Husbands (1970)

John Cassavetes | 2hr 18min

There is nothing terribly special about the three middle-aged men at the centre of Husbands, and we can tell that somewhere deep in their subconsciouses, they recognise that. To bring this existential self-awareness to the surface may be crippling though, and besides, watching them dance around their insecurities for two and a half hours reveals far more about their lonely, desperate characters than any grand reckoning might have. If Richard Linklater was to shift the focus of his hangout films to a much older age bracket and turn his trademark idealism to pessimism, then perhaps the result would look something like this. At the same time though, it is impossible to imagine him centring characters as disturbingly boorish as those which John Cassavetes creates here, or aiming to create an experience that is as unpleasant as it is thoughtfully stimulating.

As is typical of his realist style, Cassavetes is not beholden to any plot convention or character development that might turn this into a more traditional drama, so any time such an advancement does take place in the film, it often feels purely incidental. By the time they touch down in London just past the halfway point, we have already spent enough time with them in bars, pools, and bathrooms to know that this sudden change of pace isn’t going to fix their deep-seated fears of inadequacy and mortality. Just as the film’s title suggests, wives are largely absent from this portrait of indulgent, toxic masculinity, leaving these emotionally inept men to seek out their own feeble solutions to the bitterness and grief that plagues their minds.

Cassavetes’ is more likely let his camera wander naturally around environments, but he still finds the time to stage these thoughtful compositions, pressing the environment in on his characters.

The film’s inciting incident lands in the opening minutes with the realisation that this group of three was once a group of four, framing everything they do from this point on as some indirect sublimation of their mourning, and trying to convince themselves that they have plenty of years in front of them. The only glimpse we get of their lives before the death of their friend, Stuart, comes through a montage of still photos at a public pool. While their children and wives splash around, they strike manly poses for the camera, putting on a front that is immediately undermined by the sharp cut to Stuart’s funeral. Rather than using the time to sort through their feelings around this tragedy though, Gus, Harry, and Archie would rather complain about all the pomp and circumstance, holding onto the air of manliness that they can’t let slip away.

“People get symbolic over death. They get very formal, and it’s really ridiculous. Because it’s probably the most humiliating thing in the world.”

A montage of photos at a swimming pool preceding Stuart’s death opening the film, flashing through images of performative masculinity.

Though the camera follows the funeral proceedings from afar, Cassavetes’ telephoto lens zooms in close to the bereaved faces in the crowd, positioning us as intimate but totally invisible observers. It is an intrusive perspective that persists through much of Husbands, and one which demonstrates Cassavetes’ absolute commitment to the primal realism of the piece, naturally letting his actors’ bodies obstruct frames as they move around, and consequently immersing us even further into each scene. His goal here in stripping everything in Husbands back to a bare, minimalist style feels like a precursor to Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 movement in the 1990s, with natural lighting, handheld camerawork, and location shooting dominating the film’s chosen aesthetic, and thereby giving weight to the purely naturalistic performances by the main trio of actors.

Excellent use of a telephoto lens observing the mourners at Stuart’s funeral in close-up.

Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes himself take on the roles of the three friends at the centre with organic ease, and while many of their lines weren’t quite ad-libbed on camera, it is not surprising to learn that most of them were written into the screenplay from improvised rehearsals. Robert Altman might have been the director who would solidify himself as the master of overlapping dialogue, but Cassavetes’ control of such aural chaos is admirable here, using it to underscore the recurring conflicts between the men, as well as the textures of an indifferent world that keeps moving independent of their existences.

After a period of time running through New York streets, skinny dipping, and revealing their sheer lack of coordination in a clumsy game of basketball, these men congregate at the local bar where Cassavetes submits us to a scene lasting over half an hour, watching their drunken singing gradually develop a sadistic edge. Around them, pitch black walls envelop them in a stifling depression, and Cassavetes populates his mise-en-scène with half-empty jugs and glasses of beer, telling the story of their night up to this point.

The bar scene lasts for almost forty minutes, as Cassavetes immerses us into its uncomfortable, drunken atmosphere.

