As a boy I loved going to the movies. With family or friends when I was little, on my own as I slipped out of childhood, I was seldom more dependably happy than when I was settling into a theater seat as the lights went down. The darkness helping me focus on the screen in front of me for two hours, I was removed from whatever might not be going well in my life, and able to get lost in the action as it unfolded. In college I studied film and came to love the cinema even more then I had as a kid. I became more critical and certainly went through a period of self-conscious snobbery, but I never completely lost the excitement of seeing something new and hoping to be transported by the experience. As I came to view films in a different way I developed a particular appreciation for those movies that presented as seamless to me. More than (forgive me) simply great, there were some films that struck me as impossible to imagine in any way other than the final product I saw up on the screen. As much as I thought some movies were terrific, I would still be aware that I was rewriting parts of them as I watched.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is an extraordinary piece of work. I still think of it as the greatest action film ever made. But once Indy swims to the U-boat and climbs the conning tower, I couldn’t will myself to forget how unlikely it would be that the submarine would avoid submerging for the duration of its trip. Working my way through a variety of formats and edits I have seen Apocalypse Now seventeen times, start to finish. Not a typo. As you might guess I consider it a singular cinematic achievement. The film is, in various ways, representative of the end of the tyro auteur epoch of Hollywood, a touchstone to the national hangover from the Vietnam war and a fairly accurate reflection of the genius and self absorption of Francis Ford Coppola. Still. After Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz arrives it becomes obvious that Coppola’s subsequent camera and lighting choices are an attempt to create an aura of command around a man who looks as if he might have kicked Dom Deluise’s ass in a pie eating contest. I love those movies but they’re not perfect. Over time I’ve collected a list of films that feel flawless. If you’re a film fan you probably have your own picks. What came to fascinate me as much as the movies themselves was the story behind them. How they got made, the conflicts that had to be overcome. Each one had it’s own tale to tell.
Like many cinema students, the first time I was really aware that I had just seen something perfect was after a screening of Citizen Kane. I had been taking film study classes for a little less than a year at the time and had developed the vocabulary and critical skills to watch movies with a different perspective than I had as child. Having had my expectations built up by repeated references to Orson Welles’ debut I was fully prepared to find something wrong with it. Never got there. I was blown away and 35 years later I can still recall being utterly amazed at what I had seen. Kane has held up for me in these passing decades, and still feels undated. When I first read some of the back story on the film I anticipated an extended recounting of the entertaining but toxic narcissism Welles was famous for. To put it mildly he had a reputation as a world class schmuck. Always known for being a controlling tyrant he had, by the time of his passing, ventured into the land of the surreal. Taking a momentary tangent here, if you want four minutes of cringe inducing delight go to YouTube, punch in “Orson Welles frozen peas” and let the hilarity ensue. Even at his younger, less cartoonish best he was no small pain in the ass. Taking all of that into consideration I had assumed that filming Kane had been a brutal experience for all involved, with Welles micromanaging every facet of the production. I was wrong. Although his relationship with co-writer, Herman Mankiewicz was cantankerous, he seemed to work quite well with the other artists involved in the production. Before shooting began he had been issued a film makers “text book” by the executives at RKO (the studio) and had proved a diligent student. Working with the editor, Robert Wise, he was quite successful in manipulating the passage of time on screen. Giving Bernard Herrmann free reign he was rewarded with an academy nominated musical score. His most encompassing area of outside input was with director of photography, Greg Tolland. Tolland had wanted to work with Welles, feeling that as a first time director who nonetheless came with an elevated set of expectations he might be open to giving the cinematographer room to experiment. Good call. Realizing that Tolland knew more than he did Welles took advice on camera placement and shot composition from him resulting in a signature look for the movie which set precedent. Prior to Citizen Kane movie sets did not contain ceilings. At Tolland’s suggestion the character of Kane was often shot in an extreme low angle in order to heighten his sense of menace. Achieving this effect created a need for set construction to include a ceiling. Tolland devised lenses with dramatically deep focus allowing Welles to compose his frames in a more natural way. In addition Tolland convinced Welles to eschew master shots for most scenes, and to get by with fewer takes than most directors used, an approach facilitated by Welles’ extensive rehearsal of his cast. As his career advanced, and almost simultaneously decayed he drifted further into a state of auto-caricature, until he had nothing left to sell but that amazing speaking voice, and the authority it conveyed. No surprise that his greatest triumph came at the very beginning before he had the time to grow into his own worst enemy.
