Rachel Kushner’s Top10
Rachel Kushner is the author of the novels The Mars Room, The Flamethrowers, and Telex from Cuba. Her new book, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020, was published by Scribner this spring.
When I was growing up, my mother said the two best American films were Wanda and 3 Women. I had to wait until I was an adult to see both, because neither was available on video. 3 Women, filmed around various desert locales in Coachella Valley, is mesmerizingly weird. It’s lively and funny and at the same time haunting and melancholic. I believe it is Shelley Duvall’s finest role; her character, Millie Lammoreaux, is a kind of masterpiece. Formally, it’s an exquisite cinematographic study of water and air: the healing pools of the sanitorium where Sissy Spacek and Duvall’s characters work, and the infernal desert through which the girls move as they take stock of one another and then seem to reverse roles.
My mother told me, “Wanda is the best movie about being a woman in America.” She’d seen the movie when it was first released, but it only ran for a week at our local theater. When my mother called the programmer to ask why, he told her, “The director felt it was too depressing for people.” Could be myth by this point; I don’t know. Wanda was rereleased about ten years ago, and now, luckily, Criterion has done this gorgeous restoration with a lot of great commentary and interviews with Barbara Loden, including her presentation to a group of film students at AFI, which shows off her understated and sly intelligence and wit.
I heard my across-the-street neighbor doing a Saturday night lawn screening of this the other night. I didn’t even have to look out my window to know what they were watching, because it was obvious by the low roar that it could be none other than this absolute classic and its primered two-door 1955 Chevy, its “driver” (James Taylor), its “mechanic” (Dennis Wilson), the infamous dork played by Warren Oates, and the girl hitchhiker (Laurie Bird) they pick up in Albuquerque. The dialogue, like that Chevy, is stripped down to the basics, and like the car, it is totally winning.
Maybe it’s a personal thing, as a skier, a former ski racer, to love this film for its majestic and existential approach to the mountains, and to competition, the way it so perfectly captures the pad of isolation around the skier, because skiing is simply not a team sport. Yes, ski engineering has changed ski racing so much that the technique here looks a little quaint, and yet, Robert Redford is genuinely hauling in the downhill, and the truth of what it all looks like and feels like from a skier’s-eye view is the same now as it was then. This film has a restrained elegance that I’ve always admired. The ambivalence of the ending—to win the gold but glance, almost enviously, at your competitor, who has wiped out, a DNF—kills me every time I watch this film, and is a tone that has taught me a lot about how to end things, leave them open and unsure, like in the final few seconds, where doubt is writ large, and up close, on Redford’s face.
“Does this ship take passengers?” Monica Vitti asks in one of the most heartbreaking scenes. I love so many Antonioni movies, maybe because I had the good luck of taking film scholar Seymour Chatman’s Antonioni class as a freshman in college, but this one must be singled out for its arresting look—Vitti’s beauty in service to the most profound alienation, against the monstrous and sublime geometry of petrochemical smokestacks, yellow fire belched into a steel-gray sky. The subject of this film, in a way, is the industrial devastation of our world, and Vitti’s performance of chilling ennui, offered such as it is, cannot be ameliorated or forgotten. The strange sequences of a girl on a pink beach in Sardinia we take to be either Vitti’s dream, or simply there to show what life could be and is not. No, this ship does not take passengers.
Legendary Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s first feature film, Black Girl, is as visually perfect as the best of Antonioni, and as with Antonioni, each scene adds to our sense of dread. In this case, it isn’t the quiet existential dread of the white bourgeoisie but the brutal postcolonial exploitation of a young girl from Dakar mistreated by her French employers, a theme not featured by the European avant-garde who were Sembène’s artistic peers. The young girl, Diouana, gives her white employers an African mask as a gift. They proudly display it, while casually abusing her. The mask, over the course of this film, tells us everything that has never been said about Europe, art, cinema, history, humanity.
Hiroshima mon amour
Resnais and Duras were a perfect combination here. But it’s Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada who make this film such a wonder, by being maybe the sexiest couple in the history of cinema. The common interpretation of Hiroshima mon amour that it was “anti-nuclear,” a treatise on peace, is not quite correct. It’s more accurate to say that Duras condemned human suffering, but then again, she framed it as the only vital condition for the possibility of meaning. This movie has an unsettling moral ambivalence that leaves me unsure and yet draws me to watch it repeatedly.
Léon Morin, Priest
Emmanuelle Riva here plays a communist who marches into church, into the confession booth, on a lark, basically to troll and harass the priest. The priest—oh, hello—is played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, who gazes at her through the mesh substance that separates them in the confession box, and she gazes back. His playboy’s beauty and pillowy lips are weirdly not a distraction. In fact, he’s really convincing in this movie. So is she. She falls in love with him. Spoiler: it doesn’t go well. This is “boutique Melville” somehow—by which I mean not as famous as some of his other films, all of which I admire, but this one is really special to me.
