Don’t Look Now
All of Nicolas Roeg’s films have been massively important to me. I love Performance and Bad Timing, but Don’t Look Now is the obvious choice. Roeg’s influence runs through everything that I’ve done as a filmmaker—more in terms of form than subject matter. I admire his editing and the relationship he creates between sound and picture within the edit, as well as his willingness to separate those elements.
I’m also very influenced by his portrayal of time, or what people often refer to as the “dream state” he creates. His films reflect consciousness, how it flits all over the place and jumps around in a completely nonlinear way. Not a lot of people put that on-screen—or if they do, it’s for an effect. But Roeg’s films are like that from start to finish. He captures the idea that there’s no past or future—there’s only the present moment. The past is just a memory that changes as the context of one’s present experience changes.
I also love his use of zoom lenses, which informed the way I shot Enys Men. Roeg began his career as a cinematographer, and he continued to be obsessed with the camera and the mechanics of filmmaking. I’m not ashamed to say that I love the camera, but I do find that a lot of directors, as well as a lot of writing about film, suggest that if you’re paying too much attention to the form, then it’s not working. I think that’s such bollocks! We should be celebrating the form, not hiding it. Roeg was always drawing attention to the camera work, and I find that exciting.
He recognized the potential of film form and always pushed its boundaries—and yet he was making commercial films like Don’t Look Now, with big stars like Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. It’s a crazy thing.
I believe you could spend multiple years of an undergraduate film degree just studying the first six and a half minutes of Don’t Look Now and the last twenty minutes of L’argent.
L’argent is Bresson’s greatest film and his last film—that isn’t the case for most directors. It’s incredible that he was in his eighties when he made this—it has such power and energy and such a distilled vision. His thesis was only getting clearer as he got older. He’s someone who lived through the first century of cinema and started making films and establishing his signature style rather late in life. He only got better with time, and it’s a shame that he was not able to make another film after this one.
What I try to take from Bresson is his attitude toward performance. I love the unemotional performances in L’argent and find them to be the most extreme case of his method for using actors. I also love the simplicity of the camera work and compositions in his films, as well as the brutal cutting on dialogue. He leaves no room for expressionism. The opening shot of Enys Men is an homage to a composition of an ATM that appears in L’argent. It’s the kind of thing that no one would ever pick up on but that I know.
For me, Tarkovsky’s films exist outside of time and space. I can’t imagine how a film like Mirror sat within the cinema of its time. I’ve chosen it because I find it to be the most extreme example of what he was trying to do with personal filmmaking. What you see and hear is so specific that there’s no way of properly understanding what he’s referring to, but you can feel the authenticity of it.
Mirror is a perfect example of what Bresson meant when he said it’s more important to feel a film than to understand it. If a film is inauthentic, it will never get under your skin, but if it is authentic, then it will stay with you regardless of whether you understand it.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but I tend to connect Bresson, Tarkovsky, and Bergman. Tarkovsky himself did say, “I am only interested in the views of two people: one is called Bresson and one called Bergman.”
When I was at university, I had a lot of ideas about what I thought Bergman’s work was like, and they were purely based on assumptions I had about theater directors working in cinema. Of course, I was completely wrong. Persona was the first Bergman film I saw. It blew my mind then, and I keep going back to it. It has such an immersive atmosphere; you can’t stop watching once you’ve switched it on. Given the amount of space within it, you’d think it would be a film you could drift in and out of easily, but there is something so addictive about it.
Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the film’s logic, Bergman changes it or walks away from it altogether. The film becomes like a dream where both identity and time are confused—and to me, that makes it a proper horror movie. It’s much scarier than more upfront horror movies because you can’t quite trust it. It taps into the essence of what cinema has the power to do, which is capture a very real kind of temporal and geographical dislocation.
And yet, formally, it’s such a simple film—minimal locations, minimal cast, minimal equipment, no fancy postproduction work. Its genius lies in the atmosphere Bergman creates. It’s so contained, and yet it’s hugely affecting and truly transcendent.
I placed Daguerréotypes on my Sight and Sound ballot because, in terms of editing, this is probably my favorite film. The editing is so clear, and because the subject matter—the activities of people on the street where Varda lives in Paris—is so mundane, you can tell the film was made largely in the edit.
It’s another film that showcases the potential of form. You don’t have to have an intricate plot; you can make something in the edit by cutting two shots together to create new meaning, and Varda does this so brilliantly and playfully. There are conventional cuts on action that you don’t notice, but there are also cuts on colors and objects as well as associative cuts and cuts on dialogue. The more you watch it, the more you see why she made certain decisions.
