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Essential Films . . . & Others

Edward Hopper, New York Theater, [1]

Edward Hopper, New York Movie, 1939

3,774 words

Looking over Trevor Lynch’s list of his “Ten Favorite Films [2]” in his forthcoming collection, Son of Trevor Lynch’s White Nationalist Guide to the Movies, it occurred to me that I couldn’t possibly put together such a list, even if I could decide on a criterion or two.

I then remembered that Elmer O’Brien, S.J., in introducing his Essential Plotinus, faced a similar difficulty and suggested that there was an “essential” Plotinus as Coleridge had said there was an “essential’ poetry: “that to which with the greatest pleasure the reader returns.”[1] And I recalled that when I finally broke down and bought a DVD player, around 2005, I made a similar rule, to buy discs for movies that I was again and again stopping to watch if they showed up on my cable TV guide.

With the thought that some Counter-Currents readers might find it somewhat diverting, I have put together a little list of such “essential” films, the ones that I constantly default to. Constant Readers will recognize a few, since they are the films whose Constant Viewing has inspired one or more essays here at Counter-Currents, which are linked below. 

Casino [3] (Martin Scorsese) — Like Leone, Scorsese is a master of what I like to call bravura filmmaking (de Niro’s barroom entrance in Mean Streets, Ray Liotta’s Copacabana entrance, Henry Hill’s last day of freedom in Goodfellas, etc.); Welles’s movie studio as “the best train set a boy every got.” The usual bag of tricks are here: goofy but murderous gangsters, explanations of how the money is made, etc. On repeated viewings, it’s the story of Ace and Sharon Stone’s marriage. “I’ve found a new sponsor” is the epitaph for the New Liberated Woman of the ’70s. But all the critics saw was “another Goodfellas.” Even the pop music cues are here, but what’s memorable is Howard Shore’s score, channeling Samuel Barber, linking Videodrome to Lord of the Rings. You might think I’d choose Gangs of New York, but despite its merits I find I only return to the final time-lapse of downtown Manhattan, and for that I have Once Upon a Time in America.

JFK [4] (Oliver Stone) — Love the re-creation of ’60s USA. Thematically, Stone sets out to rip the lid off the Kennedy Assassination, but was eventually sold on the least plausible theory — Jim Garrison’s Theory of Guilt by Geographical Proximity — making his film a covertly pro-Warren Commission psy-op.

Along the way, though, Stone gives some of Hollywood’s best actors the chance to regale us with the most extreme political opinions you’ll ever hear on screen — “Lou Grant” isn’t so cuddly was he drinks to the death of “a bullshit President . . . That’s what happens when you let the niggers vote. They get together with the Jews and the Catholics . . . and elect an Irish bleeding heart . . . Here’s to the New Frontier. Camelot in smithereens.”

I love Garrison’s idea of a covert squad of right-wing homosexual spooks running guns to Cuba and generally doing more for the cause of the Right than 50 years of “conservative” politicking, while Kevin Bacon steals the movie by channeling Francis Parker Yockey through a male hustler: “You a liberal, you don’t know shit ’cause you never been fucked in the ass. This ain’t about justice! No, this is about order! Who rules? Fascism is coming back!” As always, only the bad guys get to talk sense. I wonder if Yockey sounded like that in jail?

Kiss Me Deadly [5] (Robert Aldrich) — An Angry Liberal attempt to rub out Mickey Spillane’s “sadistic fascist” Mike Hammer goes wildly astray and winds up being condemned by the Legion of Decency; as if American Sniper had been intended as an anti-war protest film. Blindingly over-exposed night views of ’50s Los Angeles, seemingly after a super-nova, all boiling acid and chrome. But nothing can outshine the satanic brilliance of Gaby Rogers, Husserl’s niece and Anne Frank’s playmate, as the most fatal femme fatale of all; her eyes are like jellied fire and burn through the screen long before she sets herself, and the film, ablaze with an ending (in the original or now restored version) stolen from Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. “Kiss me, Mike. I want you to kiss me. Kiss me. The liar’s kiss that says I love you, and means something else.” Bang! (See my “Mike Hammer, Occult Dick: Kiss Me Deadly as Lovecraftian Tale [6],” reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others [7].)