If listening to their piggish behaviour for so long is a wearying experience, then the discomfort only intensifies when they escape into the bar’s equally dark bathroom and start retching, forcing us to stick with them through every ugly facet of their lives. With perhaps the most confined space of the film comes a slight shift in Cassavetes visual direction as well, swapping out the telephoto for a wider-angle lens, and sitting the camera right behind the toilet as they uncomfortably heave into it.

The telephoto lens is gone when we move into the bathroom, as the camera now sits behind the toilet to uncomfortably press up against the actors’ faces.

Husbands can’t be described as punishing in the same way one might associate that descriptor with Gaspar Noe or von Trier, but by lingering on scenes like these for longer than what’s comfortable, it does exhaust its viewers in a similar way. Gazzara especially works to alienate his character more than anyone else, as the abuse that erupts from Harry within his own home reveals the logical conclusion of what sort of man we have surmised him to be. The fountain of red and yellow flowers pouring from a vase in his dining room only adds a meagre touch of colour to an otherwise cheerless scene, which sees him push his wife to her knees and force out a reluctant “I love you.” That he despises his own family this much speaks a lot to the unresolved anger he clearly doesn’t know how to deal with, and in this moment, Harry fully reveals himself as the most damaged of all three men.

“I hate that house. I only live there because of a woman. You know, the legs, the breasts, the mouth.”

A meagre splash of colour in Harry’s home life barely distracts us from the misery that exists inside these walls.
Very simple blocking with Cassavetes sitting on the lawn and Falk standing on the driveway in this long shot, but the barren minimalism is a purposeful and impactful choice.

With each attempt to reclaim their youth leaving them unfulfilled, an impromptu trip to London becomes a last resort, though even in its flashy casinos there is still no glamour to be found. Dialogue continues to roll out like aimless, verbal anarchy, and the awkwardness only amplifies when they each take a different woman up to their hotel room. With Cassavetes’ long takes often comes handsomely staged compositions of his actors, and one of his greatest unfolds here with Gazzara lying along the bottom of the frame in the foreground, while the camera pans between his five other companions clumsily interacting behind him. As they split off into pairs, their insecurities become more evident than ever. Gus is rash and overbearing in his attempts to initiate sex with his terrified partner. Archie panics the moment his woman even kisses him. It is disappointing that Harry’s scene is so short in comparison to theirs, because his brief conversation reveals a guilt and helplessness that he has never let surface up to this point.

“I feel so goddamned disloyal. I feel like my – my heart is breaking.”

The camera pans left to right and back again in the London hotel room, lingering in the awkwardness of these interactions.
The precise angle of the door catching Falk’s reflection in the background, emphasising the loneliness.
An inspired close-up with this oblique angle coming from above – complete melancholy.

The rain pouring down on London’s streets the next day becomes a perfect backdrop to the melancholy resolutions each man settles on. Where Gus and Archie accept that there is no exciting life for them outside their families, Harry has sunk completely into the delusion of his youth, deciding to stay behind in London and continue in his pursuit of women. His separation from the group thus formally marks Husbands with a pair of poignant bookends, leaving the remaining men crushingly isolated. “What’s he gonna do without us?” Archie yells to Gus as they both head home, but the question applies in the other direction as well, leaving each husband to wonder what their respective futures look like without their truest companions – not that they would ever admit to such vulnerability.

Cassavetes making the most of a rainy day to shoot the depressing ‘morning after’.

These are messy characters, and while it would be fair to say that they are largely responsible for their own misery, it is evidently the culture of unbearable machismo they have collectively built among themselves which has become their main obstacle to happiness. Somewhere along the way, their friend’s death is lost among the crass humour and toxic aggression of their exploits, and for as long as that grief remains repressed, it will just keep eating away at their minds and egos, all the way to their not-too-distant graves.

A bleak, hopeless ending as two men return to their families without their companion, wondering how any of them will get by without each other.

Husbands is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Cabaret (1972)

Bob Fosse | 2hr 15min

For the bohemian misfits of Cabaret, it is easy enough to believe that the Kit Kat Club is a safe refuge to escape the political tensions of Germany’s Weimar Republic, tucking them away into a small, dark pocket of Berlin where sexual and creative freedoms may flourish onstage. Within these walls of distorted mirrors and black show curtains, Joel Grey is our pale-faced, gender-fluid Master of Ceremonies, irreverently commenting on the world outside with his bawdy musical numbers. When his songs aren’t breaking the narrative up like fleeting escapes into the artistic minds of its characters, Bob Fosse is skilfully intercutting them with scenes of hope, love, and violence, orchestrating a vivid tension between the dwindling, carefree escapism of one subculture and the burgeoning totalitarianism of another.

