Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Campaign Update #357

Obama returns from his trip to Europe. McCain complains about media bias. Serious issues, handled in a serious manner.


Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Greatest Films of All Time: The Directors

All of the men in this photograph either directed, wrote (Carriere) or produced (Silberman) films listed in the Greatest Films of All Time. From a 1972 lunch given by George Cukor for Luis Buñuel.

Anybody can direct a picture once they know the fundamentals.
Directing is not a mystery, it's not an art.

The main thing about directing is: photograph the people's eyes.

John Ford

This is the third in a series of posts on my exploration of the world's Greatest Films of All Time. The initial post included an Introduction and Films 1-20. The second post included Films 21-50.

Briefly, I researched and compiled 30 lists of Greatest Films from various sources around the globe, including critics such as Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum; popular magazines like Time and Time Out (UK); films journals such as Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinema, Kinovedcheskie Zapiski (Russia); and a range of Film Archives from countries like China, India, Ecuador, Israel, Greece, and Finland.

The 30 polls produced a total of 580 films. When films weren't ranked in the polls, I assigned a numeric value depending on the total number of films included (eg. 100 films = 20 points). So, the list I'm presenting is not a ranking of films I personally think are the greatest of all time. It's simply a reflection of results from across 30 polls voted on by hundreds of other people.

My quest was twofold: To see which works were considered the masterpieces of cinema from a variety of international sources, and to see if and how the perception of great films and great directors varied from one region of the world to another.

The Directors

The most eye-opening part of my exploration of the Greatest Films of All Time was digging through the results by Director. While the Top 200 Films on my list provided some surprises, the overall landscape wasn't that different from what I expected. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story, À bout de souffle, Rules of the Game, 8 ½ . . . they were all there. Some of the exact rankings may have surprised me, and many of the cultural differences were new to me, but the list of titles didn't challenge my concept of world cinema.

Akira Kurosawa

As I started looking at directors, however, I was genuinely surprised by some of the results, and, as the process went on, my own thinking about cinema was actually transformed. It became clear, for example, that some directors whose names we have attached to one or two "important" films actually created numerous works of exceptional quality over the span of their careers. We may not discuss these other titles very much, if at all, but they were good enough to be selected by someone somewhere as being among the greatest motion pictures ever.

My own quest to compile a list of the greatest films of all time is, I think, part of the problem. I am guilty, along with other list-makers, of burying alive many fantastic films. So, yes, we know Fritz Lang's M or Metropolis from numerous polls and books on cinema. But what about his other work?

Luckily, some polls can also un-bury films. As it turns out, Fritz Lang had six other titles that were mentioned at least once. Did you have any idea that after 30 polls and 580 total movies that Fritz Lang would rank fifth (tied) in Total Films Mentioned, ahead of Bergman, Kurosawa and Fellini? How often do we drop his name in a conversation about cinema? Because Metropolis was made in 1927 and M in 1931, don't we exile Lang to that shadowy land of "silent movies" or "really old movies"? Yet his last film was made in 1960, and two of his later works - The Tiger of Eschnapur (1959) and Moonfleet (1955) - were listed among 100 Greatest Films by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Cahiers du cinema respectively.

I don't mean to imply that the number of films included on the list equals greatness. For one thing, some directors are simply more prolific than others. Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Roublev) has 11 films listed on IMDB; Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) has 172. Some directors may have many films of high quality but few that we consider truly great. For that reason, I'm listing both the total number of titles from all 580 films mentioned, and then the titles from the Top 200. There were several differences between the lists.

I also tracked the overall number of times that a director was mentioned. This may be an even better gauge of their current reputation. John Cassavetes and Francis Ford Coppola both had five films listed, for example. But Cassavetes was only mentioned six times in total, whereas Coppola was mentioned 30 times. I find it interesting that Cassavetes is respected enough to have five films mentioned, but that no one can really decide which film of his to call "the greatest." Only A Woman Under the Influence (1974) was chosen twice. Perhaps this signals that the director made an important contribution to cinema through his life and overall body of work, but not necessarily with a single film.

Howard Hawks had 11 films in the Greatest Films of All Time. Here he's with Angie Dickinson on the set of Rio Bravo (#62)

Ultimately, of course, one can't measure greatness with a lot of numbers on a spreadsheet. That's not the purpose of my exploration. What I hope is that by seeing some of these numbers, we can be challenged to re-think our ideas about cinema, to question perceptions we may have formed a long time ago, to see certain movies and directors in a fresh way. Most of all, I hope we can make little discoveries and be intrigued enough to explore some cinematic paths we hadn't previously considered.

Total Films Mentioned (out of 30 polls - 580 titles)

There were 31 directors who had at least five films mentioned. I've listed them in numerical order. When there was a tie, I listed them in alphabetical order.

1. Jean Luc Godard – 12
2. Howard Hawks – 11
3. Luis Buñuel – 10
4. Alfred Hitchcock - 9

5. (TIE)
Charlie Chaplin – 8
John Ford – 8
Stanley Kubrick – 8
Fritz Lang – 8

9. (TIE)
Yasujiro Ozu – 7
Jean Renoir – 7
Alain Resnais – 7
Luchino Visconti – 7
Orson Welles – 7

14. (TIE)
Ingmar Bergman – 6
Robert Bresson – 6
Federico Fellini – 6
Ernst Lubtisch – 6
Satyajit Ray - 6
Jacques Rivette – 6
Roberto Rossellini – 6

21. (TIE)
John Cassavetes – 5
Francis Ford Coppola – 5
George Cukor – 5
Rainer Werner Fassbinder – 5
Akira Kurosawa – 5
Kenji Mizoguchi – 5
F.W. Murnau – 5
Max Ophüls – 5
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger – 5
Josef von Sternberg – 5
Billy Wilder - 5

Quite frankly, I was astonished by the top three results. My guess probably would've been Hitchcock and Bergman at #1 and #2, and then, I don't know - maybe John Ford.

As it turns out, I had just started reading Richard Brody's new book on Jean Luc Godard when I analyzed the directors included in the 30 polls. Not only was I stunned by Godard having the most films, but I was also surprised by some of the titles mentioned. Many of his 1960s films showed up, but four of his later films appeared, including: Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man for Himself] (1980), which Godard considered his "second" first film after years of experimenting in video; Passion (1982) ; King Lear (1987); and Nouvelle Vague (1990).

Godard is hardly a blip on the radar in the U.S. right now. Yet, a combination of the results of these polls, and the elucidation of his later work in Brody's book, made me re-evaluate his career. I still believe his work in the 1960s remains vitally important in the history of cinema, serving as a kind of dividing line between an old and a new cinema. But I'm beginning to wonder if 50 years from now, his later career may also prove revolutionary, even though we can't see its implications at this point in time. Brody raises several fascinating and challenging questions about the very nature of cinema and its relationship to society that he claims Godard has been tackling in his post-1960s work, largely in isolation, and often with few people seeing the actual films. In some ways, I'm reminded of Coltrane's last years, producing music that people are still - 40 years later - barely catching up with. Could that be the case with Godard? I don't know. But instead of ignoring his later work, as I've done for the most part, I've decided to start watching some of the films.

