“I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum…”

… although a Fischer, a Zissou, a Whitman, or a Bishop would more than suffice.

Last night, I went to see Moonrise Kingdom. I’ll be writing about the film in the near future – probably in great depth, given how much I adored it. For now, here’s me and my family channeling Wes Anderson characters. Yes, I pretended our walk to the cinema was in slow motion.

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I’ll leave it to you to imagine (or supply) the British Invasion tune that clearly ought to be playing in the background. To be honest, I’m a little bit sad that sitting in the cinema in a vintage collared minidress is as close as I’ll ever get to actually living inside the world of Wes’ movies.

Top Ten Criterions #9: The Red Shoes

THE RED SHOES (1948), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

I first discovered The Red Shoes when I was watching all the films that had been cited as influences on Black Swan, a very satisfying movie marathon that also included Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The Red Shoes  was made more than sixty years ago, but it remains one of the most visually striking, overwhelmingly beautiful films about art ever created.

Moira Shearer as Victoria Page.

The plot itself is simple, the plot of a fairytale – a parable, even. Vicky is a beautiful, talented young ballerina who stars in a ballet production of the titular story by Hans Christian Anderson. She finds herself faced with a choice – between her dancing career and the charismatic, ambitious director who discovered her talent, or the young composer she has grown to love.

“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”

Her own life, predictably enough, reflects the story she dances on the stage: Her red ballet shoes betray her only when love threatens to tear them apart. Just like in the fairy tale, once she puts them on (in other words, dedicates her life to art), she cannot take them off. The Red Shoes features a self-reflective narrative and is about the dangerous, obsessive totality of artistic dedication. It shows us how difficult it is for one girl to have two lives, however beautiful both love and art can be.

“…not even the best magician in the world can produce a rabbit out of a hat if there is not already a rabbit in the hat.”

But what makes The Red Shoes such an exultant experience is that it is a celebration of ballet and of cinema far more than it is a cautionary tale. The famous, prolonged dance scene is gorgeous and striking, and it had such an impact on me because it makes such incredibly effective use of it its medium. The sequence features cinematography and editing that offers a far more complete sense of what ballet is than it is possible to receive while sitting in front of a stage. The camera alternates between three perspectives. First, that of the audience – this is view of ballet that we are all familiar with. Then, Vicky’s own perspective – a rhythmically spinning, blurred view of not much at all. But the third view is, to me, the most important. It is too close, and the camera’s movement is too much of a dance itself to be something you could see while watching a ballet in person. And the images are too hallucinatory, too magical – they present our eyes and our hearts with what ballet suggests. It’s way of looking at ballet that is only possible in the movies.

Don’t forget, a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit.

During the ballet of the Red Shoes itself, we are transported into a world which exists only in our heads, the world which the music and the movement and the costumes are supposed to conjure for us, purely and directly visualized in film. It’s seamlessly fantastical, a beautiful whirling vision of color and imagination and tragedy. At the very end of the ballet, the vision fades and we are shown again what the captivated audience in the auditorium sees, and then an angle from backstage. And after the applause and bow, the stark cement world of the dancers’ practice room seems cold and bare compared to the lovely visions that we have been privy to.

This movie does what all cinema should aspire to but only the best films achieve: it gave us a vision of life and art that literally only the camera can provide.

Top Ten Criterions #10: Mystery Train

MYSTERY TRAIN (1989), dir. Jim Jarmusch

Mystery Train is set in Memphis, and features a  scattered cast of people – two young tourists from Japan, an Italian widow,  the African-American hotel employees, a group of criminals. Their lives loosely converge at one run-down hotel. The film is ambient and meandering within a tight and clever structure. It is divided into three sections – each chapter presents the same basic location and a similar lapse of time, but from a different perspective. By the end of the film, it is satisfying to see how these three stories barely touch each other. It’s contrived, but gently so – the disparate stories are interconnected, but for no would-be-grandiose purpose à la Magnolia. Instead, the structure has a pleasant literary quality to it. Jarmusch, maybe even more so than Quentin Tarantino, is very good at being episodic. (See also: Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control.) Mystery Train leaves you with the sense that you’re sadly unaware of all the individual stories unfolding all around you, of all the lives that briefly and barely intersect your own.

Cinqué Lee and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

Mystery Train is one of Jarmusch’s most entertaining and genuinely humorous films. It is full of quietly funny moments – the Japanese boy scolding his girlfriend for packing too many shirts and her solution of layering them, four at a time; the introverted Italian widow easily convinced to buy a dozen magazines; the hotel’s young bellhop discussing his uniform with the desk clerk.The recurring tale that locals tell about the ghost of Elvis Presley is just delightful.