Moving along in no particular order, Annie Hall holds such an esteemed place with me that I hesitate to think of it as “just” a perfect film, and place it by itself, isolated by my inability to succinctly give it its due. If I could wake up tomorrow and lay claim to any artistic achievement in human history I would want to be the guy that wrote and directed Annie Hall. Which puts me somewhat at odds with the film’s actual creator, Woody Allen. Wanting to elevate himself from the slapstick and farce of his preceding work (Take the Money and Run, Sleeper, etc.) he was determined to make a more serious movie. Allen had written and directed it with the intent of opening a window into Alvy Singer’s thinking. The original screenplay had a number of different plot strands, including a murder mystery, a romance, and multiple sources of the existential angst Allen radiated. Longer takes, sub-titles indicating the characters real feelings and having Alvy repeatedly break the fourth wall and directly addresses the audience were the perfect, if unconventional techniques used to give the moviegoer clear insight into the workings of Alvy’s mind. Still, there must have been something unsettled about the production to him. He deviated from the shooting script more than once and recorded the final monologue hours before a test screening. When Ralph Rosenblum started editing he was working with a draft of the screenplay that listed the final scene as “to be shot”. The first cut of the film ran 140 minutes. The picture that you and I have seen ran just over an hour and a half. I can only guess, but it seems that Woody Allen had an interesting thematic conceit, which he executed brilliantly, and which then turned out to work poorly at a narrative level. His co-writer, Marshall Brickman, thought so. He found the original assembly of the film “… non-dramatic, and ultimately uninteresting, a kind of cerebral exercise. It was like the first draft of a novel… from which two or three films could possibly be assembled”. Rosenblum saw “a visual monologue, a more sophisticated and philosophical version of Take the Money and Run”. He and Allen began to cut and re-cut so that each iteration came to focus more and more on the Alvy-Annie story. Allen realized that it was the right direction to go in, agreeing to Rosenblum’s suggestions, culminating in a movie that is still fresh and funny and sadly sweet today. And he didn’t like it. He felt that “the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.” Not to disagree with a brilliant artist concerning his own work but he’s wrong. At a fundamental level the movie does exactly what he wanted but is made more accessible by structure imposed on it during the editing process. In the end, I think his unhappiness is largely a function of his inherently conflicted nature. As it exists today, Annie Hall is still very much a revealing look into the workings of Alvy Singer’s mind. The central romance of Annie and Alvy simply gives it a narrative focus. There is nothing remotely unusual about setting a character study within a classic dramatic archetype. Boy meets girl, boy does a lot of kvetching, etc. Even a story with a detailed plot, replete with carefully executed twists can still be at its heart the eloquent examination of the soul of it’s main character. Which is as good a way as any to bring us to the final film in discussion.
In 1974, amidst a remarkable run (The Godfather,The Conversation, Apocalypse Now), Francis Ford Coppola brought The Godfather II to the screen. Both a prequel to and the culmination of the Corleone family saga, the movie is a masterwork on every level. Working with an all-star team of cinematic talent (Willis, Tavoularis, Van Runkle) and a heavyweight cast (Pacino, Keaton, Duval) Coppola and Mario Puzo co-authored a script that moved rhythmically between the two stories. Which as it turns out was something of a sticking point for Paramount, the studio that was distributing the movie. The executives overseeing the project felt that the audience would not embrace the idea of tracking parallel narratives. They were worried that the average viewer would become either confused or disengaged. In particular they could not see why anyone would want go back and learn about the early years of the Corleone family. Everybody believed that the audience would want to continue on with the story from the point where the preceding film had ended; Michael’s ascension to Don. It wasn’t just film business executives that felt that way. In advanced critic’s screenings the reception was less than complimentary. Coppola returned to the editing room and tightened the pace of the movie but remained committed to his original structure. Even sincere, well intentioned advice from his closest friends could not alter his approach. After sitting through a five hour cut George Lucas told him he had two complete films and needed to make a choice. No thanks. And you know, history is convincingly on his side. I think all those outside voices forgot what the film is really about. Every plot element involving the adult Michael Corleone takes us to one tragic, inescapable place. He ends up alone. Completely. Estranged from his wife, alienated from his children, haunted by the older brother he’s had murdered, Michael is a man who has done everything imaginable to protect his family and in the process has, in one fashion or another, driven them all out of his life. Without the contrasting scenes of his father’s rise his own fall would not be so crushing. Our final image of Michael, sitting alone at his Lake Tahoe compound, might not be so lasting if we didn’t know, via flashback, that he himself is thinking of his own father’s birthday, years in the past. Surrounded by family and friends, Vito Corleone has the pleasure that can only come from knowing that the choices he has made have led to the life he’d hoped for. Coppola knew the emotional center of the story is Michael’s inability to fully understand his father’s heart. To know and do what Vito would have, but without the old man’s leavening sentiment. I can’t imagine being as effected by Michael’s fate without the counterpoint of his father’s happier life to look at.
Welles got to perfect by letting the people around him help him. Allen got there and never knew it. Coppola got there because he knew what it would take regardless of the pressures on him to see things differently.