Film Education Night – Barton Young’s ‘FEN Ten’

7 Jun
My friend Patrick put a post up on Facebook when his wife Jen confessed to him that she’d never seen Taxi Driver. In order for their marriage to remain viable he decided to implement FEN – Film Education Night (tagline ‘If it’s not fun, it’s FEN’). Mondays are Film Education Nights and, having claimed Jen ‘not a complete filmistine (a word I just invented) as she has seen the two Godfathers that matter and once saw a Matrix/Blade Runner double bill at the Soho Curzon,’ Patrick requested his known cinephile friends, of which I was deigned one, to come up with requisite Top Tens, a task beloved of men (and we were all men) everywhere. Instead of compiling as requested and as my fellow FEN curators did, Top Tens of the 80s, American New Wave, etc, I thought it’d be a good idea to put together a user-friendly list of ten films for ‘a not complete filmistine’ that would reward viewing and also open up avenues for further exploration. Easier said than done, of course. This list, in its endless revisions, took not one break at work but the whole week and more so I’ve posted it on here as I’ve spent more time on it than most other things I’ve written/done recently.
 
Okay, let me pre-empt some of the following objections. No Citizen Kane, Casablanca or Gone With The Wind No Kubrick, Kurosawa, Hitchcock or Chaplin? Surely Lawerence Of Arabia should be here? What about This Is Spinal Tap? Where’s Vertigo or Psycho? Not even one Spielberg, really? The Searchers? You need to have The Battleship Potemkin. And hang on, no Blade Runner or Jules Et Jim? Oh, come off it, mate, not even The Wizard Of Oz? 
 
Calm down.
 
Like I said, this list is meant to offer some films that show some of the things cinema can do. We all know there are others worthy of selection, whether deserving of a Best Of list or a Favourites list (they are different). This list is not definitive, people. It doesn’t even tally up especially with a list of my own Favourites or Best. What it does do is introduce different styles, ways of telling stories, visions. It’s a good introduction to broader realms of cinema. It’s ten (well, thriteen) brilliant films. It is, hopefully, a FEN Ten For Jen that will provide classic examples that work, outstandingly, on their own and also as basis for comparison. For example, Stagecoach is a pretty different Western than Once Upon A Time In The West. I know which I prefer, but maybe Jen, or whomever, may think differently. Taxi Driver complements Raging Bull and other Scorsese films well, but Taxi Driver also counterposes The Searchers (portrait of a man on the cusp of violent madness),  Manhattan (New York as heaven/hell), The Deer Hunter (effects of Vietnam on returning veterans) and morePerhaps It Happened One Night is more your type of romantic comedy than Annie Hall. Do you prefer (French) cinema before or after A Bout De Souffle? You don’t have to decide, but that’s the dividing line. You may prefer the scriptwriter to do the storytelling more than the director. This list is just a place to start.
 
In writing about these films my prose started getting unacceptably purple so I’ve scrapped it all and kept my commentaries brief.
 
There are no spoilers here. In fact, as I know many people prefer to see films without any prior knowledge at all I’ve largely eschewed reference to the plots of these films.
 
Okay, here’s what I eventually went for in my chronological, non-definitive, embrace/deride/ignore FEN Ten:
 

1.  Pandora’s Box  (1929, dir. GW Pabst)

Pandora’s Box

Whether it’s to your taste or not, to know film you have to know silent film. The Gold Rush is probably the best place to start but silent comedy is its own seperate place and is, in a way, more difficult for a modern audience to connect with as changing ideas of what’s funny can make silent comedies seem more dated and remote.  Received wisdom will place The Battleship Potemkin as the silent film you have to see. You do have to see it and it’s undeniably impressive but really it’s not that much fun. Pandora’s Box is smoky, mysterious, exciting and altogether different. If all you know of it is Louise Brooks’ bob then be reassured that…okay, I said no spoilers. But it’s a heady cocktail. 

Sunset Boulevard

2. Sunset Boulevard  (1950, dir. Billy Wilder)

It’s quite a leap from there to here but look at how things have changed. Silent film, long before the 50s, was obsolete, forgotten. Never mind that the great stars and directors of the silent era were actual, still-living people; Hollywood is ever-moving and here it looks back with disgust at the relics of the past, played, shockingly, by the relics themselves. Hollywood-on-Hollywood films are a sub-genre of their own, as is Film Noir, whose cynical aesthetic is at work here, making this a tip to both those genres as well as nailing shut the coffin lid of the great days of early cinema.