It’s beautiful how she gives significance to insignificant things by filming them. When I speak to photography students, I always tell them: Don’t try to take a good photo of a sunset—that’s mother nature doing all the work. Go out when there’s no sunset and there’s just a flat gray sea and sky, and try to make something spectacular. This is a perfect film to show to students, because Varda just went outside her front door and created a masterpiece. You don’t need to wait to be inspired by some high concept or for a big budget to roll in or for your dream collaborators to work with you. You’re the one who makes the film.
The Thin Red Line
There have been a couple times in my life when I was watching a film and suddenly felt like I was floating out of my seat. Seeing The Thin Red Line was one of them. During certain moments—particularly when that closely miked voice-over is playing against those visuals, like someone whispering in your ear—I thought, wow, this is proper life-changing cinema. It’s a masterpiece and another example of a film that was made in the edit, and unashamedly so.
It’s not a complicated film. All the budget is in front of the camera: explosions, helicopters, that kind of thing. But behind the camera, it’s just Malick, a Steadicam operator, and people working handheld lights and reflectors. Filmmaking can become so complicated, but it’s always at its best when it’s at its simplest. We’ve lost that now with digital, because it’s easy for decisions not to have to be made in the high-energy environment of a shoot. But when you’re making a film, everybody is slightly insane. They’re sleep-deprived and cut off from the world and living in this intense family dynamic where the only thing that matters each day is what’s happening on location. You’ve got this ball of crazy energy going, so why not make your decisions while everything’s fizzing?
There are so many on-set stories of Malick saying things like: We’re not going to do what’s on the call sheet today, because the light is doing something weird through the trees and we need to get that. Whether or not he used that footage, he recognized when something was too good not to capture. He’s able to be spontaneous, which you can do only if you’ve got a way of working that allows for mobility. It’s the way I work, but he’s doing it with Hollywood A-listers on big budgets while retaining the freedom to be that fleet of foot.
The Last Picture Show
I first saw The Last Picture Show when I was fourteen or fifteen. It was quite a grown-up, serious film to see at an age when I was mostly watching Hollywood movies like Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. I remember my dad renting it from the video store and saying that it was amazing and that the cinematography was beautiful. I thought that was a strange thing to say because, as a kid, I wasn’t paying attention to the cinematography. But even at that young age, I was able to identify with the film.
I’d never been to Texas or had any experience with that part of the world, and yet I felt the film was about me. Again, this goes back to the idea of specificity being so important, because when a director goes into such forensic detail, you’re able to feel the reality of the world and the characters. And I grew up in rural coastal Cornwall, miles from anywhere, so I know the feeling of being in a small town that, as soon as you’re conscious of where you are, you want to get away from—even though you’ll always be drawn back to it.
Even as an unsophisticated teenage boy in the far west of the British Isles, I watched The Last Picture Show and thought, oh, this is really sad but also really comforting. It’s such a mature and brilliant film that says so much about the human condition and the inherent sadness of the passing of time. Everything in life is transient, and films vividly remind us that time moves, and that joy and sadness are paradoxically connected.
I was first inspired to watch L’humanité after seeing a clip of it in Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film. Once I saw the movie, I was absolutely haunted by it. Like Persona, it’s untrustworthy. On the surface, it feels like a realist film—like Ken Loach or a kitchen-sink drama—but then there are these moments of magical realism and fantasy that pull you out of that.
I think Bruno Dumont is a genius filmmaker. The beautiful atmosphere, the performances, the way it’s photographed . . . it’s all so well balanced with this very dark plot. And after seeing more of his films, I’ve realized he’s a filmmaker whose work has given me profound experiences, but I don’t know if I necessarily enjoy them. And yet they stay with me and change me, which is a very powerful thing.
I have no experience of day-to-day life in communist-era Warsaw, but Kieslowski depicts this world with such nuance and detail that I can recognize these characters and their experiences.
I like films that are incredibly simple plot-wise but thematically complicated. Dekalog has those qualities, and the series also has a spirituality that runs through it. There’s an atmosphere of the supernatural that gives the sense that there’s more going on than what we’re seeing on-screen.
It would have been so exciting to see where Jean Vigo’s filmmaking could have gone. Unfortunately, L’Atalante was his first and last feature film. It’s like a fairy tale but with a grim sense of realism. There’s a doomed love story in it, and I find that the romance grows more powerful the older and softer I get.
I first saw this when I was young, probably on television, when the programming was more eclectic. But I finally saw it on the big screen when the BFI showed a restoration of it a few years ago. It’s another film I like to show to students, because, although it was made in the sound era, it uses the in-camera effects of silent cinema, and its visual experimentation is really inspiring.
Mike Portnoy’s Top 10
Mike Portnoy is one of the founding members of Dream Theater. He is currently the drummer in the Winery Dogs, Twister Sister, Transatlantic, Flying Colors, the Neal Morse Band, and Metal Allegiance.