A confession: I am a film-lover who hardly sees any films for most of the year. This is because the ones I do see are so satisfying that for ten months in the year I feel “full,” nourished, and hardly ever find myself wanting to see anything more. However, for two months in the year, from mid-June to mid-August, I watch about twenty of the very greatest films intensely, each one several times, and have the joyful experience of discussing them with a small group of attentive, passionate movie-watchers. We do this in the Summer Film Institute of St.John’s College, Santa Fe, where for the past two years we have studied Murnau, Dreyer, de Sica, Rossellini, Welles, Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and others, with a view to refining and deepening our relationship to films as texts. The discussions tend to leave us raw and profoundly moved, since all the films we study in this program have the power to unsettle us and shake us and make us re-examine everything we think we know — just as the greatest books do, but with astonishing resources of expression unique to cinema.
I’m very excited about this year’s offerings, most of which we will have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to view on the big screen. In the summer of 2016 we’ll have two four-week segments devoted to a brace of Japanese directors and the great storytellers and visionaries of Germany and France — most of whom we never get to watch these days. Have you ever seen a curriculum like this?
In our tutorial we’ll be immersing ourselves in detailed study of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1956) and Ikiru (1952). The former needs no introduction: one of the most viscerally exciting films of all time, Shakespearean in its breadth and visual subtlety. Ikiru is a morally elevating, life-affirming film that mixes genres and tones in daring ways, and stars the great Takashi Shimura. “Art is not direct,” says a character in the film, and we will be exploring Kurosawa’s indirections.
Even more than Kurosawa, I am looking forward hugely to our seminar list, which — shockingly — has no film later than 1932!
Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr.Caligari (1920) is a film of angles, diagonals, distortions, in which the camera films our inner world, a mindscape. Visually beautiful, terrifying, it is the first true horror film, and the first great example of German Expressionism.
Then there is Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922): the first “million-dollar movie,” with its vast set, originally over 6 hours but severely cut, a giant in fragments. It is a film about murder, seduction, extortion –” like a Henry James novel as dreamt by a pornographer.” (Keith Phipps) Acted with great subtlety, filmed with acute penetration into social and psychological detail, it is an ambitious masterpiece by a genius of the cinema.
Equally megalomaniacal in conception and scale is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), predecessor to films like Bladerunner in its phantasmagoric dystopian vision. “Metropolis was rich in subterranean content that, like contraband, had crossed the borders of consciousness without being questioned.” (Siegried Kracauer) We follow this with Lang’s M (1931): the first serial killer film, the first police procedural, a nightmare vision of a putrefying society — haunting, powerful, never forgotten once seen.
Then we get two films by Josef von Sternberg, his masterpiece Docks of New York (1928) and the more famous Blue Angel (1929), which features Emil Jannings and introduced Marlene Dietrich to the world. “His [von Sternberg’s] characters generally make their entrance at a moment in their lives when there is no tomorrow. Knowingly or unknowingly, they have reached the end or the bottom, but they will struggle a short time longer, about ninety minutes of screen time, to discover the truth about themselves and those they love.” (Andrew Sarris) Von Sternberg is a storyteller in light, tellling both an inner and an outer story. His “universe is a realm of textures, shadows, and surfaces, which merge and separate in an erotic dance.” (Dave Kehr)
In Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) we encounter a vamp with even greater magnetism than Dietrich: Louise Brooks — who sported “one of the ten haircuts that changed the world” and “is the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece.’ A master of psycho-sexual tensions and conflict, Pabst was a great director of actors. This film too is about civilizations and souls in putrefaction — but what a glowing putrefaction it is!
Our four weeks with German directors ends with the great Ernst Lubitsch, whose Trouble in Paradise (1932) is a suave, sophisticated, witty, scintillating comedy about theft and sexual triangles. A Lubitsch film tends to be distinguished by brilliant script, fluid camera, and great direction of actors, but there is also the Lubitsch Touch, which always involves “a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film’s gayest moments.” (Andrew Sarris)
We decided on studying a Japanese director in tutorial because some relief from and contrast with northern Europeans might be fruitful — but we also love the Japanese. Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953) is a quiet, mysterious ghost story, a haunting fable. Mizoguchi is the greatest visual stylist of Japanese cinema; each moment of his surviving films boasts elegant, luminous camera work and images of unforgettable beauty. “In Mizoguchi’s cinema, everything is beautiful: the landscapes are breathtaking; the faces are photogenically eloquent; the camera movements are fluid and complex; the black and white (more precisely, black and silver) cinematography is subtle and dense of texture; the compositions are so precise it’s as if space itself were being cut along a dotted line… One of the greatest practitioners of pure mise-en-scene the cinema has ever known and the master of the heroically sustained long take.” (Gilbert Adair) But he is no bloodless aesthete; his films can break you. Sansho the Bailiff (1954) is one of those films that pierces the heart: “I have seen ‘Sansho’ only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”(Anthony Lane)
And then look at what’s on the menu for seminar…
René Clair’s Le Million (1931) is dazzling musical comedy that hasn’t aged a bit, remaining as daring and ebullient as it was 85 years ago. “The Clair style, most brilliantly exemplified in Le Million, is a synthesis, a perfect fusion of sound, dialogue, camera placement and editing. The mood may be ironic, sad or happy, but music and song are never far away.” Gilbert Adair. This film was a huge influence on Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and American musicals, but even if it had influenced nobody it would still be a shining, timeless gem.
Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), the greatest film by a genius who made less than 200 minutes of film in his lifetime, is one of the most poetic works of cinema, simultaneously down-to-earth and enchanted: a moving vision of love as both lyrical and ordinary. Vigo is something like a fusion of Buñuel and Renoir.
And we study three very different films by Renoir, who is to my mind the greatest director, but one whose work is not often seen these days. A Day in the Country (1936),based on a Maupassant story, is lyrical and cynical at the same time, with its famous deep focus photography. Grand Illusion (1937), one of the best known films of all time, is an exploration of class and human sympathy, and of the disappearance of an old order. It features a beautiful, noble performance by the great director Erich von Stroheim.
The River (1951), a great film set in India, is a delicate exploration of love, difficult to summarize because it works through a series of perceptions and insights that unfold as the relationships develop. It is our only color film of the season!
How could we spend a summer in France and not study Carné’s Children of Paradise (1946)? Set in 1828 and shot in Paris surreptitiously during the Nazi occupation, with an extraordinary screenplay by Prévert, this is possibly the greatest French film. It has been neglected for many years. Attacked by New Wave directors like Truffaut for its seemingly old-fashioned staginess (even though performance is one of its themes!), it continues to turn up on Greatest Films lists because it gets better with age — not the film’s age but your age, because with loving and failing we become better qualified to understand such a vast film. On rewatching it later in life, Truffaut said, “I’ve made 23 movies and I’d give them all up to have directed ‘Children of Paradise.’” It is a unique, inimitable masterpiece.
We conclude the summer with Max Ophuls, who was worked in French, German, and English. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), based on a great novella by Stefan Zweig, and Earrings of Madame de… (1953), both feature Ophuls’ distinctive visual style, with swirling, swooping, yet precise camerawork, and brilliant actors — and both are deeply emotional works with a complex, tragic vision of love. Earrings stars the great Italian director Vittorio de Sica, who was also a wonderful actor and handsome leading man. Ophuls was one of the first directors to be singled out as an “auteur” because of the power and consistency of his body of work.
I am expecting this to be an immensely satisfying film summer. If I had seen a list like this during my movie-going heyday, I would have reacted with disbelief. But it is happening!