Robert Ham is a journalist and critic based in Portland, OR. You can find his work in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Paste, Portland Mercury, FACT, and Consequence of Sound. He’s also the creator and host of the podcast One Artist One Album. Follow him on Twitter and visit his website for more of his writing.
Plenty of ink and celluloid has been spilled in an effort to capture the spirit and sounds of the late ‘70s New York music scene. And plenty of those books and films have done a bang up job of bringing us to the sticky floors of CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. But one of the first attempts to shine a spotlight on this proto-punk universe happened as it was happening. Co-directors Amos Poe and Ivan Kral (himself a bassist in the shock wave-producing Patti Smith Group) paired silent black & white footage of live performances by now iconic artists like Television, Blondie, and Talking Heads with cinema verite glimpses of the streets and bridges of the Big Apple for a gritty, nouvelle vague-inspired clusterfuck of sound and vision.
One of the stranger entries in the filmography of this venerated Italian director, not only due to its odd casting choices (Donald Sutherland takes on the titular role, and an appearance by Doris Wishman favorite Chesty Morgan that landed on the cutting room floor) but also the film’s surreal, dreamlike nature. You won’t find much that is titillating in this story of the much-ballyhooed lover. The tale is, by turns, tragic, bawdily comedic, and unapologetically critical of Casanova’s lustful ways. The attraction to this film is in its baldly fabricated sets and lovely little touches like our “hero” floating on a black sea made of plastic sheeting.
The first directorial effort by already legendary songwriter/singer Serge Gainsbourg, and one that allows him to do away with the symbolism of songs like “Ford Mustang” and “Comic Strip.” Instead, he homes in on the erotic moans of his then-partner Jane Birkin in the song that inspired this film, concocting a strange tale of a love triangle between Johnny, a boyish truck stop employee (played by Birkin), and two gay truckers (Warhol superstar Joe Dallesandro and Hugues Quester). The sensuality of the film is subsumed by an unusual focus on Johnny’s attempts to please her crush by offering up herself up for anal sex. Yet, there’s a strange tenderness to the whole story that is undeniable, as well as a frankness about homosexuality that was often hinted at or mocked in mainstream cinema.
Wim Wenders’ fascination with road movies has been central to his filmography almost from the start. Almost all of his films through the ‘70s paid homage to the spirit of meandering and striving works like Easy Rider and Two-Lane Blacktop, but the motif was crystallized in this tragicomic journey that earned him the FIPRESCI Prize at the ‘76 Cannes Film Festival. The story follows two mismatched travelers as they trundle along the border between East and West Germany repairing film projectors. It’s a tidy metaphor about the efforts of filmmakers and critics in this European nation trying to keep this international art form alive in a place still reeling from the fallout of WWII. And it’s given charming life by the improvised dialogue and bonhomie between stars Rüdiger Vogler and Hanns Zischler.
Elaine May has still yet to really get her due as a screenwriter and director, in spite of fantastically funny efforts like A New Leaf and Ishtar. Perhaps her finest effort as a writer/filmmaker is this shaggy effort starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as two buddies on the run from the mob. It’s formless shape and emphasis on improvisation by its leads rubbed execs at Paramount the wrong way, but half the hangdog charm of this picture is watching these two off-screen buddies riff and roll as they try to reckon with their fate. Worked beautifully into the mix are supporting performances by Ned Beatty, William Hickey, and legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner.
Reimagining L. Frank Baum’s story of Dorothy, the Wizard, and the land of Oz is nothing new to cinema, but this is one of the more oddball attempts at modernizing this tale. This rock ‘n’ roll road picture keeps to many of the same plot points as the original story but dresses it up in glam rock spangles and glitter. And it adds in an alluring darkness that seemed to run through so many films made in Australia at the time. Even if the dusty cinematography and rough acting leaves you cold, you’ll hopefully stick around for the soundtrack which cuts between stomping pub rock and disco flair.
The first theatrical film from this brilliant Polish director introduces many of the socio-political themes that would dominate his work in the years to follow, in particular the struggle between one’s personal gain and needing to pay heed to the needs of the people around him. Here, the battle is played out on the face of Stefan Bednarz, a man who has his personal politics shaken up when he takes the job overseeing the construction of a chemical plant in his old hometown. Kieslowski’s understated directorial approach, aided by the tasteful camerawork of cinematographer Sławomir Idziak, serves the story well, gave The Scar a documentary-like feel, which perfectly suited this expression of very real concerns about the security and safety of many factory workers in Poland.
Derek Jarman’s first full-length film strikes an impressive balance between depicting the world of ancient Rome with exacting detail and exploring homosexual desire in unblinking terms. He and co-director Paul Humfress bring to life the story of the future St. Sebastian, a guard for Emperor Diocletian who is exiled to a remote encampment. There, he becomes the embodiment of the fight between spirit and flesh as he tries to tamp down his lust for some of his fellow soldiers with his religious faith. It’s a beautiful and moving tale on its own but is given added weight by its bold uses of naked flesh and a refusal to sugarcoat its depiction of gay romance.