I was also impressed that Godard did well across the world. He was one of only two directors, along with Buñuel, who had four or more films mentioned in all three major regional groupings: US/UK, Europe and Asia. The National Film Archive of India especially liked Godard, choosing five of his films in its Top 100, more even than native son Satyajit Ray, who only had four. He also showed up in Russia and Venezuela, and, in total, appeared in 24 out of the 30 polls.

Other directors didn't have the same global results. Howard Hawks, for example, had 11 films mentioned overall, but only one showed up in the Asian polls: Red River (1948). And, in total, he only appeared in 12 out of the 30 polls.

Several other directors were mentioned numerous times overall but didn't do very well in the Asian polls. Bergman, Kubrick, Powell & Pressburger, Visconti, and Wilder only had one film each that was mentioned. The directors mentioned most often in the Asian polls (out of 135 films):

1. Godard – 6
2. Satyajit Ray – 5
3. (TIE)
Buñuel – 4
Kurosawa – 4
Ozu – 4
4. (TIE)
Antonioni – 3
Chaplin – 3
Fellini – 3
Hitchcock – 3
Lang – 3
Mizoguchi – 3

Belgian director Chantal Ackerman, one of only three women with films in the Top 200. Her 1975 effort, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, was the highest ranked film by a woman director, at #143, and maybe the movie with the longest title.

Total Films Mentioned in the Top 200

But what about the Top 200? Having a movie mentioned once by a film archive in a small country is one thing, but what about the titles mentioned most often? The results were different than the overall list of 580 films, but there were still some surprises. Here are the directors with four or more films listed in the Top 200 Films:

1. Buñuel – 7
2. (TIE)
Bergman – 5
Chaplin – 5
Fellini – 5
Godard – 5
Hitchcock – 5
Kubrick – 5
3. (TIE)
Bresson – 4
Dreyer – 4
Ford – 4
Kurosawa – 4
Powell & Pressburger – 4
Ray – 4
Visconti – 4
Wilder – 4

If you had told me when I started this exploration that Luis Buñuel would wind up with the most films in the Top 200, and with two more than the next closest director, I would've figured you were either Spanish or slightly insane, or both (Hugo, where are you?!) Again, I would have guessed Hitchcock. Maybe that's a cultural prejudice. Though, obviously, Hitch did just fine for himself in these polls. But the results for Buñuel have definitely challenged my own notions of cinema. I feel like re-watching some of his films now, and investigating ones I've never seen. And maybe I'll finally read his autobiography, My Last Sigh, which was given to me as a gift by a good friend (thank you!) and which La Reina recently read and loved.

Even the list of Buñuel's films that showed up in the Top 200 surprised me:

#63 - Âge d'or, L' (1930)
#69 - Viridiana (1961)
#97 - Un chien andalou (1929)
#107 - Olvidados, Los (1950)
#173 - Hurdes, Las [Land Without Bread] (1933)
#174 - Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, Le (1972)
#178 - Ángel exterminador, El (1962)

Portrait of Luis Buñuel. Salvador Dalí. 1924. Oil on canvas.

His two collaborations with Salvador Dalí, L'age d'or and Un chien Andalou, make a certain amount of sense because of their incredible innovation and historical significance, though I personally wouldn't place both of them that high. But Las Hurdes and Los Olvidados? I was expecting the likes of Belle du jour (1967), which eventually showed up at #284, and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), which didn't show up at all. And I was disappointed to see that my personal favorite, The Exterminating Angel, way down at #178. It's among my own 100 Favorite Films.

There weren't many other surprises for me in the Top 200 Films. Perhaps seeing Visconti with four titles listed. Especially considering the fact that none of his films showed up in a single US/UK poll. Why the seemingly Anglo-American disregard for his work? I have to confess, I've never seen any of his films. (The Angel of Cinema suddenly appears in my darkened bedroom, whipping me with knotted strips of film for my cultural sins. "And I strike thee again for not seeing any Rossellini, Ozu or Murnau!" s/he cries. "How dare you write about the Greatest Films of All Time when you haven't even learned your basic Cinematic Catechism!" "Have mercy!" I cry, pleading that I've seen all 30 of Fred Astaire's musicals. "I love - just poorly and with bad aim!")

As for you Truffaut fans, I don't know what to tell you. Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano player messenger. Only three films were mentioned overall: Les Quatre cents coups [The 400 Blows] (1959) at #25, Jules et Jim (1962) at #73, and La Nuit américaine [Day for Night] (1973) at #482. For whatever reason, at this point in time, (Wait, did I just quote Elton John?) Truffaut's reputation seems to be in a bit of a down cycle.He showed up in 15 of 30 polls, but only on five outside of the non-regional and US/UK lists. Even the French seem to have mixed feelings about his work these days. While Cahiers du cinema included The 400 Blows in its list of100 films (#57 tied), the Cinémathèque Française didn't choose any of his works in its list of 20 Greatest Films, despite Truffaut's strong history with the institution. He did, however, wind up with two films in the overall Top 100 compilation of 30 polls, an impressive achievement.

And Truffaut certainly did better than Louis Malle, who, shockingly, didn't have a single film listed. Man, Ascenseur pour l'échafaud [Elevator to the Gallows] (1958) should've been mentioned by someone for the Miles Davis soundtrack alone. A wonderful film noir utilizing jazz extremely well. Not to mention My Dinner with Andre (1981) and Au revoir les enfants (1987). I'm surprised that none of these films were included in lists by Roger Ebert (100 films), Time magazine (100), Time Out (100) or the IMDB Classic Film Board (200). Not one Malle film out of 500 titles! I guess Time had to make space somewhere for Finding Nemo (2003).

François Truffaut

[NOTE: For the Greatest Films of All Time project, I used Ebert's book Great Movies (2002), which includes 100 unranked films. I also read but did not include Great Movies II (2005), because 200 unranked films would have had little numeric value and, I thought, dilute Ebert's voice, which I think is an important one. I recommend both books. His website also includes 200 Great Movies, but the list has at least one change from the print version - Babel (2006). Ebert does list Malle's My Dinner with Andre and Au revoir les enfants on his web site - they must have been in the 101-200 list from Great Movies II.]

Total Votes Received (30 polls - 580 films)

Here are the Top 20 directors by total votes received (how many times overall their films were mentioned):

1. (TIE)
Alfred Hitchcock - 48
Orson Welles – 48

3. Federico Fellini – 46

4. (TIE)
Jean Luc Godard – 44
Jean Renoir – 44

6. Charlie Chaplin – 40

7. Akira Kurosawa – 38

8. Carl Dreyer – 37

9. Ingmar Bergman – 36

10. Stanley Kubrick –35

11. Sergei M. Eisenstein – 34

12. Fritz Lang – 33

13. Luis Buñuel – 31

14. Francis Ford Coppola – 30

15. (TIE)
John Ford -29
D.W. Griffith – 29
F.W. Murnau – 29

18. Billy Wilder – 28

19. Kenji Mizoguchi – 26

20. Satyajit Ray – 24

Finally, Hitchcock winds up on top, though he has to share the honor with Welles.

