Holy Grails

October 10, 2008

A couple of weeks ago I was tagged by Filmbrain to come up with a list of the 12 films that I most want to see in the world. According to the rules posted on The Dancing Image these have to be films that are not available on Netflix (in other words not Berlin Alexanderplatz or Hitler: A Film From Germany, films that only a lack of free time are now keeping me from seeing, despite their being ultimate holy grails for many years).

Back in the heyday of my cinephilia (pretty much the entire 1990s) when I was seeing 400 movies a year, the most-want-to-see list was a vital and constantly expanding document. Even as I dutifully checked off all the canonical films the list became a hydra-headed monster urging me to see every film by every director I was interested in, or everything in a favorite critic’s top ten list or every masterpiece that my transatlantic cinephile confidant (and regular TWITT commenter) Norton Straub (no relation) had raved about. (In our early 20s we found our ultimate check-list in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Vol One—a mammoth collection of essays, published in 1984, on the 600 or so most significant films made to that date—and we vowed to see all of them before we turned 30. We made good progress at first but a considerable chunk of them remain elusive more than a decade past that deadline).

I wish I could admit (viz. the Humiliation game) to never having seen Birth of a Nation or Citizen Kane or The Seventh Seal but there are few skeletons in my closet of that variety (Doctor Zhivago might be the best contender, or Caddyshack). And often I wish that I hadn’t yet seen McCabe and Mrs Miller or Late Spring or India Song or just one last Tarkovsky film so that I still had treats in store of that magnitude, because one of the curses of rampant cinephilia is that the more one sees the more one wants or needs to see but with increasingly diminished returns.

So here is my list of 12 films that have eluded me and remained as beacons of hope that there are still mind-blowing films out there worth waiting for.

1. THE ENCHANTED DESNA (Yulia Solntseva, USSR, 1965). It was Jonathan Rosenbaum’s essay on Solnetseva in Richard Roud’s two volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (another bible) that made this an instant holy grail. Soltntseva was the widow of Alexander Dovzhenko and she made only three films, all from Dovzhenko’s unrealized scripts: three films (all shot in 70mm I believe) with the most alluring titles in cinema: Poem of the Sea, The Flaming Years and The Enchanted Desna. I finally saw The Flaming Years a few years ago and it was pretty wonderful, but it is Rosenbaum’s description of Desna that has haunted me: “The wonders of The Enchanted Desna…fulfil the possibilities of personal wide-screen spectacle with a prodigiousness matched only by Playtime and 2001, utilizing synchronous and non-synchronous multi-track sound with a nearly comparable inventiveness. The astonishing realization of a family’s trip at night beside a lake, filtered through the presumed consciousness of Dovzhenko as a boy, is an experience of color, texture and aural density combining to convey as enchanted a dream as the cinema has to offer; and other breathtaking moments—such as a field rapidly travered by a camera as though by a plough—prove that the most spectacular cinematic means can be used with personal abandon and freedom.” [One fabulous piece of trivia about this most obscure movie: The Smiths used an image from it as the cover of That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore in 1985. No idea whether Morrissey had actually seen the film or had just been leafing through Films and Filmmaking Magazine and it had caught his eye.]

2. DISTANT THUNDER (Satyajit Ray, India, 1973). Whatever happened to Satyajit Ray? Once one of the titans of world cinema, Ray, who died in 1992, was feted in 1995 with a touring revival of nine of his greatest films, restored under the auspices of Ismael Merchant and distributed by Sony Classics. But thirteen years later and Ray seems to have vanished off the face of the earth, or at least the US, with his films rarely revived and barely available on DVD. Of the eight Ray films available on Netflix only one—Kino’s The Chess Players—seems to be of even acceptable quality (read the viewer comments on the others which sound as if they were transferred from bootlegged VHS). Why the nine Sony/Merchant-Ivory re-releases—including the peerless Apu Trilogy—are not available in quality transfers is a mystery. One of my very favorite Ray films, Days and Nights in the Forest, was not even included in the ’95 tour, and nor was the one Ray film I’ve always wanted to see: Distant Thunder. This film appears in many lists of the best films of the 70s and I once saw it in a list of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ten favorite films of all time, which is all I needed to know.

3. OUT 1 (Jacques Rivette, France, 1971). Though I’m sure this is by far the most important film I’ve never seen, as well as the most daunting, I almost shouldn’t include it since I have actually had two chances to see this behemoth in the past few years (at the Museum of the Moving Image in November 06 and March 07). But though I’ve had the opportunity I just haven’t had the luxury of time to spend a whole weekend watching one movie. Out 1 runs 12 hours and 40 minutes and apparently you can add an extra 30 minutes to that if it is projected at 24 frames per second rather than the nonstandard 25 fps it was shot in. That’s just what you want in one of the longest films ever made, isn’t it: for it to be run a little slower than intended. I’m sure it’s amazing though and maybe, when I do finally get to see it I will surely wish it a half hour longer.

