The Best Films to Watch Without Ever Leaving Your Bed: Criterion Edition, Part Two

“Woke up this morning with the terrific urge to lie in bed all day and read,” says the first line of Raymond Carver’s “Rain,” and when it comes to Monday mornings—how could you possible awake with any other sensation? But as the weekend has come to a close and the commencement of five work days ahead, it’s necessary to fight that craving and pull yourself up from the sheets.

So when the sun sets and you find yourself dwelling in the eternal quandary of what movie to watch, thanks to Hulu and The Criterion Collection, your plight has only increased—but with such a wealth of films to choose from, it’s understandably difficult to make a proper decision. So, to aid you in your own cinematic panic, I’ve rounded up a second list of the best Criterion films available to stream on Hulu. Grab yourself a strong drink, cut the lights, and enjoy.

The Blob

Unlike most monsters of the period, the Blob has no humanoid element. It has a will—to consume flesh—and it moves in search of victims; that is what passes for the Blob’s character, and the simplicity of the concept makes the Blob an especially formidable and memorable Thing. It came from the stars. It dissolves flesh on contact. As it absorbs people, it gets bigger and turns red with their blood. It can flow under or around any obstacle. It can’t be killed. It is a monster of appetite: an absolute consumer, voracious, growing. And it hates cold.   But despite the Blob’s singular nature, there is as at least one cinematic rule it does obey: that of the First Victim. The First Victim is a standard figure in many genres, including the thriller, science fiction, and horror. If there is a deadly threat, this person is the first to know—too much—about it. A bit like Eva and Pandora, the First Victim ventures, intentionally or not, into dangerous territory and is punished forever. He or she knows—and often is used as a vehicle to show—that a killer is loose or the ancient curse still works or the funny-looking plant eats people.

 

Eating Raoul

By 1982, the so-called sexual revolution had lost all ability to shock. The three Johns—O’Hara, Updike, and Cheever—had mined adultery in the suburbs down to its last zircon. Studio 54 had made “bisexual chic” banal. Consequently, a loving but square, seemingly platonic couple like Paul and Mary—our film’s antiheroes—appeared as radical as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. Well aware of the fact that their anti-licentiousness puts them at some distance from the world they live in, they’re not resentful. If they can’t convince others to follow their example in the bedroom, they can at least offer them a decent meal in their dreamed-of “Country Kitchen.” The deliciously unexpected irony is that Paul and Mary find a way to finance their restaurant by appealing to the very people they despise—the swingers who infest their apartment building. In other words, Vice becomes the Mother of Invention.

 

…And the Pursuit of Happiness

Malle has acknowledged that . . . And the Pursuit of Happiness was thus different from his other documentaries, which did not originate from set goals but rather from a simple desire to record reality and cull an idea from the resulting footage. Here Malle set out to locate specific communities and enclaves, and to ask them pointed questions about their experiences as immigrants and their sense of identity and homeland. He interviewed a wide swath of new citizens, mostly of Asian and South American origin—representative of immigration at that time—from a wide variety of backgrounds: Cambodian refugees arriving at JFK airport unable to speak English, a Pakistani schoolteacher-turned–Elizabeth Arden salesperson, an Ethiopian cabdriver, a Costa Rican NASA astronaut, a Vietnamese family practitioner living and working in Nebraska, an El Salvadoran family seeking political asylum, and West Indian poet Derek Walcott, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize. What he discovered, despite all the tensions in the country over border control and immigration restrictions, was an inspiring optimism and sense of pride at being new Americans.

 

Yoyo

Etaix here takes a more abstract approach to comedy. The opening scenes in the rich man’s home create humor from strange sound effects echoing out of dead silence, ever-so-slightly-undercranked movements, pitch-perfect period style—and then throw in some really striking gags, many of them genuinely surreal (surrealism is certainly appropriate to the period of the film, and Yoyo’s melting alarm clock may be a nod to it). The fitful structure results in fewer sustained streams of interlocking gags but more delightful one-offs. Etaix’s experience as a graphic artist often seems peculiarly relevant, as when a bumpy road causes a woman in a car to paint her lips with the same curves as on the bumpy-road warning sign.

