvenience.

“Boris! What happened?”

“I got screwed.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. Some vision came and said that I was gonna get pardoned, and then they shot me.”

“You were my one great love.”

“Oh thank you very much, I appreciate that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m dead.”

In his fourth wall breaking voiceovers and facetiously subversive attitude, Allen smashes through cultural, narrative, and cinematic convention, fashioning an entirely new kind of artistic statement out of the fragments left behind. Though there is a cerebral and ironic detachment in his attacks upon old-fashioned ideals, it does not possess the sort of savagery that he reserves for his own self-criticisms. Ultimately, it is in that combination of the two where Love and Death reveals itself to be just as much a pointed comment on the way haughty academics and artists interpret history as it is a critique of the foibles of history itself, all the while wryly refusing to take itself seriously on any level.

Dancing off into the distance with the white cloaked figure of Death – an irreverent play on The Seventh Seal.

Love and Death is available to rent or buy on iTunes, Youtube, and Google Play.

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Nicolas Roeg | 1hr 50min

To live through the tragic death of your own child is a horrifying enough prospect on its own, but in the convergence of past, present, and future that emerges in architect John Baxter’s unwieldy, indistinct hallucinations, that grief becomes a sea of despair, pulling him down into its cold, all-consuming depths. The layers of subtext and symbolism that flow through Don’t Look Now may take multiple viewings to fully appreciate, but in Nicolas Roeg’s fluid editing which swirls between cryptic images of blood, churches, water, and grotesque representations of death, its feverish atmosphere takes hold, haunting us with the ghosts of events that have already taken place, and some that are still yet to happen.

The supernatural clairvoyance that plagues John’s mind may be considered a curse in this way, but as we witness in Heather, a blind psychic he meets in Venice, such mysterious gifts need not be so detrimental. Though she cannot see, the special vision she possesses allows her more insight into the world than anyone else, and the abundance of mirrors and reflective surfaces surrounding her frame her as such, becoming distorted yet enlightening filters of reality.

Mirrors all through Roeg’s mise-en-scène, reflecting and distorting reality like psychic visions.

Water consequently becomes an especially potent visual metaphor, particularly early on when an upside-down pond reflection of John and Laura’s young daughter, Christine, ominously portends her imminent drowning. She is not the last person in the film to die in such a gruesome manner either, as in a subplot concerning a loose serial killer in Venice we observe bodies being drawn up from the canals, rotted from the time spent submerged in their murky depths. If John’s own supernatural ability can be likened to these bodies of waters that contain splinters of answers, then it is important to recognise the necessity of coming at them from purely figurative angles, and avoid submerging oneself in the overwhelming, suffocating currents of literalism.

Roeg’s magnificent use of water as a strong visual metaphor.

It is the latter course of action which tragically defines John’s own arc, as in the wake of Christine’s death he decides to accept a commission in Venice to restore an ancient church, and ironically dig deeper into his own scepticism. Unable to accept the possibility of the supernatural, he takes all his visions at face value, living them as if they were immediately present rather than considering their underlying significance. All around Venice he continues to chase a small figure dressed in a red coat, identical to that which his daughter wore when she died, and warnings of his own impending fate continue to emerge all around him. This city of deep canals, misty alleys, and ancient architecture becomes its own mysterious force in John’s journey, constructed just as much through Roeg’s masterfully inventive editing as it is through the location’s own unique layout of disconnected islands.

The architecture, blocking, and lighting of Venice makes for a powerful, ghostly setting.

In those few moments where the gravity of the present outweighs all else, Roeg delivers weighty, slow-motion sequences, dramatically underscoring John’s discovery of Christine’s body as well as Laura’s fainting in the restaurant. Outside these scenes though, he delivers a masterclass in montage and parallel editing, intercutting the couple’s love-making with their morning routine the day after, and then in the very final of the sequence of the film smashing together the fragments of foreshadowing we have seen throughout the film to form a complete puzzle. Roeg’s magnificently frightening reveal flows in graphic match cuts between symbols, premonitions, and shots whirling across church interiors, all the while bells clang chaotically in the background.

From Heather’s clarified perspective, these enigmatic icons can be contemplated from a distance, allowing their underlying implications to arise organically. For a man like John though, so wrapped up in his own grief and scepticism, the reckless pursuit of logic only delivers answers after he has plunged right to the gloomy depths of his mysterious visions. And as Roeg’s persistent foreshadowing drives home over and over through Don’t Look Now, there is no hope of surfacing again this far down.

Long dissolves, parallel editing, and montages creating some truly striking sequences where barriers of reality and time are broken down.

Don’t Look Now is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick | 2hr 16min

The labels of cynicism and disillusion often stuck to Stanley Kubrick should not be taken to imply misanthropy, as even here in A Clockwork Orange where he expresses perhaps his most scathing condemnation of humanity, there is still a wonder and adoration of that which makes this species so vulnerable and unique. With our right to free will comes our liberty to conduct truly heinous acts, but tied to it is also our potential to create and appreciate works of art, as well as to stand up against other evil. It isn’t just an inalienable right in this film – it is the very source of human life, as crucial to each person’s welfare as it is vulgar and repulsive. To cut that off is essentially a form of castration, or as Alex DeLarge’s victim, Frank Alexander, puts so succinctly:

“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”

It is from this philosophical reasoning that Kubrick’s inspired, repulsive aesthetic explodes outwards, marking nearly every corner of this dystopian British society with phallic symbols as overt as explicit paintings, lollipops, and bulging jock straps, or as subtly suggestive as long-nosed masks, canes, and Alex’s snake Basil, who mysteriously dies the moment his masculine assertion of freedom is revoked.

