Favorite Films, Part 1

I’m an art and film nut. I own over a thousand films and seen many more. And then there’s the countless hours spent studying them for the writing, cinematography, and acting. So, for fun, I wanted to share a small selection of some of my favorites.  They’re not necessarily the best films ever made, but rather, they represent films that have had a huge influence on me as an artist and as a person, and carry with them a quality that makes me come back to them over and over again. Some are groundbreaking in theme or execution, while others have incredibly memorable moments characterized by superb acting or indescribable choreoraphic beauty. All of them carry with them a resonating quality that I believe will never be replicated ever again. You might be familiar with these titles but I suggest re-visiting them as they get better with each viewing.

Since there are just far too many excellent films to share, this series will be split over several posts.

The Godfather 1 & 2 (directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

In my humble opinion, Francis Ford Coppola’s two Godfather epics are the greatest films ever made. Based on Mario Puzo’s deeply penetrating novel about the rise and fall of the Corleone’s ascension to the throne as America’s most powerful Mafia family, the film is a complex and involving web of action, dialogue and scenery that pulls the audience deep inside the closed world of crime and the world inside the mind of its main character, Michael Corleone, played with immense power and restraint by Al Pacino. Along the way, we witness the erosion of a man who seems helplessly pulled towards evil and the consequences it has on his family and his soul. Despite riding along with the violence, tragedy and “bad men,” the film sucks you in, as you helplessly sympathize and even root for its characters. Loaded with standout performances (including that of Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton) and numerous iconic moments, The Godfather is film-making at its absolute best. Complemented by the masterful cinematography of Gordon Willis and Nina Rota’s simple yet mesmerizing score, it’s a film that never grows old.

Vertigo (directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

When one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock, one thinks of consistency and excellence. There are so many films to like: Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, Rebecca, Rope, To Catch A Thief, Notorious. But my all-time favorite remains his remarkable 1958 love-story/tragedy, Vertigo. Set in the backdrop of the most visually-cultural city of America (San Francisco), the story is one filled with mystery, beauty and sadness. It’s also a film that is both visually and emotionally enveloped by madness, as depicted perfectly by one of America’s most beloved actors, Jimmy Stewart (who plays Scottie, a retired cop). Falling is the theme here; to fall for a con, to fall in love, to fall to one’s death. Complemented by a beautifully subdued performance by the lovely Kim Novak (who plays the mysterious Madelaine), the storytelling is as hypnotic to the viewer as Madelaine is to Scottie. You find yourself riding along with Stewart’s character, as he turns from honorable man of humor, kindness and nobility to one who is filled with lust, obsession and control. No one does suspense like Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann’s chilling score complements the mood perfectly.

Chariots of Fire (directed by Hugh Hudson)

When I need to be inspired, I watch Hugh Hudson’s 1981 classic, Chariots of Fire, a film about Britain’s participation in the running events of the 1924 Paris Olympic games. It’s a seemingly simple film but one that makes a huge statement about human nature and the power of will. The main characters Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) create a wonderfully contrasting pair — two men in their physical prime who carry opposing beliefs and personalities but have an identical goal; to be the fastest man on the planet. Buoyed by Vangelis Papathanassiou’s magnificent score and a marvelously sincere and subdued performance by Ian Holms, the story that unfolds grabs you tightly across the heart; you find yourself cheering wholeheartedly for both protagonists. There are many films that show characters that try to prove themselves and define their worth but few do it as convincingly as Chariots of Fire.

The Thin Red Line (directed by Terence Malick)

There have been some really great war movies made in Hollywood each one worthy of the heavy weight title for the category: Oliver Stone’s Platoon is a harrowing account of the director’s own personal experience during the Vietnam War; Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket captures, what my Marine Sargent friend tells me as, “the most accurate portrayal of military training ever depicted”; Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan, is the most visceral and spellbinding experience of real military combat I’ve ever witnessed on film. But it is Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line that captivates me over and over again. There are no good guys or bad guys here — only the inescapable and wholly encapsulating experience of living inside of war. The contrast of the senselessness of war in the backdrop of the incredible beauty of nature make the point of the film remarkably clear. In the midst of both sensually depicted memories and beautiful abstractions of reality, we slide effortlessly inside the mind of the soldier trying to make sense of our actions and our very existence. Complemented by Jim Caviezel’s soulful performance and Hans Zimmer’s poetic score, the film is fine art dissecting the horrors of man’s violent intrusion over nature and his own soul.

