6. John Cassavetes
In a world of make-believe, Cassavetes remained forever true to his vision, taking on the industry in the process. And the independent cinema forever owes him a debt of gratitude.
John Cassavetes wanted nothing more than to show life as it is-complicated, at times rewarding, often frustrating. Problem is, the Hollywood dream factory wasn’t always keen on that. Cassavetes had, thus, a very frustrating experience in the studio system, with his scripts not being taken up, and proceeded to self-finance his first truly independent film, “Shadows.” Over the next decade, as he established his reputation as an actor, he would act in TV shows and films like “The Killers,” “The Dirty Dozen,” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” and then use his earnings to finance his own material.
He proceeded to make some of the most truthful films out there. “Faces,” “Minnie and Moskowitz,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” and his swan song, “Love Streams,” which he made when he already knew he was dying.
This hard-earned freedom allowed Cassavetes to make films as he wanted them, and perfect his unique techniques, such as shooting many long takes and utilizing the verite manner.
John Cassavetes remains a shining inspiration to independent filmmakers.
7. Sergei Parajanov
No other filmmaker in post-Stalin USSR was as oppressed and hounded. And for a reason-both in his art and his life, Parajanov was completely free and unrestrained, naturally pitting him against the all-unifying Soviet system. The mere fact that he survived, let alone continued to create, is a testament to his fearlessness.
Although he established himself as a one-of-a-kind personality long before he achieved cinematic fame, Parajanov’s road to triumph was a long one. Even though he finished film school in 1952 (and impressed everyone with his colorful and inventive diploma work), he toiled in Kiev for well over a decade. To be completely free, Parajanov had to break the shackles of didactic and narrative Soviet filmmaking.
Though his early films showed flashes of creative brilliance, it wasn’t until “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” came out in 1965 that he turned heads universally. Even today, the film awes with its original and powerful imagery. Although it brought Parajanov fame, the changing post-Khrushchev climate also resulted in infamy-his next project, “Kiev Frescoes,” was halted in early production, and many of his subsequent scripts were rejected at various stages.
Parajanov didn’t help his own cause. Original Soviet filmmakers, like Tarkovsky, Ioseliani, Sokurov, and Klimov, while unique in art forms that challenged the official dictum, were all that much more careful in their speech and deeds. Parajanov said whatever came into his head. No Soviet institution was safe from his mockery.
Where he lived and worked didn’t help either. Even though the Soviet system was controlling as a whole, some pockets were harder to breath at than others. Ukraine was a particularly tough place-what may pass in Moscow, or Parajanov’s native Georgia, may be hammered on there. Nationalistic policies didn’t help-although “Shadows” placed Ukrainian cinema back on the map and started a whole new “Poetic cinema” movement there, many hardliners and nationalists there were less than thrilled that an Armenian from Tbilisi is holding the banner.
Parajanov ended up virtually fleeing Kiev, and relocating to Armenia for his next feature. There, he made his acknowledged masterpiece, “Color of Pomegranates” (recently released on the Criterion label). A poetic story of the life of Sayat-Nova, the great Armenian poet, it showed Parajanov continuing on with exploring his style. The dynamic camerawork of “Shadows” was replaced with meticulously composed static shots, like medieval illuminated Armenian miniatures come to life.
The Soviet government wasn’t thrilled with this one either, forcing multiple recuts. But Parajanov made a grave mistake of returning to Kiev, just as he undertook the making of his film based on the life and tales of Hans Christian Andersen. In the ever-more-suffocating atmosphere of stagnation, he was arrested in 1973 and sentenced to 5 years of hard labor for “a rape of a Communist Party member, and the propagation of pornography.” Needless to say, both charges were completely trumped up.
Intervention by John Updike and Louis Aragon helped win an early release four years later. It was another 5 before he could return to filmmaking (in that time span, he was arrested again and received a commuted sentence for yet another bogus charge). “Legend of Surami Fortress” and “Ashik Kerib,” his last film, showed the world that hardships did not break Parajanov and failed to diminish his creative flame. Sadly, he died in the process of making his very personal “Confession.”
Parajanov was sent to labor camps to be broken-and the System failed to do that. He remained an artist until the end, making collages, drawings, and art with just about anything (including scraps of paper, cloth, tinfoil, shards of glass, etc.). Being an artist saved him from being grounded up by a monolithic oppressive machine.
8. Yilmaz Guney
Guney’s life and fight is worth remembering, as his native country appears to be descending back into ultra-nationalism and religious intolerance.