3.  The Seventh Seal (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

The Seventh Seal

This is one of those films that routinely make the Best Of lists of the true cinephile hierarchy. Citizen Kane, The Battleship Potemkin, Bicycle Thieves, Le Regle Du Jeu (which I’ve never seen) would be among the others. These heavyweight titles all have things to recommend them and I’ve chosen this one. Firstly, it stands as an example of what can very broadly be called arthouse cinema, that is to say cinema made not strictly for escapism and/or pleasure.If you’re going for something serious, go for the grandaddy of them all. The Seventh Seal, set in the Middle Ages, is a timeless study of a man roaming the earth (a prototypical Western/road movie standard) looking for home, God and the meaning of life. It’s an existential nightmare in which Death is one of he main characters. It’s not light viewing but is essential.

A Bout De Souffle

 4.  A Bout De Souffle  (1960, dir. Jean-Luc Godard)

I’ve not selected films on the basis of their Importance because those films, hopefully, get reached inevitably when taking in the broad scope of cinema. This is the exception. Its place in French cinema and world cinema is such that it does provide a before and after point in the way films were shaped, acted and cut. The director is the key element here, in this, one of the earliest examples of director as ‘author’ of a film, the ‘auteur’ theory now commonplace in film. It’s on the list too because it’s fun, not reverent or without flaws but still living and breathing after all these years. It’s more likely that if you like this flm, you’ll like other films that tell their story (if they have a story) in a different way, using different means. This is where that stuff started and it’s still cool, young and fun.

Once Upon A Time In The West

5.  Once Upon A Time In the West  (1968, dir. Sergio Leone)

A genre choice. The Western may be the only essential cinematic genre. Its relationship to American cinema is absolute, a mythology of the country’s history that has shaped and influenced culture like no other. This vision of the West, seen through the close-up eyes of an Italian has it all and makes it unique. Westerns have to about the West and America itself to avoid being some other genre in cowboy clothes. Once Upon A Time In The West is a super-stylised telling of the dreams- trampled on, denied, and sometimes, maybe, won- that exist in a huge, empty country dotted with wandering men, farms and distant, encroaching trains.  As my prose is gettin a bit purple again, so I’ll use this old line: If you only see one Western (and that would be foolish),  this is the one to see.

Badlands

6.  Badlands (1973, dir. Terrence Malick)

This might be one of those love-or-hate films; it’s certainly one that I saw at a tender age (fifteen) and returned to again and again. Badlands was written and directed by Terrence Malick. His direction, which captures and displays the emptiness of both the location and the characters, has been eulogised since the films release, but it is the screenplay that’s key in making this so different. The story is slight- a modern-day Romeo And Juliet where the lovers exist in a world of their own making- but the telling is not. The dialogue (what there is of it) is largely mumbled gibberish, of little narrative importance. What we know of these characters, who exist in their own heads, is conveyed to us through the voice-over of Sissy Spacek’s Holly, who otherwise spends most of her time on screen in a semi-catatonic daze. The quintessential American arthouse film, it remains a timeless, dreamlike and adult experience.

7.   Taxi Driver (1976, dir. Martin Scorsese)

Taxi Driver

As cinematic character studies go, this is the big one. Travis Bickle, from that awkward name outwards is a profoundly disturbed, emotionally warped loner, watching the world through the windscreen of his taxi, taking his place in it, against it, outside it. While the film portrays New York as venal, Bickle, in his own mind moral, does not emerge as a hero nor a villain either- we simply watch him and keep watching as we’d watch, fascinated, a sickening accident happening in slow motion. It’s part of the film’s power that much of the time Bickle’s rage is justified by the misogyny, sadism and ugliness all around him in the post-Vietnam American culture that his generation has died to preserve. De Niro is mesmerising- when he speaks, when he doesn’t, his interaction with the world is that of someone who wants to act along and can’t manage it; a pathetic loser in need of a self-concept, a bad actor in need of a role, rage in need of an outlet. It’s an ugly, sad film- but an undeniable, complete vision, and masterpiece.   

Annie Hall

8.  Annie Hall  (1977, dir. Woody Allen)

There was no way I wasn’t going to include a comedy on this list, an easy mistake to make among heavyweight titles. So why this one? Well, it’s a romantic comedy that’s about actual relationships and is actually, genuinely hilarious. You’ll be laughing all the way through. Sight gags, killer one-liners of the type only Woody Allen (still) seems to be capable of. That could describe any number of great screen comedies; what distinguishes Annie Hall from these is the ambition and confidence in Allen’s direction of his brilliant screenplay. As the turning point between his ‘earlier, funnier’ films and his more serious style to come, this straightforward love story brims but never overflows with ideas: Brechtian meta-techniques, flashbacks, long takes, monologues to the audience, even animation are not new but are scarcely the usual ingredients of romantic comedy and even more scarcely all used in the same film. As drama, as comedy, it’s auteur cinema par excellence, one of the most deserving and adult winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture. Don’t forget- it’s hilarious.

