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    my personal canon, part VI

    Wanted to spend some time today doing indpendents and outliers, as well as filling in a few blind spots that I missed earlier.

    First up in this list is probably Luis Bunuel + Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou (1929). It's a key document of the Surrealist movement, but really I'm including it for its notorious sliced-eyeball shot, which remains one of the most viscerally disquieting visuals in the entire history of film. The fact that it happens so early in the film—sprung upon the audience with only a few seconds of advance warning—makes it not only a key moment in the history of cinematic shock, but also makes it one of the first films to actively interrogate the relationship between filmmaker and (privileged) audience.

    (Since I completely neglected Spain on my run-through of foreign-language films, I'd also like to belatedly add another Bunuel film, specifically his elegant, contemptuous The Exterminating Angel (1962). I'll also open up a slot for Pedro Almodovar, going for now with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), although it's been a while since I've seen it.)

    Moving on up through the history of cinematic mavericks, we have to mention John Cassavetes, probably choosing Faces (1968) as the representative (although I'd like to eventually see all five films in the Cassavetes box set). It seems like Werner Herzog belongs here as well: not having seen Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) I'm instead going to go with Fitzcarraldo (1982), worth seeing for its embodiment of directorial hubris alone.

    Also worth mentioning while on this particular streak is John Waters, who, like Cassavetes, is really one of the founders of American Independent cinema. The canonical Waters film is almost certainly the notorious Pink Flamingos (1972), although Female Trouble (1984) is equally near to my heart.

    The rise of John Waters probably isn't possible without the existence of exploitation cinema, and the king of exploitation cinema has to be Russ Meyer, whose Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) really transcends its T+A origins (OK, mostly T) and becomes something far more bizarre and astonishing.

    Does anyone want to argue for Melvin van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971), which is notable for being the only "blacksploitation" film I can think of that's actually directed by an African-American director?

    While on the topic of exploitation cinema, I should mention that I've been struggling with the notion of whether or not to include any pornographic films on here. I think ultimately I should: I've been trying to throw my net as wide as possible, trying to capture many different strands of cinematic history, of which porn indubitably is a major one. I'm going to go with Gerard Damiano's Deep Throat (1972), not only because it basically establishes the endlessly-repeated template for feature-length hardcore film, but also because it spearheaded "porno chic," a phenomenon which perfectly defines the uneasy attraction / repulsion relationship that continues to exist between mainstream culture and porn. Also, the fact that star Linda Lovelace / Linda Boreman later said that she was forcibly coerced into participating in the film by her then-husband (notable asshole Chuck Traynor), and if a pornographic film is going to be on this list, I do feel like it should be a film that squarely exemplifies some of the queasymaking moral questions that radiate out of pornography itself.

    But back to canonical weirdos and independents. This is as good a place as any to include what was allegedly Stanley Kubrick's favorite movie, David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977). Five years in the making, created by a cast and crew so fervently committed to this strange vision that Lynch voluntarily splits proceeds from the DVD sales ten ways, Eraserhead pulls an entire world out of the imagination: it owes no clear debt to anything that's gone before, yet it seems fully-imagined, coherent and complete.

    An extreme outlier—someone who defines the outer limits of what we can consider cinema—would be someone like Stan Brakhage, whose body of work (more than 400 films!) is largely made up of non-narrative, non-representational works, often involving hand-painting or otherwise manipulating film stock. Dog Star Man (1962-64) is neither truly non-representational or non-narrative, but it does stand as a long-term, sustained foray into a unique mode of filmmaking. All the standard elements of cinema are present here—editing, camera position and movement, use of color and focus, juxtaposition and superimposition—but in Brakhage's hands they're used as no one else has ever used them before: for every shot concentrating on ordinary autobiographical details (shots of Brakhage's wife, dog, newborn child, and self) there is a shots focusing on something unidentifable (chaotic flux, organic plasm, pulsating texture, incoherent clutter). The result is something like a home movie made by Martians. Put this one in the space capsule, I say, it's more likely to be understood than any of the more culturally-bound narratives that Hollywood is putting out.

    One of the interesting developments in North American cinema over the past fifteen years or so is the transition of indie cinema from being a bunch of iconoclasts working truly "independently" to being a cottage industry of its own, sort of the honorary R+D branch of Hollywood. This transition begins with a flush of really fine independent cinema in the early 90s, of which Richard Linklater's Austin-based Slacker (1991) is a great example, beating out Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi (1992) (although, come to think of it, Rodriguez should be on this list: I think Sin City (2005) should probably be in with the noirs. Not only does it recycle noir conventions in a hyper-accelerated way, it's also one of the first films to treat comic books as seriously as comic book fans treat them, and it's pioneering in its aggressive use of the "digital back lot," which filmmakers will likely emulate more and more in years to come).

    Independents continue to draw more industry attention throughout the 90s, thanks to stuff like the earning power of a cheaply-made but inventive horror flick like Myrick + Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project (1999), and it's around that time that "quirk" begins to become an identifiable, bankable genre unto itself, perhaps best represented by the instant canonization of someone like Wes Anderson. His Rushmore (1998) is the crowning achievement of Indie Quirk: fresh without being threatening; unusual while still demonstrating enormous traditional powers; idiosyncratically styled, but in a way that seems indebted to the concept of brand identity at least as much as to personal vision.

    OK. I'm going to do one more of these, and then that should wrap it up. We're currently somewhere around the 85-movie mark.

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    Thursday, April 12, 2007
    5:57 PM


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