Author: Alex Russell

Is Dick Johnson Is Dead the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Cinema is not important. Not really, at least. 2020 and 2021 have been strange for reasons that outpace even the craziest movie fan’s ability to suggest that the movies are what we’ve lost the most. It has been weird to not go to the movies, but it’s been weird for a billion other reasons that matter more.

That said, this is the first year in ten that I haven’t gone to the theater a dozen times in January to see all the Oscar contenders. It’s felt a little rudderless to not have to go see American Sniper or 1917 or whatever other brown-and-tan war movie is nominated this year that you wouldn’t otherwise see. The Oscars are ridiculous for a million reasons, but they are a useful tool to guide us into seeing movies. I once saw 45 Years at 11 a.m. by myself solely because it was the one movie nominated for a major award that I hadn’t seen. It was worth it. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

I don’t think most people think of movies this way, but I appreciate the guidelines. I queued up Dick Johnson Is Dead for a similar reason, to approximate the same experience. It’s on the lists and it probably won’t be on the final lists, but why not roll the dice on something, anyway? Every week is a month and every month is a year, so it’s time to get to the things you always say you’ll get to but you won’t.

It’s a documentary by a documentarian who is finally turning the camera inward, which is a genre that seems to be on the rise. I couldn’t stop thinking of HBO’s How To with John Wilson, which was one of my favorite shows of the year. Kirsten Johnson tells the story of her father, Dick Johnson, who is nearing the end of his life and suffering from memory loss with dementia. The movie is aggressively about death in a way that may put off some viewers. I don’t know what kind of trigger warning needs to be put here, but we are going to talk about death, exclusively, so if that is not your particular brand of coffee, you may want to leave.

The reviews are universally positive. I have not found anyone who said anything negative about this movie. This isn’t uncommon for a release like this, but it makes me feel stranger for asking a question that seemingly doesn’t need to be asked. Is this exploitative? Dick Johnson is clearly up for the premise, but the entire movie is about him not necessarily knowing what is appropriate and the loss of quality of life that accompanies that. It feels wild to say this because no one else seems to be bothered by it, but several times I felt genuinely sad for the premise of the film. On one long shot of him saying that an experience felt worse than the worst moment of his life, I had to wonder, do we really need to do this?

It’s a hard movie to talk about. The premise folds outward several times, with Kirsten telling a story about death through the lens of her still-living father. She films herself asking Dick if she can make a movie about him dying with him dying on camera, but not for real, and then films herself talking to people who can help simulate the experience. This folds out several times, with her filming her creating the documentary about her creating the film of an experience that will happen, but not exactly. Dick falls down stairs and is crushed by falling objects and so much more, but all of it happens interspersed with film about film.

This isn’t elder abuse, Dick clearly finds Kirsten’s premise funny and eats chocolate cake to simulate his life-changing heart attack and shakes his arm on command to make his fake corpse funnier. He’s along for the ride, but the documentary premise lets us see that he isn’t always super clear on what’s happening or why it would be interesting. This offers a small look at a much larger life, as we can imagine this is a version of a conversation that’s happened hundreds of times. The two are only on camera together a few times, but every moment is a story that we only see the slightest part of but fill in the gaps easily. It’s a love letter, which everyone says about everything, but this one really is.

The premise cannot be overstated. I think the best movie about the topic is Still Alice, which is the only movie I’ve ever sworn to never rewatch. I was haunted by it and still can’t really process it fully, it’s too close and too terrifying. It feels like Jaws and the ocean to me, with fears realized too perfectly and a validation of exactly what seems to be an irrationally large fear. You’re worried and then you see it and you realize you were right all along. Dick Johnson Is Dead stares at death and says that obsession is the right response. It says that it should consume you, not to rob the subject of fear, but to validate the grandness with the degree that it deserves. Death is the biggest thing in life and if you don’t make it huge in your own life, when it invades you will be entirely unprepared.

This may not work for everyone. I don’t think a movie where the premise is to make your elderly father think about his violent death to the point of enacting it with stunt doubles is going to connect with America. I assumed this would be an entry point to a larger conversation, but it isn’t. This is all of it, which isn’t a complaint. It’s just astounding that every brick laid on top of every brick in this movie is more death, more overwhelming fear of what might happen and how it might impact people. There’s a fake funeral where people seem to realize this isn’t necessarily fake, even if it is in the moment, and it feels really cruel to put people through all of this.

But that’s the most important thing about Dick Johnson Is Dead. Is it cruel? It’s awful to live in a cloud of death and fear of death, but it’s worse to pretend. Kirsten Johnson wants to be ready and her way to be ready is to do it all now. My father passed away unexpectedly and the only solace at all was that earlier he’d had a significant health scare that caused me to do some of the processing earlier. He lived, then, and so when he didn’t, I’d done some of the work. Kirsten Johnson has done way more work than that.

I went back and forth while watching it. I think it is too much and it’s clear from what the director leaves on the screen that her dad also thinks it’s too much. He also loves it, if not from a desire to be on camera then from a desire to spend time with his daughter. I think it’s an important movie and something that does something I haven’t seen done before. It’s not something I’d put someone through, but I don’t have this kind of relationship. The device always works even when some of the pieces don’t, and the fact that this exists at all is a testament to stories that need to be told even when they’re really difficult to tell.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? What would Howard Hawks have said? Hey, man, here’s a documentary from a year that starts with a 2 where a woman films her dad fake dying six times, what do you think? I will spend more of my limited time above ground thinking about the documentary than I will the story of a paleontologist being flustered into falling in love. It’s not really fair to Bringing Up Baby, but I do think this is a better movie.

Is it the best movie of all time? I want everyone in my life to watch this. I want people to talk about it and to hear what people think. I think this is one of those movies you can’t really “like” or “dislike,” you feel stronger than that in either direction. I rolled my eyes a little at some of the flashier fake sequences and I think some of that gets away from the story that really hooked me, so I am still going to stick with Badlands, but I really would be doing you a disservice if I ended this any other way than a demand that you give this an hour and a half. It’s grim, sure, but it’s not what you’re expecting.

You can watch Dick Johnson Is Dead on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Bringing Up Baby the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Bringing Up Baby shouldn’t work. It has two animal actors playing three animal parts. It’s a comedy with Katharine Hepburn, who wasn’t comfortable being funny. It has Cary Grant as a paleontologist who wants a specific dinosaur bone. It’s an absurd premise with even more absurd moving parts.

At the time, it didn’t work. Much has been written about the failure of the film, the fallout of the director at the studio, and the damage done to Hepburn’s reputation as a bankable star. There’s recently been a backlash to this perception and it’s notoriously difficult to isolate the “feeling” of the public with regard to a movie. It’s simple enough to say that Bringing Up Baby seemed to not work, at least to the degree it should have with the stars attached, and it took decades for it to gain the reputation it has now.

It’s a staple of early Hollywood comedy, now. It’s one of the go-to examples for a “screwball” comedy, a term for a specific genre of comedy where gender norms are flipped and a female dominates a male through wacky situations and misunderstandings. It’s as “of the time” as a genre can get, but a lot of the comedy in Bringing Up Baby works today. That timelessness is important to the legacy of the film.

Comedy is not well-represented on the “great films” lists. Some of this is just the nature of humor, where something is only funny if the audience understands what the joke is lampooning. I don’t want to try to explain what jokes are here, I trust you to understand why comedies aren’t on these lists very often, but it’s worth examining for a minute why the ones that do get listed find the spots they find.

