The Gleaners & I (Agnes Varda, 2000): One of my favorite films of the last few years, so it's high time I talked it up on this weblog. It's a wonderful little documentary by the doyenne of the French New Wave, about people who glean food from the fields after the harvests are over; and urban scavengers who find sustenance (and more) in the trash, sharing their leftovers with the neighbors; and artists who make assemblages from trash-picked materials; and the director herself, near the end of her life, making a movie filled with happy serendipitous moments gleaned from all the hours her camera happened to be rolling.
The film fills its quota of angry social realism, showing people who've been reduced to poverty by varying combinations of social circumstance and personal failure. But it also has a utopian streak, portraying a kind of voluntary cooperation that is outside the market (though not independent of it: market and non-market cooperation interpenetrate one another here, as they usually have and usually must). In her sly, undidactic way, Varda is calling for a gentle kind of anarchism -- finding, as the old slogan goes, the seeds of a new world in the shell of the old.
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002): Any remotely competent director can make a "powerful" movie about the Holocaust. The horrors are already there; just plug in a story, trim it to the usual Hollywood specs, and go shoot. That's what Spielberg did with Schindler's List, and there are still people who will tell you it's one of the finest movies ever made. Bah.
Polanski's film is much better than that. The first hour, depicting the gradual destruction of Jewish life in occupied Poland, fits the standard pattern: The history is horrifying, the film well-crafted but unexceptional as art. That changes when the title character is removed from his family and, in essence, from the course of history. Important events unfold, from the Warsaw ghetto uprising to the liberation of the city. Our pianist half-witnesses them from a series of windows, near but detached from what is happening outside. With his protagonist locked in barren, isolated rooms, the director's touch suddenly becomes apparent: The Pianist becomes a classically Polanskian exercise in claustrophobia.
Instead of a story about a man living through history, we have a story of a man stripped of everything, including history -- everything but his musical core. That's far more interesting than anything Spielberg has ever set to celluloid.
The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg, 1974): Let's not be too hard on Spielberg, though. This early film -- his first theatrical release -- is silly but pleasant fun; it's more like an early-'70s Roger Corman production than like anything the director's done in the last 25 years. One drawback: Goldie Hawn's ridiculously fake southern accent. (Why must Hollywood actors attempt to talk like southerners, when almost all of them always fail?)
Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002): Cronenberg's best movie since Videodrome is an antidote to the cloying platitudes of Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind. Not that Howard's film is worthless: I liked the first half, shot from his schizo hero's point of view, up until we learn how much of what we've been seeing is real and how much is hallucination. It's a strong climax, but it leaves us with nowhere to go; an ably crafted paranoid picture becomes a scattershot collection of "uplifting" moments and formulaic reversals, carelessly constructed and free of any insight or depth. The film's first half was mostly empty calories, but at least they were engaging.
Contrast that with Cronenberg's film -- scripted by Patrick McGrath, from his novel -- which becomes interesting just where Howard's movie fails. It's about a man trapped in his delusions, living in a universe of flashback and fantasy, and neither he nor the viewer is entirely sure where one begins and the other ends. Howard's movie lifts us from his protagonist's madness and drags his hero up with his viewers. In Cronenberg and McGrath's tale, lucidity doesn't bring salvation -- just more horror.
Hit Man (George Armitage, 1972): A fun blaxploitation picture, loosely based on Get Carter, that's just about impossible to find -- the copy I watched was taped off of Mexican TV and had Spanish subtitles. Writer-director George Armitage later made such underrated '90s fare as Miami Blues and Grosse Point Blank, while star Bernie Casey, famous in his day for several blaxploit roles and for playing pro football in the '60s, went on to play U.N. Jefferson in Revenge of the Nerds. Jefferson (have you forgotten?) is the head of the black frat that the nerd house ends up joining. I like to imagine that Casey's Revenge character is the same guy he played in Hit Man: older, more mellow, and more tolerant of his white brothers and sisters. Who says there's no progress?