Ten classic films you should admit you've never seen
|LISTS - MOVIE LISTS|
It's easy to nod, isn't it? Let's hope no questions come up during the conversation...
Sometimes, in a conversation with dorks of various stripes or filmy literati, a movie will come up off-handedly, in that sort of short-hand film buffs like to use to make themselves feel special. Because you know the people you’re talking to will get what you’re saying right off, you don’t have to stop and explain anything, derailing your speeding train of thought, the preciousness of which can only be measured by the knowing and approving nods of other nerds.
But sometimes, not often, but sometimes, a word or phrase can get dropped in and one brave fool must interrupt the flow of the alpha-nerd to intrepidly ask, “What’s the Rashomon effect?” The deep sigh released by the surrounding circle, the sidelong looks of exasperation that say, “Are you serious?” could melt all but the hardiest of egos, sending one sniffling back to their Netflix queue for a remedial course in good.
So the alpha-nerd (or perhaps his beta-dork companion, with whom he’s holding court) takes a deep breath and says in his best trying-to-sound-like-he’s-saying-this-off-the-cuff-and-didn’t-memorize-the-Wikipedia-entry-for-just-this-moment voice, “The Rashomon effect, named for the eponymous Kurosawa film, is the narrative technique of telling the same story from several different angles, in order to highlight the notion that one event is colored by the emotional, social, and intellectual influences of the one recalling it. Zhang Yimou went and literally color-coded the idea for you in Hero; you seen Hero, you illiterate bastard?”
For the record, I did not look that up on Wikipedia for the purpose of this article, I wrote it from memory and it is my own wording. The point? I’ve never seen Rashomon. Nope, never seen it; and I doubt the theoretical alpha-nerd in the above hypothetical pretentious conversation that is in no way based on me or any conversation I’ve ever had has seen it either.
And that’s ok.
Film buffs tend to get defensive when their dedication to whatever it is that they’re into is called into question in any way, and we (as does the public at large) will carry around information in our heads so that if it ever comes up, we can speak intelligently on a variety of subjects, even if our experience in that arena is limited or non-existent.
I think this is part of being well-rounded: the desire to at least have some understanding of many things so as to possess a broader base of general knowledge. This can manifest in any sort of topic: bookbinding; catching crawfish, the Orwellian implications of schools remote-activating the built-in cameras on school-provided notebook computers unannounced; comparative analysis of the addictive qualities of hard drugs to World of Warcraft; or the staining and sealing of wood. For the purposes of this article, though, I mean to say that it’s ok if you’ve never seen The Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane; as long as you know about the chess game with Death and the importance of “Rosebud,” you can get along through in-depth conversations about film... but you really should see those movies.
Below is a list of movies I’ve never seen. I’m properly ashamed of myself for having not seen them, but truthfully, between reading everything I have to read, doing everything I have to do and listening to everything I have to listen to in order to feel like I’m not a slathering prole takes up a lot of the time I feel that I should spend watching what I have to watch. Maybe if I spent less time perpetually rewatching Deadwood I’d have seen A Fistful of Dollars by now. However, just because you haven’t seen something doesn’t mean you won’t or can’t. Don’t feel bad about it, just add it to the list of things to see, and remember, for every ten thousand people who haven’t seen On the Waterfront, there’s one poor wanker who hasn’t seen Star Wars (yes, they really are out there).
It’s easy to get by, to take part in the shorthand, without seeing many legendary films, as long as you’re aware of why you should be aware of them. So here I will provide you with the salient points of these classics, why you should know them, and how remiss you (we) are for having not done our duty as connoisseurs of “feelm”. I intend to see all of these, by the way; but if intentions were horses, we’d all be eating steak, so...
Based on a short story (“In a Grove” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa), this Kurosawa film revolves around the investigation of the murder and rape of a samurai and his wife. Widely differing accounts of the incident and the subjective nature of memory are the pertinent issues in play here. This is arguably the film which introduced the west to Kurosawa and Japanese film in general, through its screening at the 1951 Venice Film Festival and its reception of an Honorary Academy Award in 1952 (at the time, these “honorary” awards were given out to foreign language films, as they wouldn’t have their own category until 1956).
It was remade in 1964 as The Outrage, starring Paul Newman, one of several Kurosawa films to be remade as American westerns, including Seven Samurai (The Magnificent Seven), Yojimbo (A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing), and The Hidden Fortress (Star Wars [arguably a western]). Kurosawa’s films seem uniquely suited to adaptations into westerns with their dusty locales and ambivalent heroes.
I feel as though I have committed some manner of cardinal sin by not seeing this movie; not only is it considered an unequivocal classic (though “classic” being an epithet shared by more than a few movies I wish I hadn’t seen) it has spawned its own school of thought, the aforementioned “Rashomon effect,” a concept important enough to be considered its own narrative device (though not the originator of the idea, it is, however, the trope namer). I write this on what would have been Kurosawa’s one hundredth birthday, the power and importance of his artistic output significant enough to make the front page of imdb as well as mention on reputable outlets of actual news.
