Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)
Flash Gordon is a miracle of cinema, a fantastic piece of nonsense that rules things like continuity, logic and physics mundane and gives us instead a loony adventure for the ages. This awesome camp overdrive stars Sam J. Jones as Flash Gordon. a football player kidnapped by a NASA scientist in order to join him in a quest to save the Earth from the ruler of the galaxy, Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow). It’s a tough quest, but Gordon’s not alone: with the help of two leading ladies (one earthling, one Mongo princess), flying gladiators, swamp dwellers and a lot of laser weapons. everything is possible.
The film benefits from its campy style, which consists of some of the least convincing performances ever seen in outer space, some of the worst (and most strangely appealing) visual effect in sci-fi history and an impossibly catchy soundtrack by Queen. Yes, the film has Freddie Mercury and company assuring us that this movie is too good to be judged.
The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)
After some anticipation towards my first Antonioni, I’m quite satisfied with his slow burner The Passenger, which feels like more a renunciation of genre conventions that anything else. Starring Jack Nicholson in one of his many unforgettable performances from the 1970’s and post-Bertolucci Maria Schneider, it tells the story of a documentary journalist who switches identities with his next door neighbor at an African hotel only to realize he’s being followed by more than one institution under his new identity. This premise would be fantastic for a identity thriller of the likes of North by Northwest, but Antonioni instead creates a film with an entirely different tone, meditative and peacefully existential. Instead of being an unstoppable man like Chinatown’s J.J. Gittes, The Passenger’s David Locke is a man giving up on life, surrendering to his existential crisis without thinking much about his future. There’s no room for ceremony or melodrama for him.
Assuming from this one title, I think that the label King of Slow, given by most fans and detractors to Antonioni, is justified: he surely succeeds in dragging time along so majestically mood and atmosphere replace everything else. But I don’t think it’s exactly “the discovery of boredom”, as one could have it. I think he doesn’t have much of a choice, actually. The style of this film follows its content; nothing much happens because Locke is not a man of action, and he’s certainly avoiding it for the time being. If The Passenger seems to have little purpose and content, it’s because the lack of purpose is the center of the story, and the whole point about its central character. It takes a while to accept that, but it’s quite an interesting approach to cinema.
The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915)
Motion picture history, despite all the previous efforts, started here, and with a groundbreaking, unforgettable bang. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the 3-hour epic that gave birth to cinema as a full-fledged craft, is racist, hypocritical, jingoist, deceitfully disguised as as anti-war statement, and a magnificent work of art. Considering it’s 100 years old and that there was nothing quite like it before it came is to understand how revolutionary it was. It would be easy to take it for granted, but one should never do that; Birth is as meticulously crafted as meticulously hateful and cringe-worthy, and there’s little we can do about it. If anything, it shows how a racist education often obscures one’s racist preconceptions and modifies one’s views of the world. Griffith would later answer to criticisms with Intolerance, an epic to be addressed next week.
Mephisto (István Szabó, 1981)
An Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Mephisto shares an uncommon perspective of life in Nazi Germany: that of an actor, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, who submits himself to the will of the Nazi Party in order to continue acting his many acclaimed performances in the theater, most notably his performance as the title character. It’s an interesting twist on the story of Faust, but the film makes a very conventional use of it. It also jumps in time throughout the whole film without ever giving the viewer a solid continuity; the film is all bursts of joy and drama and nothing else. This creates a disposable work, with none of the necessary tension to elevate the story to a higher level.
Shot of the Week: easily the opening shot of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, a grand opening that starts with Alex DeLarge’s ceaseless energy and ends with the full debauchery of the Korova in plain sight.