Orson Welles filming The Lady from Shanghai (1947) on Errol Flynn's yacht

Has any major American artist been as rejected and neglected by his own country as Orson Welles? When people talk about great 20th Century American artists - T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Plath, Toni Morrison, Pollock, Gershwin, Astaire, Dylan, Billie Holiday, Coltrane, Ellington, etc. - does Welles ever get mentioned? Cinema has been called the 20th-century art form. Orson Welles not only created the Greatest Film of All Time (and on his first try), but his work receives more votes in polls from around the world than any other director with the exception of Alfred Hitchcock. Yet we was exiled by Hollywood and still exists on the periphery of American film for most people. His treatment in and by the United States remains a great mystery.

Interesting that Godard and Renoir, the two titans of French cinema, wind up with an equal number of votes.

One director I haven't mentioned yet is Charlie Chaplin. I often think of him as a performer, but he ranked 5th (tied) in Total Films Mentioned, 2nd (tied) in Films in the Top 200, and 6th in Total Votes Received. In the end, only Godard and Hitchcock really did better in their numbers. Chaplin also did well across all regions, and appeared in 24 out of 30 polls. I notice he had a big goose egg, however, in the 1995 Filmoteca Vaticana list of Ten Greatest Films. One wonders if his political sympathies didn't go down well in the John Paul II era.

Buñuel drops down in this list, but still winds up ahead of figures like Ford and Wilder. I'm still amazed a bit by his excellent results in these polls.

Sadly, however, he's the only Spanish filmmaker who did well. Victor Erice had two films mentioned, El sol del membrillo (1992) and El espíritu de la colmena [Spirit of the Beehive] (1973), but neither one broke the Top 200, which, in the case of Spirit of the Beehive, is a travesty. And one of the biggest surprises for me was how poorly Pedro Almodóvar did in the polls. Only Hable con ella (2002) appeared anywhere - Time magazine and Cahiers du cinema - but it also couldn't break into the Top 200. One theory on Almodóvar's results: Many of these polls were done in 1995, when his reputation may have been at a low point. I was in Spain at that time, and he didn't seem nearly as respected as he had been back in the 1980s. It wasn't until Todo sobre mi madre won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in March 2000 that his reputation seemed to turn around. The Time magazine and Cahiers du cinema polls came out after that, for example.

Julio Medem (Los amantes del Círculo Polar), my favorite recent Spanish director, didn't have a single film chosen, nor did longtime director Carlos Saura (Cría cuervos), which was really a surprise. While Spanish cinema has never been on a par with that of France or Italy, I do think it was seriously under-represented in these polls. I don't know if that's a problem of film distribution, bad press, a weak industry, or what.

I'll talk about other younger directors, such as Tarantino, Lynch, Kar Wai Wong and Yimou Zhang in a future post, when I look at the Greatest Films of All Time by years/time periods.

Next up, though, I'll present the 51-100 Films.

Until the next reel. . . .

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Gershwin Friday: The Jewish Cowboy Musical

Bronco busters Jacob and Israel Gershowitz (George and Ira Gershwin)

For me, the name Gershwin has always conjured up 1920s New York sophistication. George and Ira hanging out with Fred Astaire and Kay Swift in George's immaculate 5th Avenue art deco penthouse. Parties with young socialites and the artistic elites of the day. Soirées with great Harlem musicians such as James P. Johnson and Willie "the Lion" Smith" playing on George's grand piano.

Lest we forget, however, George and Ira also tackled the cactus and cowboys of the great American west. Their 1930 Broadway show, Girl Crazy, concerns the romantic adventures of Danny Churchill, a young playboy from Manhattan who's been chasing too much skirt and gets sent by his father to a small men's college in Arizona.

Gieber Goldfarb, a Jewish cabbie, drives Danny from 48th Street all the way out west. He winds up staying with Danny and encounters his own adventures - basically being an urban New York Jew trying to survive among rattlesnakes and roughnecks. At one point, about to be lynched by cowboys, Goldfard asks, "So, this is God's country?"

Later, Goldfard disguises himself as a Native American, only to encounter a real Native American named Eaglerock. Andrea Most describes the ensuing scene in her article, "'Big Chief Izzy Horowitz': Theatricality and Jewish Identity in the Wild West" [American Jewish History 87.4 (1999) 313-341.] :
Eaglerock is simply dressed, speaks perfect English, and has just returned from college. When Gieber enters he assumes the pose not of a "real" Indian but of a stage Indian who wears a full headdress, whoops loudly, and speaks a strange "ugga-bugga" language which confuses Eaglerock thoroughly. The two "Indians" try a number of languages before Gieber finally introduces himself in Yiddish. This works, Eaglerock responds, and the two exit speaking animatedly.
Girl Crazy was a big success at the time and made stars of two young actresses: Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman. Down in the orchestra pit were future big-band legends Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa. Hit songs from the show included "But Not for Me," "Embraceable You," and "I Got Rhythm."

But the titles that attract my attention now are those such as "The Lonesome Cowboy," "Bronco Busters," "Land of the Gay Caballero," and "(When It's) Cactus Time in Arizona." In retrospect, it shouldn't be a surprise that the Gershwins would explore the American west as subject material, given how essential it is to our national mythology. Later, of course, George would also delve into the America South for his opera Porgy and Bess.

The 1943 film version of Girl Crazy, with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, removed the Jewish elements of the plot.

A few years after Girl Crazy, George and Ira would themselves follow the cattle trail out west (via modern airplane), lured by the siren call of Hollywood. We may think of George Gershwin as being one with New York City - Woody Allen's Manhattan! - but he actually died in Los Angeles in 1937.

In 1943, MGM decided that this Jewish cowboy musical was a perfect vehicle for the ninth pairing of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Sadly, however, the studio removed Gieber Goldfarb and his adventures, as well as his song "Goldfarb, That's I'm!," converting the Gershwins' interesting cultural mix and comic fantasy of a fellow Jewish New Yorker out in the wilds of Arizona into a more comfortable and bland WASP vision of the American west.

It's interesting to note that this erasure of the Jewish elements of the story took place at a time when news about the concentration camps was first coming out of Europe. And that the head of of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, was Jewish himself. Evidently, Hollywood didn't think that a Jewish cabbie and a well-spoken Native American communicating in Yiddish would play in Peoria as it had on Broadway.

What the film does offer, however, is Judy Garland at the height of her vocal powers. And a typically surreal and mind-boggling musical number from Busby Berkeley. Busby was the original director for the movie, but he and Garland clashed on the set, so he was replaced by Norman Taurog. One of the few traces that remain of Berkeley's work is the bizarre finale that features a Tommy Dorsey big-band version of "I Got Rhythm," set out west, with cowboy outfits (perhaps the geekiest ever seen on screen), fake cactus, synchronized six-guns, a cannon fired directly at the audience, and strange, whip-like banners that remind me of Kurosawa.

It all adds up to classic Hollywood weirdness. (Especially the last minute of the video.)

Now, how we go from Jewish cowboy musicals and a freaky Busby Berkeley number to Bird and Diz using the same song as one of the foundations of Be-Bop is . . . well . . . one of those sweet mysteries of life.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Batman Arrested in London

He beat up his 61 year-old mother and his sister.

Too much stress, perhaps, from dealing with The Joker over the weekend.