Cabaret is steeped in this dramatic irony right from the opening scenes, where the Emcee’s multi-lingual welcome to his realm of riotous laughter and his burlesque wrestling act briefly passes over a Nazi being kicked out. Clearly his greeting only extends so far – those who preach intolerance have no place in this diverse melting pot of nationalities, sexualities, and identities, and it is with that ethos in mind that British writer Brian finds a home among its patrons. It is especially with its bubbly American cabaret singer, Sally Bowles, who he strikes up an affectionate friendship with, after moving into the boarding house where she resides.

Expressionism in Fosse’s mise-en-scène, lighting up this stage with silhouettes and striking poses.

Carrying on the tradition of musical excellence set by her famous Hollywood parents, Liza Minnelli takes the spotlight here as the flighty, wide-eyed singer onstage at the Kit Kat Club, living life like one long song and dance she never wants to end. Relationships are easy to come by for her, calling friends and strangers alike “darling” within the first thirty seconds of meeting them, and falling for new lovers like one might try on a new outfit.

If Minnelli belongs to a lineage of movie-musical actresses that her mother, Judy Garland, sits atop of, then Sally’s characterisation can similarly be drawn back to the 1930s, where Marlene Dietrich’s playful cabaret headliner, Lola Lola, stole the hearts of multiple men in The Blue Angel. Upon vibrant stages respectively designed to the audacious visual stylings of Josef von Sternberg and Bob Fosse, both women strike dramatic poses on chairs and sing rousing love songs, passionately dedicating their voices and bodies to the art of performance. It is also notable that in one scene of Cabaret, Sally even name drops Emil Jannings, Dietrich’s co-star, suggesting to someone she is trying to impress that she knows him well.

Liza Minnelli takes centre stage as Sally Bowles in one of the great performances of the 1970s, exploding onstage with impassioned musical numbers and offstage carrying a complex character arc.

For all her messy flaws and idiosyncrasies though, Sally is a far less antagonistic character than Lola Lola, as Cabaret chooses instead to offer her great empathy for her naïve hope that the world is a better place than it is. Right after her first kiss with Brian, Fosse bathes her heartfelt solo ‘Maybe This Time’ in a gentle blue and orange light, while passionately blending it with scenes of their blossoming love. Despite their many differences, both possess a youthful ambition that drives them forward in their creative endeavours, as well as an open-mindedness to alternative lifestyles that make it easy enough for them to gradually grow their friend circle. Soon enough, they are joined by wealthy playboy Maximilian, German merchant Fritz, and Jewish heiress Natalia, and between the five of them Fosse draws out a rich web of complex relationships. Sally delights in some light mocking of Natalia’s posh manner, flippantly turning casual conversation to the subject of syphilis, and elsewhere jealousy roils around in love triangles and affairs, leading to revelations that sting with playful honesty.

“Screw Maximilian!”

“I do.”

“So do I.”

For now, each of these characters are living with some level of privilege, though as the political climate within Berlin shifts, tougher, life-changing decisions await them further down the line. Sally’s accidental pregnancy brings fears of settling down to the surface, pushing her to seek out an illegal abortion, but perhaps even more concerning than this is the love which emerges between Natalia and Fritz, who realises he must announce his Jewish heritage if he wishes to marry her. Back in the Kit Kat Club, the Emcee amusingly maintains his love for a gorilla in the number ‘If You Could See Her Through My Eyes’, right before landing the punchline that he is really defending the fact she is a Jew. The social satire is evident, but in his sharp editing Fosse is making an even sharper point about the nature of this entertainment – any social issue that holds real weight on the outside is humorously undercut in the club, which is simply not equipped to handle the real world with any sincerity.

‘If You Could See Her Like I Do’ is an amusing musical number that packs an even better punchline. A masterfully comedic performance from Joel Grey.

