March 29, 2010

Filming the Western Hellscape: High Plains Drifter and Dead Man

This article is an adaptation of a paper I wrote in 2008 as an undergraduate at UC Irvine. Screencaptures are my own. Critical analysis is original, except where cited from other sources.

Warning: this article contains spoilers!

Recursion and Ellipsis:

Imagining the Western Hellscape in Film

In classical conceptions of Hell, recursive action is always a popular form of torture. Both Prometheus and Sisyphus in Greek mythology were punished by repeated action. Banished to Hades, Sisyphus was burdened with the impossible task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to have the boulder roll down again every time. Prometheus was eviscerated by birds every night, only to have his innards grow back the next morning and the torture begin again. In the Christian notion of the afterlife one of the characteristic horrors of Hell is having to repeat the actions of damnation for eternity, in a space absent time, in excruciating, maddening repetition. The very structure of what is considered a ghastly and hellish scenario relies upon the inclusion of these recursive tropes occurring in space outside time.

Narrative representations of Hell, however, are bound by the conventions of story, and must be ordered in time in some logical progression. Therefore, the story of Hell becomes the story of the journey into Hell. The space of the story must be given physical reality, transforming landscape into hellscape and conveying a sense of deferred timelessness within the confines of a limited temporal structure. That is the task required of two films, High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973) and Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995) which posit the American West as a type of Hell, a place where conventions are replayed, lives revenged and rehashed, all within a suspended and disconnected temporal space.

Embedded in both films is the framework of a recursive narrative. High Plains Drifter centers on the return of an unnamed Stranger, to borrow Chris Durham’s appellation, played by Clint Eastwood, to the town of Lago where he had previously been sheriff. Even before the film begins, there is a history established between the Stranger and the townspeople, a gap in knowledge revealed to the audience through the Stranger’s gruesome flashbacks. The temporal space of the film folds in on itself, collapsing and expanding to accommodate new information. The impetus for the narrative is in the Stranger’s returning, in itself a recursive action.

The Stranger back from the dead.

The Stranger proceeds to arrange the town and its citizens in a reenactment of the events leading up to his own death. The vicious gang of outlaws that whipped the sheriff to death are returning to Lago, and the townspeople could not be happier. Since the Stranger’s death (and absence), the town has congealed once again into a sycophantic and apathetic group. Instead of the forward progression of a frontier town traditionally portrayed in western film, marked by the coming of the railroad and technological and social innovation, Lago is starkly stagnant. They appear to remain in limbo until the outlaws’ release, at which point they are only too happy for history to repeat itself. The Stranger’s return is a purposefully ironic revenge. He exacts his retribution utilizing the same cycles of violence that were enacted upon himself, transforming a suspended, limbo-like Lago into the Hell from which he has returned. The Stranger constructs a concrete time and place for the citizens of Lago, building picnic tables from the planks of other building, painting the entire town red, setting it on fire, and renaming it “Hell.” His literalization of the hellscape, a town consumed by flames, fulfills the presage fear of one the citizens: “It couldn’t be worse if the devil himself had ridden into Lago!” (Durham, 5).

Lago as limbo and Lago as Hell

However, the tools of repetitive torture, effective at exacting revenge, cannot reconcile the spatial and temporal ambivalence of the filmic hellscape. At the close of the film, the town is destroyed with no hope for recovery, either physical or spiritual. The Stranger, having laid to waste the real temporal space, does not have a place within that space, but remains separate from it. The place in the narrative for Eastwood’s

“quasi-satanic dead man…is not secure, but fleeting; in materializing, ghost-like, from the wilderness, and disappearing back into the hazy milieu at the respective beginning and ending of the film. The Stranger does not, like the typical hero, ride back into the wilderness, but into an unknown place, which might well be hell” (Durham, 5).

The Strangers emerges from the deathly miasma...

...and then disappears from the narrative amid a ghostly musical score.