The Maltese Falcon [8] (John Huston) — Again, three versions, but only one worth seeing. The first is interesting as a pre-code film that ramps up the sleaziness of Sam Spade; the second tries to be a screwball comedy, starring forgotten matinee idol Warren Williams and Bette Davis, who quit the studio in disgust. Third time around, everything is perfect. Especially the finest ensemble cast ever. Mary Astor essentially plays herself, the 1940s Drew Barrymore. Bogart creates the template for modern Aryan manhood, while interacting with three modes of queer: loudmouthed but incompetent Elisha Cooke, Jr., the archetypal runt (“The cheaper the hood the gaudier the patter” sneers Spade); effeminate but surprisingly competent Peter Lorre (“I intend to search your offices.” “Go ahead, I won’t stop you.”); and Sidney Greenstreet’s wise elder (“I care for you as if you were my own son. But, well, you can always get another son, but there is only one Maltese Falcon.”) (See my “Humphrey Bogart: Man Among the Cockroaches [9],” reprinted in The Homo and the Negro [10].)

Manhunter [11] (Michael Mann) — I like everything about this film that people don’t like. Yes, the music is “from the ’80s.” It takes place in the ’80s, what kind of music do you expect, ragtime? Not only time-appropriate, it sets up Mann’s brilliant use of the non-diagetic “In a Gadda Da Vida” to represent the Tooth Fairy’s consciousness, trapped in the endlessly repeating past. And, I happen to like ’80s music; what critics mean is “the last time white music was allowed on the radio.” (In today’s “culture,” music, like athletics, is off-limits to whites). In general, it supplies my diet of the ’80s without having to choose Scarface (for which the same idiots want a remake using rap music).

As for Hopkins vs. Cox, the argument is moot, since they are in different film universes. Demme went for the easy Grand-Guignol approach, and so Hopkins is doing Phantom of the Opera (Boo!); Mann has chosen the actual but unreal world of Miami Vice, and so Cox is the smug, Bill Murray type guy who sits next to you on the train, strikes up a conversation about nothing, and the next thing you know you’re tied up in his basement.

Speaking of Phantom of the Opera, Tom Doonan’s Tooth Fairy is the archetypal psycho (though ironically Lambs’  Ted Levine is one of Mann’s rep players; Demme also recasts a policeman from Manhunter as Barney the orderly, as if Hopkins needs to be surrounded by Mann’s actors).

The shot of Doonan from above, holding Reba’s hand over his scarred mouth — where, in a remarkable bit of acting by Tom Noonan, directing by Michael Mann, cinematography by Dante (!) Spinotti (and yes, scoring by Shriekback’s The Big Hush), we seem to see his entire face collapse into a kind of corpse or skull (referencing the subliminal ending of Psycho), as the realization sinks in that he has found a fellow human, but it is too late, his stupid “killing and posing the victims to conjure up social acceptance” idea has doomed him already — is worth the whole Hopkins trilogy.

(See my “Thanks for Watching: Awakening Through Repetition in Groundhog Day, Point of Terror, & Manhunter, Part 1 [12]” and “Phil & Will: Awakening Through Repetition in Groundhog Day, Point of Terror, & Manhunter, Part 2 [13].”)

North by Northwest [14] (Alfred Hitchcock) — The whole New York sequence is Mad Men [15] in real time. But overall, a time capsule of period when the rest of the country still existed; escaping a manhunt via train! (Ed Platt and that guy who spots Cary Grant at the station will later star in another train caper in Chicago film, the awful The Rebel Set). “George Caplan”’s itinerary of classy hotels: Philadelphia, “Dee-troit,” and even “Rapid City, South Dakota” (although James Mason does seem a little puzzled by it). Even the latter is home to Van Dam’s luxurious lair, a Bond villain hangout designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; Joseph Wiseman will shamelessly plagiarize Martin Landau’s ambiguously gay henchman for his own Dr. No.

Once Upon a Time in America [16] (Sergio Leone) — Supposedly Leone was sick of Hollywood making movies about Italian gangsters, and decided to remake Godfather II from Hyman Roth’s perspective. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West suggest themselves as well, and if they were shorter I might try the same stunt as with my combo of Rope/Dial M, but I don’t really return to them for more than a few scenes in each.