If any comedies make it into a top 100 list, they are likely to be Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin films or maybe a Marx Brothers movie. Only a handful have won Oscars, and the ones that have are more likely to win for individual performances rather than the bigger awards. I read someone claim that Tom Jones, a truly bizarre film that we’ll talk about another day, is the only “true” comedy to win Best Picture. Annie Hall, It Happened One Night, and The Sting are comedies, sure, but something about them set them apart in that person’s mind. You could get lost in this argument, but I mean to say that typically, we’re afraid to call a comedy a “great” film in the way that a drama feels appropriately “great.” The funniest movie you’ve ever seen may or may not be your favorite, but you may feel like it’s a different kind of art than The 400 Blows.

I promise I won’t try to explain what “jokes” are here, but Bringing Up Baby is funny because there’s a really big cat, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Cary Grant plays Dr. David Huxley, who opens the film with one minute of nearly uninterrupted exposition. He says he wants a dinosaur bone to finish his dinosaur and to make his museum truly excellent. He says he’s going to get married tomorrow, to Alice, who we meet for the first and nearly last time. He says he wants to get a million dollars from a significant investor he has to go play golf with. It happens faster than any movie I can think of and we’re into the plot, immediately.

Howard Hawks directed Bringing Up Baby, as well as films as different as Sergeant York and The Big Sleep. He’s one of the legends of American cinema, but I’d like to focus on His Girl Friday. Grant plays a newspaperman who has to win back his ex-wife played by Rosalind Russell. The dialogue is so fast as to be confusing, with subtitles suggested even for viewers who speak English fluently. It’s another acclaimed screwball romantic comedy and it helps explain what Hawks is trying to do with Bringing Up Baby.

The newspaper story is more relatable to audiences. His Girl Friday came later, after Hawks said he learned from the failure of Bringing Up Baby that not every character in a wacky movie should be wacky. You need normal people to reflect the craziness. His Girl Friday uses normal people to show how boring daily life is if you don’t pump it full of excitement. Bringing Up Baby has no normal people because they live in a crazy version of our world.

In Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn ruins Grant’s golf outing and wedding day by constantly showing up and getting him wrapped up in schemes. It builds and builds until she calls him to say she has a leopard in her room because she was sent it in a box. He doesn’t believe her until she bangs on the phone and pretends to be hurt. He rushes over and finds the story is true, there’s a leopard.

The straight-laced Grant is undone by the weirdness and tries to keep his reputation intact while the wild Hepburn tries to break his defenses and get him to have fun. It’s built on a love story that develops as she keeps telling him he looks attractive without glasses or that he should stay and break his wedding date, but Grant rebuffs her until the obvious point where he doesn’t.

Comedy has escalated in modern times to the point where a leopard may not seem that weird, but it’s extremely strange in the world of 1930s film. Side characters keep being frustrated by people telling them they’ve seen the leopard or that they want to see the leopard, similar to how a ghost or a monster would function in a different kind of movie. No one believes there’s a leopard in Connecticut, but then they slowly find out there is. That’s really all there is to it, but I cannot overstate how weird it is to see Katharine Hepburn in a shot with a big jungle cat.

You can’t be objective about comedy, which is a big reason the big lists are so full of dour stories about war and strife. Either you think a story about two folks from the city trying to figure out what to do with a leopard at a dinner party is funny or you don’t. The stars are undeniable, though, which you’d probably expect given the names. The story goes that Hepburn struggled with the “bigness” of the role until she figured out how to present the part as funny. She plays a flipped version of this pairing (in that she’s the straight-laced one) in The African Queen, and arguably that works better, though at a different point in her life. Hepburn defies simple descriptions, but I was surprised to hear that about the production given the final result.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think it’s far better than The Searchers, but I think most people wouldn’t agree with that. You can’t root for John Wayne in The Searchers and I’m not entirely sure that you were supposed to be able to do so when it came out, but it’s a tough narrative to get into given that challenge. As Westerns go it’s a classic the same way this film is a classic of early Hollywood romantic comedy, but I don’t think I’ll go back to The Searchers for future viewings. I could see revisiting this.

Is it the best movie of all time? I think a comedy could be better than Badlands, but I don’t think this one is. The romance is fun to watch but unbelievable as presented and the side characters are hilarious but truly bizarre. I really love the storyline of an expert in psychology telling Hepburn that men who follow women around are obsessed and expressing it as a direct reference to her own plan and all the tiny moments like that, but it’s all just in too strange of a package for me to say it’s the best one. It’s shockingly funny almost a century later, though, and that’s a truly remarkable achievement.

You can watch Bringing Up Baby on The Criterion Channel (for now, it’s leaving soon) or Amazon Prime for $2.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Searchers the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

My favorite John Wayne performance is in The Quiet Man, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a gruff cowboy going to Ireland and falling in love with a fiery woman. It’s a strange movie, but it’s also not all that much more complex than that line would lead you to believe. Whatever you feel about John Wayne, it would be tough to say he has “range” as an actor, but he pulls off the comedy of that story (and True Grit, obviously) well. John Ford won an Academy Award for directing it and it’s a certified classic as a spin on a few different genres. The climactic fight really needs to be seen to be believed.

John Wayne works best when everyone around him is as little like John Wayne as possible. The idea of American masculinity at the time (and still today, in a lot of ways) is wrapped up in what John Wayne showed on the screen. In most John Wayne pictures, he shows up and gets exasperated at people who want to talk and plan. He acts. He’s effective because you don’t need to spend a lot of characterization to understand what he wants or how he plans to get it. Just as Peter Lorre visually transmits a completely different idea, Wayne requires very little storytelling for an audience to understand “good guy cowboy.”

The Searchers doesn’t completely bend that idea, but it does complicate it. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a proud Confederate soldier who comes home to Texas years later after the war is lost and the world is changed. The subtext of The Quiet Man allows for some space where a brash American wandering into another culture and making a mess of things is actually a bad thing, but John Ford’s The Searchers is careful to tell us this hero of American masculinity and strength is actually an American terrorist. The audience in 1956 wouldn’t have used that term, but Wayne’s character is openly hostile to the figures that represent order and what we’d consider “the good guys.”

This is a really fascinating place to start. It would be one thing to introduce Ethan as a character always at odds with authority and someone we should view as a rebel, but Ford goes beyond that. Ethan makes a joke late in the movie about Union soldiers retreating, which is extra fascinating in the context of who they both are and what they represent. The Union solder is the son of a commanding officer and is clearly young and green and offers a contrast to Ethan’s experience and earned respect. Even still, every mention of Ethan’s background is grounded in his defense, even after the loss, of a racist rebellion that was quelled.

We live in a much different time, both than when this movie is set and when it was released. It’s not productive or even useful to try to ask what The Searchers means to a modern audience. This is becoming a theme in these reviews, though, because it’s how you will consume the movie. Ethan was supposed to read to the audience as a rebel, literally, but also as someone tough and resourceful. At the start of the story, Ethan has been through a tremendous, difficult journey, but one that, if examined, we wouldn’t agree was worth it.

This is important. Ethan is the main character, but he’s an evil, relentless bastard who takes every opportunity possible to extend cruelty. We aren’t supposed to hate him, exactly, but we aren’t supposed to agree with him, either. He comes home to a world slightly changed, but one where everyone still thinks he’s a hero and a symbol of virtue. Ward Bond plays the local lawman (and reverend) and he’s the only one who offers resistance to these ideas. Even he says they’ll sort it all out down the line and eventually sides with him, anyway.

Ethan’s family is murdered by Comanche and he vows to save the two women they abduct. He gives chase and stays on their trail for several years, with only his adopted nephew by his side. Martin Pawley, the nephew, is one-eighth Cherokee and Wayne’s character consistently uses slurs and insults him through the movie. It would be worth commenting on, but it’s pretty small in comparison to Ethan’s larger ethos.

