I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith made Birth of a Nation which essentially revolutionized motion pictures forever. Unfortunately, Griffith’s masterpiece was kinda, really really racist. Of course, it was the early twentieth century and these attitudes were commonplace. Apparently though, Griffith realized the flaw in these ways of thinking and their places in his film. This led to the inception of Intolerance which highlighted racial and social injustices throughout the years, and his other masterpiece, Broken Blossoms.
The film follows the story of an unnamed Chinese immigrant who falls for a young girl named Lucy, the daughter of a prizefighter. For almost the entirety of the film, the focus is on the danger that this foreigner poses to the innocent young girl, but at the end of the film the girl meets her end at the hands of her own brutal father. This film become almost overwhelmingly emotional in it’s final minutes, as Lillian Gish beautifully portrays the final moments of Lucy’s life. The Chinese man who loves her is completely heartbroken by this loss and in the end, so are we. The greatest danger in this girl’s life was a member of her own family, not the perceived foreign threat.
It’s a film about love, about race and about the rapidly changing society of America in the final years of the first World War. It’s also a remarkable technical achievement. The focus of the story alone of the 90 minute runtime was a total game-changer in 1919, and it remains an impressive feat. D.W. Griffith’s personal believes and archaic racial attitudes aren’t exactly something to be celebrated, but the man’s technical filmmaking and storytelling abilities paved the way for the entire history of cinema that was to follow.
Broken Blossoms (1919)
It seems a Herculean task to adapt anyone’s life into 2 hour feature film, even more so when that life is like the one that Jimi Hendrix led. The man revolutionized the electric guitar and changed music forever, but more importantly, he touched the lives of millions of people around the globe with his music. A film version of Hendrix’s life seems destined to fail and disappoint. Perhaps, that’s why John Ridley’s All is By My Side is such an awesome surprise.
Don’t go into this film expecting Ray or Walk the Line. No, this is not standard biopic fare. Ridley, without the blessing of Hendrix’s estate has created an artful, innovative interpretation of one man’s art. Perhaps the best thing about this film in fact, is that the production wasn’t overseen by the Hendrix estate. We get to see Hendrix’s life without those rose-colored glasses. We get to see a man, rather than a myth. Hendrix’s flaws are on display right alongside his genius, and in the hands of Andre Benjamin, it’s something to behold. Benjamin, aka Andre 3000 of OutKast fame, gives one of the most incredible performances I have ever seen in a film of this nature. Andre 3k becomes Hendrix to such an extent that it becomes scary to watch after a while.
Since the film was not made with the approval of the Hendrix estate, none of Hendrix’s actual music could be used in the film. ’Purple Haze’ isn’t featured in the film, and we don’t get to see Benjamin belt out the words of ‘Voodoo Child’, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The film takes place before the release of Are You Experienced, Jimi’s first LP, and Ridley does a phenomenal job of making the music he does use feel authentic. When we see Jimi on stage, he mostly plays songs that aren’t licensed by his estate (like the iconic ‘Wild Thing’), and much of the soundtrack is made up of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, which had a huge impact on Hendrix. The best performance of the film involves one of Hendrix’s most iconic moments, when he played ‘Sgt. Pepper’ live in front of a screaming crowd that included two of The Beatles themselves. Needless to say, my biggest concern going into this film was calmed rather quickly.
This film, without any of his actual music, and made without an official blessing, does a better job of capturing the genius of this man than any studio film ever could. All is By My Side has been met with an large amount of criticism, and I don’t really understand why. It doesn’t appeal to a general audience life most biopics do, and with it’s non-traditional editing, gritty honesty, and lack of Hendrix’s signature hits it’s certainly not going to please everyone. But then again, Jimi wasn’t all about pleasing the masses. He was about his art and about himself. There’s an intense amount of passion that went into this film, and it shows. All is By My Side is a joy to watch, and one of the best films ever made about rock ‘n roll.