Jaws (directed by Steven Spielberg)

Like many of the directors listed here, Spielberg has made many fantastic, even iconic films: Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park, E.T., The Color Purple, Munich, etc. But Jaws, made when the director was only 27 years of age, still holds for me a most special place among his legacy of films. In his hands, the classic “monster in the house” story becomes something much more than just a film about a very large shark. It’s a character study of men; our need to protect those we love, to live up to our word, and to face the demons that haunt us. In this case, we have three richly developed characters in Brody (Roy Schneider), Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who not only have to battle the shark but each other. The visuals and editing are inventive and many sequences marked what would become Spielberg’s trademark as a filmmaker — excellent pacing complemented by moments of brilliant imagery and careful character development. Nothing is rushed and always more is hinted at than what is seen. I love Jaws. There’s a reason why it scared everyone from going to the beach when it first came out in theaters. Unlike the films of today, special effects are not the star here. Instead, the spotlight belongs to the actors and a story whose mood is perfectly augmented by John Williams’ renown piano score.

Stay tuned for more!

Discipline — What does it mean?

Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981) is one of the most inspiring films ever made, telling the story of young men who display great discipline and courage to live out their dreams and uphold their principles.

“Right discipline consists, not in external compulsion, but in the habits of mind which lead spontaneously to desirable rather than undesirable activities.” — Bertrand Russell, Writer

When people hear the word “discipline” they often associate it with something arduous, time-consuming and painful. The same thing can be applied to the ethics of work — an onerous virtue linked to duty (and punishment) that is to be avoided as often as possible. This is rather unfortunate because the thing is, human beings are designed to work, just as our feet are designed for walking.

But there is more to it than that — discipline is required for true fulfillment as a human being.

“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” — Buddha

The word discipline actually finds its roots from “discipulus,” the Latin word for pupil, and is also the source word for disciple. So discipline actually refers to the practice or code for the acquisition of knowledge and skill — a route towards higher personal development. In fact, it is a core component to mastery,  along with concentration, patience and commitment. There is no easy prescription to excellence, happiness or fulfillment, only practices that enable its becoming.

“One might think that nothing is easier to learn for modern man than discipline… (yet) modern man has exceedingly little self-discipline outside of the sphere of work (organized labor).” — Erich Fromm, Psychologist

Without discipline, nothing is ever accomplished that needs to be accomplished. If it’s so obviously important, then why do we dread it so? Why can’t we overcome our laziness or fatigue and bear down and just do it (as that famous shoe brand tell us)?

These two infographics show what hours of sitting and a sedentary lifestyle do to us. The human body is designed for a minimum of 2 hours of physical exertion everyday— that’s less than 10% of the day. Yet how many of us give even 2 % of our day (less than 30 minutes) to caring for the body, our vessel, that carries us throughout this long journey called life?

Perhaps it’s because far too many of us have jobs and/or other external demands that “obligate us” to do to labor that is unsatisfactory, uninteresting, non-creative or simply incompatible with our being. Worn out from eight or more hours of the day, both working and commuting to work on something that has no meaning or joy in doing will do that to us. In other words, being an automaton creates resentment and bitterness, which in turn adds to the fatigue of an already taxing routine. Some of us can escape this mindless drain with work that more closely resembles careers — employment that offers greater mental and creative stimulation — but even then, the long hours, stressful deadlines and office politics could be enough to offset any feelings of true satisfaction or fulfillment. At best, it seems we sacrifice one thing for another; namely, time for money, or meaning for time.

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” — Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher

As a result, the idea of any kind of discipline to be practiced (post work hours) becomes too high a concept for the mind/body to accept. There is simply no will power left over to work on our own person, or spend time with family or nature. It would take discipline just to schedule time off for rest alone. Therefore, it’s almost inevitable that, once the work day is over, we want to  engage in the most rebellious activity possible; to participate in a sort of infantile self-indulgence, as psychologist Erich Fromm noted, such as the excessive browsing of the internet, playing video games or watching TV or worse — damaging activities like hard drinking or drugs to fill our emptiness. Study, exercise or eat a plate of raw veggies? “You got to be kidding me!” would be the most likely reaction to any such suggestion.

