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This Too…

A strange sensation accompanies me these past few weeks, a feeling that I am burdened, but not in the more familiar, immediate ways—too many bills, too much work, too much time wasted. The burden I am aware of now I have been aware of before, in flashes: the burden of my species. Much the way anger can burrow down and tap into a reservoir of emotion, a pool of all the times I have felt rage before, and thus morph into a reaction far out of proportion with whatever inspired it, I think this combination of exasperation and exhaustion I feel is probably outsized as well, but believing that does not really help. The members of my species who refuse to help others by getting vaccinated, or wearing a mask, overlaps with those of my brethren who refuse to see how our continued defilement of the planet is making it painfully inhospitable to us, and though I know, as I heard it neatly put once, we can only move forward as quickly as the slowest member of the herd, I fear we are not moving fast enough to prevent a future of extraordinary privation, and even extinction. I do hope…
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Movie 87: Gertrud

Manly Footwear: There is a light snow falling outside, lovely and gentle the way snow can be, a new President was just inaugurated, the dogs are sleeping, and I’m sitting by the window trying to figure out Gertud. Not that the movie is unintelligible, or even opaque, the way avant-garde films often try to be—the narrative is clear, the camera barely moves, everything is a set piece with people talking. The framing of each scene is remarkably intense, everything is charged and rippling with a cold energy, and people almost never look at one another, looking just past them, or both looking toward, but to the right or left of, the camera, and the sets, too, are staged to amplify the lush, arctic mood. Even the density of the filtering contributes, the film is shot in black and white, but such a rich black and white as to be unsettling, and in the last scene, almost garish. So it’s not hard to understand what is going on, or why Dreyer, the director, made the choices he did because the whole thing works seamlessly to focus our attention hyper-intensely on the title character, Gertrud, and it is there that the puzzle…
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Movie 88: A Man Escaped

Manly Footwear: I am not surprised I’d never seen this film, or even heard of it except in the most tangential way, but I am a little chagrined, because it is not only stylistically remarkable, it is morally edifying to watch, not something I can say about many of the movies on the list of 100. Viewing any great movie—any kind of art, really–is a kind or moral edification inasmuch as it pierces the veil that separates human from human, and makes us aware of what kinds of greatness our species might aspire to. A Man Escaped does all that, but it does so in service of an even greater morality, that which calls people to resist oppression. The story of a French resistance fighter sentenced to death by the Nazis in 1943, A Man Escaped is a portrait of a man who refuses to give in to despair, choosing instead to gnaw at the bonds holding him until he can find a way to cast them aside and, well, escape. In the hands of another director, this tale might be an action flick, or a melodrama, or a bit of feel good schmaltz like the Shawshank Redemption. And truly,…
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Movie 89: Annie Hall

Manly Footwear: My first reaction to seeing this movie on our list was a pleasant wave of nostalgia, followed quickly by a discomforting reminder of the Troubles Woody Allen has had in his personal life, and finally the realization that I don’t really know what happened with regards to his daughter Dylan, and will never know, and besides, if I stopped enjoying the work of every artist who also did awful things in his personal life, I would not get to enjoy much art at all. And that last bit feels like an excuse, begging questions like, “is someone was serial rapist, or responsible for genocide, could I still find value in their art?”– because of course the answer is “yes,” because I already have. The trick is to feel guilty, in the sense that I am responsible for acknowledging awful behavior, while setting it aside as I interact with the artwork, and then try to reconcile both sorts of knowledge, both kinds of understanding, in some way that furthers my belief that “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” that is, “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” So, the movie is, without…
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Movie 90: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Manly Footwear: I realize this might sounds batty, but this John Ford Western reminded me of Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. It is the story of a the end of one kind of masculine, American archetype, and the rise of another, but also it is about how the latter archetype–the Jimmy Stewart character who believes in the rule of law, and in solving problems through dialog, and an educated populace—uses the labor of the former archetype, the John Wayne, tough as nails, explorer and colonizer of the Old West—to build his own legend. Here is how it happens: Ranse Stoddard, law school grad, goes West, hoping to civilize folks and help bring the rule of law to a territory that has not yet voted for statehood. He immediately runs afoul of Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin, of course), who is the outlaw that has his way with the town of Shinbone which lies at the edge of the Picket Wire (Purgatoire) River. He later meets Tom Doniphon (Wayne), who is the only man in town who can stand up to Valance, and so helps keep a modest peace. Skipping ahead, Stoddard ends up staggering, shot in…
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Movie 91: Jaws