As cabaret performers send up traditional German folk dance wearing flamboyant lederhosen, Fosse punctuates each comical slap with the beating of the club’s owner in the alley outside by a gang of Nazi youths. As the Emcee leads a burlesque army of dancers in Nazi regalia, ridiculing their customs and mannerisms, we cut to Natalia discovering her brutally slaughtered dog in her yard. Fosse’s editing lays down a bold formal contrast in this way, setting close-ups of exaggerated facial expressions and swinging limbs against hateful, violent atrocities taking place outside, and choreographing them all to the cabaret’s cheeky rhythms.

Juxtaposing the light irreverence of the club with the horrific darkness of 1930s Germany. One of the best edited films of the decade, thanks to Fosse’s unique skills.

Given the birthplace of expressionism in early twentieth century Germany, it is fitting that Fosse brings this stark visual style to his smoke-filled cabaret numbers, cutting out sharp silhouettes of his performers as they strike dramatic poses up onstage. Though there is certainly visual beauty outside the club in the brown décor of the boarding house and some flourishes of camerawork around his characters, Fosse evidently prefers the stage to reality for its theatrical spice. Like von Sternberg before him, he carries a keen sense of cinematic blocking in these settings, foregrounding legs, chairs, and bodies that frame performers as they dance. Along the walls and up on the ceiling, he hangs wavy mirrors that uneasily distort his actors’ faces, especially reflecting the expressions of the exuberant Emcee who might be a little too cheerful for our comfort.

Fosse obfuscates his frames in these compositions much like Josef von Sternberg before him, building his mise-en-scène around Minelli.
Distorted mirrors offer an undercurrent of warped darkness to the cabaret, marking both the opening and closing shots of the film.

The Kit Kat Club is no doubt a exciting place for thespians and free spirits, but bit by bit, the sinister undertones pressing in on it grow too significant to ignore. The complacency that allows such virulent antisemitism to breed in Germany is not just confined to our main characters, though they certainly typify that thinking.

“The Nazis are just a gang of stupid hooligans, but they do serve a purpose. Let them get rid of the Communists. Later we’ll be able to control them.”

As much as Fosse’s characters dismiss them as mere pests, his camera never treats them as anything less than a terrifying threat to the very foundations of liberty and justice. While a dead Communist bleeds out on a street in broad daylight, he cuts between parts of his frozen tableau, where Nazis and onlookers stand around in chilling silence.

Chilling montage editing underscoring the stillness of this brutal murder.

Perhaps the most disturbing depiction of their political ascension though is one which does not depict any sort of physical violence at all, as Brian and his friends drop in at a rural beer garden for an easy day out, only to be met with a young, blonde boy singing the only song of Cabaret which does not take place inside the club, ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’. As the camera pans down from his face to reveal a Swastika patched on his sleeve, this ode to Germany’s natural scenery transforms into a militant anthem for the Third Reich, and around him, the rest of the audience stands one by one, adding their stern voices to the chorus. Fosse does not exempt this wildly disparate song from his zealous montage editing either – as he energetically cuts between close-ups of the proud faces in the crowd, he is sure to slip in some shots of the unhappy few who remain seated, resisting the overwhelming wave of fervent nationalism.

Rhythmic montage editing again in the only musical number that doesn’t take place in the Kit Kat Club, serving an entirely disturbing tone.

Sure enough, there is little any of our characters can do about Germany’s shifting political landscape by this point. After a rage-fuelled confrontation with a pair of Nazis campaigning on the street, Brian is left with nothing but a black eye and the realisation that his love for Sally does not outweigh his own fears and ambition. Not long after, he departs Berlin, leaving his cabaret-loving sweetheart to keep singing her heart out to whoever is left to watch her perform, dazzled by her own dreams that she is too naïve to realise will never flourish under the reign of the Nazi party.

“Life is a cabaret,” she joyously proclaims. “We have no troubles here,” asserts the grinning Emcee. But it is hard to read this delusional ending as anything but a tragedy as the camera pans across the warped mirrors one last time to view the twisted reflections of the uniformed Nazis, now dominating the audience. For the first time, there is no music playing in the Kit Kat Club, or even any movement among its patrons. There is simply an eerie, deadening silence, banishing whatever traces of dissent once held the power to overcome it, but which instead chose to keep partying on inside its tiny, bohemian bubble.