Ethan believes the Comanche are soulless murderers, subhuman beyond discussion. When he encounters a dead Comanche warrior, he shoots the eyes out of the corpse explicitly to prevent the warrior from entering the afterlife. It goes well beyond establishing Ethan and the Comanche as antagonists and well beyond any rescue mission idea. Obviously the plot is a murder-revenge story, so Ford’s story tells us there’s a reason for this belief structure, but Ethan is explicitly racist, even in contrast to other characters.

It becomes clear early on that only one of the two women might be saved. Ethan vows that he will save her or kill her, and it’s really not all that important which it is. The rest of the cast is horrified, and this is really central to what Ford is trying to tell us about Ethan. It would be one thing to paint this as a reasonable response, but The Searchers is about the open war between the white settlers and the Comanche as much as it is about the fading humanity of Ethan Edwards. John Wayne usually saves the day, but here he no longer cares if the day gets saved or not. He’s going to finish this task, day be damned.

There’s a critical consensus around The Searchers as the best Western of all time and it’s easy to see why. The shots are gorgeous, even during a weird diversion in the snow. The side characters fill out the world, with a few memorable oddballs that give that trademark Western so-bad-it’s-good performance that is required to make the West feel different and specific. Natalie Wood is especially strange with the impossible task of the “converted” Comanche that Ethan and company need to save.

In 2021 it’s an extremely hard sell to watch John Wayne as a racist, psychotic Confederate soldier as the hero. But he’s not, and he wasn’t even at the time. There’s a lot of people who probably saw it all as justified and we’re definitely led down that path, but John Ford wants us to reject that. I don’t know that the story pushes hard enough on that idea for me to say that I love it, but I see what people see in it. It’s influenced dozens and dozens of iconic directors and films. John Ford and John Wayne made a million of these movies, but nothing really exactly like this one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think there’s a legitimate defense of Johnny Guitar as a better Western than The Searchers, but I like it more. It’s not a better movie, I suppose, and Wayne’s performance has a much higher degree of difficulty than what Crawford and Hayden turn in for Johnny Guitar. This is one of the highest rated movies of all time by just about any metric you choose, but I struggled with it even though the lens of what it’s supposed to be. When I first saw it years ago I didn’t care for it much and while I liked it a great deal more and found it more complicated this time, it’s still just not for me.

Is it the best movie of all time? I don’t even think it’s the best John Ford/John Wayne movie, so no, it’s not. I also don’t think it’s better than Badlands, another story about an evil protagonist that we find hard to identify with during murders. Badlands works a trick of making the unacceptable seem benign, while The Searchers asks how unacceptable different characters find truly unacceptable things. There are similar ideas here, but I’ll come back to Badlands more often.

You can watch The Searchers on HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Johnny Guitar the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Nicholas Ray may be best known for Rebel Without a Cause, but also directed In a Lonely Place, an incredible noir story about a screenwriter with a temper. Humphrey Bogart plays the lead, and he’s charming in that way that only Bogey can be. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this flaw will undo all of his efforts, but Gloria Grahame still wants to make this work. As with all noir, the style trumps the substance, but it’s a phenomenal piece of character work and it holds that tense, sad mood without falling off the edge.

Ray is a “director’s director” in a way, though he’s made a ton of great films he’s more often someone you’ll come across when you’re listening to another director talk about great filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard said that Ray “is cinema” which is, I think, as high praise as you can possibly get.

In between In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray made a handful of movies. The one that you’ll see on a list of “best” films of the era is the Western Johnny Guitar. I will confess to putting this one off for years, mostly based on the name. In a Lonely Place is one of my favorite movies, but this is a Western called Johnny Guitar. What can you possibly expect?

There are only a handful of Westerns on the lists of great films. It’s an inherently American genre, which cuts into the possibilities. It’s a genre that’s really heavy on tropes and established understanding. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, but even the iconic Westerns tend to end up following similar morality plays and similar paths to victory. This is by design, with “white hat” and “black hat” characters with limited complexity to get to the good stuff quicker.

You could make this same claim for any other genre (what great romance is truly more complex at the core than “the guy/girl gets the guy/girl”?) but it feels appropriate to describe Westerns this way when approaching Johnny Guitar. Many Westerns are more complicated than the A to B story I’m implying, but in the 1950s they didn’t always bend the genre. Nicholas Ray was just a few years past one of the greatest film noir stories of the time, so it makes sense that he’d try to find that sensibility within a Western.

Joan Crawford plays Vienna, the fiery owner of a local drinking establishment that offers “cards and whiskey” to the rough crowds that are willing to leave town to find fun. Sterling Hayden enters early as Johnny Guitar, a seemingly brash yet peaceful wandering musician. He carries no guns and may be the only person in the saloon without a drawn weapon and a desire to use it.

The local law threatens to shut Vienna down to keep the peace and to pacify Emma Small, the woman-in-black rival played by Mercedes McCambridge. It becomes clear that Johnny Guitar is actually Johnny Logan, famed gunslinger, and Vienna has to decide if she’s willing to fight with him to keep her way of life or if the opposition is too strong.

So far, this is all standard Western fare. The leader of the black hats is The Dancin’ Kid, played by Western mainstay Scott Brady. His gang has some other familiar players for the genre, but also Ernest Borgnine. It wasn’t his only Western, but he’s recognizable enough from his career of character work that he adds some humor and some off-kilter sensibility to the whole thing.

The reveal that Johnny Guitar is actually a legend of the West happens just about immediately and he never picks the guitar up again. He’s so famous that his name alone shocks every person that hears it, but not so famous that anyone recognizes him, somehow. These are the old days, just go with it.

Once the cast is established and it’s clear that Emma won’t let Vienna live, it becomes a story about the willingness to use violence to advance your station. The bad guys are bad because it’s a way to get by. Johnny was a gunfighter, but it made him twisted and he’s tried to go straight and deny the impulses. Even Vienna wants to get away from small-town stuff and industrialize her business before the railroad comes in and they lose the war on progress either way.

The townsfolk represent the resistance to the inevitable. They balk at making choices and they seem fine to preserve the status quo, even if it means a band of obvious criminals wanders around. This is what they understand, we come to realize, and everything else represents a fear to be avoided.

Crawford had been in films for three decades and this would be one of her last great works, but Hayden was still rising. Nearly everything he’s remembered for would follow Johnny Guitar. This isn’t either of their best work, but it’s compelling to see them work together. They have to sell you on a love from five years ago through small details, knowing looks, and a resistance to going back to those people in those days. It works, mostly, especially in shots where we see only the two leads in a room of dozens of people. Most of the acting is in these looks and the decisions we watch silently while Johnny Guitar has to decide if he’s going to be Johnny Logan again or not.

Everyone was either having an affair with someone else or deeply hated everyone else while making this, but not that you’d notice it in the finished product. McCambridge plays her role so one-note that she’s shaking with anger or screaming for blood in every scene, so it’s hard to imagine her being any way off screen influencing her choices. There’s very little attempt made to make us side with her, but in a movie so full of dashing rogues, she really has no shot.

Contemporary reviews called it a Western cliché, which is bizarre for how often it runs away from those ideas. They called Crawford “sexless,” similarly weird given how much time is spent on the suggestion that she slept her way to the top. She was a decade older (or more, her age is famously impossible to pin down) than her co-star, but she’s clearly the center of the movie. In the decades after the initial quiet, this became one of the greats of the genre and a movie that people steal and borrow from often.