Mitsuko and Jun explore Memphis.

The cinematography, by frequent Wim Wenders collaborator Robby Müller, is beautiful and oddly calming – I especially enjoy slow pans down the street that take in the whole environment in all its empty, faded glory, the eye of the camera moving with the traveling characters, but at a distance. It’s incredibly atmospheric. The nearly deserted streets, cracked pavement, and abandoned, decaying buildings have a mournful aesthetic that I particularly enjoy. One of the qualities I most admire in Jarmusch as a director is his ability to make the mundane beautiful; in this film, we first travel through Memphis with a pair of kids who soak in their new environment with infectious wonder.

Steve Buscemi, Joe Strummer, and Rick Aviles as criminals Charlie, Johnny, and Will.

The music is, of course, fantastic. (Elvis’ “Blue Moon” plays a pivotal role.) It is fitting that a film about the birthplace of a generation of American music would feature several musicians in its cast. Joe Strummer of the Clash plays a man named Johnny whose appearance has earned him a frequent and much-hated comparison to Elvis, and blues singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins gives a very amusing deadpan performance as the night clerk. Additionally, Tom Waits voices the radio DJ.

The director of photography, Robby Müller, also worked with Jarmusch on Down By Law, Dead Man, Ghost Dog, and Coffee & Cigarettes.

This film is about the allure of a place as much as it is about the people within it. It’s no coincidence that most of Jarmusch’s films are about travel. As Dennis Lim wrote in an essay about the film for Criterion, “Jarmusch’s career… has been consecrated to the possibilities of cross-cultural exchange, the satisfactions of “the drift,” the romance of “someplace else.” This film contains a particularly fascinating idea – that America’s equivalent of cultural landmarks or holy places of pilgrimage would be a ghost town that rock and roll legends once called home. The Memphis of Mystery Train is grimy, mournful, and desolate, but it’s also mythic.

Top Ten Criterions

I love this symbol and everything it stands for.

If you’re a Criterion Collection fan enthusiast obsessive like myself, you’re probably aware that, every month, the folks at Criterion get cool artists of various sorts to make lists of their favourite titles in the collection. These lists are yet another great supplement on a website that’s practically a movie-lover’s travel guide: it’s wonderful to hear from folks who make movies as films fans themselves, and there’s something really satisfying about seeing an artist’s favorite film and then seeing its echoes and influence in their own work. Some of their selections just make sense in a way that I find very exciting. Of course Guillermo del Toro considers Terry Gilliam “a living treasure”, of course the Rodarte sisters have a deep respect for Picnic at Hanging Rock.

The Criterion Collection is extremely important to me – when I stumbled upon its existence by a happy accident several years ago, when I was first realizing just how strong my interest in cinema was, it literally ensured that I’d never be at a loss for what to watch again. Criterion provides us with beautiful, impeccable transfers of the best films both new and old, the most aesthetically pleasing packaging design in the world, amazing and informative essays, and special features that give you an intimate look at the production. I especially love that they release not only the essential, influential movies that made a strong cultural impact, but also smaller, stranger gems that are stylistically innovative or artistically bold. They’ve released Jules et Jim and Wings of Desire… but also Hausu and Tiny FurnitureThey include films from all over the world, and many from the still-too-small ranks of female directors. It takes a lot of self-control for me to refrain from spending ALL MY MONEY on Criterion DVDs, but despite how relatively expensive they are, they are purchases that I never regret.

The Criterion C that appears on their DVDs, posters, and other merchandise isn’t just a brand logo for me. It’s a symbol – of creativity, of artistic excellence, of cinema that is important to preserve, cherish, marvel at, and share.

As you’ve doubtless deduced, this isn’t just a love-letter to Criterion. In a series of upcoming posts, I’m going to present my own personal top ten list. These are the films in the collection that had a strong impact on me and are closest to my heart.

But first, because picking only ten is impossibly difficult, here’s a few (well, perhaps “a few” isn’t accurate!) of my favourite Criterions that didn’t quite make the cut: Repulsion, Harold & Maude, My Life As A Dog, Fanny and Alexander, Ratcatcher, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, The Gold Rush, Stolen Kisses, Time Bandits, The Red Balloon, Bicycle Thieves.

And now, feel free to improvise a drumroll…