Sunday, 13 May 2007

Emma J Lennox reviews her ten favourite films, Part 1

Dead Man USA 1995
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
Runtime: 121 mins
Certificate: 18
DVD Distributor: Universal

It was not my intention to select three 'travelling movies' in my top ten, but the theme of journeying and a sense of place is a recurring theme. Partly it is to do with the combined progression of momentum and character that I find a satisfying mix. Friedrich Nietzsche has insights, which although rather bleak, highlight the connection between 'the soul' and movement, something motion pictures are ideal at conveying; ‘Are we not falling incessantly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Can we still talk about ‘above’ and ‘below’? Are we not wandering, lost, through an infinity of nothingness?’ One such lost soul is the central character of Jim Jarmusch's Indie hit Dead Man (1995).

Described as an 'acid western' due to its revisionist and hallucinogenic take on the genre, Dead Man is a violent and beautiful pilgrimage towards certain death. Set in the late 1800s, in the 'end of the line' town of Machine, the story follows William Blake (Jonny Depp) as he becomes embroiled in a murder and goes on the run. Reasons for Blake's escape are decidedly nonsensical, and allows the passage through the Pacific North West wilderness to take precedent over the narrative. Shot in high contrast black and white, the photography focuses on details of nature combining the enduring landscapes of Ansel Adams' work with Daguerreotype reminiscence. Merging with the eternal force of nature is an atonal and guttural electric guitar soundtrack played intuitively by Neil Young. The departure of using non period music in a film which has so successfully taken pains to authenticate its Native American presence seems absurd. Yet it is a contradiction that works; the raw quality overwhelms the viewer with a primordial sense of the world.

The numerable characters, populated by various legends from Robert Mitchum to Iggy Pop, are rendered as farcical oafs, intent on denigrating civilisation with their greedy capitalism. The violence, which is shot with disturbing realism (not in a glorified movie way) also underpins a counter cultural message. The dying Blake traverses light and shadow of his personal purgatory whilst continually shifting his identity. It is a mix of the deranged and the divine which makes this sublime voyage appeal to me.

The Night of the Hunter
USA 1955
Director: Charles LaughtonScreenwriter: James Agee, Davis Grub (novel)
Runtime: 93 min
Certificate: 12
DVD Distributor: MGM DVD

My second choice is so similar in theme it could be Dead Man's prequel; also starring the imposing Robert Mitchum, is Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955). Like William Blake, young siblings John and Pearl Harper (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) seem “born to endless night” as they try to outrun their murderous stepfather, Preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum). An utterly disturbing film, it has a quality which is not of its time. Whilst watching Hays code era Hollywood it is understandable to expect some 'special' short hand; e.g. a track away from a kissing couple to a window bursting open in high winds, has separate connotations from the cameraman's interest in the weather. In The Night of the Hunter, which features alcoholism and teenage lust amongst its many sins, the censors must have been too confounded by its expressionist style. Dark subject matter is not only inferred but shown with eerie surrealism; the most shocking moment being the discovery of the whereabouts of the dead mother (Shelley Winters). The audience is already aware that Powell has murdered her as he looks to the heavens and exclaims; “can't nobody say I didn't do my best to save her,” but then a slow fade reveals some underwater weeds gently billowing in the river current. Accompanied by a ghostly, melodic waltz the camera reveals Winter's body tied to a car, her hair gently flowing in the ripples. It is of such startling elegance, the crime itself seems beautiful and fairytale like.

All attempts at moralization end in cynical twists, as this is a subversive fable where every adult is capable of evil, women are weak willed and if there is a God, he seems to be on Powell's side. Travelling down the river proves John and Pearl's salvation and nature is depicted as the only force for good. The Night of the Hunter is a film which has left an uneasy impression on me, marked as clearly as 'love' and 'hate' are on Preacher Powell's knuckles.

Read Part 2 tomorrow!

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