Or, more likely, from living in Gotham City.

Some will probably claim it was his evil twin. But I think it's been obvious for a long time that Batman has some issues - and a penchant for violence. It was only a matter of time.

Still, beating up your mum and sis. . . . My, how the mighty have fallen.

UPDATE: Things are getting really weird. Batman "is also the stepson of author and feminist leader Gloria Steinem." Woah.

I thought Bruce Wayne's parents had been murdered. How, then, could his father have married Ms. Steinem? And, for that matter, how could Batman beat up his mother? Or maybe Batman killed his father without realizing who he was, married his own mother, and will blind himself in the next movie. Or maybe it was just his Uncle Ben who was killed. I'm getting confused.

UPDATE 2: Oh yeah, Batman also denies beating up his mother and sister.

No word yet if Batman has ever beaten up Ms. Steinem.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Greatest Films of All Time: 21-50

Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (ranked #45) features the director of Metropolis (ranked #26), Fritz Lang, in the role of a famous film director named . . . Fritz Lang. And, yes, it also stars Brigitte Bardot.

"A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it."
Alfred Hitchcock

This is the second in a series of posts on my exploration of the world's Greatest Films of All Time. The initial post included an Introduction and Films 1-20.

Briefly, I researched and compiled 30 lists of Greatest Films from various sources around the globe, including critics such as Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum; popular magazines like Time and Time Out (UK); films journals such as Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinema, Kinovedcheskie Zapiski (Russia); and a range of Film Archives from countries like China, India, Ecuador, Israel, Greece, and Finland.

The 30 polls produced a total of 580 films. When films weren't ranked in the polls, I assigned a numeric value depending on the total number of films included (eg. 100 films = 20 points). What follows are the movies that ranked 21-50 after all of the points from the 30 polls were tabulated. So, this list is not a ranking of films I personally think are the greatest of all time. It's simply a reflection of results from across 30 polls voted on by hundreds of other people.

My quest was twofold: To see which works were considered the masterpieces of cinema from a variety of international sources, and to see if and how the perception of great films and great directors varied from one region of the world to another.

Films 21-50

Les enfants du paradis [Children of Paradise] - It ranked #21 overall. Bob Dylan once called it his favorite film.

To be honest, I don't place much importance on the exact ranking of the films on this list. If I adjusted the numeric value I assigned to unranked polls, for example, the specific rankings might change quite a bit. Fritz Lang's Metropolis (#26) and Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (#27) were only separated by 1.5 points after 30 polls (606.5 and 605 points respectively.) The former was mentioned 13 times, the latter, 11 times. So it would be ridiculous to suggest that Lang's masterpiece is better than Bergman's.

On the other hand, I think the difference between these two films and, say, Renoir's Rules of the Game, which wound up with 1,350 points and was mentioned in 24 polls, is significant enough to be of interest. Or between these two films and the 200-plus titles that scored few points and were only mentioned once.

Also notable is that while Metropolis and Wild Strawberries fell around the same place in the pack, their support came from different regions of the world. Lang's futuristic silent film from 1927 showed up on four out of six US/UK lists, while Bergman's movie didn't show up at all. Instead, it was Bergman's The Seventh Seal which showed up in four out of six US/UK polls. Meanwhile, Wild Strawberries did better than Metropolis in Europe, a surprising fact to me, as the European polls included a number of film archives, which I thought would naturally favor Lang's film. And, of course, Lang, was from Vienna and both started and ended his career making films in Germany.

My surprise also originates in my American cinematic education. A discussion in the U.S of the masterpieces of cinema, in my experience, would certainly include Metropolis and Bergman's The Seventh Seal. I assumed, then, that the two films were regarded more or less the same way throughout the world, especially since they're both what we usually call "foreign" films. If they're "foreign," wouldn't "foreigners" regard them as highly as we do?

But Metropolis only showed up in one European poll - a film archive in Belgium - and The Seventh Seal didn't show up in any. It seems, then, that a European discussion of the film canon would be more likely to include Wild Strawberries than the other two films.

And Ingmar Bergman, who has been one of the cinematic titans in my film education, barely registers at all in the Asian films lists. Only one of his films showed up in their polls. (I'll discuss Directors more in a future post.) Metropolis, on the other hand, was ranked #13 overall in the Asian polls.

So, take the exact numbers with a big grain of salt. Think in broader terms. Which films get mentioned five times and which ones get mentioned 20? Which ones are mentioned more in the U.S. or Asia?

Here's the list, followed by some of my discoveries.

21. Les enfants du paradis [Children of Paradise] (1945) - Marcel Carné - 661.5 points - 11 mentions

22. Greed (1924) - Erich von Stroheim - 649.5 - 14

23. M (1931) - Fritz Lang - 646.5 - 12

24. L'avventura (1960) - Michelangelo Antonioni - 645 - 13

25. Les quatre cents coups [The 400 Blows] (1959) - François Truffaut - 617.5 - 13

26. Metropolis (1927) - Fritz Lang - 606.5 - 13

27. Smultronstället [Wild Strawberries] (1957) - Ingmar Bergman - 605 - 11

28. The Gold Rush (1925) Charlie Chaplin - 591 - 13

29. La dolce vita (1960) - Federico Fellini - 588.5 - 11

30. City Lights (1931) - Charlie Chaplin - 584 - 12

31. Casablanca (1942) Michael Curtiz - 582 - 13

32. The General (1927) - Buster Keaton - 548 - 9

33. La grande illusion (1937) - Jean Renoir - 531 - 10

34. The Godfather Part II (1974) - Francis Ford Coppola - 520 - 9

35. Psycho (1960) - Alfred Hitchcock - 515 - 10

36. Touch of Evil (1958) - Orson Welles - 495 - 8

37. Kabinett des Doktor Caligari [The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari] (1920) - Robert Wiene - 487 - 10

38. Gone with the Wind (1939) Victor Fleming - 480.5 - 11

39. Andrei Roublev (1969) Andrei Tarkovsky - 472.5 - 8

40. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) David Lean - 466.5 - 8

41. Night of the Hunter (1955) Charles Laughton - 447 - 7

42. Zerkalo [The Mirror] (1975) - Andrei Tarkovsky - 440.5 - 8

43. Some Like It Hot (1959) Billy Wilder - 437 - 9

44. Chelovek s kino-apparatom [Man with a Movie Camera] (1929) - Dziga Vertov - 433 - 7

45. Le Mépris [Contempt] (1963) Jean-Luc Godard - 426 - 8

46. Chinatown (1974) Roman Polanski - 425.5 - 8

47. Ordet [The Word] (1955) Carl Theodor Dreyer - 418.5 - 9

48. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) Frank Capra - 418 - 8

49. Taxi Driver (1976) Martin Scorsese - 416 - 9

50. Det sjunde inseglet [The Seventh Seal] (1957) Ingmar Bergman - 415.5 - 9

One of the issues I wanted to explore in my quixotic quest was the influence of language in determining our concepts of Greatest Films. As an American, my relationship with cinema developed in an English-language environment, watching English-language films. I wouldn't encounter a film in another language until I was 16 years-old, when, out of boredom and curiosity, I slipped into the University of Texas Student Union Cinema to watch the last hour of one of the films in Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy. (One of the most transformative experiences of my life.) I took film classes in English and was surrounded by a English-language film culture, discussing mostly English-language films in English. It wasn't until I moved to Spain in 1995 that my English-language film life would really undergo a change.