Like Ambersons, it was taken away and butchered by the studio, who re-edited it into chronological order (like Coppola’s “special edition” of the Godfather Saga), the awful result thereby proving the superiority of Leone’s Einsteinian storytelling; if you really can’t follow it, you’re too young to be going to movies by yourself.

A meditation on the presence of the past in the present that needs no fancy “sci-fi” trappings. “All that we have left now are our memories.” We first see James Woods as a charred corpse in 1933, but his eventual reveal in the present (1966) is more heartbreaking than any Phantom of the Opera, rivalling Tom Doonan’s in Manhunter (even though we see it coming a mile away; and it’s not his fault the old-makeup is on a level with Kane’s), as is De Niro’s quiet decision to, for the first time in his life, not resort to violence, preferring to keep living with the memory of Max as a friend (“You see, I have a story too, Mr. Bailey. I had a friend once. A dear friend. I turned him in to save his life. He died. But he wanted it that way. Things went bad for my friend, and they went bad for me, too.”) rather than admit Max’s incredible betrayal (“I took away your whole life from you. I’ve been living in your place. I took everything. I took your money. I took your girl. All I left for you was years of grief over having killed me. Now, why don’t you shoot?” — seemingly referenced in Casino: “Why protect a friend who would betray you like that?”).

Like Scarface, the intense violence earlier only serves to create the best “don’t do the crime” afterschool special ever. Again, a time when the flyover states mattered; Burt Young’s Detroit crime boss (related to “this old wreck from Detroit” in Casino?) delivers the film’s essence, right at the midpoint, when Woods and De Niro go astray: “Life is stranger than shit.” Oh, did I mention, Elizabeth McGovern and Jennifer Connelly?

Rope [17] / Dial M for Murder [18] (Alfred Hitchcock) — a bit of a cheat, two Hitchcock movies that seem essentially the same, at least to me. Hitch claimed that during dry spells he’d buy a theatrical property just to film it, as is, all the work having been done by the playwright. Yes, I know that these are essentially filmed plays, and everything is “fake,” but these highly artificial productions have, precisely for that reason, the kind of flat, Technicolor hyper-reality that makes me think I’m actually living in the past [19].

There was a time, some years back, when every late Saturday afternoon I’d make a pitcher of Martinis, open a pack of cigs, and drink and smoke along with the Happy Homicidal Homos of Rope, as the sun set on screen and in my apartment, which I calculated was directly across the East River from the diorama outside their penthouse.

It’s the little things, as Vince Vega might say: notice how Ray Miland and Grace Kelly are supposed to be rich, but their apartment is almost empty, barely furnished — only a handful of the Right Things, and no electronic gadgets to clutter it up.

In Rope, the rich WASP homo subtext (hidden crimes, tauntingly asking to be “found out,” etc.) is a blind for the real message: smarty-pants Jews (based on Leopold and Loeb) distort Aryan teacher’s version of Nietzsche. (“All fah-shist supermen were brainless fools, I’d hang any that were left . . . but you see, I’d hang them first for being stupid.”)

Rather than “opening up” the play, Hitch uses gimmicks: one is filmed without cuts (sort of) while the other was originally released in 3D. The latter, Dial M, on repeated viewings, leads the viewer into speculating on how it could possibly be updated for a world of locked doors, electronic banking, and cellphones.

The Fountainhead [20] (King Vidor) — 1940s black and white Hollywood studio sets are the perfect medium for Ayn Rand’s tale, which, considering her years working for the studios, perhaps provides the true origins of Objectivism. If only Rand had managed to get Clifton Webb as Ellsworth Toohey! As it is, the real star is the architecture, as is only appropriate, though my favorite design isn’t Roark’s: it’s Gayle Wynand’s office. If I built my dream house, that would be the living room.

The Girl Hunters [21] (Mickey Spillane; yes, that Mickey Spillane) — Mickey Spillane hated the satirical approach taken in Kiss Me, Deadly, and decided to exact cinematic revenge, with the view as collateral damage. An unprecedented and unsurpassed conceit; as if Ayn Rand (a fan, I hear, of Spillane himself), unsatisfied with The Fountainhead, had put together financing for Atlas Shrugged and cast herself as John Galt; a much more interesting idea than the Atlas films that eventually emerged.

