The Lazy Man’s Odyssey: 300 Films in Lockdown (1-5) | whynow

This week’s films are: Bicycle Thieves (1948); Vivre Sa Vie (1962); What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993); Mon Oncle (1958); and New Jack City (1991).


Bicycle Thieves, (dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1948)

In this time of self-imposed ostracism for the good of the realm, having ‘projects’ becomes less of an afterthought, and more of a requirement. My granddad is dutifully polishing each of his window panes, my brother is working through all the Hitchcock films, my nan through The Brothers Karamazov.

I thought I would try to watch the more than three hundred films on Roger Ebert’s ​Great Movies​ list.

Of those ~350 I’ve probably seen around fifty. These are your classic Pulp Fictions, and Scarfaces. I will hold back until a more advanced stage from ​re​watching names on the list – regardless of how much I want to – and attempt to give you, the discriminating reader, a thought or humble opinion on each of them. I hope you will forgive my zero effort in trying to describe the plot or characters of these films – if you want to see them, read about them.

It will be like so: four Great Movies a week, and one not-Great-Movie-but-great-movie – only in order to keep sane.

Monday

Bicycle Thieves​, Vittorio De Sica, 1948

With a little trepidation, I decided to go for a heavy hitter first, knowing that if I was put off, I could slip in a more recent one the next day.

It is such a direct, visceral story – much more a parable than a drama.
It is a ‘Neorealist’ film, which apparently means many things – all of which I am unfamiliar with – often referring to films of working class life, set in the culture of poverty, and with the implicit message that in a better society wealth would be more evenly distributed.

You can imagine that when it came out it was likely read and criticised under this spectre. But if a film is allowed to wait long enough – until the filmmakers are dead, until neorealism is less an inspiration than a memory – a film escapes from its critics and becomes, once again, a story.

The choice of this film to start this Lazy Man’s Odyssey is a goodluck portent for this project, and the next few months. An Instant Top 5.

Tuesday

Vivre Sa Vie,​ dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1962

This was the first Jean-Luc Godard film I have seen. Expectant of a generous measure of pretentiousness and a jigger of endless cigarette smoking and forlorn eyes looking directly down the lens, I was a little surprised with how much the film has rattled around my brain this week (I am writing this on the Sunday), especially through the red wine haze of confinement.

It is the story of a woman. She works in a record store. She needs money. She tries to steal her flat key from the office of her concierge, but is caught and frog-marched to the street, her arm twisted behind her. She has no home and no money. Is this her fault, or fate? The movie does not say.

The film is split into 12 Chapters, something not used enough in modern cinema in my opinion, not only because it gives you a nice marker of where you are in the film (with heavyweights like this – even when you ​know​ they are great films – the 21st century attention span struggles), but also because there is a distinct theatrical feeling of scenes each unfolding for their own specific reasons. The B&W photography of this film is extraordinary – ‘the film was made by sort of a second presence,’ said Godard; the camera as not just a recording device but a ​looking​ device, that by its movements makes us aware that it sees her, wonders about her, glances first here and then there, exploring the space she occupies, speculating..

It rarely moves, rarely pans, occasionally dollys, but is placed in positions where ​we ​become the camera obscura.

Wednesday

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape​, dir. Lasse Hallström, 1993

A confession – I had seen this one years ago. Look how quickly I broke the single rule elaborated in the introduction. Well if there’s one time to break some rules, why not 2020, the year you can cough a mugger away.

But what more can you ask for: two Great actors in relay positions – Johnny Depp in his peak teen celeb phase, and Leonardo DiCaprio in the quiet-ish years before the adolescent girl tsunamis of Romeo + Juliet ​and ​Titanic​. The enormously overweight mother who has not left her house for years since her husband’s death was played by a non-actor, Darlene Cates, who had struggled with a very similar sort of house-bound paranoia and was finally extricated from it with her casting in this film.

It also made me think of ‘nothing’ movies, films where nothing happens, but actually a lot happens (in the vein of Jim Jarmusch or Jacques Tati). The yearly pilgrimage of the Airstream caravans through this sparsely populated Arizona village is the one constant, and becomes the stream that the film follows. Films like this are the opposite of the ‘road’ movie, where characters, subplots, etc. can be picked up and dropped at will as the character(s) go from point A to point B.

Thursday

Mon Oncle​, dir. Jacques Tati, 1958

There is a lot to say about this film, but saying too much would do it a disservice. The first of Tati’s films in colour, and the first to make waves across the Atlantic to America, it was the introduction of his greatest character, the silent, bumbling presence of Monsieur Hulot, who drifts through the film in his quixotic struggle with postwar France’s infatuation with consumerism and Space Age design. It is largely a visual comedy; colour and lighting are employed to help tell the story.

The set design – which by the way Wes Anderson has completely lifted for his upcoming film ​The French Dispatch​ – is some of the best I’ve seen. The dialogue in ​Mon Oncle​ is barely audible, and largely subordinated to the role of a sound effect.

Other than Kubrick, I think Jacques Tati is the director I have seen cited most as an inspiration for the ‘great’ filmmakers.

Friday (non-Great)

New Jack City​, dir. Mario Van Peebles, 1991

Wesley Snipes is fucking terrifying in this role. He is at once simple in his goals, and sinister to the extreme, his bite backs to his shotters as sharp as his trim. Young Chris Rock plays a sometime romantic, sometime crackhead pivotal character who’s taken under the wing of antihero cop Ice-T.

There is – I think – the slickest scene involving the production of drugs I’ve seen in crime films. After taking over an entire building in Harlem, Nino (the Snipes character) demonstrates the multi-tiered and altogether outrageous 90s set design of his line.

It’s difficult to make an anti-drug movie, since the lifestyle and money of the drug dealers looks like fun, at least until they’re killed. But this film, I think, pulls off that tricky achievement. Nino, who looks at the dead body of Scarface and laughs, does not get the last laugh.

On an entirely tangential point, I know someone who named their Rottweiler puppy Nino, thinking he’d be tough as nails. Four years later though he’s just goofy and friendly as hell.

Next week, we’ll take a look at, among others, ​Badlands​ (Terrence Malick), and ​Léon Morin, Priest​ (Jean-Pierre Melville).

Rampa  They Will Be