christopher funderburg

Every day, it seems like there's more being written about fewer films. The internet is an endless expanse of opinioneering, but every blogger seems to be working from the same limited Rolodex. How many times do the virtues of The Godfather need to be extolled? If you love horror movies, do you ever need to read anything else about (the truly excellent, totally brilliant) Halloween or The Evil Dead? How many "Top 10" lists do you need to see recycle the same titles before you realize, "Gosh, maybe I should see The Shining and Casablanca?"

There's a whole universe of movies out there, but you wouldn't know it by perusing critical websites. Look, we love Funny Games (both versions) as much as anybody, but maybe it should be mentioned at some point that The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video are equally interesting films. It's possible some people never tire of reading about standbys like Stranger than Paradise, Breathless and On the Waterfront, but once a week give your palate over to the Pink Smoke and we'll recommend some films that maybe you didn't even realize were thoroughly, totally, 100% worth your attention. At very least, they're not films you'll have already read about 453 times.

hal harltey, 1993

If you like:
90's Indie films, Doestoyevsky, Matt Malloy, impromptu interpretive dance numbers.

The students in listless, cranky university professor Martin Donovan's class on Russian literature are infuriated: they've been going over the same paragraph from The Brothers Karamazov for months and he won't (or can't) provide them any explanations as to just what's so important about it. He's shaken out of his stupor when a coquettish, intellectual student and would-be novelist played by Mary Ward strikes up a tempestuous romance with him. It's typical work from director Hal Hartley: quip-laden, circular dialog, doomed romantic heroes and alluring, emotionally opaque women. Matt Malloy as Donovan's best friend and failed professor/current bookstore employee kills it in a tragic/comic relief role that proves that his work in In the Company of Men wasn't a fluke. His on-going interactions with a crazy homeless lady are quintessentially Hartley in that they seem to exist in a slightly different, warped reality that somehow feels more resonant and truthful than a thousand non-actors wandering bleak landscapes in front of a thousand hand-held cameras. There's not an ounce of fat on this thing: at about an hour long, there's not a wasted scene, not a wasted line, everything verges on being the funniest or most depressing thing you've ever heard in your life. Donovan finally turns the tables on his smug student at the end of the film and uses his hard-earned knowledge of life and literature to help her see herself clearer than she ever has before. But there's no satisfaction for him in it, it's a crushing demonstration of just how little comfort there is to be found in wisdom. That the failure of their relationship is an essential, eternal human failure doesn't make him want any less to stick his head out his car window and bark like a dog and then lie down with his head in the gutter.

Hal Hartley was one of the seminal American Independent success stories of the late 80's/early 90's and back then it wasn't uncommon to see his name crop up alongside Richard Linkater, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh. His reputation has suffered a remarkable collapse: his films are rarely mentioned by critics anymore and screened even less frequently - part of his cultural irrelevancy no doubt has to do with the depressing losing streak he's been on since 1997's high water mark Henry Fool. But more than that, his overtly artsy, hip and emotional approach to filmmaking simply fell out of style: when Pulp Fiction came along in 1994, it all but killed all the idea of AmerIndie Cinema as unrepentantly stylized art concerned with emotion and philosophy. Detached, ironic genre revisionism (with a winking soundtrack) became the only kind of ultra-stylized aesthetic that could get any traction and independent cinema became overpopulated with filmmakers looking to make a low-budget calling card and move on to directing a Batman movie. Surviving Desire might be the example of Hartley at his most stubbornly anti-commercial... if it weren't so funny and affecting. It's a film that wants you to feel and think without any kind of self-conscious mediation of those activities - it's the work of a director who's down in the shit with all of us, trying to figure out life; he's not above it all, business plan in hand, looking for the angle to position himself as the next highly-touted Hollywood automaton. The dialog in a Hartley film is wry and poetic, the thematic concerns doggedly transcendental, the tone yearning and angst-riddled. All of those are good things, even if critics nowadays seem deeply afraid to admit it.

luis bunuel, 1952

If you like:
Surrealism, smokin' hot Latina women, road trips, films about young couples struggling on their honeymoon.

Lilia Prado. That's all you need to know about this film. Her searing, sensual beauty drives the narrative; director Luis Buñuel is never more comfortable than with a story of all-consuming lust. A couple has their honeymoon interrupted by news of the impending death of the groom's mother. Rather than retreat to a paradisical island with his beloved, he must hop on a rickety bus, make his way back to his dusty hometown and attend to the legal morass surrounding his mother's will. Enter Prado. While she's not a main character so much as one of many obstacles our hero must overcome, her raw beauty etches itself in the memory of the audience and gives gravity to the hero's spiritual conflicts: why would a man want to ascend to heaven when Prado is down here on the bus with him? On the one hand, it's a serio-comic road trip film featuring depressingly beautiful landscapes that recall Buñuel's earlier enthusiastic chronicle of human misery, Las Hurdes. On the other hand, it's a typically Buñuelian examination of the meaning and function of religion on a pratical level that offers a wry and ironic commentary on human spiritual short-comings while never dismissing the power and mystery of faith. Prada embodies the very convincing argument in favor of the sins of the flesh, a catalyst for the hero's subconscious mind to run wild and overtake him. A man of duty and honor, he's a rich subject for internal conflicts between desire, humility and depravity. A million things from the harshness of nature to the birth of a baby complicate his journey, but it would be insane to deny that Prada's body is the most memorable and effective.

Buñuel had a huge amount of affection for Mexican Bus Ride and it's easy to see why: it's one of his most effortlessly charming films; it's simple and beautiful, really among the best of his output in Mexico even if it doesn't aggressively presage his later, more famous work the way some of his other Mexican films like El (This Strange Passion) and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz do. Based on true anecdotes compiled by screenwriter/poet Manuel Altolaguerre and his wife Maria Luisa, the film has a naturalistic edge that really isn't common for Buñuel - and the realism is felt more forcefully here than in maybe even his most celebrated depiction of poverty, Los Olvidados. As with Los Olvidados, Buñuel's peerless talent for dream imagery is, ironically, on full display including a brilliant scene in which the bus is suddenly filled with foliage and our hero succumbs to temptation and lays down with Prada in an amorous embrace. As I've written several times, Buñuel's Mexican films get short shrift and that's some straight-up bullshit: a film like Mexican Bus Ride deserves to be categorized as True, Legit Buñuel if anything should be. Credit the film's spotty distribution history - it wasn't even originally released in the U.S. and even now finding a dvd requires a little more work than simply queueing it up on Netflix. On a certain level, I understand that this is a tough sell: the title is unappealingly blunt, highlighting a subject and situation most folks would as soon avoid. A more accurate translation doesn't help: would Ascent to Heaven sell you any quicker? The meandering, episodic plot can't be boiled down to a catchy hook, the stars are nobodies, it's black and white with subtitles. But if you like Buñuel - and I know you do, my friend - then you should be jumping out of your chair to see Mexican Bus Ride.

~ AUGUST 5, 2012 ~