This is a romance set in the West, not a Western with a romance in it, and it spends a lot of time on some really forward thinking concepts like the morality of industrialization and if you should run from progress or milk it. It’s not the director’s best work or any of actors’ standout pictures, but the sum of the parts is extremely watchable and really something special, even if you don’t typically enjoy Westerns.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Blowup is possibly held in even higher esteem and was more well-liked at the time it came out, but I don’t think it’s a better movie. Johnny Guitar really sets the bar with establishing scenes in a way I want to call out. I was frustrated by the first half of Blowup but really noted how immediately Johnny Guitar established the world it wanted us to understand. We care about why people react the way they do, even down to the cowardly townsfolk.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it probably doesn’t bring enough to any genre to satisfy fans of just one, and McCambridge’s demonic villain is one-note. It’s inarguably great and surprisingly watchable, but not better than Badlands. It also ends with a song, which was fine for the time but is laugh-out-loud funny now. The ending is much more nuanced than the big beaming smiles and fun song suggest, which lands really strangely. It’s a small thing, but it’s something you’ll definitely notice. It’s exactly like Cat Ballou, but that was supposed to be a comedy.

You can watch Johnny Guitar on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Blowup the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Orson Welles, who just about never met another director he couldn’t quip about, said that Michelangelo Antonioni’s long takes were boring and that the director believed that “because a shot is good, it’s going to get better if you keep looking at it.” Ingmar Bergman said that Antonioni’s best works were masterpieces, but he didn’t get the hype behind the rest of them or Antonioni as a whole.

Antonioni is generally listed as one of the greatest directors of all time, but it’s fascinating to read great directors trashing each other. Welles has dozens and dozens of examples of comments like that and you have to cut through the bluster to figure out how he actually felt, but it’s easy to see what he’s talking about with Antonioni in Blowup. Frequently, Antonioni wants us to look at something for what feels like an obsessive amount of time. As a viewer, you start to reconsider each scene to wonder why you’re seeing it. Why are we at a concert now? Why are these characters speaking? What am I expected to learn, to experience, to take from this?

The Conversation is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s an absolute masterpiece in tension and the ending is, for my money, the best ending in all of classic film. Gene Hackman plays an audio expert who accidentally learns about a murder. He doesn’t have all of the details, but he has enough to obsess over the material and to get caught up in a complicated world he doesn’t understand. We see enough to be interested, but never enough to know more than Hackman’s character.

I could go on and on about The Conversation, but I mention it here because of the influence it clearly took from Blowup. Francis Ford Coppola says it’s an influence, but it’s a full-on inspiration. Blowup follows an obsessive photographer who accidentally learns about a murder and has to determine his moral responsibility and next steps based on shaky evidence. Both Hackman in The Conversation and David Hemmings in Blowup struggle with an incomplete picture. Both men know they have to do something, but what?

The difference is the world around them. They are nearly exactly the same length, but The Conversation finds time to complicate Hackman’s character. We learn he’s an asshole, really, and we’re asked to care about his mission more than the man. He can’t relate to others because he’s locked in himself. It’s a bold choice that really works, but you shouldn’t need me to tell you The Conversation is a treasure.

Blowup deliberately avoids this route. Hemmings also plays an unlikable bore, but in a totally different direction. Antonioni says it’s the story of a man who struggles with his relationship with reality, and that really comes through. No one matters in Blowup. Most people don’t even have names, and no one has a last name. Our main character meets a few people, wanders around, and panics. The relationships in The Conversation are there to show us how things fracture and change, in Blowup they are absent to tell us that people aren’t important to this story.

Hemmings plays Thomas (no last name, of course), a photographer who is bored with all the beautiful women who want to sleep with him. Two women in particular follow him around and have a private photo session with them that turns sexual immediately. The scene is long and ridiculous, and inspired a legend that one of the women was fully nude in a shot. Roger Ebert’s website includes a letter from another actor in the film that explains this as a shot that was removed from the commercially available film, so people were imagining it as more explicit than it turned out to be.

The letter is very graphic about this detail, but I’m more fascinated by the claim it makes about the plot. Blowup centers on Thomas wandering into a park and accidentally photographing a corpse as he shoots a potentially illicit meeting between two lovers. The woman in the photo tries to get the negatives from him and Thomas becomes more and more nervous as he contemplates if he’s really seeing what he thinks he’s seeing. The actor who wrote the letter was in these scenes and claims that Blowup was intended to be more straightforward and include the murder itself and more explanation. What’s on the page is “incomplete,” this actor alleges. It’s better this way, to be sure, but it wasn’t the intention.

I have to hope that’s not true. Blowup, explained, as a straight-ahead action film would be much less interesting than what it ended up being. The Conversation includes much more than Blowup, but even then we don’t see the act that drives the whole plot. It’s critical to both movies that we be at least a little confused and unsure if it actually happened or not.

Blowup is an experience. Antonioni wants you to feel Thomas struggling, but I had a hard time caring about his struggle. I found him most interesting when he was buying a huge, ridiculous propeller at an antique shop and least interesting when he was complaining about how London is just so lame now, y’know? I know the intention is to drop you into someone’s life that’s all routine boredom and see it shaken up, but Thomas really doesn’t experience that much change. Even as he struggles to get people to care about this murder, he’s still at fancy parties and having anonymous sex.

It is an unfair criticism, I suppose, to say he’s totally unchanged. He is changed internally, but does it matter? He goes to a concert and can’t connect with what everyone else is connecting with. He picks up a piece of a smashed guitar and absconds with it into the street, chased by rabid fans. He realizes that it doesn’t actually matter and drops it on the ground. A passerby picks it up and also realizes that it doesn’t actually matter and also drops it on the ground. You feel Antonioni demanding you to “get it” through the screen in this scene. It would be impossible to not understand this significance, but here it is twice, anyway.

Blowup is on all the greatest lists. Roger Ebert picked it as one of the most significant films of all time. It’s impossible to have The Conversation without it, but I still couldn’t connect with Blowup. The entire first half hour is designed to tell us that Thomas is a bore who hates what should be a pretty exciting life. When Vanessa Redgrave’s character from the park shows up to demand the negatives, she assumes he’ll be motivated by sex and takes her top off. There’s an extremely long scene that follows where she covers up in various ways without getting dressed. It’s all shot beautifully and it’s a fascinating concept, but it feels so very empty. Antonioni says he wasn’t making a movie about human interaction, but humans still interact on the screen. The panic and the fear feel real, but whenever Thomas has to talk to someone, it just doesn’t work as well.

Towards the end, Thomas struggles to get people at a party to understand that he’s got something really significant to tell them. “Someone’s been killed,” he shouts, and his agent says “okay.” The exchange is excellent and it’s a great summary of how Antonioni wants us to feel. Thomas wouldn’t care if someone in his life told him this story, and now that he has it to tell, he’s frustrated by how the world responds to him. The Conversation tells us that the truth might not be the truth and that you need to navigate waters you don’t understand carefully, but Blowup shows that if you spend your whole life superficially, when it starts to matter you might not be able to deal with it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I liked Mystery Train more. I don’t think I’ll come back to Blowup, but I’m curious as I see more Antonioni if I’ll fall in with Welles or not.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. I obviously like The Conversation more, but I also think Badlands is a better film. I love a lot of the little touches in Blowup, though. When Thomas goes to blow up the image to look closer, he does so without explaining what’s happening. He never tells anyone anything, he shows all of it. This may sound like a stupid thing to praise, but I feel like any movie from the last twenty years would feel the need to have another character there asking about photography to give Thomas a chance to say what a blow up is and what he’s looking for and so many other things. Blowup is an experience and a great work from a great era, even if it isn’t exactly right for me.

You can watch Blowup on HBO Max (subscription required) or on Amazon Prime for $1.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Mystery Train the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In February of 2019, musician Julien Baker was interviewed by a publication in New Zealand. The interviewer asked about Baker’s hometown of Memphis, and specifically about cultural associations of Memphis like Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train. Baker gave a long answer that you should read all of, but she said “The Memphis that people imagine and the thing that Memphis really is are sort of the same and sort of not. They’re sort of this quirky caricature of each other.”