A silent pan across the distorted mirrors, revealing an audience now consisting almost entirely of Nazis – a horrifying pay-off to the steady rise we see leading up to it.

Cabaret is not currently streaming in Australia.

The Parallax View (1974)

Alan J. Pakula | 1hr 42min

Floating somewhere in a vague, black void, a committee of seven indistinct men sit on a panel delivering a public statement on the recent political assassination of presidential candidate Charles Carroll, describing the deceased killer as a psychotic, misguided man acting out a violent vendetta. The official narrative is that tragedies such as these are aberrations of a dignified society that strives to protect its citizens, governing them under fair, democratic processes. Any suggestion that they are more akin to covert cogs in a rigged machine working exactly as intended can easily be brushed off as a ridiculous conspiracy held by a select few obsessive recluses. As the middle part of Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy though, that is exactly the perspective that The Parallax View takes in following its tightly wound narrative of collusions, false identities, and government corruption, stoking the embers of bitter mistrust burning through 1970s America.

This ambiguous committee announcing the official narratives of political assassinations. They are boxed into this dark space like puppets on a stage, their strings pulled by whatever shady forces lie just outside its boundaries.

The second and final time we are brought to the official committee we met at the start is in the final shot of the film, though whatever faith we might have once put in their words has been well and truly eradicated by this point. Now, this official-looking bench looks a lot like a stage upon which these men sit as empty puppets, the darkness around them concealing whatever secretive forces are pulling their strings, and as Pakula’s camera dollies back to shrink them into the abyss, they suddenly disappear from view, bringing this performance to a close. It is tough to imagine this scene being as ominous as it is had it been shot by anyone other than Gordon Willis, whose cinematographic credentials as the Prince of Darkness are backed up here by the pervasive silhouettes, shadows, and dimly lit interiors concealing the horrific secrets that one plucky journalist seeks to expose to the public.

Joe Frady’s interest in the seemingly coincidental deaths of six innocent Americans who collectively witnessed a political assassination three years prior is only piqued when his ex-girlfriend, Lee, becomes the latest victim. It is a harsh cut that Pakula uses in transitioning from their meeting to the reveal of her cold, dead body, but it is the jolt we need to land us in the grip of a mystery that compels Frady to chase answers through American cities and rural towns, each one infested by the long, sticky fingers of the furtive Parallax Corporation. Pakula stages his investigations upon miniature railways, beneath bursting dams, and in expansive buildings where Wellesian low angles impose rigid formations of ceiling lights upon characters, setting them against the heavy weight of bureaucratic structures fighting to keep them down in their pursuits of truth. Bit by bit, small pieces of information come together to reveal the corporation’s methods of recruiting psychologically troubled men and converting them into political assassins, carrying out watertight schemes that cover traces and frame easy scapegoats.

From rural to urban America, Pakula makes brilliant use of his modern architecture like Michelangelo Antonioni, carving out a harsh culture of domineering constructions that consume and shrink its citizens.
There is plenty of Antonioni present in the mise-en-scène, but Pakula doesn’t hold back from Wellesian low angles of magnificently imposing ceilings either, weighing down on his characters.

Those bright, open spaces where psychopathic murderers seamlessly blend in with ordinary Americans are unsettling enough on their own, but the sharp contrast they draw against shots where Pakula’s camera disappears into darkened rooms makes the lighting schemes of both environments all the more disturbing. The Parallax View is flooded with compositions that have entire segments blocked out by patches of darkness, carving them out from the geometric shapes of backlit furniture, and at one point using a wall to draw a sharp divide right down the middle of the frame, keeping the adversaries on either side suspensefully unaware of each other’s presence. The scene in which Frady arrives home only to find Parallax recruiter Jack Younger waiting for him makes especially excellent use of Willis’ beautifully sinister photography, with the vague light reflection off his polished boots perched on a table being the only indication that there is anyone lurking in this stifling darkness. Later when Frady is forced to improvise a new lie for his blown cover, Pakula in turn keeps us at a tense emotion distance by silhouetting his profile, concealing any potential giveaways written on his face.

