Signs to point the way

A quick hiatus from my hiatus—I couldn’t resist the subject.

Girish’s month-old essay on “signpost films” is just now making the rounds, popping up in conversation at About Last Night, 2 Blowhards, and elsewhere. Signpost films are those that in some way changed how you thought about movies and about the art form’s possibilities and limitations. The movies aren’t necessarily great ones—though they often are—but they represent a change and/or deepening of direction in terms of how you look at cinema in general.

Our Girl in Chicago mentioned 1999 as a watershed year, twelve months that could be seen as a collective signpost moment. She’s not whistlin’ Dixie—All About My Mother, An Ideal Husband, Being John Malkovich, Buena Vista Social Club, The Cider House Rules, The Insider, The Iron Giant, The Limey, Magnolia, October Sky, The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. The Straight Story, Summer of Sam, Sweet and Lowdown, Topsy-Turvy, The Virgin Suicides, and Yi Yi all came out in the same twelve-month period.

Even the pure fluff (American Pie, Dick, Mystery Men, Office Space, Stuart Little) and overrated misfires (Election, Dogma, Cradle Will Rock, Ghost Dog) were ambitious and a cut above. 1999 is the best cinema vintage since 1974, and may eclipse that storied year in the number of innovative, interesting, just plain weird movies that entered the mainstream. This was the first year in which I was excited—no, thrilled—to go to the theater every damn week. There was literally always something I wanted to see. Narrative, mainstream cinema hasn’t been so rich since then.

But, if I had to choose one 1999 movie that absolutely blew my head off, let’s go with the obvious choice—David O. Russell’s Three Kings. I’d seen plenty of genre-hopping movies before—movies that change tone and pacing from one scene to the next—but Russell’s masterpiece is another beast altogether. It’s not so much that it’s the funniest movie of 1999, but it’s one of the most nerve-wracking action thrillers ever made, and a ferociously incisive (and unfortunately prescient) political movie, and a dark, vicious satire on race relations, too. But it doesn’t hop from one genre to the next. Rather, it’s somehow all of these things at once. It’s not a genre-hopper but instead a genre-blender. I never imagined that all these genres could fused together and maintain a consistent, world-weary, wise-ass but righteous tone. Russell does it. And, as if experimenting with genre conventions just wasn’t enough, its visual aesthetic—the use of a silver film stock that made the blacks super-inky and the colors lurid and almost flat; shutter speeds and consciously grainy footage that make the moving images look like they’re moving in staccato, almost silent-screen-era fashion; the long takes during moments of war chaos and intensity; following a bullet at extreme close-up as it travels from gun nozzle to (and through) flesh—is avant-garde, too. I’ve got no idea how Russell and company got away with a big-budget, mega-star, deeply political and personal war film. But I’m glad they did.

Let’s switch tracks. For about a decade, I worshipped at the altar of Woody Allen. I considered him the greatest of all American filmmakers, and his oeuvre the epitome of what could be done with the art form. I defended him against all dissenters. Deconstructing Harry broke me of that habit, and started my path toward re-assessing his career with a colder, sharper eye. To say I dislike DH is too mild: it’s one of the few movies (by any director, of any country) that I actively despise. Its dialogue is mean-spirited, its heroes—Harry Block and his fictional creations—rotten to the core, its treatment of women is disgusting, its ridiculous black hooker is offensive, and its self-conscious attempts at aesthetic experimentation are mannered and show-offy. I tried to defend it, saying that its characters are not reflections of Allen’s beliefs, but rather the filmmaker leveling their mores with a sledgehammer, but I don’t really believe that. I still love some Allen movies, but gnashing my teeth at DH popped my bubble of Woody worship. It was a necessary loss of innocence, one that got me to branch out to other filmmakers, to broaden my movie love. Also, it cured me of the desire to deify the artists I love. For that, and for nothing else, I thank Deconstructing Harry.

Another Harry, sort of. Jason and the Argonauts is great because of Ray Harryhausen’s special effects, a herky-jerky blend of stop-motion animation, puppetry, models, and elaborate set design. By today’s standards, the effects are dated, but that’s part of the appeal—they feel homemade, personal, almost done by happy accident. I sat on the living room couch with my stepdad, watching this movie more times than I can count. The story’s trite, the acting mediocre, and the writing is a little thin, but it’s a blast that’s soured me on the modern CGI that aspires to photo-realism and has inured me to the “authenticity” of the effects behind current, trillion-dollar summer blockbusters.

Finally, there’s Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, another movie shared with my stepdad while I was in junior high. This is the first foreign-language movie I can remember watching, and it shook me out of my America-centric viewing habits so thoroughly that I’ve never since been the same. I was rapt throughout, and still am every time I see it. If a budding cineaste needs a starting point for Japanese cinema, it’s hard to aim higher.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to Signs to point the way

  1. Wax Banks says:

    You skipped the most important film of 1999 and the best film of 1999!!
    The Matrix and Fight Club respectively.
    That was the year I finally grokked film-as-Art; a real watershed year in every regard. Also the worst year of my life to date – no coincidence.
    But yeah, Fight Club is the triumph of 1999, no quesion. Better by far than Rushmore, and if I think Magnolia is in some way better, maybe it’s because it’s less purely pleasurable for me and more through-the-wringer. That liquid morphine scene just slays me every single time out.

  2. Walter says:

    The skips were intentional. Dark City did everything (philosophically and visually) The Matrix did, and did so a year earlier, with a smaller budget, a creepier set design, better dialogue, and superior acting. Try as I might–and I’ve seen it twice, both times on the big screen–I can’t understand the reverence The Matrix receives. I think people think it’s more portentious than it actually is. It’s admittedly influential in the sense that its special effects are groundbreaking. Whoop-de-freakin’-do.
    Fight Club… whoo-boy. Triumph, my eye. I thought it was slick nihilism disguised as a satiric meditation on urban masculinity. The violence was sickening but, instead of being transformative or insightful, it was just provocative. David Edelstein wrote the best take on what’s wrong with it.
    In any case, both films are provocative and interesting enough that they should’ve been included on the list. But 1999 was such a rich year that I had to leave some things off.

  3. LMc says:

    I had no idea you & E were fans of “Jason” & the Argo! It’s been one of my favorites since I saw it during it’s original run, even! I was about 10 or so, the perfect age for that special, naive kind of hero-worship. [There’s supposed to be a new book out about Mr Harryhausen (?) but I have yet to see it.]
    I tried watching 3 Kings on cable & had real trouble getting into it: it jumped around so, exactly as you described! When I found myself leaving the room to do other stuff while the tv was on, I turned it off. HOWEVER, on your recommendation, I will give it another try.

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