Baker’s full answer includes two specifics: a local weirdo named Prince Mongo and a semi-landmark called Graceland Too. I grew up in Memphis and lived there for more than twenty years and both of those have deep history and are really resonant for me. Baker didn’t mention Mystery Train at all, but did tell the interviewer that people assume the experience of Memphis is like the film Hustle and Flow. I wasn’t familiar with Jarmusch’s portrayal, but I can vouch for Baker’s quote and say that the Memphis that I’ve seen on screen and in reference isn’t completely “not Memphis” but it isn’t exactly right, either.

Mystery Train is a fascinating choice for the interviewer’s prompt because it’s about people bringing their own notions of Memphis to Memphis and what they actually experience. It’s very literally a movie about examining the prompt the interviewer provided Baker with and how Memphis changes their ideas in exactly the way Baker answers. I have no idea if Julien Baker has seen Mystery Train, but there’s almost no better summary possible.

Mystery Train is a triptych where all three stories happen in Memphis and involve foreign characters. “Far from Yokohama” shows us a Japanese couple that wants to take in the music scene through Graceland and Sun Studios. “A Ghost” finds an Italian woman stuck overnight as her flight home with her husband’s coffin is diverted. “Lost in Space” follows three characters as they get drunk after a night gone wrong. All three sets of characters stay in the same hotel on the same night, which combines their stories very slightly.

Jarmusch says he didn’t try to find abandoned sets, but that in a search for bleak locations in Memphis he found the city to just feel like it was abandoned. In Criterion’s Q&A he talks about ghosts and the feeling that he had to make a movie with few extras and no traffic because that’s how he experienced the city. Any Memphian will be baffled by the traffic piece, especially, but the director is making a point about the part of Memphis Mystery Train is focused on exploring. This is a dangerous part of the world, is the suggestion, as the only times characters meet anyone outside of the hotel, something negative happens.

The Japanese tourists want Memphis to be a romantic version of a musical time gone by, but we also see them get off the train and hear that they’ve been to lots of places on a similar journey. This is what they do, is the suggestion, so their view of Memphis tells us more about them than it does the city. It’s still a smart introduction to Memphis, especially given the direction Jarmusch wants to take the story.

The widow speaks more of the local language than the Japanese characters, but she’s unavoidably not from around here. A shopkeeper nudges her into buying a comical stack of magazines, but it’s a particularly colorful grifter at a coffee shop that tells us what we need to know about this woman. He tells her a story about the ghost of Elvis needing a ride and telling him he would meet a woman bound for Rome. It’s hardly designed to be believable, but our heroine pays the fee anyway and tells him it’s in exchange for the story. Things break a little bad and the whole thing gets fairly magical, but she ends up back in the hotel with a new companion and certainly a complicated view of town. “I feel a little discombobulated,” she tells the hotel staff, and they commiserate and agree.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee are really unforgettable as the staff. Hawkins is a larger-than-life figure in the music world but only had a few acting roles. It simply wouldn’t be a movie with anyone lesser in this role for Mystery Train. The pairing of capable boss and put-upon bellhop is nothing new, but there’s something about how Hawkins plays the role that reflects what’s actually the story of Memphis. Most of the characters get a confusing or frustrating experience, but they do okay by the hotel, more or less.

The final trio of Rick Aviles, Joe Strummer, and Steve Buscemi ties everything together, but I don’t want to say everything that happens there. The gang knows the staff and needs a place to lie low, and their drunken conversation feels more like what other directors would do with a plot like this. Aviles plays a character named “Will Robinson” and they discuss life, love, and the guy from Lost in Space. It finally goes somewhere, but it takes a long time to get there.

There are no great revelations in Mystery Train, but that is exactly the point. All six characters leave the hotel changed, largely by what Memphis isn’t rather than what it is. The Japanese characters are disenchanted by Sun Studios, or at least by the fast-talking, rote speech they get on their tour. They wanted something unique, something truly Memphian, but they got something they probably are likely to get on every music tour. The mysticism of Memphis is enchanting for the Italian woman, but she also experiences the darker side of Memphis and her best experience with a local is still pretty mixed. The three guys talk about the job market falling out and how nearly everyone they know is out of work in Memphis.

The reality is that Memphis is two things. It is a historical center of the music world, filled with history you can still really access and a world worth walking around in. It also is a rough part of the world that’s seen much worse days and wears those days in ways that are unavoidable, especially around the hotel the film is set in. Mystery Train wants us to want the exciting hope of what Memphis represents but to wonder why there aren’t any people or cars anywhere in certain parts. When Steve Buscemi’s character is hesitant to enter a poolhall and says he’s uncomfortable in this neighborhood, he tells us a lot in one line. When Joe Strummer pulls out a gun confidently but casually in the same bar, he tells us even more.

Mystery Train isn’t Memphis, but neither is Hustle and Flow. It’s not really just Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, either, even if you’ll be consistently bombarded with The King if you go there. Even the Memphis of Mystery Train is more complicated than just that, but that’s the whole point of showing us slices of different experiences in the same place. There’s more to say, always, even just down the hall.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think this is better. When Marnie Was There is a strange movie to compare to Mystery Train because they really don’t have anything in common. I’ll always have a place in my heart for When Marnie Was There, but it’s a pretty messy movie even though it has a ton of heart in it.

Is it the best movie of all time? This is very close, but I think I have to stick with Badlands. Jarmusch’s film is frequently funny in a really surprising way and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins simply demands your attention, but Badlands is just so beautiful. You could make a really strong case here and my love of Memphis makes this hard for me to do, but if I pick “the Memphis one” we’ll be stuck in a loop here forever. Badlands really is a special movie, even if I think Mystery Train is more likely to make more people happy with the experience if they were to watch both.

You can watch Mystery Train on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or on Amazon Prime for $3.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is When Marnie Was There the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I am really tempted to call out that this is the second anime within my first ten of these and to undercut the premise. Most of what I watch is not anime. Anime is not so critical to film as to merit 20% of these posts. But today I want to talk about Studio Ghibli, so here is When Marnie Was There.

I recognize that I have two hills to climb, here. The best movie of all time isn’t an anime, right? What’s even the point of this if we aren’t talking about Citizen Kane or The 400 Blows or something? I think you need an open mind, here in paragraph two, and I don’t know that I can make a case for “anime as an artform” if you aren’t willing to take that step. I’m just going to assume you’re willing to come that far. The second hill is the taller one, anyway, and that’s ranking the Studio Ghibli movies.

One thing I find frustrating about the pace of discourse now is that people often assume you are as deep in the subject as they are. This is how you have impassioned responses to things normal people aren’t even aware are positions. You can find yourself watching a YouTube video about how people are wrong about saying people are wrong about being wrong about something. I saw a comment yesterday where someone said they wouldn’t watch anything in black and white and said that people liking old movies were “virtue signaling.” I don’t even know where to start with that one.

I think When Marnie Was There is the best movie Studio Ghibli made because it’s a tougher nut to crack than the others. I think this is a defensible opinion, but I also think people will, maybe rightfully, call that a hipster opinion. I’m going to cut my preamble here, but you’ve got to believe anime is a defensible form of film to even get into the layer where you probably don’t agree with my niche opinion. I’m assuming you’re willing to hear me out.

For most people, it’s My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. They’re all masterpieces, but nearly everything Studio Ghibli touches turns to gold. I keep coming back to When Marnie Was There and until my last watch, I really couldn’t tell you why. Totoro is the greatest children’s story ever told, but it’s simplistic. I’m not going to condemn it because that’s insane, but everything works out, more or less, because magic is real. You don’t feel that when you watch it, which is why it’s so transcendent. I’ve seen Totoro a half-dozen times and every time it wins me over, but I don’t find myself thinking about it after I see it. It’s an experience.

