Superstition tells us that bad things come in threes, but so do some good things, like when the Criterion Channel wants to highlight the essential works necessary to get to know a filmmaker by posting a collection of three films.
The channel has four particular “trilogies” that are worth investigating. Here are my opinions on them:
A group of grief counselors ease their patients into a life without their loved ones by impersonating the dearly beloved and assuming their roles in the patient’s life. Lanthimos does a terrific job of letting us into this world without explaining everything overtly: it takes a while to catch up with what is going on, but you’re willing to wait patiently since the photography and performances are so good. However, as with Dogtooth, his games have the subtlety of a sledgehammer and he is far more interested in being shocking than mysterious.
I found Lanthimos’ international smash joyless, but I get why it made an impression. He works out the parameters of his artifice with intelligence and a painfully sharp lack of compromise. A satire on the overprotective nature of Greek parents, it takes place in the home of a family whose children have been cut off from the outside world to the point of having no idea about the cultural value of anything they encounter or the stakes involved with interacting with others. Films with such clever concepts rarely go where Lanthimos takes this one, but as the child of Greek parents I can tell you that he also tells not a single lie. I’d just prefer it if the humour with which he told the story wasn’t so smug.
Lanthimos’s debut as solo director prepared his audience for the kinds of games he would love to play in subsequent films. It’s more or less about three individuals killing time in the titular beach town during its off season by reenacting murder scenarios that one of them photographs. The central conceit would be entertaining if it took them somewhere in their relationship with each other or their own lives, but the movie ends where it began and much of the scenes of the three characters on their own feels like endless filler.
A project headed up by Harvard professor Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) looks to capture rare or vanishing ways of life (or in one case here, face a major taboo head on) with a series of experimental documentary films that involve as little interference as possible. SEL’s films have a haunting, captivating vibe that makes them essential viewing.
Leviathan (Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel, 2012)
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel take a wordless, haunting look at the fishing industry by attaching tiny cameras to people and items on a fishing boat off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The impressionistic images feel like they take place in a fable: underwater sequences looking up at flocks of birds that could take place in the middle of the universe and not just off the shores of North America. A magical film purely made of emotions and emotional reactions
Sweetgrass (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash, 2009)
Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash capture a vanishing world, following aging cowboys as they move a herd of sheep through a Montana mountain range. It plays like one contained journey but it was filmed over three years before the subjects gave up doing a job no longer relevant in the twenty-first century. There are tense moments, like keeping bears and wolves away from their flock, and times when the hardships of the work get to them (including a very painful phone call that one of them makes about the challenges he’s suffering), but there’s also the pleasure (at least for me, watching it in quarantine) of seeing wide open spaces and endless footage of very charming sheep.
Caniba (Castaing-Taylor, Paravel, 2017)
The filmmakers keep the camera in close up on the face of their subject for the majority of the 90 minutes of this deeply disturbing film that you won’t easily shake. Issei Sagawa murdered and ate a fellow student at the Sorbonne in 1981, then was sent back to Japan where he has been free since 1986. He has made porn, written novels and even a graphic novel about his crime and all of it gets put on screen as we examine his relationship with his older brother June, who is taking care of Issei after he suffered partial paralysis. The film threatens to insinuate empathy for its subject by being so delicate in its observation, but I think what the directors really want is for us to directly face and carefully examine that which we find monstrous.
The wunderkind of the early seventies never recaptured the glory of his early career despite continuing well into the twenty-first century. However, even Peter Bogdanovich‘s most celebrated films still have a luster that doesn’t feel dated.
Paper Moon (1973)
Ryan O’Neal plays a travelling salesman who’s actually a con artist. He attends funerals and pretends that the deceased ordered an ‘expensive’ gilded Bible that the remaining relatives are obliged to pay for. Tatum O’Neal still holds the record as the youngest Oscar winner for acting as the little tyke that he is forced to take under his wing. When she realizes what the man’s business is, she begins to get in the spirit and the two become a seamless unit, robbing Midwesterners blind with very little failure (or conscience). The humour and gorgeous monochrome photography are just two of Paper Moon‘s delights, while the magical performance by the late, great Madeline Kahn is the film’s high point.
The Last Picture Show (1971)
A group of youngsters find their development towards maturity stunted by the bleakness of their town, mostly because people have been leaving their tinier hamlet to go raise children and find success in the big cities. Bogdanovich imbues the characters with so much warmth and intelligence that the moments all feel honest and true, plus you have the delight of seeing a host of actors at the beginning of great careers (Cybil Shepherd, Jeff Bridges, Ellen Burstyn, Timothy Bottoms in his underwear) while others achieve high points of their established reputations (Oscar winners Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson).
Bogdanovich’s first film was made under the guidance of Roger Corman, who told him to make something that could involve Boris Karloff and reuse footage from their 1963 film The Terror. What the debuting wunderkind came up with is a double-pronged narrative comparing violence in cinema with real-life madness. Karloff prepares for a personal appearance at a drive-in screening his movie while, across town, a psychotic Vietnam vet goes on a shooting spree. Its message isn’t exactly subtle, but the captivating aspects of the narrative aren’t buried and the film never feels like a lecture.
Anderson made his name during the British invasion and then treated 1970s’ audiences to his curious blend of bent humour and anti-establishment fervor. Three of his movies don’t have that much in common narratively, but all feature a character named Mick Travis, played with that irresistible, grotesque sex appeal that only Malcolm McDowell can do so well.
The Cannes Film Festival was canceled in 1968 in solidarity with the strikes overtaking France that spring, so no surprise that the year the festival returned, it chose this bright and rebellious film about upending the social order for the Palme d’Or. McDowell plays one of three students who endure the rigid hierarchical system of power, very similar in tone to their country’s class system, that exists at their British boarding school. Anderson’s use of both black-and-white and colour film stock looks gimmicky today, but it also contributes a sense of nostalgia to a film that otherwise is as appropriate a lesson in resisting the status quo as ever it was.
O Lucky Man (1973)
Lindsay Anderson’s three-hour picaresque tale of Mick Travis’s entering the working world will thrill some and frustrate others. Beginning as a sales representative for a coffee company, Mick travels England and falls down a rabbit hole that includes an arrest at a secret government compound as a spy, attending a secret bar orgy, working for a billionaire industrialist, and taking the fall for his white collar crime while emerging from prison a humanist who wants to save East London’s slums. Capitalism, colonialism, and class are all heavily thematic but there’s enough humour to never let it feel like a lecture.
Britannia Hospital (1982)
Pulled from release quickly after opening, Anderson takes shots at the NHS under Thatcher, showing the state of a rundown hospital whose kitchen staff revolt against giving better care to private patients, while the public patients get less. Next door is a high-tech modern research lab where a mad scientist looks to impress the government with his Frankenstein project. While McDowell is trying to infiltrate the secrets of this experiment, he gets unwittingly (and unfortunately) involved. The bitterness is hard to swallow and Anderson’s disdain for his entire world keeps it from being funny. Between the inbred and corrupt toffs and the delusional and naïve working class, Britannia Hospital is a cold and mean film, though it’s worth watching for the star and a brief appearance by Mark Hamill.