Category Archives: 1001 Movies

1001 Movies: The Official Story

This week’s pick for the 1001 Movies You Must See Club was 1985’s The Official Story. I had actually never heard of this movie before, which is weird because it won a bunch of awards, including the Academy Award for best foreign film. Or maybe I had heard of it before but then I saw the cover art and decided to ignore it as best I could.

I’m actually painfully ignorant of Argentinean history in general. I know that people went missing. I know that the government was all fucked up. But ask me to say one intelligent thing about it, and I would flounder. After watching this film, that embarrassing fact hasn’t changed.

It’s not a movie I would necessarily recommend jumping into without some previous knowledge of Argentinean politics, but let’s just pretend you’re as globally uninformed as I am, you won’t have a problem following along on an emotional level rather than a political one.

The story deals with the “disappeared” of that complex political environment, many of whom were tortured and killed, many of whom were women, many of whom were mothers. Alicia Marnet is struggling to find out if her adopted daughter, Gaby, is one of the children of those missing mothers.

It’s slightly suspenseful, and a little bit romantic – as that awful DVD cover would suggest – but the film is actually slow moving and emotionally dense, as we discover the underground politics of Argentina at the same time conservative, trusting Alicia does. Though obviously not made for Americans to learn the history, the film does use the minimal political understandings of Alicia to help us along while still remaining fairly vague and, as a result, subtle.

I loved Analia Castro, who played the little girl, Gaby. What is it about foreign cinema that brings out these amazing child performances? Ponette being one of the best examples, but all of Kiarostami’s work qualifies as well. Maybe it’s because I can’t hear the proper inflection and tones in the foreign language, but Their kids seem so much cuter, original, and sincere than Ours! If my kid could be just like Gaby, and allowing that she wasn’t pulled from my poor tortured womb before I died at the hands of political extremists, I would totally keep that kid.



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1001 Movies: 2001: A Space Odyssey

This week for the 1001 Movies You Must See Club, we watched 2001. I’ve written about this movie quite a bit, so I’m just going to rehash an article I wrote for an old blog about classical music in film. It’s a bit long, but that’s only because I’m really brilliant.

2001: A Space Odyssey came out in a difficult time period for both hard science fiction and classical music film scores. Predated by films like The Thing from Another World, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Godzilla, 2001: A Space Odyssey offered a kind of hard science-fiction that genre fans weren’t quite used to. The film incorporated a sense of verisimilitude that rubberized pod people don’t quite measure up to. After a series of lousy reviews from important voices like Pauline Kael (, 2001 won a few academy awards and soon became a wildly popular and important film. Titles such as “The Blue Danube” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” became even better known and film viewers continue to incorporate 2001 into their expectations of science fiction. After the release of 2001, sci-fi was never the same. Kitschy, cheap genre films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers were much harder to pull off after the level of verisimilitude had been raised so high. Along with another film released in 1969, Planet of the Apes, science fiction started to appeal to a much larger fan base than the usual genre crowd and viewers came to demand new things of the genre.

In the first half of film history – and even lingering somewhat today – using classical music in film scores was very unpopular among film and music critics alike. Using pre-existing music in what was seen by music scholars as such a crude and popular medium was almost sacrilege. It seemed to suggest that the two forms of classical music and film were on the same level, which they clearly weren’t. Classical music in films was also unpopular to film scholars who thought that it distracted from the image, or lead to less creative efforts by film scorers (Duncan, 10-33). It seems that because of this widely held opinion, the score of 2001: A Space Odyssey – consisting of entirely pre-existing pieces – was extremely unpopular among scholars. Kahn Atkins claimed that the music in the film had a “frozen, congealed-in-aspic quality; another, that they are a throwback to the clichés of silent theatre music, with ‘tried-and-true’ classics from ‘the old masters.’” (Duncan, 20-21). However, it seems to me – because of the subsequent popularity and parodies of the two most popular pieces in the film – that it is largely because of the recognizable score, placed alongside an extremely unrecognizable setting, that the film because so popular among audiences.

“The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss was originally only mildly successful. In fact, Strauss himself is quoted as saying, “the Devil take The Waltz.” However, through the years, “The Blue Danube” has become one of the most widely recognized pieces of classical music ( Though Kubrick could never have known the future reception of 2001, it seems to mirror that of the “Danube.” It took time for audiences to warm up to – and eventually admire and love – these two artworks. In his book, Charms that Soothe: Classical Music and The Narrative Film, Dean Duncan talks about how both music and images create their own narratives, and when those narratives combine in the form of film, both narratives inform the story. This seems to be the case with the “Danube” and 2001, as they boost each other up to eventually create wide appeal.

