When the twentieth anniversary of director Baz Luhrmann’s audacious Shakespeare adaptation Romeo + Juliet recently arrived, people took notice. Articles popped up in publications large and small, and fans reminisced and celebrated on social media. Like Scream and Trainspotting – two other youth-oriented films from 1996 – Romeo + Juliet, which relocates the classic play’s action to a surreal, contemporary urban landscape while retaining an abridged version of the Bard’s original text, is iconic and epochal. There are images from it that are not only instantly recognizable for swaths of filmgoers, but also powerfully evocative of an era. So why, on this auspicious anniversary, am I feeling a bit defensive regarding the film?
Author: Victoria Large
In the 1998 film SMOKE SIGNALS, people are constantly telling stories. The film’s protagonists, Victor and Thomas, both young Native American men from the Coeur D’Alene Reservation in Idaho, tell each other stories while attempting to make sense of their families and their identities. Thomas is the more explicit storyteller: he’s known all over the reservation for his tales, which, much to Victor’s chagrin, often involve Victor’s estranged father Arnold, who left the reservation when Victor was twelve. Victor has his own stories about his dad. Sadder than Thomas’s, they mostly arrive in the film in the form of memories: they are the stories Victor silently tells himself. When Victor and Thomas take a road trip to collect Arnold’s ashes, the pair uses storytelling as a currency and defense mechanism, as well as a method of bonding with the people they meet along the way. They control and interrogate narratives throughout the film, an element that is fascinating in itself, but takes on greater significance given how frequently Native American people have been stereotyped and silenced on film.
The past decade has been crowded with dystopian sci-fi visions, from THE HUNGER GAMES and DIVERGENT to MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. Mainstream moviegoers are used to imagining doomy futures; it’s gotten to the point that when yet another movie trailer quickly sketches a deeply dysfunctional society and introduces yet another hero who plans to stand against it, some viewers might find themselves tuning out. Thus, one might expect that those returning to 1985’s Brazil after all this time might not find it quite as chilling as they may have before humankind’s miserable future became such routine popcorn fare.
There’s an old interview with Quentin Tarantino (featured on the 10th anniversary RESERVOIR DOGS DVD) where he offers an example of how he likes to twist conventional genre moments by allowing banal reality to intrude on them: “Cops are chasing after a character down the street. The character’s running down the street. They commandeer a car, throw the person out, jump in the car, but it’s a stick shift and they don’t drive a stick. Okay? That’s real life…” Moments like that helped to make Tarantino’s early neo-noir films cultural touchstones, but he certainly wasn’t the first to use the strategy. After rewatching French filmmaker Jacques Deray’s unjustly overlooked 1972 neo-noir THE OUTSIDE MAN recently, I couldn’t help but think of the Tarantino quote. The film is memorable and potent because it ably blends familiar genre characters and standard crime movie tropes with surprising everyday details, undermining its audience’s expectations with understated wit.
Tod Browning’s 1932 film FREAKS is perhaps one of the most notorious and controversial films ever made. Released and then disowned by MGM Studios, it’s known for having been banned in parts of the United States as well as in the UK for many years, and for all-but-destroying the career of its director, Tod Browning. About a third of the film was reportedly censored following initial screenings, and the deleted footage now appears to be lost. Fans and critics still debate the film’s merits, too. Though it was chosen for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 1994 and is considered by many to be a classic, Freaks still makes people uncomfortable. Is it art or exploitation? I would argue that it’s a bit of both, but also that art wins out in the end.
Though it contains some apparently surreal moments, THE FISHER KING, the 1991 film written by Richard LaGravenese and directed by Terry Gilliam, often captures how urban life actually feels: by turns beautiful and ugly, expansive and confining. The New York City of THE FISHER KING is the perfect backdrop for a story about characters brought low by fate and searching for healing. It’s a particularly bruised fairy tale, and it works so well because its monsters – selfishness, grief, and bad luck among them – are fearsome and real.
It’s not at all surprising that indie stalwart Jim Jarmusch wrote and directed a vampire movie. Indeed, it only seems surprising that he didn’t do it sooner: Jarmusch has long displayed a feel for misfits, weirdoes, and nightlife in his films, and with works like 1995’s essential revisionist western DEAD MAN, he’s also displayed a knack for making familiar genre tropes interesting again. And hey, the posters for Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE do look like they could have been beamed in from twenty years ago: Tom Hiddleston’s gothed-out appearance and guitar are evocative of Brandon Lee in THE CROW. But LOVERS feels very much of our own weary times, as its immortal characters search for meaning and hope in the 21st century.
Invitation to the Dance – 1956 – dir. Gene Kelly
Gene Kelly was, of course, a major creative force behind some of the most commercially successful, critically acclaimed, and enduringly loved movie musicals of all time. His most popular films – particularly On the Town, An American in Paris, and Singin’ in the Rain, all released within a few years of one another – still regularly play repertory cinemas and remain must-sees for classic film buffs and musical fans. But Kelly’s lesser-known projects tend to be fascinating too. Whether it’s the cult movie The Pirate, which was far too underappreciated upon initial release, or the deliciously satiric and often underrated It’s Always Fair Weather, Kelly’s filmography has quite a few hidden gems.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – 2009 – dir. Werner Herzog
When people ask me what I think of Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which is only a few years old but has a justifiable cult following all the same, I hedge a little. I tell them that it’s absolutely great…just not by typical crime drama standards. It is, I explain, a film that makes its own rules, and is a success by its own measure. Roger Ebert (who gave Port of Call four stars) wrote that this is a film that’s “not about plot, but about seasoning. Like New Orleans cuisine, it finds that you can put almost anything in a pot if you add the right spices and peppers and simmer it long enough.” That sounds about right to me. Port of Call fascinates not because of its plot twists, but rather because of its weird flourishes, most of which have already been lovingly catalogued by other critics: scenes shot from an iguana’s eye view, a murdered man’s soul launching into an elaborate break dancing routine, or Shea Whigham as an abusive john who punctuates most of his statements with a throaty, “Oh YEAH!”
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – 2010 – dir. Edgar Wright
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, co-writer and director Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Brian Lee O’Malley’s celebrated comic book series, is an engagingly oddball affair and an almost-instant cult hit: it perhaps was not the massive mainstream success that the studio had hoped for upon its initial theatrical release, but it has a cadre of dedicated fans who embrace its rapid fire pop culture references and cheeky sense of style. One of Wright’s first major projects was Spaced, a sharp-witted British sitcom that slides in and out of pop pastiches without warning (For example: in one minute Spaced’s twentysomething lead is playing Playstation’s quintessential fighting game, Tekken; in the next he is arguing with his roommate while the fight announcer from Tekken comments on the action.), and Scott Pilgrim gives Wright a chance to further demonstrate his mastery of a distinctive kind of pop-saturated, slipstream comedy.