Interiors shot in England, due to his financers being there (with a post-Carry On and pre-Bond Shirley Eaton), but the selling points are the early ’60s Manhattan shots — Mad Men in black and white.

Spillane plays himself, straight and utterly un-ironic, and he’s actually pretty good, I think. Swanning around his favorite hangouts in a white trench coat (“. . . [imagine tailing somebody in a white trench coat. Trying to pass as a fag I guess] . . . — Naked Lunch), the compulsive taking on and off of which constitutes his stage business, it’s the ultimate Method performance.

It’s especially amusing to see him interacting with apparently real friends, (including a long-forgotten newspaper columnist), who constantly remind him what a great guy he is, and how they hate the “commie punks” as much as they do. Mike Hammer’s climactic acts of “justice” are more literal but just as violent as the “ironic” violence of Kiss Me.

Taxi Driver [22] (Martin Scorsese) — New York City — and thus, by implication, America — at the bottom of its trough; a modern Inferno seen through the guilty imaginations of Catholic director Scorsese and Calvinist screenwriter Paul Schrader (who’d go on to produce the heartland version, Hardcore). Only Bernard Herrmann could score the anti-North by Northwest. Featuring future alt-Right icon and Mel Gibson collaborator Jodi Foster.

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse [23] (Fritz Lang) — Originally I thought M, but since acquiring the Criterion discs (again, two versions, German and French, to say nothing of the American dub) I spend more time here. Along with Manhunter (‘m’, manhunt, get it?) it fulfills my quota of Hannibal Lecter, since initial sequences of Mabuse, under imprisoned study but mute, are clearly the template for Silence of the Lambs; Jonathan Demme’s Grand-Guignol approach in particular is derived from prewar Euro horror. There’s even a proto-Starling among the students if you look closely (she’s the one with the monocle).

Like Lecter, Mabuse is able to communicate with the outside world and even order up elaborate crimes, and does so by “getting into the head” of the head shrink (“You don’t want Hannibal Lecter in your head”). He does so literally in the posthumous transformation scene; where Mabuse goes beyond Lecter’s petty revenges is in the ensuing “Empire of Crime” speech: supposedly a “warning” about the National Socialists, the latter were happy to let audiences make the more natural inference that it referred to the chaos of the Weimar Republic.

It remains the template for every bogey-man from Keyser Sosei to Osama bin Laden; and note how the wildly erratic USA has now been dubbed “The Empire of Chaos.” Unnecessarily slow and complex death traps for the hero to escape, check! And look for the Mercedes hood ornament-cam in the final chase, which Hitchcock deliberately references in North by Northwest.

The Shining [24] (Stanley Kubrick) — Masterpiece of paranoiac-critical filmmaking. Dr. Strangelove is great but too painfully arch to view more than once every few years; besides, the refueling footage is recycled in The Starfighters, q.v. below). Like W. C. Fields, Kubrick knew that all attention would be on the kid, so pay attention to what happens around Danny: notice how the arrows on the carpet change direction, how his sandwich goes from whole to half-eaten to whole? The obsessive Kubrick is in control over everything in the frame, so there are no accidents. Many people assume it was filmed at a hotel, but it’s all a set in London, even the maze. Everything is planned. Listen to the ambient noise too (deliberately recorded): are those words of cabalistic significance being whispered at certain moments? “Schwaaaa.” Dopey Stephen King complained about the ending, but that’s what makes the film, metaphysically: Danny leaps sideways out of the maze; Jack runs round and round and eventually freezes (symbolically identical states of stasis), stuck in past time.

The Skydivers (Coleman Francis) — Not an “ironic” choice; the more I watch the “Coleman Francis Trilogy” the more I suspect that, as with Ed Wood, professional “incompetence” allows a glorious serendipity to take place, à la Zen painting or surrealist poetry. And no one created a directorial emptiness like Coleman Francis: the anti-Kubrick. And like Zen, what you “let happen” may not be all hippie-happy. A somber masterpiece seemingly filmed in “Despair-vision,” possibly the saddest, bleakest film ever made; if Bergman had autism. Yet I find it oddly comforting. “I like coffee!”