4. THE DEATH OF EMPEDOCLES (Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, Germany, 1986). I am thrilled that New Yorker Films is finally releasing the Straubs’ amazing Moses and Aaron on DVD this fall and it gives me hope that one day their monumental The Death of Empedocles might see the light of day.

5. A BEE IN THE RAIN (Fernando Lopes, Portugal, 1972). One of the aforementioned Norton’s favorites. That, and a wonderful title, and the fact that no-one else I know has ever heard of this film (it’s like one of those fake titles Woody Allen would have on a cinema marquee), were all I need to turn it into a holy grail and I’ve never tried to find out more. One thing about holy grails is that they are sometimes more attractive to long for than to actually experience so it was with a mixture of elation and disappointment that I discovered, while researching this, that there are 16 unsubtitled minutes of the film on YouTube.

6. THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (David Lean, GB, 1949). Until a couple of weeks ago I didn’t even know this film (pictured above) existed and so I didn’t catch it at Film Forum’s Lean retrospective, but the raves I’ve read and heard since have me kicking myself hard for missing it. Brief Encounter has long been one of my all-time favorite films but for some reason, apart from the Dickens adaptations, I’ve never searched out any of Lean’s other ’40s films. This isn’t on DVD here but it is in the UK so this might be a grail I can catch up with soon. And while I’m at it This Happy Breed and Hobson’s Choice sound pretty wonderful too.

7. DOOMED LOVE (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 1978). Another long-time most-want-to-see that I have had the chance to see recently but had to pass on. At the BAM retrospective of the 100-year-old-and-still-churning-them-out Portuguese master this March, time constraints forced me to choose between this 4-hour opus and the 3-hour Francisca (both films based on the writings of 19th-century novelist Camilo Castelo Branco). Francisca was amazing, but Jonathan Rosenbaum recently ranked all of Oliveira’s films in Film Comment, and Doomed Love was at the very top of the list. And here’s what J. Hoberman has written of the film “De Oliveira has a taste for kabukilike performances, painted backdrops, Grandma Moses compositions, oddly matched shots, extraordinarily long takes, and scenes that are played out entirely in mirrors or near total darkness.” What more do I need?

8. UNTITLED: PART ONE (Ernie Gehr, USA, 1981).
Hoberman’s annual top ten lists in the Village Voice were such an influence on my film-going that I once went to the New York Public Library and searched out every one of them on microfiche going back to the late 70s. (Now all I’d need to do is click here). It was also Hoberman who really turned me onto Ernie Gehr whose structural films are among the glories of cinema. I’ve caught up with most of them over the years but this one (#5 1982, somewhere between Stalker and Diva) has always eluded me.

9. AN INDEPENDENT LIFE (Vitali Kanevski, Russia, 1992). When Vitali Kanevsky made the astounding Freeze, Die, Come to Life in 1989 he seemed like the next great Russian director. But after he made the less rapturously received An Independent Life in 1992—a film which, as far as I know, was never shown in New York—he vanished. Dave Kehr once described a scene from the film to me—something about rats in flames running up a hillside—and I’ve wanted to see it ever since.

10. THE REPORT (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1977). I’ve seen almost everything by Kiarostami, but The Report, his second feature after The Traveller, has never shown up at any Kiarostami retrospective here. All I know about it is that it is a two-hour portrait of marriage and suicide and that it stars Shohreh Aghdashloo who, 25 years later, received an Oscar nomination for House of Sand and Fog. And I’m sure it’s astounding.

11. THE CONFRONTATION (Miklos Jancso, Hungary, 1969). In the early ’90s the Hungarian maestro Miklos Jancso (now 87 and still making films apparently) was teaching at Harvard and came to Anthology Film Archives with a bunch of his own film prints. I didn’t know then how rare these films were because they’ve never shown up again. The Confrontation (also known as Sparkling Winds) is from his major period, mid-way between The Red and the White and Red Psalm, so it is sure to be literally awesome. And it’s all shot in 12 takes to boot.

12. THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED (Jerry Lewis, USA, 1972). Who doesn’t want to see Jerry Lewis’s legendary ill-fated, ill-advised and unreleased Holocaust weepie? Well, probably many people, but I’m not one of them. Harry Shearer, who is one of the few people on earth lucky enough to have seen it, spoke to the whole subject of holy grails when he told Rolling Stone: “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is.”