When Marnie Was There sticks with me. It’s the story of Anna, a young girl with asthma who has to go to the countryside to heal and chill out. Her doctor says that it’s all stress-based, which seems to be the inciting conflict of a hundred different stories like this. What sets this apart is the unspoken truth about Anna’s depression. She’s a foster child and she has resentment for her parents even in death, and she’s willing to even say that. A lot of these stories ask you to feel that about their character, but few are willing to take this additional step.

Anna is hard to like. In the few interactions we see, she calls the only person who extends friendship to her a “fat pig” and runs away. It’s a brash way to make a main character’s pain feel real, and Anna is tough to root for until she gets lost in fantasy. She spends less time in the “real” world than many characters in Ghibli movies and we get to know her less as a result. She’s only in “the big city” for ten minutes and she’s only in the countryside town for one scene. She spends almost all of When Marnie Was There in the fantastical marsh house where the mysterious Marnie lives.

When Marnie Was There plays with expectations. I don’t want to spoil the turn, but it isn’t the romance that it sets up. You’re led to believe that Marnie and Anna are both outsiders in different worlds and they fall in love in the way that teenagers fall in love. They hold hands and have picnics and it’s young love, how we all remember it. That isn’t what’s happening here, but those emotions drive much of what you see until they don’t.

You can’t talk about an anime without talking about the art style. Marnie and Anna have bright blue eyes, to the degree where other characters comment on how striking this is. That’s a tell, and one I can’t get into without ruining it, but it’s interesting that it is commented on at all. Hayao Miyazaki, the iconic head of Studio Ghibli, said that Marnie’s appearance on promotional material was “cheesy” and that using a blonde, blue-eyed girl to promote the story was “outdated.” The original story was moved to Japan but the fantastical character remains very clearly white, to the point where other characters talk about how unique it is.

Marnie and Anna are mirrors of each other and they need to look similar, at least in some fashion, for that to work. There’s been some solid work done by other writers that I won’t crib from, but it is a very weird detail in the middle of the movie that stands out more and more on rewatches. Why move the setting but leave the characters unchanged? It’s clearly intentional, but it never feels that way. Studio Ghibli films are marked by the attention to detail, down to the beautiful animation in quotidian Japan, but the best explanation I can come up with here is that it’s supposed to be distracting. It’s a clue, I guess, to the ultimate mystery, but then you wonder about Miyazaki’s comments. It is very strange and you could chalk this up to part of the whimsy, but your mileage may vary.

Art aside, the story is slow and curious. We keep getting led down paths that end up with our main character passing out or getting lost, which is fitting for the story at the heart of the thing. It’s not a straight line, but that’s part of the point. Anna has to change for this to matter, and some of that is more complicated than learning to be nice to strangers. It’s about learning to forgive and to understand that other people’s lives had details that you never get to see.

Or do you? You, personally, won’t get to see them, but Anna does. There are two reveals, one to the audience and one to Anna, which leads to a climax that then gets explained again. The second one doesn’t have the narrative punch of the first one, but even on a fourth watch I found it really cathartic. There’s something in When Marnie Was There that really winds you up and lets it all out at the end, which is storytelling done the right way. It never feels like it’s going anywhere, especially with all of the wandering and secondary characters essentially guessing and getting it wrong. It’s only once you get there that you realize this was the story all along.

So what makes it the best Studio Ghibli movie? I think you have a strong case if you disagree with me, but the payoff is what does it for me. Other worlds are more fantastical (Spirited Away) and other characters are more interesting (Kiki’s Delivery Service) but I think this one is more satisfying. The journey is the same as so many other stories the studio has told, but I’m so much happier for this character for going through it. Anna needs this, really needs this, and that ending is what you crave when you watch a story like this one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Targets is a personal favorite but it unravels at the end in a way that I don’t find satisfying. When Marnie Was There is the exact opposite. Both movies make some weird choices but are the better for the aesthetic they cultivate. I think When Marnie Was There is a better story, but these two are really different and I might change this answer depending on the day.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I still think Badlands holds on to this crown. I think there’s a strong case for a few other Studio Ghibli movies being better than this one even though this is my personal favorite. I know it’s the style now to go hard and to demand your opinion is the only one, but When Marnie Was There doesn’t even make a strong case for why one of the main characters is a blonde British girl, so I can’t in good faith say it’s better than a masterpiece. It’s an incredible story and it will really overtake you if you let it, but it’s not perfect. It doesn’t need to be.

You can watch When Marnie Was There on HBO Max. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Targets the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Peter Bogdanovich plays a director in The Other Side of the Wind, the famously incomplete but now released final work of Orson Welles. He’s paired with John Huston, who plays a legendary director that the entire world can’t stop praising and obsessing over. The Other Side of the Wind was never really finished when Welles was alive, but Bogdanovich helped fuel the production with incomplete footage and intended edits from Welles that resulted in a theatrical release of a “new” Orson Welles movie decades after Welles passed away.

It’s a mess, but in the way that great films can be a mess. If you’re a fan at all of Welles’ more “out there” stuff, it really can’t be missed. Huston holds court with his signature voice as partygoers crowd into a house in the desert to prepare to see his masterwork. It’s not-at-all-veiled commentary on Welles and his career, with characters representing many figures throughout his life in ways a audience with familiarity of his larger circle couldn’t miss. Bogdanovich picked up his role from Rich Little, the impressionist, but it’s still impossible to not see what it ended up being as a take on the director himself. The character and the man were young and brash and both were then and still are lumped in with Welles.

Huston’s performance is astounding in The Other Side of the Wind, but Bogdanovich is always there, keeping it all together. When I saw it I couldn’t see Bogdanovich as anything other than his character in his own film, Targets, but I didn’t know that both don’t just end in a drive-in theater, but the exact same theater. The similarities abound.

The movies aren’t all that similar beyond Bogdanovich’s presence and performance. Targets was his first major film. It was released in 1968, just a few years before The Other Side of the Wind started shooting. Bogdanovich became a legend in cinema, of course, but there’s always a story with the first one.

The horror icon Boris Karloff owed the studio some shooting time, so Bogdanovich made use of him in a movie that feels very patched together all the way to the end, where it attempts a very risky conclusion. Targets is a fictionalized version of a real string of murders committed in 1966 in Texas by a man named Charles Whitman. Whitman murdered 16 people and left notes that suggest he was losing touch with reality. He thought about violence all the time and found it difficult to understand his impulses. Bogdanovich borrows bits and pieces of Whitman’s story, but you have to infer most of it.

Tim O’Kelly, who was in the pilot of Hawaii Five-O, this movie, and just about nothing else, plays a version of Whitman, but cleaned up as Bobby Thompson. The real Whitman was abusive and had gambling problems, but Thompson is cartoonishly polite. We see scenes where he tells his family he “gets funny thoughts” and nothing comes of it. He slinks around in darkness, smoking cigarettes and lying awake as his night-shift working wife tolerates his strange behavior and doesn’t ask questions. He buys tons of ammo, all on credit, and no one raises an eyebrow beyond making sure it’s okay that he charges it to his dad’s account. He even pulls a rifle on someone during target practice and gets what ends up being a very brief reminder about gun safety.

All of this is to show us how these things happen. We hear so often about the quiet kid next door or the friendly neighbor who always brought their trash cans in on time and are surprised after the shooting spree. In 2021 these ideas are growing outdated, as everyone is online and shouting beliefs they could have hidden in the world of Targets, but the point remains: You never know.

As he leaves the gun store for the first time, Thompson sees Byron Orlok across the street. Karloff plays Orlok as a version of himself, a former star from creepy genre films from old Hollywood who now has to figure out how to fit in as a star people know for a very specific, very outmoded thing. Karloff may not have felt the way his character Orlok did, but you can see how tired he is as he plays the role. Whether it’s a perfect representation of his feelings or not, it’s a role only Karloff could play. Well, him or Vincent Price, which Bogdanovich lampshades in the movie by mentioning Price as a possible fill in when Orlok says he won’t be in a new movie.

Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This is essential listening for anyone who cares about old Hollywood, but it’s especially true for this movie. Longworth goes deep on Bogdanovich and on Targets specifically in a season about Polly Platt, who was Bogdanovich’s wife at the time and who got a story credit for Targets. You should listen to all of it and there’s too much to get into here, but Platt’s relationship with Bogdanovich and the credit she received (and didn’t receive) is a fascinating saga that doesn’t paint a great picture of Peter Bogdanovich.

Bogdanovich plays himself in Targets. It’s probably not supposed to be exactly him, but I think anything you’d try to draw as a distinction is unimportant. He tries to get Orlok to be in a movie but when Orlok says he’s retiring because he’s a relic and the real world is scarier than men in masks, it all falls apart. Bogdanovich shows up drunk at Orlok’s hotel and they do some superb drunk acting before deciding it’s all worth doing, if only one more time.

The two stories converge at the drive-in and Orlok is a central part of the resolution. Targets came out at a very specific time in America, just after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. America wasn’t ready to see a movie about gun violence in 1968 and Targets wasn’t a huge success commercially. Critics liked it, though Roger Ebert suggested it would be better without the Orlok subplot. You wouldn’t be left with much of a movie then, but it is inescapable how divergent the two stories are until the very last moment.

I’ve always felt the ending to be too neat of a bow on the two stories, but I think Targets is really fascinating. The gunman plot is creepy, especially as you start to see it coming but no one else in the story does. Karloff gives a tremendous performance, especially as he tells a spooky story to a radio DJ in lieu of an answer to an interview question. The whole thing has been hailed as a powerful statement about gun control, but in a modern viewing it speaks more about mental health. There’s absolutely no gun regulation in place, but more than that no one in the gunman’s life takes a passing interest in what he’s saying, feeling, or doing. Everyone just operates based on what they’d expect him to do, regardless of if that happens or not. It feels weird on a first viewing, but it’s really clear why on future watches.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Targets and Starship Troopers both present a veneer of joyful “peace” through varied degrees of militaristic, “traditional” values. It’s not a stretch to say they both couch a darker reality in this shell, though Targets also wanders through a message about what it means to be alive in a society that’s changing and characters that don’t understand why. Starship Troopers deliberately doesn’t show us an Orlok figure. I think Starship Troopers probably made me think more than Targets, but I’m more partial to Targets, mess and all.

Is it the best movie of all time? I still give this to Badlands, so no, Bogdanovich’s debut doesn’t surpass it. Karloff’s performance really is outstanding, though, and it might tip the scale for me if not for what still feels like a rushed ending to me. Targets is really interesting, especially for a first film, though, and I can’t recommend the experience enough.

You can watch Targets on Amazon Prime or YouTube, both are $2.99 at the time of this writing. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Starship Troopers the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I never felt like I needed to see Starship Troopers. It came out when I was the right age for a sci-fi future-war movie of any quality and it should have been right up my alley, based on the marketing. In previews it seemed like a big, dumb, loud war against bugs. I didn’t really understand why anyone would want to see it. Even as a teenager it seemed unappealing, despite being a genre that seemed to be marketed entirely to teeenagers.

But it’s the kind of movie that people with great taste keep recommending. It became a curiosity to me, like a band that’s always listed among your favorite bands but you’ve never checked out. I still couldn’t figure out why people like culture critic David Roth were writing about this space bug war movie in The New Yorker.

There’s really only one way to talk about Starship Troopers now, and if you’ve seen it and are a fan to any degree then you know where this is going. I’ll keep the history lesson short, but it’s critical for our discussion that we all be on the same page. People didn’t get it, somehow, in 1997. Roger Ebert used the phrase “sly satire” in his review, which says more about the two decades between that moment and this one than any other two words could say. Starship Troopers is not sly. It’s a clanking, screaming, insistent satire that is so brash that people managed to miss it as coming around the other side.

Just as you must watch a movie from the 1920s with some understanding of the times, you have to send your brain back to 1997 for Starship Troopers. The world was not what it is now. That which seemed ridiculous to writer Ed Neumeier and director Paul Verhoeven has been toned down now. Starship Troopers has the same DNA as Brazil and Idiocracy, other dark portrayals of futures that might be if we do not turn away from troubling trends. Brazil especially feels present, with the darkness just out of reach for the cast we’re seeing.

The difference is that we have no surrogate character here. No one in Starship Troopers is part of a resistance or even struggles to buy in to the reality of their world. This is why it struck a weird note for so many people in 1997, because it felt too genuine. The military rules the world and the characters love that. They don’t just accept fascism, they revel in it. We start the movie so far in the future that we don’t ever really contend with the period most other dystopian films are interested in. Verhoeven shows us what it looks like in the generation after the bad guys already won.

The world of Starship Troopers is all military, all the time. Humanity has defeated democracy and now is in a permanent war with “bugs” on another planet. The bugs keep bombing our world and we interpret from this that they are the aggressor. If Starship Troopers is “sly” about anything, it’s the truth behind this conflict. The bugs appear monstrous and exist in a society we never see beyond war. Humanity only slightly comes across as more “human” but visually, it’s clear that some of these are people and those other things aren’t. It’s consistently suggested that there might be a way out of this, but humanity has gone way past diplomacy being an option.

We follow a few stock characters that rise in the ranks and show us boot camp, officer school, and the stratification of the military. Everyone is cranked way up, excited and beaming about uniforms and regulations and honor and duty. It’s impossible to miss this as a ridiculous choice today, but it really did seem to people to be a suggestion that this life is aspirational. I really struggled to see that reading on my viewing and it’s a challenge, now. During a brief cutaway where a character on a news broadcast says that it’s possible humanity’s adversary might be capable of thinking and there might be a way to go about this differently they are shot down immediately by another host who calls the suggestion “offensive.”

A lot of the cultural commentary on Starship Troopers focuses on the launch of Fox News Channel that was nearly concurrent with the movie’s launch. The film is broken up with newscasts that appear to be clickable for at-home viewers, all of which end with an excited “would you like to know more?” It is impossible to untangle these ideas all these years later, but this had to come across strangely at the time. Nothing in the film is more prescient than insistent, barking news programs talking about the military and propaganda, tied together with a suggestion that consuming more of this will increase your knowledge. It doesn’t seem to have been clear to people in 1997, but it makes Verhoeven look like a time traveler now.

Is it any good? Yeah, of course it is! It’s much more interesting as a reflection of changing times than it is as an action movie, but that was the point. The bugs still look scary and quasi-real, which is an accomplishment in a field where effects look dated almost immediately. The plot hums along, with the standard beats of sci-fi and war movies but plays with the tropes of both genres enough to be surprising. It’s a fine enough movie if all you want is man vs. monster, but the message is why you’re really watching.

Verhoeven supposedly had to explain a lot of what he was trying to say to his actors. It’s easy to laugh now at people who “didn’t get it” but that seems to be the majority opinion. It opens up a legitimate discussion of satire, one we’re still having in the present. If people don’t immediately understand that you’re presenting something evil as evil, are you actually telling the story you mean to tell? I don’t think the problem is in the text, but we apparently weren’t ready for Starship Troopers in 1997.

It’s screamingly funny, now. The propaganda all pops as hilarious and the over-the-top violence all reads as a condemnation of a fallen society that lost what makes us real. There’s a safety net to all of this for a modern viewing, though. Anything that feels awkward or poorly executed can be rounded up to being part of the satire. Everyone is wooden and ridiculous, but that’s part of the joke. The love stories are shoehorned and surface level, but that’s also a joke. That can be true and frustrating to contend with at the same time.