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
There are a number (a distressingly large number) of people who voraciously devour Z-grade horror. They love Basket Case and honestly believe Ed Wood was overrated: these people have an earnest love for movies that are, by definition, poorly made, badly acted and barely distributed. They are the cult upon which “cult film” is built.
These people consider Manos: The Hands of Fate beneath them.
Back in the spooky, wild-west days of the internet, I was explaining to my friend Keene that there was this website and it had the cast and crew of every movie ever made and links between them and it was like a never-ending, ever-expanding encyclopedia of film. “It’s called the Internet Movie Database,” I said with wonderment, “and it has, like, every movie ever made!”
“Bullshit,” he said, “I’ll bet it doesn’t have Manos: Hands of Fate!” But it did, right at the bottom of its list of worst movies ever made. There are now seven movies that are supposedly worse, but you know what? I’ll never see those either, and neither should you. No one should ever see a movie whose audience at its premiere threw their shoes at the screen.
The Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966)
I know that Metallica covered “The Ecstasy of Gold” and used one of the drawn-out horn blows (reversed) at the beginning of the first two “Unforgiven” songs. I know the boiler-plate behind the poncho gag from Back to the Future III. I know Eastwood’s Unforgiven was thematically what happened to the Man with No Name (or characters like him) when they get old. I know they were produced in Italy and Spain by Italians with Italian money and that they’re not only the ur-example of the Spaghetti Western, but (aside from select John Wayne movies) also some of the most famous and respected westerns ever filmed. They are iconic, eminently imitable and supposedly thoroughly excellent.
I wouldn’t know that.
A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly form a loose trilogy directed in the mid-sixties by Sergio Leone. They follow a somewhat nameless character (intermittently called “Joe” and “Blondie”) through his ronin-esque adventures somewhere in the American Rockies. Based in part on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which I have also failed to see), Eastwood’s character is drawn to right wrongs he would rather prefer to ignore, a staple motivation of most action sub-genres.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
“What are you doing, Dave?” I’m taking out the tape and bringing it back to Blockbuster, you annoying prick! 2001 is unique to this list, as it’s a movie I tried and failed to watch. I only remember making it as far as the first appearance of the monolith and the shift to the future, but I’ll assume I made it a tad further than that, as I remember sort of liking the prelude.
Perhaps it was the starkness of the set design or the understated calmness of the visuals, but whatever made me take the tape from the machine and bring it back to the video shop eludes me now. Back then (and probably only for a limited time), if you rented an older movie, not on the new release wall, and you didn’t like it, you could exchange it for another tape. This is the only movie I did that with; something in it provoked me to such an indescribable sense of impatience that I had to stop watching it.
It was 2001 and I really thought I knew what was up. I had no real education in film, formal or informal, but my twenty-one-year-old opinion was probably that if I didn’t like it, it was necessarily worthless. In the intervening years I’ve come to realize the error of that mindset and I’m going to give 2001 a better shot than I gave it as a cocksure youth, certain that my opinion was the only one worth a shit.
But that computer’s voice is still kind of annoying... maybe it’s supposed to be, though.
Easy Rider (1969)
This is the movie with “Born to be Wild” as part of a road montage, right? With Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on their ridiculous choppers, “lookin for adventure in whatever comes [their] way”? I might be wrong, but I think it is. Following Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider is the film that kicked off “New Hollywood,” the relatively short period where the graduates of those new things called “film schools” were given money by the old men of the malfunctioning studio system and allowed unprecedented free reign to try and capture that other new beast, the youth market.
It was an odd time in film: the Hays code had just been repealed and official self-censorship ended while the first stirrings of our current ratings system was still finding its footing. Then along came a movie that hit the zeitgeist as hard as it could. Drugs, hippies, music, communes, the American counterculture all wrapped up with a bow, courtesy of Columbia Pictures. Costing only $340,000 and grossing over $60m, the lightbulb went over Hollywood’s head that the small movie could reap fields of green.
The picture is partially responsible for allowing The Godfather, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange and Rocky to be made and the movement it helped start would be repeated (on a shorter, crasser scale) in the nineties, but the desperate search for “freedom” the movie embodied has yet to be recaptured.
“Dueling Banjos.” “Squeal like a pig.” I think we’ve covered it.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Once upon a time, the far-away land of New York City was a steaming shithole. Yes, friends, before Mayors Koch and Giuliani sprinkled two decades of fairy dust on Times Square and Manhattan in general, New York was (correctly) portrayed in film and tv as a cesspool of crime and violence, pornography and prostitution, vice and venal sin.
Now there’s an Olive Garden in Times Square.
But back in those far-gone, heady days of cinematic mischief known as the seventies, there were several movies that I haven’t seen which painted a portrait of an abhorrent, barbaric New York, choking on its own filth and spitting back up Travis Bickle and the guido catchphrase, taken directly out of the context of an unhinged, powerless man talking to a theoretical adversary in a mirror, practicing being the tough guy he’ll never actually be, “You talkin to me?” Instead, it’s now the mantra of chavs and chumps who think they’re being funny, portraying what they think is an iconic moment of cinematic toughness, but is, in actuality, a parody of that mindset.
