Here are six filmmakers who have demonstrated a willingness to tackle universal human conflicts. Filmmakers who work with confidence that they can stay several steps ahead of their audience without losing them. My kind of films.
Three films about the ingrained power that women have over men:
La Strada (1942) Federico Fellini made several brilliant films. His masterpiece is La Strada. A simple story about a nomadic circus strong man (Anthony Quinn) who purchases a dim-witted coastal village girl (Giuiletta Masina) from her poor family and proceeds to destroy her purity with his brutality. This is early Fellini, before he took to plucking fantastic nostalgia from his emotional reservoir to create sumptuous films like La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. La Strada shows us the intense power of the relentless human conscience and how man’s fear of ultimately facing his maker can drive him insane.
Lolita (1962) Stanley Kubrick taking on what many literary critics consider to be one of the best (and most tabu) novels ever written (Vladimir Nabokov). To dismiss this as a pedophilia fantasy would be to over simplify and pervert what is really at play in this story about a middle-aged professor who falls deeply in love with his landlord’s teenaged daughter. A now mythological nymphet, it is the beautiful young Lolita’s feminine maturity he is mesmerized by, not her child-like ways. Her feminine essence and allure – her “eerie vulgarity” – literally overpowers his rational – and substantially educated – brain.
The Master (2012) Paul Thomas Anderson puts everything he has in to each of his films and the result has been an increasing intensity of rich thematic cinema. The Master dares to ask the ultimate question: What master do you serve? In the film’s riveting conclusion, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader Lancaster Dodd challenges Joaquin Phoenix’s roaming ne’er-do-well Freddie Quell “You pay no rent. So go. Go to that landless latitude. And good luck. For if you figure a way to live without serving a master – any master – please tell the rest of us how you did it. For you will be the first person in the history of the world.” Anderson pulls no punches here. He knows damned well who the master is and it eats him up.
Four films about the complexity of human memory and how our individual dream world informs us:
Mulholland Drive (2001) David Lynch bought himself a ton of non-linear storytelling wiggle room when he dubbed his film aesthetic “dream logic” way back in his Twin Peaks hey day. In Mulholland Drive Lynch lays out two entirely different perspective stories of the same Hollywood “fairy tale.” It’s a spellbinding clash of “what really happened” with “what we fool ourselves into thinking happened.” We all do it. Rewrite our own history to relieve ourselves of the guilt…or regret…or embarrassment of our actions. But the truth is the truth. And it can be grotesque.
The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Michel Gondry knocked this high concept out of the park. While significant credit must be attributed to Charlie Kaufman for his brilliant screenplay, it is Gondry who makes the list rather than Kaufman, whose Synecdoche (2008), New York is on another level of mental gymnastics. The subject of dream life and memories collected was examined in Gondry’s earlier The Science of Sleep (2006). What amazes me about his work in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is his innovative visual slight of hand rather than relying on CGI and/or other SFX tricks available to present day filmmakers. This guy is today’s George Melies. But, it’s still the themes that make this film great. Are our impulses something deeper, something fueled by past experiences or lessons learned? Are we just a collection of memories? The hard drive of our human consciousness – can we intentionally delete, copy and paste, export files? These questions inspire Michel Gondry – and they make for extremely thought-provoking cinema. Is love worth pursuing even when we know the lumps we have in store? To that I say: “Meet me in Montauk.”
Inception (2010) & Memento (2000) Christopher Nolan just keeps getting better. Yes, he now helms mega blockbusters (see his Batman Dark Knight trilogy); but here are two tragic love stories about the difficulty of letting go and the power of forgiveness. Inception throws down the mind-bending concept of dream manipulation and the hazardous consequences of messing with God’s design. “You’re just a shade of my real wife. You’re the best that I could do. But I’m sorry, you’re just not good enough.” So good! Memento takes on an obscure psychological memory disorder as a story device to demonstrate the lengths we will go to forgive ourselves of our sins. “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” Asks Guy Pearce’s Leonard. “What is the most resilient parasite?” Leo asks in Inception. “An idea. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate.” Yeah, baby.
Here’s to big ideas~! And the filmmakers who make them so entertaining without compromising.