There’s been a bit of consistent coverage the past week on this site regarding the death of French filmmaker Éric Rohmer, not because the writers at FSR were longtime fans of the man’s work, but because we regretted not being familiar with his films before he died. Rohmer was hardly venerated by American filmgoers as an iconic French filmmaking equivalent to, say, Jean Renoir or Francois Truffaut, but that doesn’t make his filmmaking any less great or his personal style any less fascinating. The history books of film are inevitably constructed with some filmmakers positioned in the foreground and others in the back, and the death of Rohmer was as good an opportunity as any to get to know better a great filmmaker not previously well-known to us, a timely remedy to examine an overlooked artist.
It was in this context that Cole Abaius took me to task on Sunday’s Reject Radio, asking me to talk about other directors that may not be the first names that the history books point to, but are great nonetheless. For whatever reason, the filmmakers discussed are either underappreciated, underrated, or simply aren’t the first names referenced when looking at films from a certain country during a certain era, but an appreciation of artists that lie between the margins can often be a surprisingly enlightening experience for the casual filmgoer or the all-out cinephile. This week’s Culture Warrior expands on that list of filmmakers I discussed Sunday, starting with Rohmer, for a total of eight filmmakers you should know more about.
Rohmer is an auteur in the purest sense. He revisits parallel themes, narratives, and iconic characters, all with slight variations on a tangible personal style. His Six Moral Tales revisit strikingly similar moral quandaries regarding the psychological battles in male-female relationships, yet – as Neil so eloquently put – each revisitation of this theme feels unique. Rohmer’s protagonist are characters of complex moral layers, and the director’s simple but informed visual style allows us to get in the mind of his protagonists to the point of understanding even the worst of their bad decisions. For Rohmer, simple objective framing isn’t separate from attaining subjective character depth.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Rohmer’s work is his ability to let us know what a character is thinking even as they speak, because what Rohmer’s characters say and what they mean are often two very different things. Even in narration, that method towards understanding character subjectivity that one would think would be the most honest and straightforward access to intention and motivation, Rohmer still allows us to discern what meaning really lies in between the lines. Rather than display the artifice of cinema and force one out of the narrative like his New Wave contemporaries, Rohmer uses the best tools cinema has to offer to immerse the viewer in his engrossing moral tales.
Essential Films: My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970), Love in the Afternoon (1972)
Like Rohmer, Resnais’ style is only tangentially related to French New Wave, but he certainly maintains a unique aesthetic all his own. Resnais’ repeated thematic occupation is memory, and how it influences and changes the ways we think of the past and perceive the present. His half-hour documentary Night and Fog (probably the first film ever made about Auschwitz) framed how we perceive the banality of evil embodied in the Third Reich by juxtaposing horrific stock footage of the concentration camp to the static, perhaps more shocking quietude of the camp’s postwar state. Resnais continues his exploration of World War II and memory in Hiroshima mon amour, a film which makes a convincing argument that time never exists in a linear fashion, that we as people always allow shadows of the past to determine our decisions in the present. Finally, his Last Year at Marienbad features two characters who have completely different recollections of the past, blurring reality and fantasy like no other film before it. Resnais truly makes films as art, using the medium to manifest senses of mood and time that would be impossible in any other art form.
Essential films: Night and Fog (1955), Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
When looking at the strict censorship and rigid industrial practices of early Hollywood history, we often posit the studio in direct opposition to the artist, as if institutions have an automatic propensity to squelching artistic vision. But sometimes the restraints of industry and the needs of commerce can foster and discipline an artistic sensibility, enabling a personal style to bear fruit that may not have been as apparent otherwise. Such is the case for Mervyn LeRoy, a filmmaker defined by a gritty aesthetic enabled by the speed of his productions and whose work of the 1930s had an incomparable cultural resonance to audiences seeking both escapism and consolation for their woes. LeRoy’s Little Ceasar basically gave birth to the gangster film genre, and his Gold Diggers of 1933 is the go-to example for Depression-era musicals. But it is his I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang that remians his greatest achievement of that decade, a remarkable film examining the will of the human spirit in face of the possible death of the American Dream, and probably one of Hollywood’s earliest examples of how a film can incite positive social change.
