Wednesday, April 27, 2011

52 Perfect Movies: The Exorcist (1973)

"I'm the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps."

Horror films very often catch a bad rap, particularly from the "mainstream" film community, whatever that even means. The bottom line is, they are often considered no more than dispensible B-movies, the equivalent of pulp novels or comic books. Good for a thrill and a little fun, but then quickly forgotten. Needless to say, there are legions of serious horror fans who can tell you that this generalization is ridiculous, but it's rare that the casual movie-going audience is made to understand that horror can deliver some high-quality work--films that can stay with you not just on the basis of how frightening they are, but simply by virtue of how great they are as cinema.

The Exorcist was one of the first films of the modern era to really do this, to cross over into the mainstream consciousness and be recognized as a fine piece of film-making in its own right. To a certain extent, Rosemary's Baby had paved the way a few years before, but The Exorcist is far and away the superior film, and it forced critics and audiences alike to rethink their stereotyped opinions of horror in general.

Nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, The Exorcist is the work of William Friedkin, one of the geniuses who led the way during the formation of the new, auteur-driven Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Just the fact that he had agreed to helm the picture gave it instant credibility, and the talent he brought to the table helped transform William Peter Blatty's potboiler novel into one of the most important pieces of 1970s cinema.

The Exorcist is not only a superbly made film, but it also succeeds as horror because it is supremely scary. Granted, such a quality is largely subjective, but the fact remains that The Exorcist is more often than not the film that gets mentioned whenever anyone is trying to determine "the scariest movie ever made." It may not be so for everyone, but just the fact that it works so well as a horror movie while also being such a flawless piece of cinema is quite an impressive achievement.

During an era when realism in film was being stressed, The Exorcist was a bit of an anomaly. But, interestingly enough, it works exactly because it brings that realist aesthetic to the material. It should also not be forgotten that it remains the highest-grossing horror film ever made. So here you have a motion picture that was a rousing success financially, reached the high watermark of its genre, and also is recognized as one of the finest films ever made. Not a bad trifecta at all for a movie about a little girl possessed by the Devil.

As with all great films, what makes The Exorcist work in the end is the script, and the performances. And as with most films that surpass the novels on which they were based, the screenplay, adapted by Blatty, improves upon the original novel, delivering characters who live and breath and make us care very deeply for them. Father Karras and Regan MacNeil in particular, along with Regan's put-upon mother Chris, are all realized in startling fashion. These are real people in the real world, faced with very real struggles, despite the bizarre, over-the-top form which these struggles take.

A teenaged Linda Blair really makes us feel for the plight of Regan, the pure, virginal young girl who is so viciously and cruelly taken over by the demon (voiced in a highly effective fashion by Mercedes McCambridge). Set up in the beginning the way she is, it is truly tragic to watch her spiral into chaos, and to see the wholesome relationship with her mother so thoroughly devastated. And speaking of her mother, Ellen Burstyn makes the most of the best role of her career here, communicating all the desperation of a helpless mother faced with an unthinkable threat to her child about which she can do nothing.

But this movie truly belongs to Jason Miller, whose agnostic Father Karras represents the moral center of the entire narrative, and the character with whom viewers are invited to identify. He is the everyman forced to find his inner strength and redeem himself in order to defend good from evil. Miller's performance is so powerful, in fact, that it completely overshadows that of the very capable Max Von Sydow, who actually plays the titular exorcist, Father Merrin. Also memorable in a supporting role is the great Lee J. Cobb as Lt. William Kinderman.

The Exorcist still very much has the power to frighten on a very visceral, intellectual level. More than just shock value, the terror on display here is deep and profound, stemming from real spiritual concerns. And even though most do not really believe in the Devil or demonic possession, the notion of outside evil penetrating our world, and profaning that which is pure and pristine, is something that tends to touch us on a gut level, tapping into our primal fear of the unknown. This is a horror film in the truest sense of the term, and accomplishes that which few horror films ever really do--it fills us with absolute dread.

The Exorcist forever changed the horror genre in cinema, and was a part of a bold, innovative era in moviemaking which we haven't seen the like of since. There are those who snicker at its dire religious themes, who try to laugh off the deep-seated anxiety this film provokes. If anything, their nervous dismissals only serve to further establish the film's raw power. This is a movie that needs to be revisited by those who know it more as a cultural touchstone than an actual movie. It is only then that its impressive power is truly revealed.

NEXT UP: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

52 Perfect Movies: The Godfather (1972)

"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse..."