But we all have to make a living don’t we? Not many of us were trust fun babies or have lives that resemble celebrities. What then should we do while we still live in a world that aims to maximize production-consumption?

Traditional Japanese culture honors deep principles in “how” we do things, and no where is this code for living more fully expressed than in Bushido, the way of the warrior as emblemized by the life of the Samurai.

If we’ve got a job to do needed to pay the bills, then we must be more than just aware of that fact. Whether it’s an ideal job or not is irrelevant. It’s a choice we make. And if it’s a lucid choice, and we’ve decided to take or keep such a job, we can no longer approach it like a burden. The issue is a matter of perspective. Once we view one thing as a burden, we begin to view other things as burdens. If we create an environment (either internally or externally) that is poor, we become poor.

“Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves, he became infected through the unconscious of their psychology. No one can shield himself from such an influence.” — Carl Jung, Psychologist

The narrative we give to a situation alters our entire experience of it, for “one’s man pain is another man’s joy.” So if we’re gonna do the job anyway, we mind as well do it well and be respectful of the workplace — the people we work with, the company we work for, and the work itself. That’s what taking a professional approach and attitude means. And we’d be surprised at how much we can learn from the experience and, more importantly, how much we can learn about ourselves. Learning any craft is a process. In participating in that process, we discover knowledge and build respect. And it is with respect that we learn to appreciate and then love something, anything.

Muhammed Ai, seen here alone doing the classic sit up. All the “glorious” careers (sports, drama, music, art, etc.) come with the requirement of practicing the less sexy stuff behind the scenes. If we learn to accept or even love the process required, we begin to love the job.

“It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” — John Wooden, Record-winning UCLA Basketball Coach

Now, if the work is truly absolute torture with no relief in sight, a job that causes immense strain and robs us of not only all the time that we’ve got but our passion to live, then it should be clear that we have to make a serious change. There’s always an option. We cannot be afraid to be free. Most people are. It takes courage to be free — and ironically, discipline — to listen to your intuitive self.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor E. Frankl, Writer & Holocaust survivor

Choosing Yourself

Rembrandt Self-Portrait completed 4 years before his death in 1665. Rembrandt may have died blind, poverty-stricken and largely ignored, but his work lives on 350 years after his death, his name now synonymous with the word genius. That’s not such bad a deal in the grand scheme of things.

“What you need is to free yourself from your own preconceived ideas about yourself. It will take a revolution to do it, and many times you will think yourself on the road only to find that the old habit has possessed you again with a new preconception. But if you can at least to a degree free yourself, take your head off your heart and give the latter a chance, something may come of it. The results will not be what you expect, but they will be like you and it will be the best that can come from you.” — Robert Henri

Here, we talk a lot about discipline, preparation, and balance. The reason is because it’s through such means that we make the life we lead truly our own. It is, as Robert Henri states, no easy proposition. But is there a better alternative? Would you prefer someone else tell you how you should live? We all know that governments and private industry are more than happy to fulfill such a role. If we want freedom, know that it comes attached to personal responsibility.

I was visiting a boxing gym recently and came across the above quote on the window. It’s true, if it isn’t hard it isn’t worth doing.

Positive change is hard. We all know it. But to be yourself, to live honestly, requires full consciousness and awareness. We must look and see, listen and hear. The senses are our tools and they must be well-maintained and our usage of them must be practiced. We cannot, unlike the majority of society, afford to be lost in the noise. It’s not healthy nor natural for the artist to chase things. Instead he pays attention, contemplates, and then responds. This ritualistic practice is what allows him to see and create beyond what is common or mundane.

As we enter into the Fourth Industrial Revolution — the fusion of the physical and biological spheres with that of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics — we shall witness a dramatic altering of our social and economic fabric. It’s a time when our artistic awareness is more valuable than ever. Our sensibilities to our environment and humanity allows us to see and adapt to change, even foretell the future so to speak. It’s not surprising that it wasn’t the scientists or industrialists who foresaw how technology would change how we live but the writers and filmmakers of science fiction.

A harrowing scene from Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking and prescient 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film created almost 50 years ago. 