Gordon Willis can manipulate the light and darkness of a shot like few other cinematographers in history, using patches of black space to split frames down the middle and wrap around characters in isolating compositions.
A vague reflection of light off polished boots, the only unsettling indication that there is someone lurking in this darkness.
Warren Beatty’s face is silhouetted when his first lie is caught out, keeping his facial expressions impossible to read and driving up the suspense in a huge way.

Frady’s successful entry into the organisation does not immediately herald an abundance of answers, but Pakula provides us with just enough to lead us towards assumptions about the psychological manipulation taking place there. For several minutes we are forced to watch the same video montage that all new applicants are subjected to, cutting together words and images intended to inspire intense emotions across the spectrum of the human experience. Pakula orchestrates a deranged emotional conflict here in opening with shots of children, American icons, and picturesque landscapes, before dotting in images of the Hitler and guns, running at an accelerating speed towards sex, hate groups, and violence, and then finally pulling back into the initial peaceful imagery. Whether this is some sort of brainwashing or profiling isn’t entirely transparent, but the implicit values of the corporation ring out clearly. Insensitivity and contempt towards one’s fellow citizens are essential qualities for potential assassins, whose anger can easily be manipulated for political purposes at the discretion of the wealthy elite.

A disturbing rhythmic montage mixing wholesome, patriotic imagery with violence and evil. It lasts for several minutes as well, fully subjecting us to the Parallax Corporation’s murky ethics and ideals.

There is also a sensationalism present in this suspenseful narrative though which shouldn’t be brushed over, because as much as Pakula is drawing Antonioni and Welles in his arresting modern architecture, there are set pieces here that are distinctly Hitchcockian in their suspenseful plotting and staggering pay-offs. Early on, a thrilling wrestle with a suspected assassin atop the Space Needle draws in the iconic monument to highlight the uniquely American characteristics of this corruption and paranoia. Later, the silent pursuit of a potential bomber at an airport feels like a high-stakes spin on the stalking scene in Vertigo, anxiously cutting between close-ups of Frady’s face and his point-of-view shots until an explosion punctuates its climax.

A Hitchcockian set piece in using the sheer height of the Space Needle to send someone toppling to their death. A gripping scene to open the film.

Pakula reserves his greatest set piece of all for the final scene though, harshly painting out the duality of American civilisation at the dress rehearsal for Senator George Hammond’s political rally. The patriotic red, white, and blue of the auditorium’s circular tables arranged in orderly grid formations clash right up against the sinister darkness hanging above them, where Frady pursues shady figures setting the politician up for murder. From these daunting heights, Pakula often slices his frame horizontally, with the top half imprinting black shapes of beams and light fixtures against the bright background, and through his manipulation of this lighting he leads us right into the chilling reveal of a silhouetted rifle sitting on the wire mesh above the hall below. Frady’s realisation that he has been scapegoated comes far too late, as his dash for a bright exit is only met by death, thus incriminating him as the likely culprit of Hammond’s assassination.

Silhouettes pervade the thrilling final set piece of the film, sharply separating America’s patriotic colours in the bright light from the sharp darkness hanging above it. Rafters, light fixtures, and guns become cutouts of negative space imprinted upon the assassination below.

The third and final instalment of the paranoia trilogy, All the President’s Men, may reflective reality more accurately in taking on the authentic investigation of the Watergate scandal, and yet there is something about the crushing despair and pessimism of The Parallax View which feels even truer to the psyche of Cold War America. For every great exposé of political corruption, there are hundreds of other scandals which never make it into the public eye, and which clearly haunt Pakula’s mind with the terror of the unknown. With Willis’ camera dwelling on those dark, apparently empty spaces, our suspicion of what lurks out of sight gradually becomes an aggrieved, quiet dread – not of some lonely psychopath seeking to kill innocent strangers, but of the establishments that swear to protect us from them.

A dash towards the light, only to be met by more darkness – pure pessimism in Pakula’s ending.

The Parallax View is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, or Amazon Video.