The Untouchables [25] (Brian De Palma) — Revenge of the Nerds, but with shamanism and the Männerbund. White ethnics unite to expel the invasive immigrant. (See my “‘God, I’m with a heathen.’ The Rebirth of the Männerbund in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables [26]” and “Of Costner, Corpses, & Conception: Mother’s Day Meditations on The Untouchables & The Big Chill [27],” both reprinted in The Homo and the Negro [10].)

They Live! [28] (John Carpenter) — Another Liberal fantasy goes awry, birthing a potent new Rightist meme. And they wonder why they keep losing, even though they “control” the media! Meg Foster! For her alone, I might also have selected Masters of the Universe. Unlike Gaby, Meg’s eyes are clear, cold, alien ice blue, like a huskie from Pluto. Contrary to MST3k, this is the movie competing for the “Quiet Man Longest Fight” award. (See my “He Writes, You Read, They Live! [29]” reprinted in The Homo and the Negro [10].)

Touch of Evil [30] (Orson Welles) — The sweet spot of Welles’ career; Kane is too gimmicky, The Magnificent Ambersons a fragment of what was, and I find his post-Hollywood “fugitive” productions too cheap and shoddy, barely a step above Ed Wood or even Coleman Francis (who also had problems with financing and post-production) for this American film-watcher to take seriously. Only Hitchcock could rival the sense that every shot is an innovation. Welles’ narrative art is so objective as to make almost anyone else’s pretense to such laughable; a die-hard commie-symp, Welles here creates the ultimate sympathetic cop/fascist in his own person. The existence of at least 5 versions makes it the ultimate “postmodern” masterpiece before the Europeans even thought up the word. (See my “Breaking Badge: Touch of Evil Through the Lens of Breaking Bad [31].”)

Videodrome [32] (David Cronenberg) — James Woods again! Essaying the sleazeball he’d perfect in Casino. Urban Canada as I lived it; cold and blue, like Meg Foster’s eyes, perfect for TV reproduction. Uploading your consciousness to a cable network makes perfect sense when there’s 12 inches of snow outside and Debbie Harry is on the tube. Long live the New Flesh!

. . . & Six Dishonorable Mentions

Constant Readers also know that I loves me some badfilm. Some are so bad as to exert almost the same magnetic attraction to compulsive viewing as actual movies, so for the record, here are the ones I find myself drawn to probe over and over, like a broken tooth.

The Beast of Yucca Flats [33] — Of interest only because Coleman Francis would go on to make The Skydivers and Red Zone Cuba. Otherwise, incredibly bad; literally, there’s nothing there, nothing at all, though Coleman would eventually perfect this as a directorial strategy.

Manos, the Hands of Fate [34] — Nothing to add to this internet legend, except to warn those seeking it out that the non-MST version is not only a bit longer, but almost literally unwatchable.

Monster a Go-Go [35] — Beyond general incompetence, aspiring Midwest auteur Bill Rebane ran out of money, then sold what he had to schlockmeister Herschel Gordon Lewis, who filmed new scenes years later, dropping characters whose “actors” were unavailable; the “twist” ending is that the movie just stops. Almost becomes postmodern enough to be interesting, but not quite. Oddly even the DVD is lousy, with a stupid commentary by “director” Rebane that blames his problems on “unions,” while Lewis also tries the “it’s supposed to be funny” cop-out.

The Dead Talk Back [36] — Topping Bill Rebane, this one was actually finished by the writer/director/producer in 1957, but then sat on a shelf at the photo lab until 1993, when MST3k discovered it. Bad on every level — one shot includes the reflector front and center, the sort of goof even Ed Wood never made — and after a few viewings you suddenly realize the dead never talk back! Though some of the over-exposed street filming of ’50s Hollywood Blvd. accidentally rivals Kiss Me, Deadly.

The Starfighters [37] — So, NATO doesn’t want to buy the ridiculously dangerous F-101 Starfighter (a.k.a. the Flying Brick or The Widowmaker)? Just make a movie to show how fun it is! To paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs (who’s in Casino, by the way), instead of having the actors fly jets, they had jet pilots act. Stars future congressman Bob “B-1” Dornan in what is retrospectively Mission Accomplished: The George W. Bush Story.

The Wild World of Batwoman [38] — Even worse than it sounds. Unbelievably, unendurably bad. Atop everything else, a supposed “comedy,” making it 70 minutes of continual douche chills.

Note

1. The Essential Plotinus, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1975, v.