Technology has always altered the world as it entered it. But modern technology has taken a giant leap from the cantilever or printing press; the power of digital media and its emergence as a way of working, living and socializing has altered the entire consciousness of our species. Or, as stalwart historian and media expert Marshall McLuhan states from his seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, it appears that only creatives have a chance at even accurately acknowledging what is happening:

“The effects of technology do not occur at the levels of opinions or concepts but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” — Marshall McLuhan

The city at night in current Shanghai, China.

The city at night from the movie Blade Runner (1982). Ridley Scott’s and Phillip K. Dick’s dystopian future world is not quite here nor are its flying cars, but the themes in question are becoming very much pertinent in our times. What will become of our world? What is it to be human?

Times are changing. The world in front of us, already doesn’t look much like the world we’re leaving behind. In a short 150 years, and more substantially, since the advent of computers and the internet, change is expanding in both size and speed — automation will bring unprecedented and even unforeseeable change. Even the great poets have acknowledged this transformation of our world:

“The visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream.” — W. B. Yeats

Hence the artist carries a very important role in society and in mankind’s evolution. Not only do we record our history more comprehensively (i.e. being inclusive of direct human experience versus just pure facts or data), but we can, at times, predict our own future and more importantly, even shape it. So it becomes paramount that any creative remain true and pure as he can be. He must be faithful to himself. This is what we want from him.

Study of a Horse by Leonardo da Vinci. Can you imagine our world without the great contributions from the artists of the Renaissance? Leonardi da Vinci’s contributions go beyond science or art because his work encompassed both.

It’s also important to maintain an optimistic outlook. Yes, it’s frightening what advancing digital technology will mean for jobs, social security and survival. But for every crisis, there lies great opportunity. If we, as artists, develop and access our acuity in our sensory perception, we won’t become “machines.” We may work with them or alongside them, but we can remain aware and sensitive to the social and emotional impact that our changing environment brings. Instead, we look for beauty, both in joy and in sadness. It’s the reason why this blog refuses to fall towards despair or complaint despite co-existing in an unfair world that is becoming more and more machine-like everyday. The business and scientific world is obsessed with numbers. The artist’s abilities and responsibilities lie in the intangibles, in the humane. We must continue to value and develop our very human sensibilities.

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” — John F. Kennedy

But if we give away our freedom or our individuality, we kill what is the most human part of us — our unconscious and our soul — things that sense and see with greater precision than the rational mind. It’s well known, for instance in psychology, that a repressed soul leads to neurosis. Our society needs its writers, artists and poets to be healthy, free and true. The sane and lucid artist is one who chooses himself. He must ignore society’s current opinion of him. He serves it best by being imaginative and honestly expressive in his work. That’s where his generosity lies. He has to make a choice to be happy.

“Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.” — Immanuel Kant

Even this humble blog has to make choices. It wouldn’t be hard to post daily quick anecdotes or secret tricks of the trade that will “vastly” improve skills or lead to “creative success.” That would certainly garner far more followers or “hits” to the website — to make it short and easy to read, a place that lures and promises with fast answers and quick witted humor surrounded by strategically placed advertisements to “monetize” my efforts. That’s what our society currently values, accepts, and expects. It’d certainly be easier to produce and less time-consuming than spending the many hours to put together what I have done here. Why write 1000 or 2000 word essays when 100 word excerpts would suffice? But then, the generosity and spirit of what I want to share wouldn’t surface. I’d be like everyone else — after a quick buck, chasing immediate attention to satisfy an insecure ego. To be different means to take a risk. To be true to oneself means to be different.*

“I think real artists are too busy with just being and growing and acting (on canvas or however) like themselves to worry about the end. The end will be what it will be. The object is intense living (and) fulfillment” — Robert Henri

*In the same generous spirit of this blog, I ask that you multiply the contributions here by sharing this free blog, whenever you can, on your own sites or social media platforms.

Pantomime

Harold Lloyd, seen in his 1923 B/W classic “Safety Last” was a master pantomime actor/director who thrilled his audiences with his story scenarios and mind-blowing stunts (no green screen technology!)

“I’m a big fan of pantomime storytelling, being an animator.” — John Lasseter

Pantomime — the art or technique of conveying emotions, actions, and feelings by gestures without speech— is one of the oldest forms of entertainment in human history. For thousands of years, it has helped tell stories, build our imagination and make us laugh. It has made its home in family rooms and on Shakespearean stages. It has graced film and television since their inception. It’s the quintessence of visual storytelling.