Dead Man, too, is a story formulated around repetition, doubling and mirroring, and a sense of timelessness, of a place where past and present are one combined, and in doing so, both states are negated. “Time/space confusion” is a key element to the journey in Dead Man (Nieland, 172). The plot is structured as a journey, first William Blake (Johnny Depp) traveling by train from Cleveland to the town of Machine on the West Coast, the “end of the line.” Then, after Blake unwittingly becomes an outlaw, he and a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) travel towards the Pacific Ocean, Nobody carrying a dead man to his burial. Whereas High Plains Drifter skews the traditional western in a more science-fiction direction, Dead Man is a completely postmodern reinvention of traditional Western time and space. The Stranger had to return to Lago for revenge, but then vanished back to wherever it was he had come. Blake enacts his dying eternally, again and again, from the film’s opening credits, to its final scene.

The recursive element of death is aided in Dead Man by the technique of ellipsis, that is, the leaving of something out. The film is filled with blanks, little pockets of black screen that sew the narrative together. This elliptical editing technique paradoxically expands the notion of time and space while deleting it. Jarmusch’s “prolific use of fade-to-black—creates a strange temporality that transcends the ‘purely empirical succession of time’ so characteristic of a movement-cinema invested in getting the viewer from one image to the next” (Nieland, 180). By leaving out point B in an A-B-C sequence, Jarmusch disregards the filmic assumption that each scene should follow the last exactly. Thus, omitting certain scenes broaden the potential universe of the film to include elements unseen. The elliptical process, then, is a partner to recursion because it allows the hellscape to perpetuate itself ad infinitum. Any part of a character’s narrative could be excised at anytime, replaced by a fade-to-black interruption, and yet the story would not collapse, but continue to exist. Dead Man offers a world where the characters do not form their own cinematic destiny in the West, but are merely passing strange through a hellscape unburdened by continuous editing or spatial temporality.

Blake lapses in and out of consciousness,
a form of recursive ellipses consistent throughout the film.

In both Dead Man and High Plains Drifter, the themes of repetition and ellipsis are demonstrated in their opening title sequences, and the films’ use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Each film relies heavily on the opening moments of their narratives because they will later return to their initial images and themes at the close of their films. Each opening presents a view of Hell which returns by the end of the movie.

Jarmusch’s film has a very long opening sequence, running more than ten minutes. The scene intercuts, by way of elliptical editing, between the chugging of the train and Blake’s journey inside the train. The black-outs often indicate sleeping, and slipping in and out of consciousness, as Blake endures his long, dull journey. His surroundings, both the landscape outside, and his fellow passengers, become increasingly unfamiliar; more savage, more strange. Depp plays Blake as a blank, his personality totally informed by his reactions to the rough-hewed fur trappers and gun-toting mountain men he so fears. The West is coded as “other,” a weirder, more violent world, a “phantasmagoric movement westward” (Nieland, 172).

Nowhere is this hellish quality more evident than in the opening titles, during a long monologue by the train’s fireman (Crispin Glover), who serves as a sort of creepy seer. He is the usher into Hell.

“Look out the window. And doesn’t it remind you of when you’re in the boat, and then later that night you’re lying, looking up at the ceiling, and the water in your head was not dissimilar from the landscape, and you think to yourself, ‘Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?’”

Hell and its denizen.

The death and burial the fireman prefigures.

His image becomes reality, implying perhaps that he knows Blake’s fate precisely because he exists out of time, like the ancient Greek ferryman Charon, guiding men to Hades. The fireman tells Blake that Machine is “the end of the line,” asks him why he has come all the way “down to Hell,” and warns him that he will not find a job, but “just as likely… [his] own grave!” The fireman is Blake’s introduction to the hellscape, and he never sees or hears from the character again.

The fireman’s monologue is punctuated, as is the entire sequence, by two audio elements. The first is the constant and rhythmic chuffing of the train’s engine, signaling unrelenting descent into the Western hellscape. The second element is the score by Neil Young, which “underwrites and punctuates the film’s strange rhythm, which alternates uneasily between violent aggression and haunting placidity” (Nieland, 176). Several times, a guitar reverb will add a dimension of melodramatic comedy to a line, as when Glover’s character shouts, “That’s the end of the line!” The electric guitar also interacts with the film, like during the animated title sequence, when a riff “breaks apart” the bones arranged to spell out the title of the film, then fall and fade like fireworks, only to dissolve into the infinite black background. Young’s score itself adds another layer of repetition to the film. It is a minimalist, simplistic score with a few variations on a recurring theme.

