Philip Matthews is a senior reporter with Fairfax Media in Christchurch and is a former film reviewer with the NZ Listener. He blogs about films at Second Sight and is on Twitter as @secondzeit. Here are Five Films That Have Stayed With Him…
1 – Solaris: This is such an intensely sorrowful film. If I was ever stuck on a desert island and could take only one film, I would cheat and take four – the Tarkovsky series of Andrei Rublev, Solaris, Mirror and Stalker – and not just because they are all masterpieces, but because they are inexhaustible. They seem to change each time you see them: different things become important, the pacing appears to vary from one viewing to the next, there are stretches of dialogue in subtitles you had not paid proper attention to before, and so on. (Even the relatively brief Mirror, just 108 minutes, has so much in it). Solaris is a Soviet science-fiction film in which state-funded scientific objectivity and research have failed and mysticism and irrationality have taken over, and the important thing is that Tarkovsky is not personally opposed to these developments. He is in favour of “miracles” (their reappearance in the world is a theme of Stalker and Andrei Rublev). Depending on one’s mood, Solaris is also the best example of a particular kind of pessimistic relationship film, better even than Vertigo. By the way, I don’t rate the soppy Steven Soderbergh remake where the relationship flashbacks have all the weight of a George Clooney lifestyle commercial and Tarkovsky’s poetic homesickness – all the stuff he returned to and deepened in Mirror – is absent.
2 – The Exorcist: Back in the 1980s, at the dawn of home video, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre competed for a reputation as the most terrifying film ever made, partly because of the fiction that they were based on fact – and, in the case of The Exorcist, that it was a cursed movie somehow (see also: The Amityville Horror). Instead of social media, we had urban myths. Anyway, that would have been when I first saw it, as a teenager in Singapore, on a heavily-edited, pirated video with most of the nasty bits cut out – I saw The Shining the same way and it made even less sense. The Exorcist remains terrifying because of the assumptions it makes about evil being a very real and very active force. There is nothing jokey or ironic or post-modern about any of this. It takes its theology seriously and Max Von Sydow lends his Ingmar Bergman gravity to it, although Jason Miller (as tormented Father Damien Karras) is always my favourite actor in this. It was Paul Schrader who called The Exorcist “the greatest metaphor in cinema: God and the Devil in the same room, fighting over the body of a little girl”. I still can’t imagine a better description.
3 – Taxi Driver: Let’s face it: it is an incontestable fact that everyone has, at some point, identified with Travis Bickle, even if it was just the awkward way he asked Betsy out on a date (“Betsy had coffee and a fruit salad dish. She could have had anything she wanted.”) That’s the lasting appeal, that an alienated psychopath can seem so ordinary and even reasonable and the dark urban world of pimps, junkies, queers and the rest can easily be made to look threatening. It’s a paranoid’s view. Possibly a racist’s view as well. Schrader and Scorsese could never bring themselves to condemn him, because he was them.
4 – Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me: The Twin Peaks film is the most terrifying of Lynch’s supernatural horrors – a list that would also include Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and Inland Empire – in large part because the pain and suffering of Laura Palmer (the incredible Sheryl Lee) is so prolonged and so real. The surrealism, self-indulgence and violence of it, along with the subject matter (the sexual abuse of a teenage girl by her father), was repulsive to those who were on board for the mildly quirky and much less sinister TV series, but it also has the most redemptive ending of any Lynch film. You get the sense that of all the young women Lynch has depicted who fall prey to conspiracies of men who want to use them, consume them and destroy them, Laura Palmer is the one he cared about the most. The final minutes confirm that. This film has grown and grown over time, so much that its poor reception at Cannes now seems ridiculous. It also has one of the best uses of David Bowie on film.
5 – A Man Escaped: Here are three examples of things that cinema does better than any other art form: bank robberies, time travel and prison breaks (have you ever seen a great painting of a bank robbery or a contemporary dance production about time travel?) Bresson’s A Man Escaped is the best prison escape film ever made – which I say partly to annoy the idiots who keep voting for The Shawshank Redemption – and it is a spare, precise film made with a fidelity to the truth only a decade after the World War II events it depicted. A French Resistance hero escapes from a prison in German-occupied Lyon and the preparation, and the escape itself, are painstaking and suspenseful. Many find Bresson too austere but this story benefits from the simplicity of his method and is probably the best way in to what he does.