My Favorite Movies

January 14th, 2018

Yesterday I was taken by surprise by an essay I found on one of my favorite blogs, Reason and Meaning. “Garsh” sez I, scratching my head. “I never thought about the reasons for my choice of my favorite movies.” So I spent the last 24 hours mulling it over as I went about my other activities. 

It’s easy to identify my two favorite movies: Koyaanisqatsi and Excalibur. I know that they are my favorites because they are the only movies that I like to watch over and over. 

Koyaanisqatsi is truly a weird movie: no actors and no dialog. But it is a profound statement on modern civilization. It’s all tied together by the opening and closing scenes, showing a mighty rocket blasting off, and later exploding and falling, falling slowly. That shattered shred of the rocket slowly descending back to earth is a magnificent image of our future. 

Excalibur is a poetic version of the Arthurian legends. I studied these legends in their many instantiations over history, and only Excalibur captures their deeper essence. Again, the opening and closing scenes are the most powerful. The narrative leaps can be breathtaking. The Merlin character is easily the most striking version of that character I have ever encountered, and he is given some magnificent lines:

“I have walked my way since the beginning of time. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take. It is mine to now which and when.”

“When a man lies, he murders a part of the world.”

“For it is the doom of men that they forget.” 

But I will add that there are also some scenes from some movies, scenes that have always been close to my heart. They are powerful vignettes. The first, surprisingly enough, is from the much-reviled Star Wars Episode I movie. It is the first half of the fight between Darth Maul and the two Jedi, far and away the best sword fight scene from any movie I’ve ever seen — even the legendary sword fight in The Princess Bride. Darth Maul moves with astounding fluidity and grace. Yes, I know that much of it was accomplished using wires, but the actor is himself immensely agile and he moves with elegance.

Another scene that I cherish is from a little-known movie: Stage Beauty. It takes place fifty years after Shakespeare. Women are forbidden to act on the stage; men play female roles. The protagonist is one of the best of these. His performance of Desdemona in Othello is a saccharine romanticization of femininity, and is adored by audiences. Apparently this was standard practice at the time. 

Then King Charles II, urged on by his mistress, declares that, in the future, gender identity must be preserved on the stage. Only men can play men, and only women can play women. Our protagonist is suddenly deprived of his career. He simply cannot play as a man; his stage instincts are all feminine. But his dresser, a young woman who secretly loves him, has longed to act on the stage, and she takes up the role of Desdemona with relish. But her performances are mere replications of the protagonist’s style. Nevertheless, her beauty and raw talent propel her to the heights of London society. 

They end up spending time together in the country, making romance and teaching each other. He rebuilds his stage persona based on a new understanding of his own masculinity. She insists that a genuine Desdemona would never passively acquiesce to her murder; she would fight. They return to London and agree to act in a new performance of Othello, but now he plays Othello and she plays Desdemona. In the crisis scene in which Othello murders Desdemona, their performance is shockingly real: she screams and fights back. He violently overpowers her, throws her to the floor, and smothers her with a pillow. Then he stumbles away and shrinks to the floor, horrified by his crime. The audience is aghast; it appears for all the world that he has actually murdered the actress, who lies unmoving on the floor. That moment is charged with intense dramatic power. They have both found their true acting souls, as well as their true gender identities. The violence of their acting purged them of their past artificialities and catapulted them into a higher level of understanding. 

Lastly, I must include a single scene from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is in the third movie, the first half of which is devoted to the preparations for the battle at Gondor. Everybody knows that they are hopelessly outnumbered, and that they shall surely die. But for King Theoden, honor brooks no reluctance; he gathers his army and rides to the relief of Gondor. They reach the battlefield at dawn, to behold the immense Orc horde. Here begins the scence I so love. Theoden shouts his words of encouragement to his men:

Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered,
A sword-day, a red day, ere the sun rises!
Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!

He then rides just in front of the line of men with his sword held aloft so that it strikes the raised spear of each of the men in the front line. He turns to face the enemy, waves his sword, and shouts “Death! Death!” The riders shout back “Death! Death!” and then they charge.

0:57 1:30 1:44 

Ironically, there is no common element to any of these movies or scenes. Koyaanisqati is a condemnation of modern civilization; Excalibur is a poetic statement of the failure of human aspiration for perfection. Darth Maul’s sword fighting is a simple statement of the beauty of the human form in action, in the same league as the statue of the discus thrower by the ancient Greek sculptor Myron. The murder scene from Stage Beauty telescopes the entire process of transformation from despair to self-realization into a few seconds. The scene in Lord of the Rings shows the greatness of human courage in the face of certain death.  

The only common element I can imagine here is the excellence of expression. Each of these expresses one idea, big or small, better than anything else. On a related note, I’ll mention Tom Lehrer’s vocal performances in his songs. It’s not that he’s a good singer; his strength lies in the way he pronounces words. For example, his vocalization of “loved” in the song Oedipus Rex (at time 3:03 in this video) elevates his humor into something hilarious More examples are in this video at 0:57, 1:30, and 1:44.