I have seen Jaws enough times—not as often as The Shining, or It’s Wonderful Life, to choose examples from elsewhere on the top 100 list—but often enough that I can, like many US citizens of a certain age, quote great, salty chunks of dialog from it. I was not sure that it truly belonged on the top 100, however, perhaps because of my general distaste for much of Speilberg’s output since then. He is a clearly a gifted director and storyteller, there’s just nothing particularly challenging about his work, like there is a thick layer of anti-microbial soap on everything in every scene. And this pervasive blandness seemed to get worse the more he turned toward serious, less escapist films later in his career. Close Encounters was great, and I would have said it belongs on the top 100 more than Jaws, but after that, things go very Xanax very quickly. Then I sat and watched Jaws, with Comfortina, who had never seen it before, which helped remind me that, despite it being the DNA for so much of what is boring and unwatchable in Hollywood film-making ever since then, it really is just a great, scrappy, goofy movie, unafraid…
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Movie 92: Sansho the Bailiff

Manly Footwear: Another film that I knew very little about, although I knew the director, Mizoguchi, from having seen Ugetsu many years ago. The pacing of this film is both perfectly elegant—“one-shot-one-scene”; long takes with deliberate, broad motions often occurring in the background; intensely deliberate mise-en-scène that nonetheless evokes spontaneity and naturalness—and perfectly jarring, given the relentlessly sad story and the untouched evil of the title character. The many shots contrasting the artifice of human culture with the wildness of nature amplify the effect, which is a bit like watching a torture scene in a snow globe. I loved it, of course. 16th century fop Castiglione first defined sprezzatura as “certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it,” and Sansho the Bailiff embodies the concept about as well as any film I’ve watched, but only as filtered through the Japanese idea of mono no aware, a sort of gently, pervasive melancholy about the transience of the world around us, and the fact that our awareness of said transience means we can never fully be a part of that same world. Only the most carefully staged work of art can communicate…
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Movie 93: Greed

Manly Footwear: I both knew and did not know what to expect from Greed. I knew it was a tragedy, and that the making and subsequent mangling of the 10 hour long original cut was also a tragedy, and that there were at least 2 semi-restored versions, one that was 4 hours, the other 2. I knew it was many a critic’s list of great films, and that it was silent. All this knowledge circled a void, any inkling of what the experience of watching it would provide, so I felt distinctly off-kilter when sitting down to watch the 2 hour version. The fact that Comfortina and I watched it streamed on Vimeo, Chromecast to our TV, with a soundtrack supplied by New Orleans odd-orchestra Asphalt Serenade, a recording of a live performance they did accompanying the movie in 2018, made the whole experience even more strange: a movie from 1924, parsed into binary code, flying across my living room from one device to another. Then the film started, and I forgot all that crap. The greatness of Greed, even in this reconstructed form, is evident throughout, from the variety of innovative camera techniques to the attention to detail in set designs,…
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Movie 94: Last Year at Marienbad

Manly Footwear: It’s so easy to make fun of this movie, and so tempting, even while watching it, that it’s even easier to forget how really successful it is. I almost wrote, “how great it is,” but that would require considerable redefinition of the word “great” in the context of the other movies on this list, and in fact in relation to any kind of critical judgment of art. The shots are painterly and impeccably staged, the camerawork subdued and elegant, and the acting exactly as artificial as it needs to be, all in service of making a narrative meant to toy with the viewer’s idea of what a narrative is, of what a movie is. Marienbad is also fairly easy to summarize: a man, a woman, and (probably) her husband are guests at a huge, ornate hotel. The man tells the woman that they met last year, and arranged to meet again this year, she resists his argument, the husband appears. This basic scene is played over and over again, in different rooms, or in the same room that is now decorated in a radically differently way, or in the garden, or the bar—in between his attempts to convince…
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Movie 95: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels

Manly Footwear: Comfortina asked if this movie, like so many we’ve already watched, was about a descent into madness. I said I couldn’t remember, I wasn’t even sure I’ve ever seen the whole thing, but probably—we then checked the list, and of the films we recognized, MANY were about people descending into madness. We talked about what this might mean, that the top 100 best movies, as assembled from various critic’s lists, seems to contain an inordinate number about people going insane. When we get closer to the end, we’ll do a proper count, but assuming we are correct and such is a dominant theme, several questions are begged: what is so compelling about watching movies where people lose their minds? Is it something especially compelling to critics? Do we assign value to the emotionally wrenching more than to the light-hearted work of art? Is this valuation cultural, or something that transcends culture? I only have the vaguest replies to any of these questions, but I can confidently assert that Jeanne Dielman is powerful, hypnotic, and yes, wrenching depiction of a descent into madness. The descent here is slow, and also sudden: Chantal Akerman, the director, does things with pace…
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