5. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)
English director Ken Russell had a controversial and storied career. Whether he was battling Warner Brothers over his legendary film (still unavailable in it’s original cut) The Devils or making wildly inaccurate yet brilliant biopics of famous composers you always got something interesting and provocative with Russell.
This production centers around scientist Eddie Jessup played by William Hurt. Jessup is on a mission to discover his “first self” through a combination of psychedelic drugs and sensory deprivation. After returning from Mexico where he joins a tribe of elders partaking in an ancient psychotropic ceremony he begins to step up his efforts.
The Mexican “trip” sequence is one of the best hallucinatory depictions to be put on film and there are a number of similar passages throughout the film. Jessup’s wife (Blair Brown) begins to doubt his sanity but after witnessing one of the episodes herself along with Bob Balaban’s character Arthur she comes to realize that what Eddie is experiencing may in fact be real.
A combination of existential horror and wild science fiction, States is a real journey through the subconscious mind. With great special effects and a shrill screeching score throughout it’s an assault on the senses. At it’s core though the human drama is what grounds the picture and ultimately keeps it from floating off into space.
4. The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949)
Though German born Ophuls did the majority of his film work in France he made a number of excellent noir pictures for Hollywood during the 40′s. The Reckless Moment was the last he made before returning to France.
We open with Joan Bennett’s Lucia Harper confronting her daughters lover Teddy whom she forbids from seeing. The meeting doesn’t go as planned and when Teddy turns up dead quite accidentally Lucia attempts to cover it up for her daughter’s sake. Into this mess wades Martin Donnelly (James Mason complete with superfluous Irish accent) who endeavors to blackmail Lucia on behalf of his boss.
It’s a strange little film, a lot slower and lilting than many of its counterparts from the era. In place of fast talking dames and wise guys we have a few regular people just trying to get out of a jam. Ophuls was a gifted visual storyteller and you’ll find yourself thinking about this one long after the lights go up.
3. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
Midnight Cowboy is an anomaly, not just within Schlesinger’s filmography but within the world of film in general. It’s the first and only X rated flick to win an Academy Award and it’s partly responsible for kick starting the new Hollywood boom of the 70′s. Opening the doors for the likes of Spielberg, Coppola and Friedkin. That it comes sandwiched in between two of Schlesinger’s most British pictures is just another bizarre piece of puzzle that is Midnight Cowboy.
The now iconic roles of Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman are up there with the best either actor has produced. Hoffman completely disappears into his shuffling Rizzo and Voight fully commits to a physical and nuanced portrayal of the titular character.
Initially to his detriment Buck teams up with Rizzo. After a shaky start the pair nevertheless forge a fortuitous bond that helps the other in ways neither could imagine. Most will know the story, country bumpkin goes to the big apple to make it and gets chewed up and spit out. Familiar still are famous scenes “i’m walking heeere!” etc but look closer and there’s a much more to this classic than meets the eye.
It’s a claustrophobic, homesick film. Schlesinger runs us through the gauntlet so much so that when he finally lets up all it takes is a soft nudge and we fall apart.
2. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Werner Herzog, 2009)
Perhaps one of Herzog’s more palatable American productions from around this time may have been a smarter choice. The fairly straight forward Rescue Dawn or his schizophrenic re imagining of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant with a manic Nic Cage at the wheel. Though i feel this one picture contains a lot of what makes Herzog great in just 90 minutes.
Much like Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo the sane man plagued by a world of madmen trope is front and center. In this case played by the excellent Michael Shannon. When Brad kills his mother with a giant sword and barricades himself inside their home it’s up to his fiancee’ (Chloe Sevigny) and drama teacher (Udo Kier) to explain to Detective Havenhurst (Willem Dafoe) what might have lead him to such an act.
There’s a lot of black humor in the film which gets overlooked. For instance the scene in which Brad berates a fellow white water rafter for meditating whilst on an expedition in Peru is hilarious. Likewise a later scene with Brad Dourif’s Uncle Ted at his ostrich (”dinosaurs in drag”) farm is blackly comic. The flashbacks serve as a rumination on Brad’s outlook in general rather than attempting to explain his heinous act.
My Son has continued to divide viewers since it was released but if you’re prepared to go along for the ride and keep an open mind you’ll find much to savor here.
1. Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936)
Charles Spencer Chaplin. The Englishman that took Hollywood by storm, later to be ostracized but ultimately revered. One need not even see Modern Times yet it’s images are indelibly etched in our cinematic memory.
Chaplin’s Tramp this time is cast as a factory worker struggling through an indifferent society. After losing his job and being thrust out into the whirling cacophonous city he teams up with a radiant Paulette Goddard whom Chaplin was married to for a time. Together they are able to rise above the tribulations and pressure of modern life.
Jam packed with iconic sequences the film remains absurdly entertaining to this day. Chaplin deals with themes here that are still totally relevant. A supremely talented performer and the roller skating scene has to be seen to be believed.
Author Bio: James Casey is a freelance film/music writer living in Melbourne, Australia. Originally from New Zealand he is nearly as fanatical about film as he is about music and skateboarding. You can see more of his writing at cutprintfilm.com and thecraftpresents.com.