It’s a better movie today than it was on release, which is not a statement you can make very often. Almost every person who contends with Starship Troopers does so through this lens of rethinking film through different context, and it is worth noting that Starship Troopers takes a very specific stand. Idiocracy is funny in a lot of the same ways, but ultimately the warning there is too all-inclusive to ever feel perfectly suited to any time. We’ll always fear that we’re getting dumber and that we’ll be undone by the loudest and least-informed among us, but Starship Troopers tells us that all happens because you give in to something else before it gets that dark. Verhoeven isn’t worried about “the future,” he’s worried about what we’re going to do right now.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so. I’ve certainly spent more time contending with Starship Troopers than I did Badlands, but one is much messier than the other. Badlands may have less overall to say, but it does it in a more inarguably artful way. Starship Troopers is more fascinating than anything else, which is a remarkable achievement but not a better finished product than Badlands.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, though it’s infinitely more interesting than I expected it to be. I completely understand where people were coming from with their reviews in 1997. If you walked out of Starship Troopers disgusted by an exciting war movie where the good guys are fascist idiots who love war and violence, you did get one level of what was happening. It’s not entirely fair to say that anyone who hated it didn’t understand it, a lot of them just thought the satire wasn’t presented in a way that sold the message. There is struggle, but ultimately, one of the on-screen messages is that might does, in fact, make right. It’ll be a much better movie for you if you take that one step further and see that all of this is happening in a world that doesn’t deserve to be saved anymore, but it’s a fair criticism to say that Verhoeven is asking you to make that leap yourself. It’s also frustratingly dumb, often, which is the point, but it’s not any more fun to watch bad acting just because it’s a subversive joke.

You can watch Starship Troopers on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Badlands the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In 2013, Criterion interviewed Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, and Jack Fisk about the production of Badlands. It’s all worth watching, but the standout comment is when Sissy Spacek says “things were different then.” She’s talking about how audiences received the movie in 1973 and how they never laughed, even at moments she expected people to laugh at. Spacek says people laugh now because they live in a different time. The 70s were harder, meaner, and people saw this film about the 50s in the 70s and reacted accordingly.

You have to put yourself in the space a movie came out in to really approach it honestly, but you also live in your own time. Badlands is about a string of murders that really happened in 1958. It was released in 1973. Sissy Spacek was commenting on it in 2013. We’re in 2021, now. You might be in another time when you read this. On a long enough timeline all of those times are the same, but you know that that they aren’t. When you watch an older movie, you have to watch it through a different lens. Parasite and Wings both won Oscars, but you owe it to Wings to judge it differently.

This isn’t to say that Badlands doesn’t hold up in 2021. It absolutely does. It’s so many movies at the same time: a love story between two unlikely characters, a road movie with no real destination, a true crime drama, and, in a way, a monster movie. Martin Sheen as Kit Carruthers is a dashing rogue, sorta, but he’s mostly a terrifying force of nature who upsets everyone he meets, if he doesn’t outright murder them.

Kit Carruthers is based on Charles Starkweather, a real murderer who killed people with his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate. Caril becomes Holly Sargis in Badlands, with very little changed other than the names. There are details different between the true events and the film, but it never really matters beyond the start of the plot. In real life Charles Starkweather murdered Caril’s family and waited for her, in the film he murders Holly’s father in front of her. It’s a really critical difference because it gives us a look into how Holly is going to respond to what comes next.

The shooting itself is horrific. Kit goes wide-eyed during an argument with Holly’s father and asks him “suppose I shot you, how’d that be?” Holly’s father doesn’t think he’s serious and turns his back, which proves to be a huge mistake. So many movies would use this moment to show us Holly in grief, with a big scream and a panic attack. Or, maybe, they’d show her as cold-blooded and have no reaction, thus establishing her as a psychopath and someone we needn’t feel sorry for when it all goes bad. Badlands does neither. Holly asks if he’s going to be okay or if he needs a doctor. Kit says no, and that he’ll be back later. He goes as far as to tell Holly she can call the cops if she wants, but that it’ll be bad for him if she does.

It’s all matter-of-fact. Dad had to die because he wouldn’t allow them to be together. Both of them want to be together, so this is just what came next. Holly doesn’t like her life and Kit seems to open a door into another one, so she steps through. She cries and she wanders around the house smoking, unsure of what she should do but also not nearly bothered enough by this disaster. Kit tells her he found a toaster. It’s a funny line, but it’s also a look into who he is. He’s mad at the world, but not in the way we’re used to seeing murderers mad at the world. This isn’t for justice, necessarily, it’s just what has to happen.

Kit’s character is entirely in the look. Martin Sheen says they tried to get him to wear a cowboy hat and it didn’t really work, which seems obvious when you watch the performance. He’s James Dean, or at least he thinks he is, and the look is everything. Holly tells us who she is through voiceover, which would be jarring in a lesser film. We don’t get to see much that would tell us how she feels or what she wants, and “tell don’t show” isn’t a saying for a reason. Voiceover is sometimes a crutch, but Terrence Malick lets Holly tell us things we couldn’t have any way of knowing. When she ends the film telling us what happened to her, we feel conflicted about her role in all of this. Without the voiceover she seems aimless and bored. With it, she confirms that she’s doing all of this of her own free will, but also that she hasn’t really interrogated why she’s doing it or what it’s going to look like before it happens. She’s here, but not.

In that special feature from 2013, Jack Fisk says “our lives may be meaningless or they may be perfect, it’s hard to tell.” He was the art director for Badlands and he put things in drawers that the audience would never see, just to keep the actors in the space they need to be in for characters to feel real. Fisk fell in love with Spacek on the set and they later married. He went on to do design for several masterpieces, including There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Mullholland Drive. He’s a legend in the field, but Badlands stands out especially. The look of the movie has to do a lot of heavy lifting with main characters that say very little, and Badlands is beautiful. We’re in the open wilderness for a lot of the movie and it’s easy to get lost in the background in the best way possible.

The real magic trick of Badlands is how you feel about Kit and Holly. Kit is an unrepentant murderer. Holly is a passenger, but also signing on for all of this every day until she decides it’s boring. Still, you don’t find yourself in the space you’d usually be in for a movie like this. Kit isn’t scary outside of the actual murders, as crazy as that sentence is to consider. I found myself viewing his victims with a sense of dread, knowing that they were doomed but not always immediately connecting their death to Kit’s decisions. It’s what makes this all more complicated than a cheaper, easier take on this same idea, like Falling Down.

Kit tells us why he’s doing this, sorta, but it isn’t what matters. What matters is the scenery and the passage of time, which makes Holly’s narration all the more beautiful. We’re Holly, just waking up every day and getting back in the car. Nearly everyone involved here went on to make bigger (definitely) and better (maybe) things, and they left their touch on this story in a way that rewards successive viewings even though you know where it’s all going the first time you see Kit fire that shot.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Journey to Italy hinges on your ability to believe the turn at the end and it asks you to look at some beautiful scenery to get to that turn. Badlands isn’t about journey or destination. It’s about what happens, sure, but it’s not as simple as that. Martin Sheen says it’s still the best script he’s ever read and it’s not an overstatement. There’s nothing you need to unpack or examine. It’s just what it is, which is so much scarier to contend with than a motive.

Is it the best movie of all time? I think, so far, it is! I liked Badlands a lot when I saw it first but I loved it when I had time to think about it. It’s beautiful to watch and a little terrifying to consider. You could examine Kit in a number of ways but what’s actually on the screen doesn’t tell you much about why all this is happening. It also doesn’t really ask you to figure it out. Bruce Springsteen wrote “Nebraska” for Nebraska because he saw Badlands and wanted to explore why Kit does what he does. It’s something to create a murder story that’s “haunting” but it’s altogether more complicated to make something that mixes that terror with the mundane.

You can watch Badlands on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or on Amazon for $2.99 You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.