Well, here we are. A while back, I committed myself to this series on what I consider to be absolutely perfect motion pictures...and as far as I'm concerned, we are at the epicenter of that list. Because Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is not just any perfect film--it is the perfect film. Even amongst screen masterpieces, it stands head and shoulders above the pack, as what may very well be the ultimate expression of filmmaking yet seen.

In my humble opinion, and the opinion of countless others, The Godfather is the greatest motion picture ever made. It is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; it is Mozart's Requiem; it is King Lear. Filmmaking may be a flawed art compromised to a certain by being a form of popular entertainment first and foremost--but all that aside, it can be safely said that it literally gets no better than this.

Do I even have to sell you on why The Godfather deserves such praise? The epic story of one family's corruption of the American dream and of the shocking effects of unbridled power, it is a work of sublime beauty, startling violence and technical mastery, all rolled into one transcendent viewing experience. In simple terms, it is the type of film which, once it is discovered while changing TV channels (usually when one gets to AMC), must be watched for the remainder of its running time.

Mario Puzo's novel is lifted by the once-impeccably gifted hands of Coppola to heights I would dare say even the author himself had never dreamed. With his accomplice in genius, the legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis behind the camera, Coppola approaches the material with a singularity of vision that is all but unparalleled in American cinema. This is Greek tragedy transformed into pop culture. This is that great, hardly attainable feat: entertainment both fit for mainstream consumption, and masterful enough to become high art in the truest sense.

With a cast of characters highlighted by career-defining performances from the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall, it is the kind of film in which plot is secondary, and character comes first. And for my money, that's really where it's at, and the true test of whether or not a piece of narrative will stand the test of time. It is also why lovers of the film (is there anyone who doesn't?) can watch it and rewatch it, gaining more pleasure from it every time.

Brando brings a complicated pathos to the role of Don Vito Corleone that is dismissed as a caricature only by the most cynical of moviegoers. Rather, the Don as played by Brando is a man desperately trying to hold his family together with the good intentions that he doesn't realize will always pave the road to hell. His son Michael (Pacino) is the moral center and narrative lynch-pin of the film; as we watch his descent from squeaky-clean war hero to cold and calculating mob boss, we can't help but feel we are witnessing a fall from grace as timeless as any depicted in fiction since the dawn of civilization.

Duvall deserves so much more credit than he ever gets for a restrained yet brilliant performance as consigliere Tom Hagen, an adopted son to the Don who in many ways would've made the best don himself, were he not a non-Italian. And then there is Caan, so utterly perfect as the hot-blooded Sonny Corleone that he has been recognized over the years by numerous Italian-American organizations, despite not actually being Italian in real life. Add to this unforgettable performances from the likes of John Cazale (Fredo), Talia Shire (Connie), Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi), Diane Keaton (Kay) and many more, and you have a veritable smorgasbord of gifted actors doing their finest work.

Nino Rota's brilliant and iconic score needs no introduction, and almost no justification for how powerful, moving and completely gorgeous it is, not to mention entirely crucial to the impact the movie makes on the viewer. This is film music of the highest order, lending an air of larger-than-life tragedy and gravity that compliments Puzo, Coppola and Willis' work with a level of perfection seldom, if ever achieved. Just a note or two of the score, whether it be the Main Title, Sicilian Pastorale, or Halls of Hear theme, can conjure up instant emotional reactions.

Much more than a simple gangster film, The Godfather is Americana itself--the tale of the immigrant and his place in the nation, of the bonds of family and how they can be warped to serve greed and aggression. It challenges our notions of good and evil, often drawing criticism, in fact, for the way it arguably glorifies the world it portrays and glamorizes the actions of those who live in it. However, when watching the film, one cannot help but be lost in this glorification, whether it be morally sound or not.

It is a testament to the power of the work that even though it paints for us the picture of a man twisted and transformed by the effects of power, we cannot help but marvel at the beauty of it all. Is this irresponsible? Is it cynical? I propose that it is neither--rather, it is art. Plain and simple. Take it for what it is. As for me, I choose to take it as the most thoroughly realized piece of storytelling ever put to celluloid.

Francis Ford Coppola never again reached the heights of The Godfather, unless it was arguably with his almost-nearly-as-perfect sequel two years later. But that isn't a slight against Coppola--after all, no filmmaker ever has quite reached the heights of The Godfather. "I believe in America" is the fitting first line of the film, uttered by Bonasera in the Don's study on his daughter's wedding day. For this is a tale of America first and foremost, for good or ill, warts and all--it holds a mirror up to us. And having basked in the majesty of The Godfather, the jewel of American filmmaking, I must say that I believe in it as well.

NEXT UP: The Exorcist (1973)