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Masters and Masterpieces - American Essentials Film Festival 2017

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by Brian McIver (subscribe)
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Dark tales, and darker writers

The American Essentials Film Festival, as well as screening some of the best contemporary American films, is playing host to a selection of award winning classics from the last 40 years. Films that are jarring, warming, confusing, satisfying, and confronting, as well as the stories of some of the writers behind these films. Some of the below films I was only seeing for the first time, others I had seen before. All of them were memorable.


eraserhead, american essentials film festival, weekend notes
Image courtesy of American Essentials Film Festival

It's sometimes easy to forget that Eraserhead was released the same year as Star Wars. Both films used visual and aural techniques that, 40 years later, are still regarded as impressive.

The story follows awkward Henry, as he enters a new part of his life, lurching from one painful situation to the next. As the film progresses, increasingly bizarre scenes and characters challenge Henry's mundane sensibilities and push him towards breaking point.

The sound effects in Eraserhead are sublime; coupled with the bleak visuals, the effect is unsettling for the entire film. Industrial noises thrum, conversation is clear and stilted, and the lack of conventional background music really leaves you on your own in terms of digesting the film.

David Lynch's avant-garde classic is sure to leave you a little queasy, a little excited and quite confused. I highly recommend making a mini-marathon of the Masterpiece films; sandwiching Eraserhead in between a few more conventional films will only make it that much more stark.

1977 - 89mins

Postcards From The Edge

postcards from the edge, american essentials film festival, weekend notes
Image courtesy of American Essentials Film Festival

Based on Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Postcards from the Edge is a great little movie about an actor (Meryl Streep) adjusting to life after cocaine. After completing rehab, she must go back to living with her mother in order to be allowed to work. In the harsh light of day, she has to ask herself whether she can actually act, or relate to people, or love someone (especially herself).

It's an earlier movie than Sandra Bullock's rehab movie 28 Days, and consequently a little less shocking, a little less caustic. But the on-screen chemistry between the leads is what really lifts the film; Streep and Shirley MacLaine revel in Carrie Fisher's script and are very believable in their roles as mother and daughter. The rest of the cast is comprised of mostly well-known actors, all of whom are perfectly suited to their characters. Conraid Bain (Diffr'nt Strokes) is particularly hilarious.

Overall, the character Meryl Streep plays here is one of her most likeable (along with Mamma Mia!), so if you're a Streep fan, this film is definitely worth taking the time to watch.

1990 - 101mins

Mulholland Drive

mulholland drive, david lynch, american essentials film festival 2017, weekend notes
Image courtesy of American Essentials Film Festival

Mulholland Drive is another film noir from David Lynch, replete with odd dreams, loud music, and awkward conversations.

Rita (Laura Elena Harring), riding in a limousine, is suddenly ordered out of the car at gunpoint in the middle of the night by her chauffeur. A drag racing car, speeding from the opposite direction, smashes into the limousine head on. Rita escapes and hides, passing out in someone's garden. An aspiring actor, Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in town and discovers Rita in her apartment. Rita admits to having amnesia, and both women set about trying to find out who Rita really is.

The dynamic between the two leads isn't set up quickly, but instead slowly develops until you feel that there is an invisible spotlight on them throughout the film, highlighting them as being important despite the other characters vying for your mind's eye.

What follows is a rich and confusing tale, with the ending ultimately open to interpretation. Many critics, and even the actors in the film, have speculated on the true meaning of the narrative as well as the myriad clues used throughout. Are the many references to beds and sleeping alluding to a dream within a dream, or something else?

David Lynch has a history of making non-linear, ambiguous films (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks); so this will be a story with different meanings for different people. See it again, and again.

2001 - 147mins

You Never Had it: An Evening with Bukowski (screening with Barfly)

you never had it, bukowski, american essentials film festival, weekend notes
Image courtesy of American Essentials Film Festival

You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski is a documentary based on one night of interviews with the late Henry Bukowski. Bukowski was a German-American writer and poet, who eventually settled in Los Angeles after drifting around aimlessly for a long time. He often said that he felt most at home in L.A, people-watching and contemplating life.

Watching this edited interview, you're struck by his slow, languid speech in between cigarettes and wine. Bukowski has absolutely no filter, and bluntly talks about his writing interspersed with feeding his vices.

His writings used the concept of a noble hero in a contemporary, often vivid and depraved, setting. Along with his many poems and novels, he wrote and co-wrote many film screenplays before his death.

As part of the Masterpiece Selection, the American Essentials Film Festival is screening You Never Had It together with Barfly, a semi-autobiographical story written by Bukowski and starring Mickey Rourke. Barfly is based on the time in Bukowski's life when he was drinking heavily and performing odd jobs to eke out a living. The two films together resonate, with the impact of Bukowski's script so much greater when the viewer knows he was writing about himself.

2016 - 45mins - You Never Had It
1987 - 100mins - Barfly

These four films are penned by some of the most troubled, frank and talented American writers of the twentieth century. They are all excellent movies in their own right, but seeing them all together now will really leave you with a true sense of the depth of American cinema.

For more information, check the website or Facebook page.
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Why? American Essentials Film Festival 2017
When: Check website for session times
Where: Check website for venue details
Cost: Varies depending on venue
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