The piece first occurs in relation to a special effects spectacle near the beginning of the film. As images of giant, intricate spacecrafts – as opposed to the cardboard flying saucers in previous science fiction – the Waltz plays all the way through. Eventually – and with the appearance of humans – the Waltz picks up pace. At this point in the film there is nothing frightening about the technology being used in this setting. The music clues us in to the fantastic, almost regal, position of technology in this world. Humans have successfully learned to interact with the space stations and lack of gravity. The song offers a calm background. There is no sense of urgency in the piece, only a cresendoing sense of importance. In this way, the classical score here is parallel to the image. This scene will later contrast with a more contrapuntal scene when technology has failed the human race and HAL is being disassembled while singing the popular song “Daisy Bell.” Going back to the Atkins quote, the song does have a “frozen” feel to it. It is frozen and time and endlessly floating in space as an example of the perfection man has achieved in the technological world.

The most famous use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey is the other Strauss piece “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” As the song plays when pre-historic man discovers the use of tools – and thus violence – and then again as man enters a different realm of being in the end, we get the sense that the song symbolizes change. The change appears to be both triumphant and terrifying at the same time. The film seems to suggest that though mankind must progress through certain stages, something is lost in the process, in this case, our innocence and control. The song is based on Nietzsche’s book of the same title. Nietzsche once described his own book as “the deepest ever written,” which, judging by Kubrick’s lack of response to questions about meaning and symbolism in 2001, he might believe about his own work. The book was written in a new, experimental style and famously proclaimed that “God is dead.” Written into the narrative of the musical piece is this same phrase. God is dead because we have killed him. When coupled to the visual images of the film, this death seems to have come about by the invention of tools and technology.

Since the release of 2001, these songs have been used for parody countless times. “The Blue Danube” is featured in Spongebob, Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off, Dogma, Curious George, Austin Powers, etc. In fact, it seems that after 2001, it is impossible to use the song for anything but parody. The film is so well known that the song will always be associated with images of zero gravity space activity. The same is true of “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” It is used in The Simpsons and Zoolander as direct parodies of the film. It is also used frequently when sports teams enter the arena, as a symbol of power and importance. Like the “Danube,” the associations with 2001 are too strong to ever divorce the song from the film.

Besides just having an affinity for classical music, Stanley Kubrick seems to be tapping into a larger theme with his use of the Danube and Zarathustra. He seems to be suggesting that man’s moral evolution was halted with the introduction of tools and that it can only be driven to the next level when man successfully overcomes those tools. The first used of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” marks the beginning of art, as the monkey picks up the bone and proceeds to smash everything in his path. Art develops from man’s mastery of technology, and so art is also limited by technology. With the use of classical music, Kubrick implies a sense of perfection. Classical music is the epitomy of civilization. It is the best man could ever do with the technology he has created. At the end of the film we see a reincarnation of art and beauty, suggesting that there is something greater to strive for. However, the classical score implies that in the state that we know – dependant on technology – classical music is the greatest we can hope to achieve.

Duncan, Dean. “Charms that Soothe: Classical Music and the Narrative Film.” Fordham University Press: New York, 2003


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1001 Movies: Mutiny on the Bounty

I’ve seen this movie before. That’s always a weird feeling (I think the correct term is “uncanny”) because when I first put Mutiny on the Bounty on I was sure it would be my first time with this story. It’s also weird because my family wasn’t really a movie watching family when I was a kid. I feel like my tastes in movies (The Brave Little Toaster, Empire Strikes Back, The Neverending Story, etc.) dominated the VCR. So I’m not sure when I saw this and who I saw it with, but I have a vague recollection of my mom and I talking about a book she read about the events while watching one of the whipping scenes.

I didn’t remember the Tahitians, but who would? Boat movies are usually pretty dull for me (excluding Jaws, of course), but Mutiny on the Bounty was just the opposite. Everything that took place on the boat was fascinating, and then as soon as they got to the island everyone’s suddenly in love and humble and simple and whatnot. I’m pretty forgiving of politically correct mistakes of past filmmaking, but I don’t forgive booorrrrinnnnggg.

Boring? Or Sexy?

Mutiny on the Bounty took a lot of turns that seem atypical for popular early Hollywood. It was probably aided by the original, true story, but it was nice to watch a film from the 30s that took so many turns. The plot is complex, and as a result the characters are complex, including the sadistic captain who never quite redeems himself but also never gives into complete cliche.

And Clark Gable was a real hunk without that ridiculous mustache.


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1001 Movies: The Gold Rush

Charlie Chaplin’s film The Gold Rush is not only one of my favorite Chaplin films and my favorite silent films, it’s one of my favorite films of all times. After I watched the 1945 dubbed version yesterday (laughing out loud in a room all by myself), I immediately started the film over and watched all of my favorite parts again.

Like, when Chaplin ties a rope around his waste to keep his pants up while he’s dancing with a sexy lady. Only to find that the rope is attached to a dog that proceeds to follow Chaplin around for the entire dance, getting kicked a few times in the process. (This might be the only time I have ever condoned minor violence against animals. For the sake of laughs.)