Music functions much the same way in the opening of High Plains Drifter. The score by Dee Barton is more traditional than Young’s, utilizing a steady drumbeat recalling the marching of soldiers into battle. This steady rhythm is common in the Western genre, however, in High Plains Drifter, the rhythm takes on a darker, more forceful connotation. The sound is allied to the steady movements of the Stranger’s horse, an unflappable and unstoppable force that comes upon the town of Lago. The drumbeat is coupled with an eerie whistling sound effect, like wind sweeping across the plains. The sound is reminiscent of the Theremin-induced soundtrack of science-fiction films. The two sounds combined create a powerful, cleansing force, at once earthly and otherwordly. As Eastwood’s character enters the town, the soundtrack quiets and the diegetic sound takes hold. These sound effects are heightened, accentuating the deafening silence of Lago itself and the uneasy presence of The Stranger, the sound of whose horse’s shuffling hooves mingles with the harsh cries of seagulls to create a stark and unsettling environment. As Durham notes, “the sound effect of the Stranger’s horse and spurs are amplified, suggesting a presence that is threatening as well as other-worldly” (Durham, 4).

Because the films are dislocated from a strong sense of reality-based temporality, their characters are likewise suspended, untethered from their mortal coil. Both William Blake and the Stranger are “protagonists, who, while appearing to be alive, are already dead” (Curley, 1). The boundaries of reality in these two films are so loose, in fact, that Curley’s definition can be taken literally, or even figuratively. William Blake is branded a dead man from the moment Nobody finds him, and Blake is the only character not to acknowledge his inevitable death. While Nobody carefully prepares his soul for the peaceful afterlife, Blake begins to buy into the violence inherent in the Western hellscape and his place within it. Towards the end of the film, it seems Blake believes the fireman’s moniker of the West as Hell: “Before executing the missionary, who asks God to damn Blake’s soul ‘to the fires of hell,’ Blake remarks flatly: ‘He already has.’ This scene codes Blake’s transformation as damnation” (Nieland, 188). Blake’s blasphemy is obvious. However, typical of a hellscape transposed of time, the traditional merits of the clergy are inverted. Alfred Molina’s missionary is a vile racist. Blake’s nonchalance is in keeping with the blankness of his character. He is dead, both in spirit and personality. He is written by the text of the hellscape, transformed into a demon by Hell.

Blake embraces his identity as a dead/wanted man.

Likewise, Eastwood’s character in High Plains Drifter is dead, or back from the dead as a resurrected ghost, or spirit. Whatever the precise interpretation, it ultimately does not matter what he is, only how he moves and what he does. The Stranger passes through Lago’s cemetery in the opening credits, which recurs at the end of the film, this time, with his headstone added. Much like ancient Greek plays, the theme of proper burial and ghostly retribution are central to the film. But instead of the ghost transporting himself to the mortal world, the Stranger transforms the earthly landscape into a paranormal hellscape. Like William Blake, Eastwood’s character is coded “as death-like” because “Eastwood’s screen presence is a minimalist one, one which de-emphasises notions of identity through the understated basis of physical and vocal expression…Eastwood’s presence [is] one of ‘not being there’” (Durham, 3). Within the character of the Stranger there is another form of ellipsis, of absence and omission. The man is posited either as ghost, a body without a soul, or as just the opposite: the soul searching for his body, so that he may finally rest. The emptiness of his character allows for other filmic elements to come to the foreground, like the heightened sound of the Stranger’s horse, or the eerie wind that follows him into Lago. The Stranger is acting out his previous life, repeating it until he achieves peace.


Allen, Richard. "Dead Man." Psychoanalytic Review 83 1996 952-957. 8 Dec 2008

Curley, Melissa Anne-Marie. “Dead Men Don’t Lie: Sacred Texts in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai." Journal of Religion and Film 12 October 2008 1-3. 8 Dec 2008

Durham, Chris. "Absent Heroism: Reconsidering Clint Eastwood's Star Persona." SCOPE 7February 2007 1-12. 9 Dec 2008 .

Nieland, Justus. "Graphic Violence: Native Americans and the Western Archive in Dead Man." CR: The New Centennial Review 1.2 2001 171-200. 8 Dec 2008 .

Pelzer, Peter. "Dead Man--an encounter with the unknown past." Journal of Organization Change Management 15 2002 48-62. 8 Dec 2008 .