So there you go. If anyone notices any of these films playing in New York at any time, please let me know. And if you’ve seen any of them please tell me if they’re worth the wait.



  1. The Passionate Friends was, if anything, underrated by the critical hype.

  2. I stumbled on to your blog quite by accident, and now I see that this will provide me with hours and hours of pleasure. I particularly enjoyed this post, as it offered me the chance to revisit some of my old favorites while introducing me to new directors I will have to try and pursue now.

    I share your frustration about the baffling (to me, at least) lack of Satyajit Ray’s films on good quality DVD releases. Luckily, Artificial Eye has, in the last few months and years, released the Apu Trilogy, The Chess Players, and also 6 other films in two box sets (http://www.artificial-eye.com/dvd.html). Masters of Cinema has released Abhijan (http://www.eurekavideo.co.uk/moc/catalogue/abhijan/), and Mr Bongo has brought out The Adversary (http://www.buymrbongo.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=166).

    Also, if you are not very particular about audio or video quality, most of Ray’s films (including Distant Thunder) are now available on DVD from India, unfortunately all of rather indifferent quality, and you will find a fairly comprehensive catalog at the http://www.calcuttaweb.com/cgi-bin/shop.php?srchby=satyajit+ray&s=USDVD URL.

    For me, a Satyajit Ray holy grail would have to include his documentaries, particularly The Inner Eye, a luminous biography of the blind artist Binode Bihari Mukherjee, who was one of Ray’s teachers in Shantiniketan. I am waiting for the day when someone would think to release a box set of all of Ray’s documentaries and short films together with the detailed extras they deserve.

  3. Hi Partha, thanks for the comments and for the tips on Ray. I’d never even heard about his documentaries before.

    I forgot that I have to tag another blogger or two with this 12-unseen-films meme. Would you be up for it?

  4. Thanks for participating in this exercise – your comments on why you want to see each film were great (I copped out and just included IMDB summaries).

    “One thing about holy grails is that they are sometimes more attractive to long for than to actually experience”

    I know exactly what you mean. My first Holy Grail ever was Au hasard, Balthazar which, back in ’98/’99 when I discovered its existence, was totally unavailable. I even ordered a VHS tape on eBay which arrived unable to play in the deck (I think it was probably PAL). Finally, five years after I’d heard of it, I finally saw it at Film Forum and was bitterly disappointed. It felt so cold and removed (and so much more focused on the people than the donkey) than I had expected. With time, my opinion of it has risen and it’s now one of my favorite films, but I’ll never forget the disappointment.

    “it’s like one of those fake titles Woody Allen would have on a cinema marquee”

    You might be interested in another meme idea:

    I haven’t really sold it as a meme, and no one’s bitten, but it could be a compelling exercise: what film, whether planned and unexecuted, legendary and possibly non-existent, or just completely fanciful – do you most want to see (I called it “apocryphal ephemera”).

  5. Interesting list. I agree about your Ray comments. The Apu Trilogy is one of the great artistic achievements of the past century, and it’s creator is long overdue for the Criterion treatment. Heard any rumors?

  6. Some S.Rays recently came out on DVD including Nayak which i;d ever heard of but which is said to have incredible dream sequences (as does his kids classic Adventures of Goopy and Bhaga) though I havent watched it yet. Passionate Friends is very fine tho the porn version of the original film, Briefs and Cunters is better. I was just at a theatrical version of Brief Encounter, which however was performed in a cinema. The show was very different from the film, incorporating elements of music hall, circus, projections and faked commercials, which interrupted or were a background to the doomed romance, as if to show that while the English bourgeoisie in the 1940s was suffocated with repression, the working classes a hotbed of lust, bawdy, vibrant and uninhibited, which indeed they often were. Then again, Brief Encounter also has as its key subtext the illicit, repressed relationships between gay men such as Coward himself. The scene in Kanevski is of rats on fire running around on some dusty ground.
    My most want to’s are in turn mostly ones you’ve seen and raved about:
    Karin Mansdottir
    Il Posto (tho I now have it on VHS)
    Francisca, (Doomed Love’s sister film)
    Allemagne Year Zero – Godard
    Season of Monsters- Jansco
    Stone – Sokurov
    Out One (the 4 hour version! because the long one was so great and the shorter one is reputedly very different)
    Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame (on my rental list)
    Of Time and the City
    Dovzhenko’s Ivan – he actually directed Poem of the Sea, which you really must see too.
    Straub’s History Lessons of Mr. Julius Caesar and Othon
    Paradjanov’s Andriesh

  7. […] as a commercial artist before he changed the world of Indian cinema with Pather Panchali in 1955. Back in October I griped about the disappearance of Ray from American screens, but I’m happy to report that a […]

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