Essential Films: Little Ceasar (1930), I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
The first woman to ever be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller makes films of endless contradictions. Often employing misogynist protagonists, her films engage in a discourse on feminism that never features a clear delineation between good and evil, right and wrong, oppressor and oppressed. In her films, there are no demons or saints. This repeated trope of her work is brilliantly articulated in Seven Beauties, a film whose screwball-comedy first half is shockingly countered with the bleak second half taking place in a concentration camp. But in Wertmüller’s world, comedy and horror are rarely exclusive. Rather, they are one in the same as she uses the absurdity of screwball comedy to inform the most heinously absurd moment in 20th century history. Wertmüller understands that it is often through contradiction and iconoclasm, rather than a forced pedagogy of predetermined conclusions, which help us understand the confounding and oppressive nature of the world around us.
Essential films: Swept Away (1974), Seven Beauties (1975)
Perhaps best-known for helming The Who’s Tommy (1975), UK filmmaker Russell’s other work often engages with the most challenging and disturbing extents of human behavior. His career is defined by constant battles with the censors, and his penchant for challenging content in terms of both social acceptability – as in Women in Love – and the transcendent power of cinema when tied to a vivid, limitless imagination – as in Altered States - cemented him as a unique, and hardly classifiable, artistic voice. These two definitive aspects of his work came together perfectly in his masterpiece, The Devils. Challenging his audience with what looks like exploitation but turns out to be a polished, well-informed, layered work of art, The Devils is, like Russell’s best work, never an easy film to watch but a unique and unforgettable experience that takes us out of any preconception of what we think a film can and should be. Almost forty years after its release, The Devils retains its full ability to shock and challenge the viewer. You will never find a more fascinating history of a battle between censorship and artistic vision than this film. You’ll also never see another art film with half a dozen nuns raping a giant crucifix.
Essential films: Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), Altered States (1980)
An American expatriate who relocated to France and artistically reinvented himself, photographer William Klein’s brief foray into fiction filmmaking remains one of the oddest and most underappreciated careers of its time. His Who Are You, Polly Magoo? is a dense satirical critique of the fashion industry from the inside out that, the French 60s equivalent to Zoolander or Bruno, while his later film The Model Couple takes some punches at the commodification of human relationships. But it is his hilarious, esoteric superhero parody Mr. Freedom that remains his most iconic work. On the surface Mr. Freedom seems like a skin-deep criticism of American cultural imperialism, but it becomes a study of how words can be manipulated to adopt an opposite meaning when used with intention. As an expatriate, Klein’s work was never quite American and never quite French, but blended the cultural and artistic sensibilities of both countries into films simultaneously embodying scathing criticism, oddball humor, and a postmodern pop-art aesthetic palette.
Essential films: Who Are You, Polly Magoo? (1966), Mr. Freedom (1969), The Model Couple (1977)
The Soviet Union has a great history of visionary filmmakers, but that history primarily consists of men. Larisa Shepitko was the exception, and her all-too-brief career offers a rare glimpse into Soviet cinema, values, and daily life from a female perspective. Her film Wings, about a female fighter pilot who settles into an unfulfilling life as a school principal, remains a daring and important work of feminist filmmaking. Shepitko, like Rohmer, used subtle storytelling techniques and a straightforward visual style that resulted in restrained, yet delicately beautiful filmmaking. Her final film, The Ascent, is a quiet meditation on will, brotherhood, and spirituality, employing a meditative eye on Russia’s snowy landscapes. This film cemented Shepitko as an artist whose work may have rivaled anybody from Eisenstein to Tarkovsky had her life not been tragically cut short in a car accident. Thankfully, her astounding, profound work has survived her.
Essential films: Wings (1966), The Ascent (1977)
English filmmaker Nicolas Roeg made work that couldn’t have been created in any other time. His 1970s films are so particular to that era (sometimes to the point of inaccessibility), yet something about each of them remains universal and affecting. With a great eye for visuals and an even better ear for music, Roeg’s films are marked by striking images and engrossing, often disjointed sound design. His love for music is evident in his casting, as Roeg elicited great lead performances from the likes of Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Art Garfunkel. After looking at Roeg’s incomparable framing of rural Australia in Walkabout, the next best journey to take with this visionary filmmaker is his totally singular sci-fi vision in the Bowie-starring The Man Who Fell to Earth, a trip if there ever was one. But Roeg’s best and most experimental work was likely Bad Timing, a film about a torrid, toxic relationship that liberally jumps back and forth in time. It alienated audiences upon its initial release, but Bad Timing now reveals itself thirty years later for what it truly is: a film far ahead of its time.
Essential films: Walkabout (1971), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing (1980)