So, when I started on this exploration, I was curious to see how some of the classics of English-language cinema, the movies we love and hold dear in the U.S., would do in other parts of the world. Do people outside of our country revere Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and It's a Wonderful Life? They seem like such quintessentially American films.

Well, as it turned out, all three showed up in polls from other parts of the world. This may be due in part to the vast power and reach of Hollywood, especially in the 1940s, when American global cultural dominance established itself in the ashes of World War II. Take the case of France, for example. The birthplace of cinema, which once had a film industry rivaling that of Hollywood, had to turn to the United States for economic assistance in the aftermath of the war. According to Richard Brody, in his excellent new biography of Jean-Luc Godard, one of the stipulations of the Blum-Byrnes Accords, the debt relief package from the U.S., was that "for nine out of every thirteen weeks, each screen would show American movies." The directors of what we now call the French New Wave - Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette - grew up in this environment and were so closely identified with Hollywood and its cinema when they first gained attention as young film critics, that the French originally deemed them the Hitchcocko-Hawksians, after Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

The silent films from early American cinema in the list - Greed, Gold Rush, City Lights, and The General - also did well across all regions. Charlie Chaplin has accurately been called the first Hollywood "star" to achieve worldwide fame. But, then, silent films obviously don't have to deal with the language barrier. Also, as I mentioned in the previous post, it seems that comedies often have difficulty moving from one culture to another, so it's interesting to see how well silent comedians Chaplin and Keaton did internationally.

As it turns out, though, there were several English-language films that ranked highly in the Anglo-American lists but didn't even show up in the rest of the world. Three such films in the 21-50 rankings were: Chinatown, which actually ranked #7 overall in US/UK polls; David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. (All three did show up on the "international" lists, which are five polls impossible to classify as being from a specific region.)

Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, a French favorite.

Charles Laughton's disturbing Night of the Hunter, which wound up #13 overall in the US/UK polls, was ranked an astonishing #2 by the French journal Cahiers du cinema - but it wasn't mentioned in any other poll in the rest of the world. Almost the same thing occurred with Orson Welles' film noir Touch of Evil, which wound up #22 overall in the US/UK polls. It was also selected by Cahiers du cinema but didn't show up anywhere else.

All four French films in the 21-50 list - Les enfants du paradis (#21), Les quatre cents coups (#25), La grande illusion (#33), and Le Mépris (#45) - showed up in the French Cahiers du cinema poll, but they only appeared in one other European poll each. All four also showed up in at least one US/UK poll, with Truffaut's film (#25) appearing in five out of six. And, with the exception of La grande illusion, they all showed up in at least one Asian poll.

Both Russian polls chose Andrei Tarkovsky's 1966 masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, despite the fact that the film was withheld from release by the Soviet Union for a number of years. The Moscow Film Archive, however, did not list Tarkovsky's later film, Zerkalo [The Mirror]. Time Out (UK) did choose Zerkalo, but that was the only mention in US/UK polls for either of these Tarkvosky films, which, quite frankly, surprised me. Andrei Rublev did appear on all five international lists, including the IMDB Classic Film Board Top 200, where Tarkvosky is worshiped with great devotion. Meanwhile, Zerkalo was the only film by Tarkovsky to appear in any of the four Asian polls.

The other Russian film, Dziga Vertov's influential Man with a Movie Camera, showed up in the Kinovedcheskie Zapiski poll but not in the list from the Moscow Film Archive. It wasn't selected by any of the European or Asian polls, but it did do well in the US/UK and international polls and was included in the list from Venezuela.

Curiously, there were no Asian films ranked 21-50, after an impressive five titles in the 1-20 list.

Films ranked 21-50 that show up in my own list of Favorite 100 Films: Les enfants du paradis [Children of Paradise] (#21); La dolce vita (#29); Casablanca (#31); La grande illusion (#33); The Godfather Part II (#34); Le mépris (#45) and The Seventh Seal (#50).

I'll be investigating Films 51-100 in a future post, but the next installment in the series will be on the men and women who directed the Greatest Films of All Time. I encountered numerous surprises while taking a look at the directors who showed up in the 30 polls. In fact, I would go as far to say that the results changed my thinking about some of our masters of cinema. The cultural variations were also fascinating.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear about some of your own experiences with the films ranked 21-50. Any favorites make the list? Ones you absolutely hate? Are you surprised by any of the cultural differences?

Until the next reel. . . .

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Greatest Films of All Time: Intro and 1-20

Magic Lantern show from the 19th century

"Cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians."
Francis Ford Coppola

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about one man's quest to figure out the greatest films of all time. In this initial installment, I offer a general introduction to my improbable journey. Then, after various mystical, intellectual and emotional adventures in the realm of cinema - or, more accurately, the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking and mind-numbing struggle with lists, lists, lists! from around the world - I will reveal the amazing and (turn your head, children!) sometimes shocking tableau of what might be the 20 Greatest Films of All Time!

[UPDATE: The other posts in this series include Films 21-50, Films 51-100, Films 101-200, and The Directors.]

Part The First

A few months ago, I decided to start watching masterpieces of cinema that I had never seen before. Being the geek that I am, I wanted a neat, orderly list, so I could cross off titles as I saw each film. But where would I find such a creature? Who among the myriad critics, directors, academics, movie fans, and purveyors of popular magazines had ever compiled the one, true, absolutely indispensable list?

It seemed like a simple question: What are the greatest films of all time?

But it depends, of course, on who's making the list. In the internet age, there seem to be new ones every month, but too often they're skewed towards a specific audience/genre, or pander to commercial tastes, or only include films from one country, mostly the United States. (Recently, the American Film Institute managed all three tendencies at once in "America's 10 Greatest Films in 10 Classic Genres.")

I wanted something more: A genuine attempt at a film canon.

(If you want to argue about the very concept of "canons," take it up with Paul Schrader. "Canon Fodder." Film Comment 42.5 (2006) 33-49.)

Buster Keaton contemplates the Greatest Films of All Time

Obviously, a canonical list had to include cinema from all over the world. But I realized that my very conception of the world's greatest cinema came from reading American critics, taking classes in American universities, watching films distributed in the U.S., and talking with other American film fans. Sure, Roger Ebert may think Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is one of the greatest films of all time, and they may show it in classes at NYU or on Turner Classic Movies, but do people in Asia regard it as highly as we do in the United States? (Not really, as it turns out.)

Hollywood has been such a force in the movie industry for so long, we can forget sometimes about the equally longstanding cinematic traditions and thriving industries in other countries. Film history begins in France, with the Lumière brothers and George Méliès, and until the advent of World War II, the French gave Hollywood a run for its money. Later, via the Nouvelle Vague, they played a profound role in the transformation of cinema in the late 1950s and early 1960s. India also has a rich cinematic history and produces more films than Hollywood. So what do the French think is the greatest film of all time? What about the Indians? I was no longer content with a list that simply included international films but was still developed by Americans. I wanted to know what movies the rest of the world loves and considers important.

