My Favorite Films
by Steve Mobia

I'm not a "film buff" in the usual sense. Most movies, especially genre pictures and the celebrities within hold absolutely no interest. I've never liked the star system whereby a movie isn't created on it's artistic merits but on what BIG NAME is in it. I often prefer to see films where I recognize no one — it can actually have a stronger effect as I'm less distracted by other pictures that star might have been in or by personal stories floating around on tabloid shelves. There are so many fine actors that are passed over and never given a chance because the studios are looking for those "bankable" big stars.

Another generally valued cinema commodity that annoys me is the notion of "believability." Just think of so many highly imaginative projects that have been shelved because their stories weren't "believable." I prefer the unbelievable — completely non-literal presentations that cannot be confused with normal waking life. Curiously many supposed "believable" stories are put together with contrived narratives that have little to do with life experience and far more to do with entertainment formulas. True essences are best revealed by way of the incisive metaphor. A single symbolic image can have as much power as an extended narrative. Just think of your own dreams, how rich and multilayered the symbols are. And speaking of symbols, I don't mean a one-to-one relationship between a thing and it's referent but as a signpost pointing to the beyond. The meaningful symbol is never completely defined. We can perceive it's direction but can never fully apprehend it. It eludes our consciousness. But in following the symbol it is possible to transcend personal limitations.

My primary criterion for evaluating a film is its level of imagination — how original and inventive it is. Because cinema is primarily a visual medium, visual imagination is essential to a good film. It's frustrating to read most film critics because they often come from a literary background where words dominate. Visual films are so often devalued by these literary critics. For them story and dialog make or brake a film. Though story and dialog are often (though not always) important ingredients, they are not THE most important. Imagination, originality and a strong visual sense are far more important.

When I remember a film seen years earlier, the things that last the longest are usually images, haunting images that hold depths of significance. The plot lines are usually the first things I forget. Others may disagree but for me a film's essence is in its imagery. I treat films as dreams and like dreams, images with their ambiguous and suggestive associations prevail.

SHORTS AND UNDERGROUND FILM

The films most pure and unspoiled by Hollywood ambitions are the underground films. These are often short works shot on a shoestring budget and often fiercely obsessive in their content. Whether they are exploring personal mind states, examining the world, playing out a filmic process or rearranging the mainstream cinema in a new way, these films are probably the closest a viewer gets to seeing pure film art. This isn't to say they're all good. For years upon my arrival in San Francisco, I went to the Canyon Cinematheque every week, saw many hours of experimental and personal films. At that time "structuralism" was a continuing trend in academic film circles. So many films were made showing time-lapsed views out windows, shadows moving across a floor or animals grazing. Structuralism didn't value visual imagination or even content as much as integrity of concept, as long as that concept agreed with semiotic analysis.

Again, my interest in film came from an interest in dream. The underground films I valued most were like a dream frozen in time. It's a miracle really, to view another's dream so intensely. The films of Maya Deren (shot in the 1940s and 50s) had an immediate powerful effect on me as did the earlier shorts of Bunuel. Other underground filmmakers who became my favorites include: Will Hindle, Pat O'Neil, and especially Ohio resident Richard Myers who I regard as among the greatest filmmakers in the USA. I also met a few wonderful filmmakers during my stay in San Francisco, among them David Michalak, Kerry Laitala and Antero Alli.

I think it's a real shame that their aren't more ways to view the huge legacy of amazing short films that have been created over the years. While they are sometimes assembled into touring packages this is usually shortly after they are finished and then what happens? Most likely the films are entombed in archives or closets. With today's technology there's no reason why shorts can't be given a new life.

Some Favorite Short Films (in no particular order):

The Blood of a Poet -- Jean Cocteau
Chinese Fire Drill -- Will Hindle
Down Wind -- Pat O'Neil
Mother's Day -- James Broughton
Somber Accommodations -- Joe Bini
The Seashell and the Clergyman -- Germaine Dulac (script by Artaud)
Un Chen Andalou -- Bunuel and Dali
Meshes of the Afternoon,
At Land,
Ritual in Transfigured Time -- Maya Deren
Toby Dammit -- Federico Fellini
The Grandmother -- David Lynch
Dreamlife -- David Michalak
Lilly in Limbo -- Antero Alli
Harpya -- Raoul Servais
Rising -- Daven Gee
The Fall of the House of Usher -- Watson and Webber
Lucifier Rising -- Kenneth Anger
Glycerin Tears -- Michael Miner
Street of Crocodiles -- Brothers Quay
37-73 -- Richard Myers

Some of these films are quite well known and written about, others not at all. My conclusion is that the quality of a film has little to do with how well it is known. This is not an exhaustive list and many I've forgotten the title or creator. Directors such as Cocteau and Lynch went on to direct features. Others remained making short or extended non-commercial films. Some gave up filmmaking entirely. Though there used to be a way to tour with your work through film clubs and universities, this method of exhibition is less common today. It would be wonderful if these and many other gems could be easily seen.

FEATURE FILMS

The feature film length was mainly to please theater owners. Films really should come in all lengths and not be bound by time constraints (or conversely to pad a picture out to make it feature length). Even so, the films on this list are considered features. Many were made with partial commercial intent though all here are first and foremost works of art. As the budget goes up on a movie, the pressure builds to make it more commercial. The features that resist this pressure and are uncompromised expressions of their creators are miraculous and should be revered as towering achievements. Some of my favorites, such as The Hourglass Sanitorium were produced under socialism where profit was not a motivating factor. My fear is that more and more countries will follow the Hollywood model and as so much of the world becomes homogenized, so will the film industry. If so, we will no longer have our visionary filmmakers like Tarkovsky or Fellini. Luckily, there are still a few directors today who continue to challenge the formula.

A few favorites (in no particular order):

The Hourglass Sanatorium or The Sandglass (Polish title: Sanatorium Pod Klepsydra) — Wojciech Has (see my essay)
Prospero's Books — Peter Greenaway
Institute Benjamenta,
The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes — Brothers Quay
Fellini Satyricon — Federico Fellini
The Color of Pomegranates — Sergei Parajanov
The Eve of Ivan Kupalo – Yuri llyenko
Heart of Glass — Warner Herzog
Nostalghia — Andrea Tarkovsky

Synedoche, New York
– Charlie Kaufman
Mr. Nobody – Jaco Van Dormael
The Holy Mountain — Alexandro Jodorowsky
Pastoral Hide and Seek (Den-en ni shisu) — Shuji Terayama
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders — Jaromil Jires
Hour of the Wolf — Ingmar Bergman
Week End — Jean-Luc Godard
Last Year at Marienbad — Alain Resnais
Picnic at Hanging Rock — Peter Weir
Under a Shipwrecked Moon — Antero Alli
Jungle Girl,
Moving Pictures — Richard Myers
Eraserhead — David Lynch
Sweet Movie — Dusan Makavejev
Black Moon — Louis Malle
Mazeppa –– Bartabas
Cremaster 3 — Matthew Barney

I plan to do a capsule review of each of these in the future. Of course there are plenty of other films that deserve mention. Often these filmmakers have made other amazing works. A few on the list (Prospero's Books and Pastoral Hide and Seek) have not even been released on DVD in the USA so access to these stunning works is limited. I value all of them (and others of course) for their originality and poetic imagination.

 

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