“Pantomime is a big thing in the cultural calendar of my country…” — Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming (seen here with the late Natasha Richardson on the set of Cabaret) is an extraordinarily talented actor/singer/writer whose physical performances make him the star of any show or scene he’s in.

Unfortunately, with the dominance of quick access information, flashy action and snappy punchlines in entertainment today, this craft has lost a bit of its glamor and respect. Except on Broadway stages or standup comedy acts, directors and performers, both in live action and animation, are favoring stiffer choices complemented by dialogue heavy exposition and more extensive camera work (i.e. highly convoluted and often overlong action sequences). Times and tastes may have changed, but wordless performance still has its place in the craft of fine acting and storytelling. In fact, the best acting is often between the lines. Physical action, which constitutes both pose and movement, can sometimes convey ideas and emotions with even greater clarity and poignancy than any dialogue or close up shot. It would be a shame for any performer not to study the power of gesture.

Containing less than 1000 words of dialogue, Walt Disney’s iconic film “Bambi” is one of the quietest films in history. It’d be hard pressed for any modern day studio to create or even allow for the creation of a film told primarily through imagery, music and action, the original bread and butter of not just animated films but of all films.

To me, pantomime is a beautiful yet phenomenally difficult craft to learn; it requires very specific training and endless preparation. Not unlike animation, extensive exploration into character creation and intense imagination is required, as is patience, both on the part of the creators and the audience. It’s a form of acting that delivers ideas in a way that is both timeless and universal, a wordless language that represents 100,000 years of humanity in the making. It’s an illusion of life told through time, shape and space, and nothing else.

The following limited selection is my small tribute to the magical possibilities of pantomime in film:

Rowan Atkinson is perhaps the finest pantomime actor working today. Originally designed to help him fine tune and explore the depths of acting, his creation “Mr. Bean” has become a worldwide sensation. Watch carefully how he always firmly establishes his character of “Bean” prior to any action or interaction with his environment. Story action and character formation are deeply intertwined and Atkinson, who sports one of the highest IQ’s in Hollywood (178), knows that that’s how we build interest. Executed with superb timing, gesture and clarity, Atkinson’s Bean is always fabulously entertaining.

The best and most iconic of comic pantomimes is Charlie Chaplin.  In “Modern Times” Chaplin creates a masterpiece of comedy and pathos as well as a prescient commentary of the social malaise caused by Taylorism — the economic theory of industrial production and practice that dominates the workplace to this very day. Chaplin’s little Tramp is so carefully constructed from his “stache” down to the flaps of his oversized shoes, that just one look at him tells us who he’s supposed to represent — namely us, the little people. But it’s the Tramp’s never-say-die spirit, inventive adaptability and relentless sense of hope that makes him so likeable and his antics so funny. Despite the fact that his creation is over 100 years old now, Chaplin’s pantomimes are perfectly written, staged and acted and should continue to be studied by actors and animators today.

When people think of pantomime, they usually think only of comedy or full-bodied, high-action performance. Al Pacino may be known predominantly for some of the loudest and most powerful screen characters, but here in Mike Newell’s excellent film “Donnie Brasco” he delivers a most sincere and sophisticated performance. In this last scene from the movie, both the events that are to unfold and the deep feelings inside the character are told with action — highly subdued action. In my humble opinion, Pacino’s portrayal of the aging Lefty, a respectfully loyal but out-of-luck gangster is one of the best and most underrated performances of his career.

In Wong Kar-Wei’s visually sumptuous masterpiece “In The Mood For Love” Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his contribution) deliver some of the most beautiful silent performances ever to grace the screen.  The story is one told with minimal dialogue, elegant framing and the most subtle of gestures and glances. Perfectly supported by Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography and Shigeru Umebayashi’s hypnotic score, the film is achingly beautiful in theme,  movement and performance. It’s one of my favorite films of all time.

A great tribute to the silent era, The Artist (2011) is a tastefully clever and heartwarming story of love and destiny. Starring Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller and the ever-charming Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, the movie displays all the joys and wonders of what silent acting can do to enchant the minds and hearts of viewers, even today.

“I like actors that are good with pantomime and that can transmit a lot by their presence and attitude more than through their dialogue.” — Guillermo del Toro