As a circus film, Yoyo naturally includes a little tribute to Fellini, and the final image, in particular, seems inspired by Victor Sjöström’s great Lon Chaney clown tragedy He Who Gets Slapped(1924)—or maybe it’s just that Etaix is inspired by the same sentiment, seeing the world as a circus. That idea may not be strong enough to provide the film with the cohesion it eschews in its story, but maybe it isn’t meant to. It feels as if Etaix, restlessly experimental and creative, wanted to achieve some new kind of unity, rejecting story, character, style, and theme as methods of doing this. The haunting music by Jean Paillaud, played in a thousand variations, and the opening titles, in which geometric shapes reconfigure as different circus images, hint at the kind of poetic harmony the film seeks.

 

The Music Room

With The Music Room (Jalsaghar), Satyajit Ray brilliantly evokes the crumbling opulence of the world of a fallen aristocrat (the beloved actor Chhabi Biswas) desperately clinging to a fading way of life. His greatest joy is the music room in which he has hosted lavish concerts over the years—now a shadow of its former vivid self. An incandescent depiction of the clash between tradition and modernity, and a showcase for some of India’s most popular musicians of the day, The Music Room is a defining work by the great Bengali filmmaker.

 

Purple Noon

The eye of the documentarian is very apparent in this film shot almost entirely on location, and that rugged sense of contact with the real accounts for a good part of its persuasiveness. Clément does not merely show us two quick and brutal murders, he makes us live their arduous aftermaths by demonstrating how very difficult it can be to dispose of a body. The work of the actors redoubles that persuasiveness. Even when they are theatrical, it is the authentic theatricality of people who turn everyday life into a performance, the privileged artificiality of a privileged class. Right from the opening scene, in which we come upon Tom and Philippe on the town in Rome—clowning it up like a Renaissance princeling and his master of the revels, amusing themselves in turn with a blind man and a drunken pickup—real background and actorly foreground are seamlessly blended, with the same mastery that Clément had already demonstrated in the mass exodus from Paris in Forbidden Games and the nineteenth-century street scenes of Gervaise. Clément also gives support to his central characters in their coastal resort town by adding elements not found in Highsmith’s book, a struggling ballet company and a drunken expatriate—only peripheral figures but indispensable to the illusion of a genuine milieu.

 

Gimme Shelter

From the first, it’s clear this can be no mere concert film, and even the term documentary is problematic because events have already transformed the Stones tour into drama, tragedy, myth. Or are those words too noble for the tawdry, deadly debacle at Altamont? Recognizing what the audience already knows, Gimme Shelter follows a double course throughout: even as the tour grinds heedlessly toward its calamitous end, the Maysles team shows us the Stones—mainly Mick and Charlie Watts—months later, looking at and reacting to the footage on a Moviola, as if reliving a crime in which they turned out to be unknowing participants.

Though their expressions are suitably grim and appalled, the chance to display them can seem an easy, empty expiation. Still, however you judge that, the film takes as its subject not only the events it covers but the experience of watching those events on film, and thereby implicates the viewer in its tight mesh of art, crime, and evasion. Even leaving aside that cumulatively crucial self-reflexive aspect, Gimme Shelter stands as the best rock film, if you take that to mean the one in which the musical event is most closely shadowed by cinema.

 

The Fire Within

Many images in the film (the date “23rd of July” written on the mirror, Alain playing with the gun) lend it a sense of doom, which is reiterated by the words superimposed on the last shot: “I’m killing myself because you didn’t love me, because I didn’t love you. Because our ties were loose, I’m killing myself to tighten them. I leave you with an indelible stain.” But the film is more open about whether he will kill himself than the book. In Drieu’s novel, when Alain sends a telegram to his wife, Dorothy, he decides it will be the last; there is no escape for the reader. This shows a disparity between the two artists’ attitudes toward suicide. As Alain Ferrari points out in his book Le feu follet, from the series Éditions de la transparence, “Malle questions the suicide, Drieu extols it.” 

Shadows in Paradise

On the larger film scene, Kaurismäki might himself be considered something of an outcast; despite an ardent following that began to form around his festival-circuit surge in the late eighties, and the undeniable influence his deadpan aesthetic has had on American independent film, he remains something of a quarantined figure, trapped in his nation’s wintry nowheresville along with his soulful characters. And that’s probably okay with him. In 2001, when asked how his films fit into contemporary world cinema, he responded, “A small globe has no importance. It’s the same story: people try to survive in the world where they were born.” At their core, that is what all his films are about, survival in a very specific place, the nation of his birth, among those excluded from the fruits of capitalism.

