Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983). I wanted to watch one of Gordon Willis’ movies after reading that he had died, and figured it was too soon to watch the Godfathers again. I chose Zelig, one of two movies that won Willis an Oscar nomination. It wasn’t the best choice … I’ve made my opinion about Zelig known in the past (“Zelig the character disappears from everyday life, and Zelig the movie pretty much disappears from the screen”). I don’t know that I’d change my opinion, but it was refreshing looking at the technical aspects of blending Zelig into history. Willis once said, “There was a point when I thought we were never going to finish, a point when I thought I was going to go nuts. I have never worked so hard at making something difficult look so simple.” Allen is trying to say something about celebrity, but for the most part, I think his intellectual ambitions for the movie are overwhelmed by the wonder of what we see on the screen. 6/10. What to watch alongside Zelig? I’d say Forrest Gump, but I hate that movie.
Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966). This is definitely on the list of I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Seen It movies, if for no other reason than I’ve had to listen to endless comparisons to Performance where that favorite of mine comes out second-best. Yes, the two movies have some similarities, but not worth too much analysis … you’d do better comparing The Last House on the Left to The Virgin Spring. Persona is reminiscent of more recent films I didn’t like, so I’m a bit puzzled why I found it so affecting. I don’t think it helps to try and literalize the narrative, nor do I think you need to “solve” the movie’s puzzles (even though these are the kinds of things I complain about in movies like Mulholland Drive). The work of Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson is so exquisite, together and separately, that I think I could have watched them for another hour and a half. I was more willing than I usually am to let the film wash over me. I understand that the chronology is Persona/Performance, but I came at them in backwards order, so for me, Ullman plays the Mick Jagger role and Andersson is James Fox. Except the matchups don’t really work, and I need to quit thinking of the two films in tandem. I don’t normally think of myself as a big fan of Bergman’s, but the proof’s in the pudding. I’ve given my highest ratings to The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night, and if I’m not quite ready to place Persona up with those two, I’m still willing to guess that a later viewing will convince me it deserves that place. Until then, I’ll match it with Fanny and Alexander, pretty good company itself, and say 9/10. #24 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 1000 greatest films of all time … that’s right, #24. Watch it with Performance, why not?
Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993). The MovieLens website tells me that, prior to this viewing, Schindler’s List was the “most often rated movie” that I hadn’t seen. I interpret this to mean that Schindler’s List was the #1 “I Can’t Believe You’ve Never Seen It” movie (even more than Persona). (Dances with Wolves now takes over at #1 in this category.) I’m a fan of Spielberg … I know he makes bad movies along with good ones, but I think highly of the good ones (I’ve given my highest 10/10 rating to four of his films, and at least 8/10 to ten movies). Schindler’s List comes close to Spielberg’s peak, and he clearly gave his all to the project. He uses his narrative skills to tell a story of Jews and Nazis, his recreations of Poland are awful and accurate, and he gets some good acting, notably from Ralph Fiennes. In many ways, it’s pointless to pick at places where the film doesn’t quite succeed. Liam Neeson himself has said he didn’t like his performance, and while Spielberg mostly avoids the overdone sentimentalism that often derails his films, things do get a bit sticky at the end. On the other hand, I can’t blame him for seeing a sliver of hope in such a dark history. #302 on the TSPDT list. 9/10. The obvious companion is Shoah, although that’s asking for a big commitment.
The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940). 10/10.