March 22, 2010

Title Analysis: Ed Wood

This article is an adaptation of a paper I wrote in 2007 as an undergraduate at UC Irvine. Screencaptures are my own. Critical analysis is original, except where cited from other sources.

Film: Ed Wood
Director: Tim Burton
Title Designers: Robert Dawson and Paul Boyington

It is impossible to speak of the title sequence of Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994) without referencing the films of the man himself, director Edward D. Wood, Jr. Burton’s film explicitly lifts images, themes and other visual signifiers from Wood’s films and inserts them into the biographical narrative of Wood’s life. The most condensed set of referential symbols is in the credit sequence wherein objects and people that reoccur several times in the film are introduced. Most of these signifiers first appeared in Ed Wood’s opus from Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), which is the film Burton uses in the climax of Ed Wood.

Therefore, there are three levels of what Robert Stam calls “transtextuality…all that which puts one text in relation, whether manifest or secret, with other texts” (Stam, 207). These are intertextuality, paratextuality, and metatextuality, all which work in relation to the three stages of the film: the title sequence, the making of the films-with-a-film, and the screening of the films-within-a-film. The title sequences sets the tone of the picture in its explicit citations of Ed Woodian tropes. The sequence works within the generic conventions of Ed Wood’s films: horror, science fiction, and melodrama but tweaks the generic formula slightly in its conscious use of humor, whereas the humor in the films of Ed Wood is unintentional.

Howard Shore’s soundtrack is also a metatextual reference, in that it uses electronic instruments like the theremin and the ondes Martenot to evoke a weird tone that calls to mind the otherworldly outer space of '50s sci-fi films. Although Ed Wood never had the budget for original music, the theremin was popular in science fiction film and television shows in the 1950s, the period in which Ed worked. The blending of sci-fi music and horror movie standards like wolf cries and dark, foreboding tones, helps to set the tone for films that deal in those genres. Shore's score is both serious and winking in its quotations of Wood's work. The score at once justifies the legitimacy of Wood's films and pokes fun at their camp appeal, using more lighthearted musical instruments like bongos to signal that Ed Wood, unlike the films of Ed Wood, is conscious of its comedy.

The opening title sequence for Ed Wood.

Director Tim Burton says that he and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski set out to capture “the flavor of Ed Wood, but not be Ed Wood, exactly” (DVD Audio Commentary). Burton notes that all Ed Wood films feature symbols of Ed’s personality embedded in filmic genre convention. There is a through-line across Wood’s work that makes an Ed Wood film instantly recognizable. Burton plays with these signs and symbols in the title sequence, which moves from different tableaus prominent in the Wood films featured in Burton’s film. The gothic haunted house is from Bride of the Monster (1955), Criswell's introduction and the headstone credits are from Plan 9, and the lightning motif is present in both films. Alexander and Karaszewski comment that all the symbols and characters in the film must have immediately “iconographic importance,” and shorthand for the introduction of key themes and tropes within the narrative (DVD Audio Commentary). This is exactly what the title sequence designed by Robert Dawson and Paul Boyington does. The tone of the film straddles the space between comedy and drama while adapting elements of Wood’s generic tableau, which is evident in the mixing of genre archetypes in the opening titles.

The opening title sequence for Plan 9 From Outer Space.

The opening title sequence for Bride of the Monster.

The iconographic objects that appear in the titles include the octopus, Criswell, the haunted house, the lightning & thunderstorms, the gravestones, the coffin, spaceships, water, and Hollywood. Each of these visual signifiers is an example of transtextuality in Ed Wood. They emerge first in the title sequence, which is itself a paratext that “frame[s] or bracket[s] a film” (Zagala, 1). Therefore, these symbols color our reading of the text that follows. The objects are metatextual in that they are “explicitly cited” in other texts, in this case, Wood’s films Plan 9 From Outer Space and Bride of the Monster.

The title card for Ed Wood mimics Plan 9 in font and palm-treed cemetery backdrop.

In both Plan 9 and Ed Wood, Criswell, or at least Jeffrey Jones as Criswell, serves as a narrator who speaks directly to the audience. In fact, his opening speech is almost word for word what the real Criswell said in Plan 9:

“Greetings, my friend. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now for the first time, we are bringing you the full story of what happened. We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places. My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Can your heart stand the shocking facts of…”

Ed Wood continues with this line: “…the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr.?” whereas Plan 9’s introduction ends with: “grave robbers from outer space?” Grave Robbers From Outer Space was the original title for what became Plan 9 From Outer Space. The reasons for this change are enumerated in the film Ed Wood itself, therefore they are at least three levels of referentiality in this introduction alone.