Red Desert

All of the directors just mentioned take a palpable delight in experimenting with color’s possibilities, but nowhere more than in Antonioni does one have the feeling that this innovation is linked directly to the grand traditions of painting—almost as if color cinema presents for him an opportunity for taking over the arena of the easel artist. Both media pro­ject themselves onto a canvas, but in Antonioni’s case, the viewer is made to feel, in a very literal way, the backward and forward rhythms of the painter’s brushstrokes. Of course, it is all done rather subtly. The publicity for the film made much play with the way Antonioni had instructed his art director, Piero Poletto, in certain sequences, to apply coverings of paint to the living landscape, and to certain objects (like the displayed fruit on the cart); yet the contemporary viewer, half a century later, is struck by how little the film’s total aesthetic effect seems to owe to such overt stylization. Even red—encoded in the film’s title, and translatable as the color of passion and dementia—is played down, held back from dramatic emphasis until the climax. 

Instead, we have a variety of tonal possibilities. Certainly, vibrant, bold colors are present—and admired, I would say—as part of modern industrial/consumerist society: the bright, undifferentiated yellows, oranges, and blues of children’s toys, of plastic containers, and of factory furnishings, similar in their way to the hues of contemporary American color-field artists like Frank Stella and Barnett Newman (maybe, too, there is a touch of Rothko in the rectangular splotches of unfinished paintwork that decorate the bare walls of Giuliana’s gallery). But there are also the much more muted palettes associated with the flaking doors and decayed woodwork of the quayside hut in which the party of Giuliana and her husband’s friends hole up during one of the film’s central sequences, and the misty browns and greens of the estuary itself: soft, gentle, and, at the same time, luxurious halftones that seem to capture, or project, the sophisticated melancholy of the film’s characters. And finally, in contrast to this again and in a superb, painterly touch, there are the serene blues, yellows, and whites of the interpolated child’s story on the desert island, where the viewer finds himself, momentarily, in the presence of some abstract idea of color itself—the color of heaven, as it were.

 

Schizopolis

Anarcho-punk semiotic provocation that it is, Schizopolis seems largely indebted to postmodern literary experimentalists, from William S. Burroughs to Donald Barthelme. That said, the manic montage and cardiac-arresting staccatos of Soderbergh’s acknowledged hero, Richard Lester, are in ample evidence—see especially The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. (In an Oedipal twist, Munson gets his big assignment when one Lester Richards drops dead.) And the unrelenting sense of imminent catastrophic narrative collapse is purely Godardian—indeed, Jean-Luc Godard’s self-starring comic riff on artistic frustration, Soigne Ta Droite, might have turned out something like this had it been made with Monty Python and not Jerry Lewis in mind.    It’s no coincidence that Munson is a sophist by profession—a practitioner of the dangerous art of saying absolutely nothing. The film’s position on language—or more precisely, the failure of language—might be termed structuralist or surrealist. Perfect communication is an impossibility. Comic set pieces are predicated on logorrhea and aphasia. Characters are fluent in cliché, euphemism, doublespeak, or, in the case of the film’s secret, sometimes camcorder-wielding trysters (a nod to sex, lies), a raunchy vernacular of Burroughsian cutups: “beef diaper,” “nose army,” “mellow rhubarb turbine.” Fittingly, Schizopolis’ religious figurehead is named for collage artist Kurt Schwitters, who after being denied membership in Club Dada founded the one-man Merz movement, and whose best-known work, a mutating architectural installation he called TheCathedral of Erotic Misery, might have provided an alternate title for this film.

 

Juliet of the Spirits

The Fellinis shared a profound belief in psychic phenomena. Giulietta would halt a conversation in mid-sentence to whisper “We are not alone!” Fellini, who mined his films from a rich dream life—“I go to sleep, and the fête begins,” he said proudly—often changed plans on the advice of astrologers and mediums, whom he cast in his films as an excuse to have them around during shooting. 

Though Fellini and Masina shared a house, they occupied separate floors and had very different friends. Fellini flirted overtly with women but made his closest relationships with a succession of young gay assistants, among them Pier Paolo Pasolini. In Juliet of the Spirits, superstition and marital breakdown collide as Fellini, behind a smoke screen of fantasy, debates his future. Juliet, a neglected wife moping in her summer home in fashionable Fregene, is recognizably Masina, just as her preoccupied, philandering husband Giorgio is a streamlined Fellini—younger, thinner, and better dressed.