Guney was a star actor in the 1960’s Turkish cinema scene. Achieving creative control, he set up his own production company and started making films like “Hope,” “Elegy,” and “The Hopeless Ones”-most of which showed the plight of Kurds in Turkey. That brought government attention upon him, and him harboring refugees did not help matter. Guney was arrested in 1972, released under amnesty in 1974, but then arrested again for allegedly killing a regional prosecutor in a drunken fight, and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
But if the government thought they can stop Guney from making films, they were badly mistaken. With the help of his trusted assistants, Serif Goren and Zeki Okten, Guney managed to “direct” some of his most powerful works-“The Herd,” “The Enemy,” and, especially, “The Wall,” a merciless indictment of the oppressive Turkish authoritarianism. Right on the heels of the 1980 military coup, it showed the pains the country went through, and got Guney a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Festival.
Guney was able to direct from the cell via precise handwritten notes passed to the proxy directors by any possible means. But with the military coup, Guney, whose works were banned by the new regime, managed to escape. In France, he made a powerful and devastating “The Wall,” about life in the Turkish prison. But, even though Guney came out a winner against the domineering and sadistic government, he succumbed to cancer at the age of 47.
9. Nagisa Oshima
Once a radical, always a radical. Nagisa Oshima channeled the Japanese post-war psyche like no one else.
While at the university, Oshima was an active political participant, and he carried this rebellious spirit to his cinema work. The timing was right, as Japan was caught between its cultural traditions and Western influences. While great Japanese artists of cinema like Mizoguchi and Ozu drew from traditional aesthetics, Oshima had no problems shattering them and creating new ones.
Even though Oshima eventually grew disillusioned with the ideological dogma of the radical Left, his fighting spirit remained intact. “Death by Hanging,” a Brechtian dissection of institutional bureaucracy and racism, was angry and forward. He followed it with “Diary of a Shinjuku Thief,” which explored sexual dynamics and foreshadowed what was to come.
And that was, of course, the legendary “In the Realm of the Senses.” Both audience and censors were slammed with a merciless assault in this story of a couple exploring the sexual limits. With its gory theme and unsimulated intercourse, it ran into trouble everywhere and provided endless notoriety for Oshima, who, ever-defiant, answered attacks with a follow-up, “Empire of Passion.”
Though Oshima’s next feature, “Merry Christmas, Mr.. Lawrence,” starring David Bowie, is perceived as less-assure, Oshima’s exploration of forbidden themes remained strong as ever. It’s most appropriate that his last film was “Taboo.” Oshima demonstrated conclusively that thematic taboos are there to be broken.
10. Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pasolini’s scope is simply breath-taking, and his endeavor is eternally inspiring. Not merely a fearless director, he was also an equally fearless poet and writer, whose whole body of work was experimentation. His cinema was not pretty, neither was poetry melodically lyrical. But both were undeniably his own.
Fitting, as Pasolini was a walking paradox. Being a gay atheist Marxist is never easy, least of all places in Italy. Even with his first two features, “Accattone” and “Mamma Roma,” Pasolini already broke away from popular neo-realist tradition, bringing to screen his own unflinching brand of realism-that of the gutter itself. Unlike his leftist brethren, Pasolini was never enamored with the lower, subproletarian classes, and was keenly aware what an unchained slave is capable if given complete freedom to act. And he was just getting warmed up.
Considering his atheism, it’s amazing that “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” remains the best screen presentation of Christ’s life. Pasolini cast an amateur student in the lead role, and presented Jesus Christ as a relatable human being.
Pasolini’s unique perspective always allowed him to see the bigger picture, on a grand universal scale. He had no qualms about attacking both the establishment and protesters. In writings and on film. His sublime “Oedipus Rex” brought the spirit of the ancient tragedy to modern times.
It seemed surprising that Pasolini appeared to join the mainstream with his famed “Trilogy of Life” (Decameron/Canterbury Tales/Arabian Nights). It did bring forth charges of obscenity, but the imagery was bright and colorful. But then, Pasolini officially disavowed it with an , where he declared sexual liberation and youthful protests themselves to be a byproduct of capitalist culture.
He then proceeded to slam the pretty cake he made with a filthy brick. “Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom” was an unflinchingly nihilistic outcry, where the viewer left as tortured as the performers.
It was rumored that Pasolini was in process of making the new “Trilogy of Death.” We’ll never know if those rumors are true-in 1975, Pasolini was found murdered. Even though someone was convicted for it, the mystery of his grisly murder still remains, with new information coming forward. All signs point to a political assassination.
Pasolini lived and created without a trace of fear. And paid for it with his life.