9.  Apocalyspe Now  (1979, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Apocalypse Now

It’s not a war film. War films are about war. The Vietnam war is just the backcloth. To use the kind of trite analogy you see on every film poster these days, if you took The Seventh Seal and diagnosed it with a terminal illness to be medicated with LSD you’d be getting a vague impression of Apocalypse Now. It’s total cinema, a lurid vision of hell on earth where the goal is death and the journey to the end of the river could, at any moment, show you anything. The world, in this film, has finally gone mad. Literally unforgettable, it’s also unmissable, heavy, unique film-making.

Nil By Mouth

10. Nil By Mouth (1997, dir. Gary Oldman)

A last-minute inclusion to the list. Why this? Well, I wanted a British film on there, a film set today (well, not long since today), a film able to hold its own with the likes of Taxi Driver, its nearest companion here. It’s all those things. It’s London and Londoners that look and sound recognisable even though not everyone viewing will have experienced the extremes on the screen. And, most of all, it’s an absolutely lacerating dissection of the male persona, Ray Winstone’s unflinching, terrifying performance as Raymond going beyond any screen portrait of (fractured) masculinity, bar none.

Wild Card:  The Star Wars Trilogy (Star Wars, 1977, dir. George Lucas; The Empire Strikes Back, 1980, dir. Irvin Kershner; Return Of The Jedi, 1983, dir. Richard Marquand)

The Empire Strikes Back

Few things described today as iconic are remotely so. The Wizard Of Oz is iconic. King Kong is iconic. Star Wars is iconic. None of these I’ve ever considered among my favourite films. But as a complete cinematic vision this is hard to argue against. Maybe it’s because I’m a boy – Star Wars does seem to be a boy’s (not a man’s) thing; perhaps too it’s because I am a certain age and these films (and, of course, toys) were such important iconographical objects and images when I was a child. Darth Vader himself has enough screen presence in a still image before you consider the way he moves, his cape flapping behind him, his urgency and stillness, the way his arms and hands express his character, his voice, his very breath, and consider that his face, the central focus of screen acting, is literally a fixed mask, plastic and unmoving. C3-PO has the same restrictions and the same animation; R2-D2 communicates enough for us to care without arms, hands, a face or intelligible speech. From the beginning of the film, under one of the greatest film scores ever composed (see also Once Upon A Time InThe West, above), the screen delivers to us in each shot (everything in every shot) a payload of  visual and aural detail. Think of the Death Star, the Stormtroopers, Jabba The Hutt, Boba Fett, Yoda, the Millennium Falcon, lightsabers (hear them, consider how much sound brings to these films); Mos Eisley,Tattooine, Dagobah, Bespin, Hoth; Jedi Knights, The Emperor, The Force- these things weren’t on the pallette already, they were imagined and, crucially, brought to the screen in living, breathing life and without a sense that this is the whole of the universe. All of it visually, aurally, intricate and co-existing and all of it there on the screen, real, complete and new.

NB – Sadly, folly requires me to clarify that I am referring to the original theatrical version of Apocalypse Now and decidedly not the longer 2001 Redux cut. Ditto the Star Wars trilogy; the original theatrical versions are the ones to see, not the 1997 editions which added scenes, shots and added to shots. We might also avert our eyes from the subsequent, diminishing prequels trilogy, though I’m less evangelical than some on this subject.

Two Martin Sheen films? Well, yes. When the films are Badlands and Apocalypse Now and he plays the lead in both, I guess he got pretty lucky.

Problems with the list: 1. It’s a bit of a bloke’s list. 2. It’s a bit of a heavy list.

It was never going to be complete or, as I said, definitive. If I could have had one more film, I would have chosen The Wizard Of Oz (1939, dir. Victor Fleming).

So. Start there. That’s my FEN Ten.

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3 Responses to “Film Education Night – Barton Young’s ‘FEN Ten’”

  1. Barton Young June 8, 2011 at 2:13 PM #

    This list is highly flawed. Not at all correct for the job in hand. Too hard!

  2. Chris Bradley January 30, 2014 at 12:37 PM #

    Dude you have your own site, well cool. Brads

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