Do the Portugese think a Hollywood musical like Singin' in the Rain belongs on a list of the best films ever made? (Yes, they do.) What about The Godfather? It's the #1 film on IMDB. Is it the #1 film all over the world? (Not necessarily. Americans and Asians had it ranked #3 overall; Europeans, on the other hand, ranked it #20.)

As it turns out, it wasn't easy finding lists of The Greatest Films of All Time as chosen by people outside of the U.S. and the U.K. (The very idea of listing great works of art may be an Anglo-American trait.) I searched high and low on the internet and found a few efforts from other countries, but not many. I even contacted the film divisions of the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, seeking guidance from my professional brothers, but neither proved helpful. Finally, I tracked down a book published in 1995 by the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film/International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), the most important association of film archives in the world. The book, which was located in only three libraries in the U.S., was called Le jeu des catégories [The Categories Game: a game for the cinema's centenary], and it included lists of great and important works of cinema chosen by film archives and institutes from various places around the globe. It proved very useful for my purposes.

Yeah . . . but will it play in Osaka?

In the end, I compiled 30 lists from eighteen different countries. Two lists came from individual critics: Roger Ebert and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Many were done by groups of critics/judges in formats like the British magazine Time Out or the Russian film journal Kinovedcheskie Zapiski. From the FIAF book, I wound up with lists from 17 archives and institutes from around the world, including ones in China, India (maybe the most fascinating list), Ecuador, Finland and Israel. In another post, I'll give all of the sources and talk about some of the problems (and treasures) encountered in using them.

One important note now, however: When I say something like, "the Asians don't seem as enthralled by Stanley Kubrick," (which they don't), I'm obviously talking about a small number of Asians connected to cinema: maybe two dozen directors, critics and archivists in this case. The sample sizes from each of the regions is ultimately too small to formulate any serious conclusions. This isn't an academic paper - it's simply a personal quest. And the results served my purpose: To develop a list of great films from a more international perspective, and to see how many and what kind of cultural variations might show up when discussing cinema in different parts of the world. While my findings from these 30 lists obviously can't be conclusive, I do think they're interesting and worthy of discussion.

Alas, I couldn't find any lists from Africa or the Middle East. That's interesting in and of itself.

In choosing my sources, I had three main criteria: 1) that the lists had to be made by people or groups consciously trying to rank the Greatest Films of All Time, 2) that the lists had to include films from everywhere, and 3) that the lists had to be from 1995 or sooner.

I didn't use IMDB's TOP 250, for example, because I don't think the results are determined by people who necessarily know world cinema and have been mulling over 113 years of film history. As much as I loved WALL-E, I'm simply not ready to say it's the 19th greatest film ever made. Maybe it will be in the future, but I think wrestling with a canon requires a certain amount of distance from an initial release. At least more than 17 days. I did, however, include the Top 200 list from the IMDB Classic Film Board, as that list did fit my criteria.

The website They Shoot Pictures, Don't They compiles lists from over 2,000 sources to make their own grand list of the 1,000 Greatest Films. It's like the mega-version of what I put together. So why didn't I just use the TSPDT list? Well, it's an excellent and fun website, and I included their Top 200 in my own analysis, but I wasn't satified with their rankings because I had problems with their criteria - or lack thereof. They seem to include whatever list they could get their hands on: Sight & Sound's 10 Greatest Films from 1950 (i.e., nothing from the last 58 years of cinema), Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 "Best French Films Since the Liberation," or "The Top 10 Greatest Animated Lesbian Action Films of the 1990s," chosen by Ned, a first-year film student at North-Central State University in the Middle of Nowhere. There are some fascinating lists available on their website, but many of them didn't fit my criteria.

With all due respect for people in the rest of the world . . . What the hell's wrong with you?!?! What's so hard to understand about The Lady Eve? (It showed up on 4 out of 6 Anglo-American lists, and none anywhere else. Is comedy the hardest genre to transfer from one culture to another?)

One of the best sources, I thought, was the British Film Institute's journal Sight & Sound. Each decade, they produce highly regarded Top Ten Lists, one chosen by Critics and one by Directors. They do an excellent job of including judges from around the world, both men and women. If you love film and love lists, I recommend spending some time on their website. You can see individual choices from all the judges in the 2002 edition. Which film, for example, did Jim Jarmusch choose as the greatest of all time? (Jean Vigo's L'Atalante). Or compare #1 picks by Richard Linklater (Minnelli's Some Came Running), Roger Ebert (Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God) and Thai critic Anchalee Chaiworaporn (À bout de souffle [Breathless] by Godard). You can also track the perception of cinematic greatness over time. Citizen Kane didn't even make the first Top Ten in 1952, when De Sica's Ladri di biciclette [Bicycle Thieves] was considerewd the Greatest Film of All Time, even though it had only been released four years earlier. After that, however, Citizen Kane has been ranked #1 on every Sight & Sound list from the last five decades. Bicylce Thieves didn't make the Critics Top Ten in 2002.

So, let's get it on with it. What are the greatest films of all time? Is it even possible to decide?

Out of 30 lists, ranging from 10 to 200 films each, I wound up with a staggering total of 580 films that someone somewhere considered to be the greatest of all time. Many films were only chosen once. But some films definitely began to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

One, and only one, film wound up on ALL 30 LISTS. An amazing feat, it seems to me. (The #2 film, for example, only showed up on 24 lists.)

Not only that, it was also NUMBER ONE on every single list that ranked its films.

There was, then, surprisingly (and disappointingly) little debate about the Greatest Film of All Time. After all these years, it's still Citizen Kane (1941).

Orson Welles may have been shunned by Hollywood and had terrible luck raising money to make movies at all, but his rookie effort is still considered to be the greatest work in the history of cinema. Though I suppose it shouldn't have, the outcome surprised me. I thought by now that Kane's reputation might have subsided somewhat. It's obviously an incredibly important film, but was it, aesthetically speaking, the Greatest Film of All Time? Or, maybe it wasn't so highly regarded in other parts of the world. Maybe the Russians wouldn't think it was that great. But no, the 28 critics at the Russian film journal Kinovedcheskie Zapiski chose Citizen Kane as #1 overall. It was on a Time magazine list that included popular fare like Finding Nemo, and lists by film archives from Venezuela to Slovenia. It was even among the Vatican's list of Top Ten Greatest Films.

Yeah, whatever. Orson Welles and Citizen Kane. Yawn. His wife, however, definitely ranks #1 in the eyes of many serious and intellectual people who appreciate the finer aspects of cinema.

The #2 and #3 films also showed up on a lot of lists (24 and 23 respectively), often battling for second place. In the final analysis, Jean Renoir's La Régle du jeu [Rules of the Game] (1939) nudged out Sergei Eisenstein's silent classic Bronenosets Potyomkin [The Battleship Potemkin] (1925).

And, almost immediately, cultural differences started showing up. Potemkin was actually #2 in the rest of the world outside of the U.S. and U.K. Where did it rank in the Anglo-American universe? Down at #42! Do Americans think it's too old? Too communist? Why such a big discrepancy?