Trafic (1971)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 37min

They say that dogs often look like their owners, but in the modern world of Trafic where automobiles become companions to humans on their endless journeys to nowhere, Jacques Tati cannot help noting the shared characteristics between them. One suited man sits in a black Mercedes-Benz, puffing on a cigar while his windscreen wipers drag themselves in slow, steady motions. Elsewhere, some other wipers on a car driven by a senile old man weakly twitch on the verge of breaking down, another pair clearing the vision of two chattering women match their flappy hand gestures with equal erraticism, and those on a hippy truck seem to groove along in rhythmic unison. In Tati’s magnificently whimsical worlds, characters are not defined by their personal thoughts and feelings, but by the modernist infrastructure around them, acting as extensions of their own idiosyncratic personalities.

Cars used as extensions of people, connecting humanity to their inefficient, idiosyncratic machines.

By that logic, it follows that these new technologies aren’t the faultless solutions to contemporary living that they are cracked up to be – if humans are inherently flawed, then so too are their creations. Therein lies the perfect entrance for the bumbling Monsieur Hulot in his fourth and final film appearance, this time as a car designer with a new model to show off at an auto show in Amsterdam. Quite appropriately, this vehicle is as unorthodox as its owner, being created for the specific purpose of camping with a shaver built into the steering wheel and the front grille transforming into a literal barbeque grill. It is nothing less than the product of a mad inventor, acting on his own creative impulses untethered from conventional notions of what customers think they need, or what businesses think will make them money.

It is quite fortunate that this is the car Hulot and his publicity agent, Maria, are stuck with on their cross-country drive to the auto show, especially as it proves to be a hit with the police officers who impound the vehicle for failing to stop at border control. The reason is simple enough – the wave the custom guards give to stop them is simply taken as a friendly greeting, and this misunderstanding quickly escalates into one of many major delays encountered on their journey. Tati delights in devolving ordered arrangements of road travel into beautiful chaos all through Trafic, expertly choreographing one freeway pile-up like a comical ballet of cars impressively balancing on their front wheels, pirouetting off to the side, and bonnets flapping up and down of their own accord. In the aftermath, about a dozen drivers stumble out of their damaged vehicles in a confused daze, and without any notion of what to do next, silently begin stretching their limbs and cleaning up the minimal debris with a dustpan broom.

An expertly choreographed freeway pile-up plays like a comic ballet of cars performing complex dance moves.

Inane as it is, the rigid order that we impose upon ourselves through car and traffic systems evidently cannot stand to be broken, making virtually every aspect of automobile culture the perfect target for Tati’s satire, from the hardcore fans to the everyday drivers. It goes without saying that his framing of physical gags in wide shots is consistently seamless in playing with our perspective of specific events, such as Hulot stepping into a car at the auto show, before swiftly revealing the punchline we couldn’t see before, like flipping that car upside-down to expose it as a bisected display vehicle.

The silent cinema influence is showing in Tati’s framing of these gags in wide shots, framed perfectly to conceal the full context of the scene until the punchline.

But Tati also does not get enough credit as a skilled montagist, particularly displaying his talent here in matching the rhythms of his cutting to the mechanical routines of cars and humans. In the opening credits, the automobile manufacturing facility chugs its machinery along to consistent, comical beats, and later Tati turns the tedium of rush hour into an amusing sequence that simply observes drivers picking their noses and yawning, as if bound by common ritual. Such arbitrary customs extend into the auto show as well where he plays his mise-en-scène like an orchestra, opening and slamming car boots in syncopated patterns, and swallowing up an entire crowd of enthusiasts collectively sticking their heads under a single bonnet.

The opening montage at the automobile factory setting a rhythm carried through the film in its sound design and editing – Tati plays the mise-en-scène like an orchestra.
Social satire caught in these images with machines literally swallowing up humans.

Trafic may not possess the sheer ambition of Tati’s previous films, least of all the monumental feat of production design that is Playtime, but his resourcefulness remains as remarkable as ever in picking apart humanity’s absurd and futile attempts at progress. Within the mere image of heavy traffic, he uncovers an endlessly rich source of satirical material, recognising that the attempts of those drivers trying to get somewhere while helplessly sitting in stagnant crowds of high-tech metal boxes may be the ultimate paradox of an inept modern society.

The perfect paradox of modern society – these machines designed to push us into the future keep us rooted to the spot.

Trafic is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

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.