By Juan Ramirez
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) dir. Elia Kazan
1947’s other “message film” to also deal with antisemitism was Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, which took home Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. Adapted by Kazan and Moss Hart from Laura Z. Hobson’s best-selling novel of the same name – which she wrote after learning a congressman’s racist tirade against Walter Winchell was met with applause by the House – the film concerns a journalist (Gregory Peck) who spends six months living as a Jew to expose antisemitism in New York for his liberal newsmagazine.
There’s a fleeting moment in Agnes Varda’s 2008 documentary The Beaches of Agnes where the filmmaker returns home sees her family of cats and bluntly states “I’m home. The cats are here.” And that moment summarizes the film as a whole – as a film that chronicles Varda’s life in cinema, as a woman and as a person aging – while staying as honest and playful as its subject and creator.
The Beaches of Agnes came at a point in Varda’s career where she had all but abandoned narrative cinema – her prior feature length narrative film, One Hundred and One Nights, was released in 1995 – and had spent the past two decades building a body of documentary work, something she had worked with in years prior leading to films like Mur murs and Daguerreotypes. But 2000’s The Gleaners & I brought forth a sea change for Varda, establishing herself as a subject worthy of the same attention she gave to anything or anyone else in front of her camera with the advent of small digital cameras allowing for an intimacy that she was unable to achieve until the new millennium.
By Eric Shoag
Wild, loud, ridiculous, over-the-top in every conceivable way, Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) is a feast for the senses, a one-of-a-kind thrill ride, a candy-colored cacophony of comic book logic and madcap mayhem taken to the absolute extreme, and beyond. With its vividly imagined universe full of outrageous characters, ancient prophecies, magical relics, and its unapologetically simplistic take on Good versus Evil, it is some sort of acid-drenched mashup of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though upon release it divided audiences and critics alike, it remained for years the world’s highest grossing French film, vindicating Besson and his pet project, which he conceived in his youth and finally managed to bring to the silver screen after years of struggle and at a cost which at the time made it the most expensive European film ever made.
By Leo Racicot
From the very first jungle beats and howls, you are shaking, gyrating, moving to the instant explosions of sounds and rhythms. Director D.A. Pennebaker isn’t fooling around; he dunks your ears–and eyes–deep into the Monterey “happening” of 1967’s Summer of Love and happy you are to be there, whether again or for the first time.
Only a select few concert documentaries can lay claim to greatness: The Last Waltz, Gimme Shelter, Stop Making Sense, Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop stands proudly alongside them.
Editor’s Notes: The classic imagination of the Western is decidedly masculine, with an iconography pretty much dominated by the male presence. Yet, women directors made and are still making Westerns. As we celebrate the classics and the lesser-knowns of the genre in our repertory series A Fistful of Spaghetti Westerns, we also wanna talk about women directors and their Westerns.
Text by Juan Ramirez
The Belle Starr Story (1968) dir. Lina Wertmüller
The only Spaghetti Western ever directed by a woman (who would later go on to become the first woman ever nominated for the Best Director Oscar), The Belle Starr Story is a sordid revision of the life of the infamous outlaw. More preoccupied with her usual battles of the sexes and themes of memory and trauma than with historical accuracy, Wertmüller casts fashion model Elsa Martinelli as a glamorous sharpshooter with winged eyeliner and black leather suits.
By Greg Mucci
Guilio Petroni’s Death Rides a Horse marks Lee Van Cleef’s fifth outing as a beady-eyed gunslinger in a Spaghetti Western, a sub-genre of the outlaw-ridden world that would come to represent the sort of villainy inherent in such a gaze. While five isn’t a glaring amount of films to have under his holster, it’s a heavy number when taking into account the level of hollowness mixed with stern stoicism that accompanies each role. Black brimmed hat sitting low atop a dusty brow, its face carved with an expression of grim desire. It’s a look Cleef has owned, and rightfully so, engraining himself into a world made grand in scope by Italian maestro Sergio Leone. Though Leone is a director who creates worlds, life cast behind Cleef, who for better or worse, needs no set-piece to do the devils work. What separates Petroni’s Western from others aren’t the plumes of smoke that drift across the sand after a shootout, but the outlaws journey who carry a redemptive factor unseen in previous Westerns.
By Tara Zdancewicz
With a simple Google search of the film Once Upon a Time in the West thousands of results pop up detailing the Western’s magnificence. Coming in at #5 on Rotten Tomatoes’ Top Westerns List and #30 on IMDB’s Top Rated Movies list, this film has indisputably made an impact on cinema. However, along with those glowing marks comes a multitude of blogs where viewers vent their frustrations about the blatant misogyny found in the film. Despite being distinguished, as a Western, Once Upon a Time in the West inherently has some problematic connotations.
By Tara Zdancewicz
“There are two types of people: those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” – the Man with No Name
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly might seem like a straightforward Spaghetti Western; Within the first half hour of the three hour-long epic, the representative characters of the titular good, bad, and ugly are introduced. While director Sergio Leone presents three types of people in the West, the ugly Tuco consistently reminds the audience that “there are two types of people in this world…” giving a new opposing binary every time. Black and white oppositions of morality are constantly being made throughout the film. This clear moral dichotomy harkens back to the uniform moral lines of earlier Westerns that showed the egregiously bad antagonist overcome by the incorruptible and scrupulous protagonist. However, the ethical certainty of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (and the rest of the Dollars trilogy) is not as incontrovertible as the Westerns that preceded it. This film is not straightforward or simple, rather it is a highly complex and reflective film that changed the landscape of the western genre inspiring the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers.
By Kerry Fristoe
In 1970s films, nothing signified independence and a disdain for authority like a muscle car with a V8.
Driving a car is a rite of passage. Teenagers are thrilled the first time they can take the car out without Mom and Dad. Owning your first car is an even bigger deal. It means you get to decide where you’re going. It also means you can go there alone. The makers of counterculture car films of the 1970s took that desire to go your own way further than most teenagers. For them, hitting the open road was less of a weekend pastime and more of a lifestyle. In vehicle-centric films of the late 1960s and 70s, the car was an extension of the man. Insulting a guy’s car was akin to questioning his manhood and stealing his wheels was like rustling in the wild west—punishable by hanging (or the modern equivalent).
By Selin Sevinc
Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away is at once outrageous, weird and guiltily seductive. As the poster suggests we’re in for passionate love and sex on a beach. The affair’s unlikely pair of counterparts are a rich socialite, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), and a communist deckhand, Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini). The pointedly ironic mismatch, namely the rich girl vs. poor boy tale, seems at first to be the basic premise of the film. But soon enough, Wertmüller’s unapologetic boldness in handling her material makes the film truly stand out. The film has four distinguishable chapters that differ drastically in tone and content, and provide evidence of Wertmüller’s unique storytelling technique.