I developed a point system, awarding 100 points to the #1 film in a ranked Top 100, for example, and giving X number of points to films on unranked lists. If a film showed up in an unranked Top 10, for instance, I gave it 50 points, because it seems significant to be one of only ten works chosen. On an unranked list of 100 films, I gave each one 20 points. I tried to be fair in my calculations, but I'm certainly not claiming the system to be perfect. I also tracked the number of times a film was mentioned (Only the Top 100 titles.)

Citizen Kane wound up with 1,735 points in my system and was mentioned 30 times. Rules of the Game had 1,390 points (24 mentions) and Battleship Potemkin scored 1,253 points (23 mentions).

Only three other films scored over a thousand points:

4. Otto e Mezzo [8½] (1963) - Federico Fellini - 1137 (19 mentions)

5. La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) - Carl Dreyer - 1061 (20 mentions)

6. Vertigo (1958) - Alfred Hitchcock - 1042 (16 mentions)

Hitchcock's classic also showed a bit of cultural variation, ranking #2 overall in the U.S./U.K. lists and only #18 in the Asian lists.

Jean-Luc Godard trys to determine the masterpieces of world cinema

Rounding out the Top Ten Greatest Films of All Time:

7. À bout de souffle [Breathless] (1960) – Jean-Luc Godard - 898.5 (17 mentions)

8. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Stanley Kubrick - 880.5 (15 mentions)

9. The Godfather (1972) – Francis Ford Coppola - 872 (14 mentions)

10. Tokyo monogatari (Tokyo Story) (1953) – Yasujiro Ozu - 844.5 (14 mentions)

Godard's first work may have transformed cinema more than any other movie since Citizen Kane, but don't tell the folks in the U.S. and U.K. Despite a high finish in the rest of the world, it came in at #63 in the Anglo-American lists. Do we hate him because he's French? Because he was a political radical? Because he won't tell us a nice, simple story?

Conversely, Kubrick's science fiction classic didn't impress the Asians as much as everyone else, only reaching #33 on their lists. It's such a visual and musical work, almost non-verbal at times - it seems like it would translate more easily into other cultures. Could images or concepts be more culturally specific than we think? Even more interesting: the Asians don't seem to like Stanley Kubrick in general. Though he had 8 films on the full list, 2001 was the only one they mentioned. What is it about his work that doesn't reach them?

And here's the rest of the Top 20:

11. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) – F.W. Murnau - 833.5

12. L’Atalante (1934) – Jean Vigo - 829

13. Intolerance (1916) – D.W. Griffith - 828

14. Shichinin no samurai [The Seven Samurai] (1954) – Akira Kurosawa - 792.5

15. Rashômon (1950) – Akira Kurosawa - 775.5

16. The Searchers (1956) – John Ford - 749

17. Singin' in the Rain (1952) – Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen - 740

18. Pather Panchali (1955) – Satyajit Ray - 722.5

19. Ladri di biciclette [The Bicycle Thieves] (1948) – Vittori De Sica - 716.5

20. Ugetsu monogatari [Ugetsu] (1953) – Kenji Mizoguchi - 710.5

Though he didn't make it into the Top Ten, Kurosawa was the only director to have more than one film in the Top Twenty. As I mentioned before, Seven Samurai is actually regarded more highly in the U.S./U.K. - where it came in fifth - than it is in Asia, where it was only #19. Asians preferred Rashomon more, ranking it #13. Europeans, on the other hand, were the opposite. They had Seven Samurai at #13, but Rashomon doesn't show up until #95.

Another Japanese film that showed wide variations between Asia and Europe was Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 classic, Ugetsu, which the Europeans ranked #9 and the Asians #96. But that's nothing compared to the variation shown with Mikio Naruse's 1955 film, Ukigumo [Floating Clouds], which ranked #9 overall on Asian lists and wasn't mentioned at all in the rest of the world. This Japanese film didn't even get released in the U.S. until 1980. I had never heard of it before. Could this be a case of poor distribution that has kept us from seeing and appreciating a great piece of art from another part of the world? How did Kurosawa do so well in the U.S. during the same time period?

What about Singin' in the Rain, perhaps the quintessential American musical? How did it do? Well, the Europeans think it's grand (The French critics at Cahiers du cinema ranked it #7 all time), but the Anglo-Americans only had it at #28 and the Asians at #48.

The Asians also didn't care as much for Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, ranking it #50, whereas it wound up #9 overall in the U.S./U.K.

Films ranked 1-20 that show up in my own list of Favorite 100 Films: Citizen Kane (#1); Otto e Mezzo [8½] (#4); À bout de souffle [Breathless] (#7); The Godfather (#9); L’Atalante (#12); The Seven Samurai (#14); Rashômon (#15); and Singin' in the Rain (#17).

I'll discuss other regional differences in future posts and reveal more of the Top 200 as I go.

Which directors had the most films mentioned? (Cash prize for naming the top three.) Which decade produced the highest number of masterpieces? What was the worst year for great cinema? What do Asians have against Chinatown? And why do Americans hate Luchino Visconti? (Because he was in the Italian Communist Party?) So stay tuned (oops, that's a television metaphor) for future installments.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think about some of these "greatest" films that have been listed. And which movies do you think are the best of all time?

Monday, July 14, 2008

New Blog: On Politics and Parenting

My friend David Kersh has started a new blog called On Politics and Parenting. This makes me very happy. David is an excellent writer and one of the most thoughtful, intelligent and honorable people I know. It's great to have him putting his work up on the web.

Even if you think you're not interested in politics or parenting, I suggest you give his blog a read. David's mind and heart are too vast to be contained by those subjects alone. For example, I've already learned about a Brazilian film called God is Brazilian, which shows up in the middle of David's open letter to, well, God. Among other things, David has a great sense of humor.

And if you are interested in politics and parenting, well, I can't imagine you'll ever find a better blog.

Best of luck, amigo mio!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


La Reina and I just returned from a wonderful 5-night stay in Montréal. I'm too tired after our extended train journey back home yesterday to offer anything but a few unorganized thoughts and impressions. Photos are all generic, since we have to . . . uh . . . actually develop our rolls of film.

It felt great to get out of the States for a few days, even if it was just across the border. This trip marked the first time we've been out of the country since we moved back from Spain eight years ago. We loved being surrounded by the French language, and the European feel at times among the people and in the overall atmosphere of the city. (Except for when it felt like New York, which happened to me more than La Reina. I was getting Park Slope vibes at times. Albeit a French version. With cleaner streets.)

Tiger shrimp in Pernod sauce. My favorite meal.

Among many.

The crepe, for instance, made of sweet-corn and sesame batter, filled with asparagus, black forest ham, cheddar and mozzarella cheeses and "Nelson sauce."

That was at the Jardin Nelson in the Old City, where we sat in a funky patio garden area and listened to a jazz combo sing Cole Porter, Édith Piaf, and Rodgers & Hart ("Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered") while we ate. After the meal, in one of my favorite moments of the trip, they did Charles Trenet's lovely tune, "Que reste-t-il de nos amours?" while I sat back sipping my Pernod and smoking a du Maurier - surrounded by flowers and ma femme tres belle on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon.

We capped off that meal by taking a short stroll down to the Vieux Port area on the Saint-Laurent river, laid down in the grass under a tree and took a nap. It was, in fact, the trip of "naps in the grass after excellent meals." Twice in the park by the river and once at the top of Mont Royal.

