I identify as a recreational omnivore of sorts, both a literary bottom-feeder and a territorial snob when a conversation wanders into an area I can lay some claim to-- especially if we’re talking 70’s outsider cinema.
Secrets & Lies (1996), directed by Mike Leigh
Can you think of another film that starts with a funeral, only to immediately shift to a wedding?
If you find yourself with a free moment, give the first 20 minutes of this film a try, then say goodbye to the rest of your afternoon. Every Mike Leigh film I’ve seen has come into my life in a similar way-- when I don’t think I have the energy to try one, only to fall face first into the story. They’re tragic, uniquely rich in character, and impossibly relatable… kaleidoscopic portraits of middle-class life in downtrodden communities across the UK, carried by an ensemble of impeccable British talent that Americans would only recognize from a Harry Potter film.
I’d think it interesting to watch this film in the context of Loss, thinking on the role that “other people” play in an individualist society. In Secrets & Lies we see characters coping with the loss of parents, lovers, childhood dreams and old ways of life, all playing out at the speed of everyday life. They cope through verbal sparring matches, petty games of wit and by driving away the people they love the most, who give meaning to an otherwise difficult worldly existence.
What makes this film unique and worthwhile lies within Leigh’s approach-- he is known for rehearsing with his actors for months, allowing them to cultivate authentic and true character before ever thinking to point a camera at them. Roger Ebert puts it best, that “moment after moment, scene after scene, Secrets & Lies unfolds with the fascination of eavesdropping.” Leigh has always been at his best operating outside of the rush-rush of studio filmmaking, patiently sculpting the script with his actors, then shuttling in his world-class crew to dial in the look and bring it all home. This film won Best Picture at the British Academy Awards and was nominated for 5 Oscars (including Best Picture, a special honor for any foreign film).
I want to keep up the pace and write about each of these films in similar depth, but for the sake of anyone reading this, I’ll just list the rest of them and say a few short words. But I would love to chat with any of you about these films if you get a chance to watch them!
Poetry (2010), directed by Lee-Chang Dong
Starring Yoon Jeong-hee (think the Meryl Streep of South Korea), who came out of retirement to star in this film about an impossibly optimistic grandmother taking care of her good-for-nothing grandson, as she comes down with Alzheimer’s-- and deals with the fallout of an impossibly brutal crime. I promise you this movie isn’t as sad as it sounds. Yoon brings such a nuanced, lovable performance that you will be reminded of your grandparents, or some elder figure that you admire, at their most vulnerable and most fearless. In the end, we are responsible for our own salvation.
Autumn Sonata (1978), directed by Ingmar Bergman
Persona and Wild Strawberries are often considered his best films, but this is a remarkable work of storytelling from later in Bergman’s career, written after he was wrongfully arrested for tax evasion by plainclothes police officers. He suffered a nervous breakdown after the incident and swore to never make another film in his native Sweden, a decision that nearly bankrupted the Swedish film industry as Ingmar Bergman was the Swedish film industry. He wrote this film while in self-imposed exile in Munich, imagining the fireworks that might emerge from pitting long-time collaborator Liv Ullmann and the great Ingrid Bergman (of Casablanca, no relation) against one another as an estranged mother and daughter.
For the uninitiated-- Bergman is considered one of the greatest filmmakers in the European canon, known for making films with practically no money and stripped of bells and whistles, that sought to inspire borderline religious experiences of repentance and character transformation. I make no claim to being familiar with his full body of work, but I can speak to the effect that this film had on me, in mitigating my relationship with my own siblings and parents, and I wish it might have a similar impact on you.
Killer of Sheep (1978), directed by Charles Burnett
Please watch this film. It was made in 1978 and sat on a shelf in the UCLA film archive for 40 years because the director couldn’t afford the music licensing fees, until someone loved it so much that they ponied up $150,000 so it could be released and treasured by the public-- and here we have this timeless relic of a family adrift in torn-apart, post-riot Watts.
One of the great achievements of 1970’s independent cinema. Written, directed, produced and acted wonderfully by Barbara Loden, in her only feature film. Not the easiest watch but you will have a hard time shaking it.
Pretty Eyes by Silver Jews
Silver Jews was David Berman’s solo project, among the most overlooked American singer-songwriters of the late 20th century, who some propped up as high as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen though they never said it out loud. Before he broke through as a poet or musician, he worked as a security guard at the Whitney, a job that he claims inspired him to take the plunge into making music, eschewing insecurities and self-doubt for the sake of better understanding himself. With an unremarkable voice and an amateur’s command of the guitar, he started recording music with his friends (who were also guards at the Whitney), and recorded the first Silver Jews EP’s.
This article shares a bit more of his story, if you’re interested, along with a few of his most beloved songs: https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/15-songs-that-defined-david-bermans-heavy-magic/
David Berman died this year at 52, leaving behind scores of adoring fans who wished he might have had the happy ending to his life which he publicly yearned for. His loss was especially difficult for me this semester-- and part of the reason I took this course-- but the past few months have been a rewarding period of re-discovering his greatest songs and wishing him peace.
Mimi O’Donnell on losing her partner, Philip Seymour Hoffman, to heroin addiction.
If you’ve ever lost someone to addiction or are currently part of the support system of someone in recovery, I hope you’re able to read this. I wrote about this article for the final paper assignment in this course, and can’t help but include it here. I was taken aback, not only as an incredible testament to enduring love, but as one of the most remarkable pieces of nonfiction I’ve read in recent memory.
Zadie Smith on the death of David Foster Wallace
I won’t say too much about this one, other than if you were a fan of DFW, you might enjoy this post written on his loss by the incomparable Zadie Smith.