Or when Black Larsen is trying to get Chaplin out of the house and wind keeps blowing him back in.

Or – classically – when Chaplin does the rolls on forks dance with the funniest facial expression I swear I’ve ever seen.

It’s obvious that the man is a comic genius. But I think we sometimes overlook his incredible story telling abilities. The scenes that tie all these little funny moments together. Chaplin staring out of his lonely cabin door on New Years Eve while the rest of the town celebrates by singing “Auld Lang Syne” is heartbreaking. He shows the town shooting off guns and raucously partying and then immediately cuts to them gathering in a large, communal circle and contemplating the possibilities of a new year. And the “Little Fellow” isn’t missed by anyone.

While his later work – Modern Times, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Great Dictator – is usually praised higher by film scholars, I find these simple early comedies to be very compelling. When it comes to Chaplin, I don’t think anyone has anything to complain about (besides his multiple affairs and child-bride marrying, I mean).

Check out everyone else’s reviews of the films at the 1001 Movies You Must See Club.

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1001 Movies: Se7en

I find this movie to be one of the most profoundly disturbing horror films out there. And I’ve seen a lot of terrible images. From the opening credits, Se7en succeeds in creating an eerie, unnatural visual motif that continues to haunt the film even through otherwise benign scenes.

Pretty good poster...

I watched this movie a lot my first couple of years of college. It doesn’t seem like the type of experience you’d want to relive multiple times, but I think I wanted to conquer it. There is something about the mixture of Nine Inch Nails and fundamental christianity that literally gave me a stomach ache every time I finished the movie. I had nightmares about it. But I kept watching, trying to satiate the images.

...really bad poster.

No luck. And now I watched it again for the 1001 Movies Club and was just as disturbed. Though, these days I’ve seen a lot more and I’m more prepared for dealing with the emotional consequences of viewing. Yes, it’s a high budget, Brad Pitt/Morgan Freeman thriller. Because of that there is a level of artificiality that a movie like I Spit On Your Grave doesn’t have. But, it feels like director Fincher worked within the Hollywood system – rather than trying to rebel against it – to create a polished, expensive look that feels almost like the uncanny. Like we’ve been here before, but things weren’t quite like this. Is this New York? Is this some other city filled with nightmares? Have murders this calculated and horrific happened? Have I seen this on the news? Or is this all in my dreams/imagination?I have seen serial killers in films before, but none quite like this? Or have I?

On re-watching the film I was also very impressed with the back story an character relationships Fincher manages to cover in between the gruesome murders. So Se7en becomes a successful thriller, horror, and drama, rather than a meaningless series of terrible imagery (like the Cremaster films, for example). And I think it’s more deadly because of that mainstream approach. People see it thinking it’s as typical as everything else they see in theatres, and then are met with good filmmaking turned rotten.

Best opening credits since The X-Files.

Oh, and hey. Did you know this guy was in it?:

In case you don’t recognize him, here’s a more familiar picture:

It's this guy!

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1001 Movies: Naked Lunch

I wrote this for the 1001 Movies you Must See Club.

I think I was predisposed to like Naked Lunch more than most people. I love David Cronenberg, I’m fascinated by explicitly sexual experimental imagery, and I have an annoying habit of trying to counteract popular opinion. There are a lot of things that don’t work in the film, but when you approach it like a drug-induced dream state, there are some interesting uses of narrative at play.

The film stands at an awkward injunction between experimental/abstract filmmaking and conventional narrative. There is a loose plot structure that you follow pretty much linearly complete with mystery and suspense. But I don’t really see a point in following that structure. It’s pretty clear that Bill (Peter Weller) is hallucinating for the entire film, so it seems more helpful to look at the film as a random set of images. Each image interacts, not to form a complex symbol, but to distort any potential of symbolism.

Some themes stand out. Like how Bill is unable to express his sexuality in this 1950s setting until he’s ridiculously high. Even then, his sexuality continues to assault him, violently and always with disgust. (His typewriters talk with asshole-like mouths, a phallus protrudes from the machine and intrudes on Bill’s heterosexual attempts, homosexual sex is transformed into two bugs destroying each other, dungeon alien blow jobs, etc. etc.) Writing feels compulsory. Bill is obligated to “make reports” on his hallucinatory life. He’s not trying to invent a narrative…he doesn’t seem capable of writing fiction. And his more steady friends, Ginsberg and Kerouac, understand his compulsion more than anyone.

I think people assume that Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ novel is accidentally silly. That it’s alluding to meaning that a viewer can’t figure out because of bad filmmaking. I disagree. I don’t think there is any concrete meaning to uncover. I think it’s supposed to be silly. It’s obviously a parody of fifties detective movies – jazz music in the background, exaggerated costume design – and while Naked Lunch isn’t a comedy, it’s not meant to be taken so seriously. It’s a series of moods that continually make fun of the source material and the main character/author.


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