Will Schube only wears leather because Rainer Werner Fassbinder did it.
Sometimes living in a small town sucks. Especially when you like going to a lot of movies and the theater in said small town isn’t particularly interested in interesting film selections. It’s especially tricky when you write a film column that depends upon seeing new movies. So who needs ‘em? Not me. Here are five scenes that are quite possibly my five favorite ever, but also possibly just the five that immediately come to mind. You won’t find the 2001 introduction or the “you talking to me?” Taxi Driver scene here. Those are both great, classic scenes, but you, the informed student of film already know that. Here are some ones that you also probably know, but if not, I hope you enjoy them like I do.
And here are two I like a lot but didn’t want to include on this list because this is my show: That hysterical scene in Foxcatcher where Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum are doing coke in the helicopter. And the wild scene in The Rover where likely autistic sidekick Robert Pattinson sings along to Keri Hilson’s instant classic “Pretty Girl Rock.” It’s dark out, there’s a strange light focused on Pattinson’s car, and the mostly very quiet post-apocalyptic film gives way to Ms. Hilton. Really fucking great!
5. Drive (2011) – Opening Sequence
One of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s favorite tricks is to make movies that deceive themselves into being about something they’re not. Bronson (2008) is less a biopic of famed prisoner Charles Bronson than it is a meditation on the art of performance and the roles we fulfill and are asked to play. Only God Forgives (2013) isn’t nearly the Gosling-as-brother’s-keeper it suggests itself to be, especially when contrasted with the colonialist bent that terrorizes the movie’s core. Just like these two, his most successful feature, Drive, is a movie about a criminal, but is really about what pushes people to do certain things and the quiet necessity to find meaning in lives that don’t explicitly offer such clean answers.
The film’s opening sequence is expertly crafted, a masterclass in both tension and cinematography. Gosling times up a driving job with the end of a Clippers basketball game such that he enters the Staples Center parking garage as the stadium’s thousands pour into the same lot. Gosling slips on his Clips hat, takes off his driving gloves, and slinks off into the LA night.
LA movies are often made by outsiders, people who can view the city’s intricacies and complexities objectively—both critically and creatively. Refn is no exception. The director was born in Copenhagen and seemed to sort of stumble upon the Drive story. Refn’s taste for sleek, creepy, almost gruesome landscapes lends itself perfectly to Drive, of which its entirety rests upon its awe-inspiring opening scene.
4. Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) – Finale
My apologies for lacking subtitled footage regarding this next choice, but Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1971 feature Beware of a Holy Whore seems to be one of the last vestiges of our glorious pre-internet, pre-catalog everything ever world. Or no one really cares. Regardless, this film comes in ’71 after Love is Colder than Death (1969) and The American Soldier (1970), two crime films entirely indebted to American cinema (The Criterion Collection has an excellent box set with five of his early films). Beware of a Holy Whore, however, has no interest in treading this familiar territory.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder was infamously hard to work with, prone to fits and tantrums and an unhealthy reliance on drugs and alcohol (he died at age 37 after his heart literally exploded from a lethal cocktail of barbiturates). He was also immensely prolific. He directed 44 movies in 16 years, many of which are fantastic. Fassbinder worked relentlessly to keep people close such that he could mask the fear of death and the unknown, but this reliance on others constantly caused him to push away. This is reflected in Holy Whore, a film about an insanely difficult film director (Lou Castel) and his film crew. Taking place prior to a huge film shoot, the director is wound tighter than usual, and he pushes his crew to the brink.
Eddie Constantine shows up as himself, once again proving to be one of the weirdest, most overlooked character actors in American cinema, particularly because he was utilized so effectively outside of it (watch Jean-Luc Godard’s excellent Alphaville (1965)). Holy Whore certainly isn’t Fassbinder’s best film—that distinction could go to many works, but my particular favorite is Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)—but it’s perhaps his most empathetic, both in terms of the audience’s relationship to Fassbinder’s notorious reputation, and in his crew’s relationship towards him. The film ends with a characteristically technically difficult sequence. It’s hard to distinguish Fassbinder’s flourishes from the director’s in the film, but that’s sort of the point. Fassbinder ends up swallowing it whole anyways, because he was self-centered and maniacal and absolutely brilliant. For all of his witty turns of dialogue and smooth, gliding tracking shots, his thesis is summed up best at film’s end: It’s not easy making films.