Pier Paolo Pasolini
Every time I watch this film, it’s almost a different movie, even as it consistently reflects the same enchanting combination of precision and audacity. A stranger comes to town and fucks the whole family. Wait, no, that’s not it. The family lets slip to the stranger their desire for him, each in turn, and in a series of selfless acts of extreme compassion, he complies, aiding them to become undone, for better or worse. It’s not clear if he’s a god or devil. On a visit I made a couple of years ago to Al Biondo Tevere in Rome, where Pasolini ate his last meal, the waiter’s eagerness to show me which chair he sat in, which sink he’d used to wash his hands, the towel he’d dried them on, and so forth, led me to believe that seduction is alive and well, even if Pasolini himself is long gone.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
One of the most original works of cinema and probably the best film ever made about an artist. I’m going to go on a little longer on this one. Do you mind?
Each scene of this film is stunningly composed. Some are like perfect French cakes, intricate and ornate, while others are bracingly minimal and severe. Color sequences are all adaptations from three of Mishima’s novels: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion; Kyoko’s House, which has never appeared in English, so this is as close as Anglophones will get to that novel; and Runaway Horses. Black-and-white sequences depict Mishima’s childhood, in gelid but beautiful scenes that are so reminiscent of Ozu films and yet so appropriate to this material that they match exactly with the artistic mission of the film. Which, if it may be summarized, is a project that mimics Mishima’s own quest, and questions, about the merging of art and life.
Philip Glass did the music; it was his first dramatic feature, though he had just done the score for Koyaanisqatsi. When you hear the Mishima score, you’ll recognize aspects of it, because it’s really the DNA of many of Glass’s melodic refrains, which he returned to again and again, later, as if this merging of his own sensibility and the unique and ghastly life of Mishima triggered an entire musical direction for the composer. The way the sound works in this film is quite amazing. You will not forget the three descending chimes of the refrain, which perfectly resonate with the three adaptations of Mishima novels inside the film.
The person responsible for connecting Glass to Schrader was Telluride cofounder Tom Luddy. He also introduced Schrader to a young graphic designer named Eiko Ishioka, who had made posters for the Japanese release of Apocalypse Now. Luddy was so struck by the force and originality of the posters that he thought their designer could be a good art director. Ishioka had not worked in film and had to ask someone what a production designer does, what that term means. She was young and bold and inexperienced, and later said that it was her inexperience that allowed her to pursue her visions for the film with such unfettered intensity. Each scene proves her genius. There is nothing like the set design for this movie. When Schrader first came to her, she said, “I should warn you that I don’t care for Mishima.” And Schrader said, “That’s fine, because this film is not about what you think of Mishima. It’s about what I think of him.” For the Kyoko’s House sequence, Schrader wanted her to create an ambience that was vulgar and crass, and she said she would be happy to oblige, since she considered Mishima a vulgar and crass person. The lurid and dreamy sequence she conjured has been admired and emulated by many other production designers.
Yukio Mishima wrote The Sound of Waves and almost forty other novels. He died in 1970 at the age of forty-five. I think it’s not exactly a plot spoiler to acknowledge that he died by a meticulously planned ritual suicide at a military headquarters in Tokyo, where he and an elite circle from among his private army (yes, he had a private army, and no, most novelists do not have a private army) took the military commander hostage, attempted to stage an old-fashioned junta, and called for the reinstatement of Japan’s emperor and the immediate nuclear arming of Japan. And then Mishima and his loyal young aide-de-camp/lover both committed seppuku.
Now, looking back, it’s easy to see that the fifteen years between Mishima’s death and the making of a film is not much time. Mishima’s death was so shocking in Japan that it significantly overshadowed his literary reputation. He had been the country’s most famous living writer, and he had shamed and embarrassed Japan. Paul Schrader’s film about him—a Japanese production, in Japanese, filmed in Tokyo, with an all-Japanese cast and crew—was never released in Japan and has still, as far as I know, never been shown there; it was effectively banned. Was the impediment a culturati who didn’t want Mishima’s reputation tarred by his fascist leanings? Actually, no. It was fanatical right-wingers who claimed Mishima for their symbolic universe and were offended by the idea of anyone depicting Mishima as gay. Mishima’s widow also disliked any innuendo about her husband’s sexuality. But mostly she was disappointed that the film chose to emphasize Mishima’s final day, and final act, which he orchestrated as if it were a performance. On a typical day, she asserted to the producers and director, Mishima was not committing ritual suicide, and she would have preferred a cinematic portrait of her husband in his normal routine: writing at his desk, playing with the children, relaxing in the garden, or hosting friends.