 

Sisters

As much as all this dates from Rear Window and Psycho (as well as from Greetings), Sistersenters new territory when Grace finds herself in the literal position of Dominique, the missing twin. Now she fills Dominique’s absence physically, much as Danielle had done mentally. When the doctor (Bill Finley) uses hypnosis to urge Grace to remember Dominique’s experiences, and when the role of Dominique in the remembered scenes is played by Grace, she and Danielle aresisters. With this completely original image of forced conjunction, where a horror covers an absence and where the very lifeforce of identity cries out against being part of the twin-made-of-twins (because Grace is Grace-and-Dominique just now, and Danielle has long been herself and Dominique), De Palma finds, apart from any reference, the power of his own imagery and an object worthy of obsession. 

 

Clean, Shaven

Of the films that have tried to evoke or arrive at an understanding of insanity, from the inside or outside, using the first or third person, none have done so with Clean, Shaven’s remarkable alchemy of clinical detail and raw poetry. The abrasive, subjective sound design, the visual abstractions, and the nerve-jangling ellipses all inch the movie toward the realm of experimental film—which is only fitting, given that the condition in question is characterized by discontinuity, the erosion of boundaries, and the failure of narrative. Kerrigan does not in any way venture that his protagonist has a beautiful mind—this is as unsentimental a depiction of mental illness as you’ll find in movies—but the film has a frayed, terse lyricism all the same.

Even if he does not intend to romanticize, the artist who seeks to inhabit the mind of a madman runs the risk of seeming presumptuous. But Kerrigan avoids pitfalls largely through a flatness of affect, a way of seeing that combines a ferocity of focus with a lack of judgment. It’s a testament to the filmmaker’s instinctive poise and restraint that Clean, Shaven is unblinking but not voyeur­istic, poetic but not sentimental, suspenseful but not exploitative, extreme but not sensational. Kerrigan abstains from overt psychologizing, and Clean, Shaven, although perhaps the most thoroughgoing filmic exploration of schizophrenia ever made, sidesteps the debates and competing theories that have sprung up over the years whether it is one disease or many, whether or not it even constitutes an illness, how it is best diagnosed and treated.

 

World on a Wire

The original viewers of World on a Wire’s broadcast would have encountered a strange doubling of their own: a mise en abyme of screens within their screen. Though today it seems like a strange marriage of analog and digital technology, thinking about television and computers together, as two aspects of electronic culture, wasn’t unusual in the early seventies. Influenced by the writing of Marshall McLuhan, video artists in North America around this time frequently used language taken from computer programming to find new ways to conceptualize televi­sion, speaking of “radical software,” “feedback,” and the “video databank.” Seen this way, World on a Wire is about something more than just the digital future: Fassbinder uses computer simulation as a metaphor to think about his own métier, film and television, as a form of virtual reality. The characters become little “identity units,” trapped within the artificial world created by the filmmaker-as-programmer, unknowingly playing out his directives. 

 

Hotel Monterey 

In the second of her 1972 experiments, Akerman again wanted to draw viewers’ eyes to elements in the frame that they might not otherwise have considered. Similarly focused on architecture and interior spaces, Hotel Monterey is grander in scope than La chambre. Through a succession of elegantly composed, silent shots—some tracking, some static—Akerman transforms a run-down Upper West Side single-room-occupancy hotel (where she had sometimes spent nights with a friend) into a site of contemplation and unconventional beauty. There was barely any planning: Akerman knew only that she would start filming on the hotel’s main floor and end at the top, and that she wanted to emerge from dark into light, night into day. The shoot lasted one night, approximately fifteen straight hours, during which Akerman and Mangolte would put the camera down wherever it felt right and roll until Akerman’s gut told her to stop. Akerman later explained that “the shots are exactly as long as I had the feeling of them inside myself”; about the overall conception, she said, “I want people to lose themselves in the frame and at the same time to be truly confronting the space.” The result is minimalist yet rich: the viewer, wandering these mostly vacant hallways, elevators, and bedrooms, grows hyperaware of her or his own physical presence. A hotel is a place meant to be occupied, yet this one is largely drained of visible people, so it often seems like a way station on the road to some netherworld.

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