All is By My Side (2014)
There never has been a director quite as unique as Ingmar Bergman. The Swedish filmmaker, who had an extraordinarily brilliant burst of artistic output in the 1960’s and 70’s, made challenging, intelligent films that became popular all over the world. The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Silence, Fanny and Alexander and Persona remain, to this day, very complex, technically perfect and emotionally moving works of art.
Over the course of the 1960’s and 70’s, Bergman made classic after classic, often with much of the same principal cast and crew on the island of Fårö in northern Sweden. These films included Through a Glass Darkly, Scenes From a Marriage, Fanny and Alexander and of course, Persona. Bergman built strong relationships with a number of his actors and he used many of them repeatedly. Among these people were Max von Sydow, Bibi Andersson and Anders Ek were only a few of the actors that got to work with Bermgan five times. Liv Ullman, with whom Ingmar shared a daughter, actually acted in nine of his pictures. Perhaps it came from his background in the theatre, but the repertory company that Bergman put together became one of the most beneficial aspects of his career.
Another member of Bergman’s team who was with him for nearly all of his films was legendary cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Nykvist considered his work on Persona to be some of the best work of his career, and the elements that he brought to the screen have become the iconic images of what Bergman considered to be masterpiece.
Persona has always been held up as one of the greatest films of all time, and while it is undoubtedly one of the best, it’s also an incredibly challenging film. The plot is not simple, and the themes of this great work of art are not easily accessible. This is more than just a film, but an experience. Each new viewing of Persona offers a new glimpse of the world the Bergman created and a new perspective on the world that we live in. In exploring the relationship between Alma and Elizabet, Bergman explores the very basis of human nature. In examining the intertwining of the two women’s lives and personalities, Bergman touches on something even deeper.
From the opening 5 minutes, which cut together a seemingly random assortment of images, including a spliced-in image of a penis and the killing of a sheep, to leave the viewer completely exhausted, to the moments of intimacy shared between the two leads and the downright horror of some of the film’s final moments, this film exists on a plane all it’s own. Persona is just about as close to perfect as any film could ever be on a technical level, combining Nykvist’s best cinematography with flawless sound, impeccable lighting and two of the most extraordinary performances ever given, all under the direction of a cinematic giant. While Bergman gave the world of film more masterpieces than perhaps anyone else ever would, it’s Persona that stands out as one of, if not the best film ever made.
When asked about the influence of Jean-Luc Godard on filmmaking, Quentin Tarantino simply compared the Frenchman to Bob Dylan. No one in music has been as influential or prolific as Dylan was and continues to be. The French New Wave, with it’s startling innovation and revolutionary techniques has impacted the vast majority of films made since that initial explosion out of Paris. No one represents that movement more than Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
After taking The 400 Blows to Cannes n 1960, effectively giving the middle finger to film critics and traditionalists everywhere, Truffaut wrote the script for A Bout De Souffle to be directed by his friend Jean-Luc Godard. The film that became Breathless redefined and practically reinvented filmmaking forever.
The story of this film is remarkably simple. A man, on the run from the law shacks up in a small apartment with a girl to hide from the law. That’s it. But the ingredients of this film add to something with a staggering legacy, a defining trademark a seemingly unmatchable cool. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a character who obsesses over Humphrey Bogart and practically matches his level of cool. Jean Seberg possesses a quality of sexiness and unattainability that makes the film almost unbearable to watch simply because she’s so wonderful.
This onscreen duo created a mystique and a style that can be seen quite plainly in practically every type of art up to this day. This is Truffaut and Godard collaborating at the flashpoint of two practically perfect careers. Godard would go on to make charged, often political films that have been innovative and divisive, and Truffaut would continue to make remarkable works of French cinema. Both of these young men changed cinema forever, and in Breathless, we see them both at the top their game, both totally devoted to their craft and completely mad about cinema. Breathless is the film we all wish we could make.