Jeffrey Jones (left) plays television psychic and Ed Wood regular Criswell. He introduces Burton's film from a coffin and the real Criswell (right) introduces Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Other intertextual quotations occur in the form of using tombstones as the actors’ credit, and having lightning bolts transition between credits. Even the typography of Plan 9’s titles is the same as Ed Wood’s: job titles in bold white italics above the peoples’ names in the same type, white, non-italicized, and all capitalized, centered in the middle of the frame. The titles of Plan 9 set the tone and setting of that film by superimposing the credits on a shot of a graveyard. Ed Wood adapts that technique and informs it with conscious self-referentiality. Ed Wood quotes Plan 9, but also gives the viewers hints on what to expect later in the film when Ed (Johnny Depp) films scenes for Plan 9 in a cemetery set.

Later in the film, the footage Ed/Depp has shot is projected in a theater as the completed Plan 9 from Outer Space. The effect of this Russian doll-like structure of inter- and metatextuality is to create a sense of warm nostaligia for not only the film Ed Wood, but the man Ed Wood, even if the viewer has not seen a single film he has directed.

The premiere of Plan 9 is reproduced in Ed Wood. We watch the audience watching the titles that were parodied at the beginning of our own viewing experience. Johnny Depp as Ed Wood looks on, demonstrating and perhaps prompting a sense of awe and pride the audience is meant to share.

There is a triad structure set up in the credit sequence that contributes to this fondness for Ed’s story. Ed the man is intimately connected to the themes and tones in the title sequence, therefore if the title sequence succeeds in engrossing the viewer, they will consequently identify with Ed’s biopic. The octopus occurs three times in the film, for the first time in the titles as underwater file footage, and as a stop-motion animation that fights with an animated spaceship. The octopus symbol is further developed as a plot point when Ed and his gang steal one from a studio prop department. The octopus plotline comes to an emotional climax when Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) must fight the prop creature in a shallow pond at 4 A.M. while shooting the climax of Bride of the Monster.
Objects that serve a humorous purpose in the credits take on greater emotional resonance later in the film. The coffin from which Criswell arises is later referenced in the introduction of Bela, who is laying in a coffin, hands crossed, eyes closed when he first appears in Ed Wood. This is of course a reference to his most famous role as Dracula. The camera tracks forward and tilts to introduce his character, and later, when Bela dies, the same camera movement is used to signal his exit from the narrative. The opening and closing the coffin lids symbolizes the opening and closing of the narrative, in the case of Criswell, and of a character arc, in the case of Bela.
Another recurring object in the titles are the animated spaceships that take the viewer away from Earth and into space, a visual signifier for the science fiction aspects of Ed’s oeuvre. In the film, a triumphant montage includes Kathy (Patricia Arquette) lovingly painting paper plates silver to make the flying saucers which we later see hover over a poorly constructed and completely inaccurate model of Hollywood during the filming of Plan 9. Though the ships are funny in the titles, allying them to Kathy’s acceptance of love of Ed, and Ed’s “masterpiece,” Plan 9, lends them a deeper meaning as we root for Ed to make his best bad film in the face of many hardships.

The spatial metaphor of entering and exiting physical space, opening and closing windows, and movement in, out, and through different spaces gives the title sequence the sense of a journey through the world of Ed Wood and Ed Wood movies before we meet the character or encounter his films. The fluid, forward camera movement and invisible edits create a sense of cinematic realism even amid such unrealistic elements as an octopus/spaceship fight, and in spite of the fact that Ed Wood is a movie about a man whose films defied any logical realism, cinematic or otherwise. The tension between real and fake is articulated in the last tableau of the title sequence. The Hollywood model displays accuracy of artifice, complete with realistic rain, lights and moving cars. It is, however, a parody of Ed Woodian aesthetics that used inaccurate miniatures to stand-in for actual locations, as for example, the model of Hollywood in Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton's film seems to recognize the fakeness of Wood's films but offer up his own film as a very real space that provides writer-director-producer Edward D. Wood, Jr. a rightful place in cinematic history. Even if that place is as the worst director of all time.


