There are many reasons to compare and contrast current films with historical ones. One is to attempt to explain why some films have been spotlighted in place of a possible litany similar films. Another is to show the machinations of cinematic influence, or explore the persistence of repeated narratives throughout film history.
And yet another is because it’s damn fun.
Here at Criterion Files, we have (on a not-at-all-regular basis) compared recent films with relevant counterparts canonized in the cinephilic annals of the Criterion collection, including two Lincoln biopics, two iconic exercises of the close-up, and the overwhelming similarities between Pierrot le Fou and a certain beloved Wes Anderson film. But rarely has a crop of films released in a single season echoed the specific work of classic counterparts than the summer of 2013.
Jeff Nichols’s Mud and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter
You probably can’t designate somebody an auteur if they only made one film. But if any solo directing effort can test this case, it’s veteran actor Charles Laughton’s first and only time behind the camera, his adaptation of Davis Grubb’s “Night of the Hunter.” Laughton stages the film as an expressionistic Grimm’s fairy tale, and gives Western/noir antihero Robert Mitchum plenty to chew on as Harry Powell, a hand-tattoo’d Bible-beating serial killer who uses his guise as a Reverend to lure victims into his odious endeavors.
What’s most remarkable about Laughton’s film is his deft blend of dark fairy tale (which dominates the second half) with its use of grotesque tropes of the Southern Gothic, realized beautifully in its West Virginia setting. And this is where Night of the Hunter meets Jeff Nichols’s Arkansas-set Mud.
Of course, Matthew McConaughey’s Mud is far more ambiguous than Mitchum’s Powell, that latter of whom betrays his villainy in his introduction to us. Mud, however, is a mystery for most of the film, somebody who reads differently to anyone who encounters him; he seems to simultaneously possess palpable humanity and carry a vague threat of future tragedy. So the characterization of their respective leads is where Night of the Hunter and Mud diverge, but it’s the portrayal of the children that make these films apt for comparison.
Mud’s greatest asset is its ability to place the audience within the psyche of Tye Sheridan’s Ellis, a young boy coming of age who – like Billy Chapin’s John Harper in Hunter, whose father is executed – sees in a mysterious adult a potential surrogate father figure; John rejects this figure while those who surround him say otherwise, while Ellis does vice versa. Both films (especially Hunter’s second half) place the audience into the perspective of childhood, with all the complex layers of insight and naivety that such a time entails. The boys of these films are forced to come of age quickly with an immediate threat to their lives, represented as a journey across a Southern river. Night of the Hunter, in true fairy tale fashion, returns to idealized childhood by its adventure’s end, while Mud is a true coming-of-age drama, in which Ellis’s perception of the lives of adults is forever changed.
Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders
While Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach have collaborated, and are often compared for their intersecting styles of pseudo-hip indie quirk, they occupy remarkably different visions of adulthood: Anderson portrays childish adults and adult-ish children through a child’s eyes, while Baumbach portrays stunted adolescence and arrested development through the eyes of adulthood. Thus, Moonrise Kingdom is whimsical and nostalgic, while Baumbach’s period-set Squid and the Whale trades in the type of cringe only possible when one reflects on their adolescent days, distinct from the experience had at the time.
Accordingly, noted cinephiles Anderson and Baumbach have different relationships to their cinematic forebears, including The French New Wave. Last year’s audience favorite from Anderson channeled one of Godard’s most lusciously colorful films, but despite its high stakes (literally: death by falling) diverged from the dark anarchism underneath Godard’s Technicolor palette.
Baumbach, alternately, is credited for making his most optimistic film ever with Frances Ha, but embraces the high-contrast black-and-white, episodic narratives, and meandering pace of Godard’s other mid-60s work.
Part of this resonance emerges from each director’s relationship to their lead, treated as muse. During their marriage (and even during its dissolution) Godard was fond of allowing the camera to fall in love with Ana Karina, to see her as he saw her. The same is true for Baumbach’s relationship to spouse Greta Gerwig, who (markedly unlike her role in Greenberg) is fodder for the audience’s affection, though Gerwig seems to display more agency than Karina.