"I believe Taxi Driver is one of those movies like This is Spinal Tap, in that if you watch enough documentaries and read enough articles enumerating its many legendary scenes, you can assemble the whole film in your mind without realizing that you have, in fact, seen all of it"
Taxi Driver is the story of a man driven insane by the corruption he sees every day on his mind-numbing, soul-crushing rounds about the city, the only difference between himself and a pizza driver is that instead of his car smelling like Italian food, it smells like Italians. He finds and seeks to protect a thirteen-year-old prostitute named Iris from the horrid world she already knows far too well. He tries to reach out to others, but his own psychological inadequacies, perhaps caused by a lifetime of living in urban decay, have stunted his empathy and squelched his dignity. His only recourse: the assassination of a senator (the film being the real-life inspiration for Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan in 1981).
I believe this is one of those movies like This is Spinal Tap, in that if you watch enough documentaries and read enough articles enumerating its many legendary scenes, you can assemble the whole film in your mind without realizing that you have, in fact, seen all of it. When I did finally see Spinal Tap, I found this to be the exact case and wondered why I bothered to see it at all. Well, now it’s simply to say that I have. However, I want to see Taxi Driver not only to see the connective tissue between the scenes, but also to measure its influence, as perceived by me, on other “urban plight” films like Jacob’s Ladder and Se7en, which I believe were both heavily influenced by what I suppose is the tone of this film. We’ll see if I’m right.
Any horror fan worth his salt knows at least the name Dario Argento. He’s the Italian nutcase whose directorial engine has only two gears: whacko and surreal. He’s also a man of notorious physical hideousness whose sperm was somehow able to evolve into actress/director Asia Argento, who I suppose must look more like her mother.
Suspiria is the story of murders in a prestigious ballet school, but that’s sort of incidental to the movie’s legacy. The twisted visuals, over-saturated colors, and memorable violence are what keeps the film alive in academically inclined circles of film-thought. The last picture to be shot in Technicolor, Argento emphasizes primary color in a purposely unrealistic way, taking advantage of an unfortunate by-product of that once-ubiquitous processing technique.
I saw the stained-glass murder scene on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments (which I wish beyond all hope I could find on dvd or for download in its entirety) and couldn’t help but be intrigued. It’s not like no one makes movies with elaborate death scenes anymore, the Final Destination series is built around it, but the deranged artistry of this scene somehow elevates it beyond exploitative sadism and sets the stage for the surrealist horror still to come.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
The Vietnam War was a bad thing. We’ve had that drilled into us for over thirty years now, but the enduring popularity and implied importance of the films made in the ten years following speak to the ongoing trouble the United States has in reconciling what happened over there with the narrative it’s constructed for itself as protector of the downtrodden and messiah of democracy.
Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, First Blood, Jacob’s Ladder...the eighties and late seventies were littered with movies about the war and the psychological fallout of those who fought it. It was the first war fought on our televisions instead of newsreels. Families saw at dinnertime real war and real pain, something our government wants to keep as far away from the prying eyes of cameras as possible in our current unpopular war, perhaps having learned its lesson in the seventies.
Starring Meryl Streep, Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken (winning him an Oscar), Michael Cimino’s single significant contribution to film (his career would be destroyed by his next picture, Heaven’s Gate) gave us one of the form’s highest regarded scenes: the forced game of Russian roulette between our protagonists. It is the centerpiece of the movie and one of the numerous galvanizing scenes of DeNiro’s career, allowing him to make Rocky and Bullwinkle and Meet the Fockers without tarnishing his legend.
Many Vietnam films seek to burn their images into our minds, to try and suffuse us with the confusion and frustration and/or the ennui and apathy of the times. Some of those movies become legendary, others become Casualties of War. I wonder what the films of the 2020s will have to say about today.
Blue Velvet (1986)
I picked this film randomly from the David Lynch films I’ve never watched (I’ve only seen The Elephant Man and Lost Highway). I understand it to be the most exemplary of his own style, though my own knowledge is limited to a still of Dennis Hopper with an oxygen mask and a menacing expression and a scene of Kyle MacLachlan doing something in his underwear.
Lynch is known for his massive cult following and unorthodox narratives, not necessarily in that order. He’s known as a craftsman of 'weird' and he turned down Return of the Jedi to make Dune, for better or worse. Where should one start with Lynch? I saw Lost Highway back in "97 and never had any urge to see it again. I’m curious about Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead, two movies I’m fairly certain I should’ve seen by now; but that can easily be said about any of his films (except for The Straight Story, which I’d never even heard of until looking at his filmography).
The strange and the surreal have a strong place in film canon, even if a lot of people don’t want to see them because it makes their brains hurt to process the twisted or even to think at all. But for those of us who seek out the odd and off-putting, there are less skilled and entertaining examples out there than anything Lynch has thrown at us. So again I say, “Where to begin?”
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