This week, three modern masters of cinema. When we look back at the start of the second century of cinema, these are three names we will return to again and again.
Zodiac (2007) dir. David Fincher
If there were ever a modern heir to Kubrick, it would have to be David Fincher. Both filmmakers seem to take solace in exploring darker aspects of human nature and, more importantly, both are obsessive perfectionists. Fincher has fully embraced digital cinema, partially for this reason. One could imagine, if he were alive today, Kubrick would have as well. The frame is their respective master. They honor it. Serve it. Pay reverence to it. A Fincher frame is a work of composed art—stark, straightforward, and bursting with visual information for the audience to digest. Some would call it obsessive and it’s interesting to track how his storytelling has evolved over the years to reflect this obsessive quality. Take “Zodiac”, a film about obsession. Though “Fight Club” may be more popular and “The Social Network” more acclaimed, this might be the definitive Fincher film. Procedural, methodical, and fact finding in practice (“The Social Network” operates in a similar manner), yet ultimately about what we can’t know, what we’ll never know, and the cost that takes on those who carry the burden of obsessions.
The Master (2012) Paul Thomas Anderson
What I found most fascinating in returning to “The Master” recently is how director Paul Thomas Anderson chose to take advantage of the 70mm film stock he shot with. Traditionally, the format was developed for spectacular, wide-screen films of gorgeous landscapes and dramatic action. Wide shots and deep focus. Think of something like Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Yet, Anderson shoots much of the film in medium and close-up shots. The camera appears to be constantly affixed on the faces of Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell and the late, wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffaman’s Lancaster Dodd. It’s studying them, trying to understand them, the same way they are attempting (and failing) to understand one another. Every glance, every facial twitch matters. Freddie and Lancaster’s struggle is our collective one. The evolved, analytical man and the impulsive animal raging just beneath the surface. Perhaps this is why their final scene together, when Lancaster sings “I’d Like To Get You On A Slow Boat To China” never ceases to break my heart. Both are desperately searching for some kind of freedom and peace that they’ve been unable to find on their own. They are (if only slightly) aware that their relationship is the closest they will ever come to attaining it. But they must part.
Inglorious Basterds (2009) dir. Quentin Tarantino
There’s a very defined split in Tarantino’s career and it’s pretty evident given the time he took off between his first three films and those that followed. Looking back, “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “Jackie Brown,” all seem to be of a piece. Crime flicks paying homage and incorporating elements from the cinema that defined Tarantino’s life. He’s a kind of cinematic DJ, mixing up and reconstituting genres to create and synthesize something entirely new. This only became heightened as he entered the second stage of his filmmaking career with the films “Kill Bill,” “Inglorious Basterds,” and “Django Unchained.” I wrote recently about “The Movie Brats,” those born and influenced during the century of cinema. If they were the children of cinema, than Tarantino is Kubrick’s star-child. He’s no longer simply incorporating and commenting on films that influenced him—he’s rewriting history and genre at his own accord. There’s something audacious and exhilarating about it. There are no rules in the cinema of Tarantino. And “Inglorious Basterds” may have been his most bold play yet. Reimagining World War II as a kind of Leone western (something he’d continue, to an even greater degree, with “Django Unchained”), Basterds is like no other war film. Each scene is ripe with unnerving tension (the restaurant scene with Landa and Shoshanna is one particular highlight) with the constant threat of eruptive violence latent in every frame. What’s most evident in Tarantino’s cinema, what stands out above everything else, is his absolute love and adoration for movies. And when Basterds ends with Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine proclaiming, “This just might be my masterpiece,” we’re inclined to agree.