3. Holy Motors (2012) – Oscar’s Musical Interlude
Holy Motors (2012) is director Leos Carax’s fifth feature film, and his first since 1999. The film is about layers of performance and the masks we wear to cloak ourselves from just about everybody—including those we love. It’s also a film about the pure joy of film acting, the ability to become somebody else and to create a world discoverable in live time, captured and preserved infinitely.
One day an unspecified man finds a secret door in his apartment that leads to a film house. The movie theater is apparently playing the film we’re watching, although the man in the film is never seen being filmed. Oscar (Denis Lavant—who’s mind-blowingly good) is shuttled around Paris performing many duties—motion capture acting, gypsy begging, murdering men who look exactly like him, and playing husband and father to chimpanzees. The film is bewildering and stunning and absolutely wonderful. Its pace gives the viewer fits, as Oscar moves from appointment to appointment, leaving little time for any watcher to catch what, exactly Carax is trying to do.
There’s a moment, though, in which this sort of lull induced by too much disparate action is slapped silly and the movie violently projects into ecstasy. Oscar is seeing slowly playing an accordion, shaved head and despondent. He wanders through a church half-heartedly, before his band joins in and he counts in the ensemble with an enthusiastic, “Trois, deux, merde!” The group is part college marching band, part punk rock playhouse. It’s one of the only moments of pure joy in the film, as so much of its subject matter revolves around struggle and pain, sadness and death. It’s both heartbreaking and perplexing, and absolutely innovative in its methodologies and philosophical approach to filmmaking and storytelling. Oscar’s performance is the film’s high point, because it’s the moment in which Carax allows his work to breathe.
2. Putney Swope (1969) – The Face-Off Advertisement
Robert Downey Sr. was the underground king of the 60s and 70s, but his acclaim has grown far brighter of late thanks to the praise of Paul Thomas Anderson, Louis C.K., and a resurrection of his most popular works by Criterion Collection. His magnum opus, Putney Swope (1969) tells the story of an advertising firm looking for a new President after their former boss suddenly dies. Everyone votes for Putney, the token black dude on the board, because no one thinks anyone else will. He ends up taking the job, firing all the white board members, and turning the firm into Truth and Soul Incorporated. The company transforms into a militant communal affair, but things go awry almost immediately.
The film’s brightest moments (and there are so, so many) come in the form of actual advertisements the firm creates. The film is shot in black and white, the ads in color. My favorite of which is a commercial for an acne cream depicted through an interracial couple’s love for one another. Over footage of park frolics, dance routines, and boat rides, the couple take turns singing:
It started last weekend, at the Yale/Howard game
Girl I saw your beaver flash, I’ll never be the same
Followed by his lady:
You gave me a soul kiss, boy it sure was grand
You gave me a dry hump, behind the hot dog stand
This is poetry, people. Final stanza, with the two alternating lines:
I used to have pimples, but I made them disappear
He faced life with face-off, it made his skin so clear
This shit is so goddamn funny, it would certainly stand out as the best scene in most movies—the trouble is, all of Putney is this witty, bold, and raucous. Long live Robert Downey Sr., a poet and a prince.
1. Boogie Nights (1997) – The Coke Deal Gone Bad
You can practically feel Dirk Diggler’s (Mark Walhberg) sweat pour down his face as he anticipates the botched drug deal between his pal Todd (Thomas Jane) and Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1997). Todd, Dirk, and Reed Rothschild—née, Brock Landers (John C. Reilly)—are trying to trick Rahad into buying some fake coke, who’s too busy getting high and enjoying his DIY mixtapes to care.
The scene itself is hilarious in its desperation and terrifying in its ability to conjure suspense from these various pools. The scene builds as the trio grow more nervous each moment. Silence ensues before we get one of the all-time great musical moments in film history. Tarantino hasn’t come close to this, not even with “Stuck in the Middle With You.”
Night Ranger’s weird ballad to little siblings, “Sister Christian” appears in all its glory, and Rahad’s little friend, Cosmo (Joe G.M. Chan), decides to accompany the song with sporadic bouts of fire crackers. Seemingly infinite in supply, each fire cracker Cosmo non-chalantly tosses towards oblivion seems to represent one less nerve Diggler is able to keep calm. Cosmo is one of the great bit characters in film history, and also an ode to a character in Downey’s Putney Swope. Each thunderous crack is louder than the last, each scares Dirk and Reed a little more, and gives Todd just a bit more confidence to rob the joint clean. Rahad is still oblivious. But it’s hard to be a dumb drug dealer. Things go array, guns are fired, the boys escape with nothing but their lives. The only remnants of the experience are the dying piano chords of little sister.