Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders. Anyone who tells you this movie has no plot isn’t familiar with the precepts of Aristotelian drama and should be shunned. A modern exploration of the concept of ‘katastrophe’ [with a ‘k,’ punk], with a script cowritten by the exalted Sam Shepard, is filmed in a flat, subdued key by Robby Muller that creates a visual expansiveness at odds with the explosion of the characters’ lives. It’s as if all that space is what condemned them in the first place, the tyranny of a will that appears free yet only leads to further consequence and complexity. The touching moment of inevitable recognition [‘anagnorisis,’ ya mook] is filmed in a strip joint with a one-way mirror forcing the actors to use monologue to actualize the identification. The unexpected reversal [‘peripeteia,’ pay attention!] is all the more painful for the visual power structure between the characters that the mirror creates. The irreconcilable opposition between them, echoed in the film’s title, is rendered bittersweet by the reuniting of mother and child. It’s a catastrophe with a happy ending! Ry Cooder’s soundtrack is worth the price of admission. Pop culture bonus: John Lurie appears briefly as a pimp.
The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni. The plot is boilerplate thriller: switched identity in Africa leads to chase across Europe in search of big secret, with reporters, arms dealers, and a vulnerable ingenue all thrown in the mix. Sounds like a Liam Neeson vehicle. BUT WAIT. In Antonioni’s hands, the thrills become lugubrious, the chase slows down to a crawl, the gloomy main character, played by a perennially stoned Jack Nicholson, constantly doubts his own motives and purpose. The outcome is a chase picture turned inside out, an existential journey into self-reflection. Call it the Antonioni effect (not for everyone: Orson Welles found him boring; John Fahey got into a fistfight with the guy). The legendary penultimate shot of Passenger forever changed the way movies are made, altering the subject/object grammar on which all previous film narrative relied (and anticipating the sort of free-form camera movement that Terrence Malik would take as his own). Pop culture bonus: the ingenue is played by Maria Schneider, the actress from Last Tango in Paris. She’s obviously bombed out her skull in this flick, too.