Eggs Benedict with Gruyère, served on a crepe. That was a good one.

Montréal is worth a visit for the food alone. Everything we had was excellent. Including the marvelous hot dogs. (No, really!)

And cafe au lait! How in the world have I survived the last eight years without a Spanish cafe con leche or a cafe au lait? Obviously, my heart has hardened over time, and what little civilization I absorbed in Madrid has been crushed out of me by The Man. And, je suis désolé, but a latte at Starbucks just isn't the same.

Though we didn't plan on it, our trip coincided with the last five days of the 29th Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. What a fantastic piece of luck. The Festival is so pleasant and well-organized and offers a seemingly endless number of free concerts. We spent three nights just wandering from one stage to the next, listening to music from around the world, soaking up the spectacular summer evenings, eating crepes (homemade in front of us) or the most amazing hot dogs in the world (no, really, you don't understand - they were in a class by themselves), drinking beer, and even talking to the musicians at times. Ironically, a group we knew from Brooklyn, Las Rubias del Norte, were performing on one of the big stages on Friday night. We used to hang out at Cafe Barbes in Park Slope, where Las Rubias regularly perform, but we had never actually seen them play. This, as it turns out, was our great loss. They were a lot of fun to hear - glockenspiel, bongos, electric guitar, beautiful vocal harmonies . . . doing Bollywood songs, Greek tunes, and a host of Latin American classics, all in a cumbia mix. After the show, we went back stage and chatted a bit.

The only drawback to the festival was, ironically, that we didn't hear much good jazz. I think it's great that the festival includes all kinds of music: blues, tango, African, Latino, soul, rap, etc. But the number of actual jazz concerts was limited, and too often . . . well . . . how shall I put it? I heard "In the Mood" twice in one day. Hearing Glenn Miller twice in the same year is plenty, but twice in the same day, especially at a jazz festival, is just not right. Finally, though, on our last evening, we encountered The Marcus Shelby Quartet, with guest vocalist Faye Carol. They were from San Francisco, and they were the real deal. The trio is great by itself, but Carol has a truly dazzling stage presence. Her vocal style shows traces of Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald's scat, and even the primordial wail/yodel of Leon Thomas, who used to sing with Pharoah Sanders. She's incorporated each of these elements into her own unique sound, and all were utilized perfectly in surprisingly powerful and moving version of - wait for it - Kermit the Frog's song, "It's Not Easy Being Green." It was, without a doubt, one of the best live performances I've seen in years.

Suffice it to say, it's a wonderful festival, and if you've never been, consider going. Check out this cool 360 degree panoramic image of the Louisiana Parade (with music) for a little taste of the atmosphere.

No internet for six days. That was a nice break.

No news either, with the exception of watching some French coverage of Ingrid Betancourt being freed. No Obama. No McCain. No failing economy. No cowardly Democrats caving in on FISA. I have no idea what happened in the United States over the last six days.

We didn't do much sight-seeing; mainly we walked around the various neighborhoods. We did, however, visit the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal. After five years in Spain, and having done the Camino de Santiago, I'm definitely a snob when it comes to cathedrals and churches. But the Basilique was quite beautiful. And not only did they have real candles (essential), they actually used them more effectively than any church I've ever seen, with four colors - red, yellow, white and a deep purple - and two sizes, all laid out tastefully and in such a way as to play off the stained glass windows and the dark tones of the wooden interior. Also of interest were the stained glass windows, which, rather than showing typical scenes from the Bible, depicted the history of Canada and the "religious and social life of the early Ville-Marie settlement." And the statue of Jeanne d'Arc up at the altar made me think of Leonard Cohen, who happened to back in his hometown a few days earlier, receiving the Montreal Jazz Festival Spirit Award and performing in the city for the first time in 15 years. Too bad we missed him.

We tried speaking French to the good (and friendly) folks of Montréal, but we kept breaking into Spanish instead. You take one year of French back in college, at the end of the 18th century, so naturally, your tongue goes to the closest equivalent in your mangled brain. You start the sentence in bad French and end up blabbing on in rusty Spanish, with the person staring at you without any comprehension. Finally, you say, "Parlez-vous anglais?"

We did get cheeky a couple of times and ask our waiters, "Parlez-vous espagnol?" Pained look. "Anglais?" Relief on the waiter's face. Then they started trying out their bad Spanish on us. One waiter, however, did parle espagnol un peau. We wound up conversing in three languages, all of them poorly. But we were only ordering drinks at a sidewalk cafe.

Montréal is full of incredibly good looking men, including several of our waiters. La Reina told me so. Several times a day. She kept saying how she needed to tell her unmarried sister to move to Montréal. Wish fulfillment or genuine concern for a sibling? Oh, and they're all in great shape. (What, my beer belly isn't sexy anymore?) Just because some guy speaks French, looks intellectual and hunky, and dresses way cool. Geez.

But she was right. There are a lot of good-looking men in Montréal.

I didn't bother looking at the women, content as I was to be with my beloved, but If I had, I would've noticed that there aren't any naturally blonde Québécois woman. Not a single one in the entire city. Some do a blonde streaking thing with their hair. That was popular. But they're all brunettes. Hey, fine with me. (If I were looking.)

Funny travel moment: We're in a bookstore near one of the universities. Lots of philosophy books, literary criticism, cinema, etc. We're looking through poetry in French (I can read a little, even if I can't speak it). I'm checking out the Apollinaire, looking for something newer, like Michel Deguy. La Reina buys a book by a contemporary French woman who does prose poetry. Asian clerk behind the counter dressed in black, wearing black rimmed glasses. Everything feels très intellectuel. Meanwhile, the entire time we've been in the shop, they've been playing ZZ Top. A mix of their early stuff - maybe The Best of ZZ Top, from 1977. As far as I could tell, no irony was intended.

Oh, right, if I talk about food in Montréal, I suppose I should mention poutine. A "legendary" (the waiter's word, not mine) Québécois dish. French fries covered with cheese curds and brown gravy. I'm not sure why anyone would want to take a nice crispy french fry and turn it soggy with brown gravy, but, hey, whatever turns you on. And what can I say? I come from a place that takes a mediocre cut of beef, covers it in flour, fries it up, and then smothers the whole thing in cream gravy. So, I felt a kind of cultural connection, despite my quibbles with the soggy fries. Poutine seems well suited for that food craving one gets at 3 AM after a night on the town. And a great winter comfort food. Though when I asked if it was more popular in the winter, the waiter seemed a bit offended. "No, it's for summer, too," he insisted. "They're putting lots of things with poutine now, like chicken." (Chicken = summer?) One Montréal restaurant even makes it with pate I was told. I'm sure you can find the same kind of fancy-ization of chicken fried steak in some prissy Austin and Dallas restaurants. But it's sort of like putting perfume and a pink bow on a perfectly good hound dog.

The train ride up from New York City was spectacular, though long. (Really long coming back.) You travel through the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondacks, passing by Lake Champlain. A great deal at $61 each way. But long. The Travel Scrabble set we got one Christmas came in handy.

All in all, it was a great trip.