One of the great movie openers – a long, slow tracking shot backwards from a close-up to a wide, revealing the perversity of Alex’s environment.

From the very first shot in which the camera tracks backwards from Alex’s disturbing gaze and slowly reveals a tableau of young men dressed in white, drinking milk atop tables fashioned out of naked female sculptures, his own character is established by the perversity of the environment. Through his voiceover in a drawling, Russian-tinted dialect we gain a very specific, youth-oriented view of this society that has fallen prey to its pleasure-seeking instincts, and left to rot by weak, materialistic adults who focus more on decorating their homes with garish, mismatching designs than cleaning up the garbage and crime-infested streets outside. They have retreated into their homes out of fear, but even these private spaces are no longer safe as Alex and his droogs make a hobby out of invading and terrorising them, relishing these deeply immoral acts with a wicked sense of humour and a touch of musical irony. At least for the first act of A Clockwork Orange this is well and truly his world, and Kubrick frames him as such in commanding positions that tower over others, or otherwise centres him in shots with wide-angle lenses that seems to radiate his surroundings out from his body. Whether the speed of the film is cranked up to fast-motion in an exhilarating sex scene or slowed right down as he launches a vicious attack on his droogs, everything we see or hear is stylistically in service of Alex’s own dominance and immediate pleasure.

The magnificent slow-motion attack as Beethoven underscores it all – a vicious power play from Alex.
Another excellent tracking shot following Alex around the record store, this wide-angle lens radiating the scenery outwards from him at its centre.

Oftentimes when talking about mise-en-scène it is easy enough to link a film back to its influences, but besides the expressionist impact evident in long, stark shadows and haunting silhouettes, A Clockwork Orange very much stands alone in being a truly original piece of visual art, unbridled in its obsession with depicting sexuality in the most literally objectified manner possible. In rendering such sensitive, personal parts of our bodies in hard, inorganic materials, so too does Kubrick paint out a vision of humanity that has itself become a cheap, manufactured product of its own making, devaluing that which allows us to create life. Even beyond the physical rape that takes place, we watch as Alex weaponises a sculpture of a penis, debasing its artistic purpose by beating a woman to death with it. This is a culture that has slipped over the years into unrestrained hedonism and corruption, and it is only after thoroughly setting up this rotten, futuristic civilisation that Kubrick confronts us with something even more provocative – the notion that physically removing its criminals’ worst impulses will only lead to something far worse.

Gothic expressionism here in the long shadows and chiaroscuro lighting.

Kubrick is sure to indicate that the evils we see unfold here are not contained within this one fictional setting, but are rather ingrained in our own history as seen in Alex’s daydream of being a Roman soldier whipping Jesus, and the archival footage of Nazi Germany used to torture him into submission. Consequently, the scientists’ erasure of any desire to commit sin from his mind also inadvertently cuts him off from the rest of the world which shares his sin. These medical, legal, and government authorities who proclaim sovereignty over the laws of nature are just as prone to their own shortcomings as him even if they don’t admit it, though the truth is evident in our witnessing of furtive affairs going on behind closed curtains in hospitals, and the slimy political manoeuvring with which the Minister of the Interior goes about his work. Although Alex is deemed fit to return to society as a reformed citizen, society continues to thrive off the same evil that he too once prospered under, and as such subjugates him to its own depraved torture.

The human body turned into art and objects – you can’t say Kubrick doesn’t have a sense of humour with decor like this.

In a show of tremendous narrative form, each person who Alex wronged in the first act returns in quick succession in the third, delivering over-corrective punishments against this man-turned-doormat who no longer has the ability to defend himself. Now visually removed from all traces of phallic imagery, Alex is effectively neutered, unable to sin but also equally unable to fight against the sin of others. Furthermore, his sensitive appreciation of classical music, which was once his last remaining connection to the best of humanity’s potential, has disappeared too. In short, Alex becomes the soulless, mechanical contraption fashioned out of an organic entity that is teased by the title – the clockwork orange, which has the basic essence of life stripped from it so that it may tick along to its manufacturer’s forced rhythm.

It is just like Kubrick to omit the source novel’s last chapter to avoid any hint of a potentially bright future in this hauntingly pessimistic ending. “I was cured alright,” Alex teases upon regaining his former glory and finding his new place in society as a political poster boy. The Minister of the Interior feeds him like a servant, as with the return of Alex’s free will comes power, and his connection to a world that has no place for pushovers. These different forms of evil may possess separate objectives, but Kubrick recognises in this finale of A Clockwork Orange how similar it all really is in its origins and, quite cynically, how necessary it is for humanity to have any hope of moral salvation.

Not the most beautiful shot from the film, but probably its most terrifying in its deeply uncomfortable body horror.

A Clockwork Orange is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.