A striking similarity between Frances Ha and Band of Outsiders (which, of course, have minimal semblance in terms of story, but resonate via style, tone, and their contemporaneous affectations of hipness) is that the leading woman in both films has no sustained romantic involvement with a given character. The central relationship, instead, is the one struck between her and the audience – or, more accurately, between her and the director.
Paul Schrader’s The Canyons and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show
Schrader’s film opens with an image that should be familiar to any fan of Bogdanovich’s career-making drama: a series of empty, shuttered movie theaters. The closing of the movie house in The Last Picture Show, despite the prominence of the event indicated by the film’s title, isn’t staged as one of the film’s most dramatic or game-changing moments, at least in contrast to the film’s arc of sexual jealousy, heartbreak, and death.
But it’s an essential event nonetheless, one that speaks to a major transition in American life: a move from public entertainment to home entertainment that accompanied the popularity of television and engendered a compounding insularity to social life – a relegation of experience to the nuclear, rather than collective, level.
Schrader’s film takes this social (d)evolution one step further, exhibiting the ways in which even the insular home becomes more narrowly and claustrophobically divided by an increasing interest in the self alone.
The Canyons presents a Los Angeles that, despite its many shiny new digital tools available, is shockingly disconnected. Social meetings at bars and restaurants are hauntingly quiet; not even an entire table full of people are heard, but only the person immediately there, if even then.
Like the sparse West Texas landscape of The Last Picture Show, The Canyons paints a picture of the social dynamics in the southwest that is sparse, lonely, and isolated despite the endless opportunities for supposedly intimate sexual encounters. In both films, characters learn that the only person that can be trusted, that can be taken care of, is oneself.
Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring and Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game
Sofia Coppola has often been accused of nepotism, which I find to be strange and incredibly problematic. It’s long been true that commercial filmmaking (which has never been a meritocracy) is an industry that sticks close to family and friends. The array of favors that work into the making of a film or the reputation of a filmmaker are rarely legible to anyone outside of the film industry, and clear associations can be rather transparently “hidden.” (Nicolas Cage, for whom such accusations do not come often, is also a Coppola.)
What some people perceive as nepotism is simply the transfer of privilege that already occurs so often in Hollywood, but this time made visible. And that’s the key to understanding Sofia Coppola’s filmmaking: her films are blatantly, transparently interested in privilege as a subject. In an era in which many types of privilege go unchecked, unacknowledged, or are undeservedly celebrated in American society, Coppola is perhaps the only filmmaker interested in exploring the inner life of the privilege that dominates our culture: its subjectivity, its values, its blind corners.
Something similar can be said of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. Renoir was himself the spawn of a famous and successful artist, born and bred into a wealthy and renowned family of aesthetes in a country that celebrated them. The latter Renoir’s film career, however, did not receive the embrace of his father’s work during its height of accomplishment, namely Renoir’s late-30s work.
While totalitarianism was gaining political and military strength in Nazi Germany and France seemed subject to occupation, Renoir made a film about the superficial lives of the French elite, namely their classism, their infatuation with their own manufactured interpersonal dramas, their socio-cultural isolation, their constant inebriation, and their investment in functionless toys for conspicuous consumption. What’s important in this respect about Rules of the Game is that the film’s screwball narrative opens with a celebrity, aviator Andre (Roland Toutain), who spurns the romantic competition around Christine (Nora Gregor). People, in this respect, are also objects to consume as barometers of status and personal achievement.
The Bling Ring is similarly (and, of course, more overtly) interested in the subject of consuming celebrity – not through movies, magazines, or imitation, but by consuming the exact things that celebrities consume. Like Rules of the Game, The Bling Ring is interested in the insular life of celebrity, in exploring the private life of the privileged (rather than the public spotlight) as the locale where elite identity is formed.
One clear difference, of course, is that The Bling Ring is about admirers of the new media aristocracy (as well as the simultaneous breadth and gray areas between celebrities and their consumers) rather than the privileged class itself. An instructive aspect of this difference is that the celebrities’ houses are empty, free of actual human beings, during all of the ring’s raids. In Rules of the Game, the house is occupied to the brim with exclusive, hand-picked guests and a few interlopers.
In both cases, in the various ways that aristocracies across seventy years are portrayed, the private life of the elite is as inescapably public as it is elusive.