Stam, Robert. “From Text to Intertext.” Film Theory: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Zagala, Anna. "The edges of film." Senses of Cinema Feb 2002 1-3. October 5 2007 .

Ed Wood. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Johnny Depp, Martin Landau. 1994. DVD. Touchstone Pictures, 2004

March 5, 2010

Perfect Films: Vol. 1

What makes a film perfect? Well, number one, the absence of badness. Seems rational enough. But when was the last time you saw a movie with nothing wrong with it? There were no performances that bugged you, no groan-inducing line of dialogue, no look-at-your-watch moment. Probably not lately. Even the greatest films, the ones with artistry and ambition, are rarely perfect. A perfect film is a once-in-a-blue-moon, beautifully crystalline occurrence. The heavens open and you breathe a sigh of relief, Now, that was a perfect film.

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

Casablanca is the textbook example of a perfect film. It has everything: romance, humor, political intrigue, really good looking people in trouble, Nazis, a theme song, Peter Lorre and an unimpeachably perfect script. Really. Screenwriting dialogue has never been better and if you can find a script that improves on the Epstein brothers', I will eat my hat. I'll even eat Rick and Isla's hats. Casablanca is just one of those films that appeals to everyone, everytime. When you analyze the individual elements, it doesn't seem like much. It's an average love story with an international cast, not unusual for films of the time. But it's how each element joins together that makes Casablanca into the perfect film it is. 

Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)

A film has to be more than technically perfect to qualify for 'perfect film' status, so some may argue with my inclusion of Lawrence of Arabia on this list. Certainly, Lean's masterpiece is technically perfect, a staggering, towering achievement in epic filmmaking. But many viewers find it too long, too boring, too white, and too male. Those viewers, of course, are what critical film scholars have termed, "stupid." Actually, in all seriousness, a 'perfect film' does not need to cross-over into 'favorite film' categories, it merely needs to be perfect. In all aspects, Lawrence fits the bill. The storytelling is flawless with a script by Robert Bolt that blends elements of the war film and the biopic, managing to surpass both genres. Lean's meticulous direction is at alternate points gripping and hypnotic. And then there's Peter O'Toole. Dear, dear Peter, Lawrence of Arabia himself, giving the performance, not only of his life, but of several mens' lives. Onscreen for almost all of the film's 216 minute run-time (more or less depending on which cut of the film you watch), for sheer presence, O'Toole out-performs most of the actors who are ever nominated for Oscars. He lost of Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird, which gives you an indiction of the incredible talent represented in the Best Actor race that year. 

Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

Like Lawrence of Arabia, I expect a bit of resistance at this choice, although for different reasons. Ghostbusters?, I hear you scoffing. Oh, yes, Ghostbusters. I justify my choice slightly by distancing myself from the candy-coated nostalgia haze clouding so many '80s "classics" that have become canonically vaunted with the rise of the 30-something fanboy bloggerstocracy. I didn't see Ghostbusters as a child; I saw it recently in reaction to the Ghostbusters III rumors floating around. Why was everyone so danged excited? Short answer: because Ghostbusters is freaking awesome, that's why. First of all, it's perfectly paced. It's a rare quality in comedies these days, but Ghostbusters knows where to place a montage, when to initiate a climax and how long it takes to vanquish a monster, and it's ain't very long. Bloated effects-laden pictures should look to Ghostbusters for a lesson in balancing action and humor perfectly. Secondly, the cast is perfect. This is mainly the result of comedians writing material for themselves and their talented friends. The result is the natural feeling of camaraderie and good-humor that infuses the film. Drs. Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler seem more like old familiar friends than characters hatched at a studio pitch meeting. 

City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin is one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. City Lights is his most perfect film. This may be an opinion piece, but the two preceding sentences are fact. Here's the synopsis: Charlie has fallen in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who has mistaken him for a wealthy man. They begin a courtship in earnest. Through a series of misunderstandings, Charlie is accused of stealing $1000 from a wealthy friend, which he gives to the flower girl for an operation to regain her sight. Charlie is picked up for theft and jailed. The final scene:

North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)

Another great movie with a near-perfect screenplay, North By Northwest is Hitchcock's most shamelessly populist entertainment. Like Chaplin, almost any Hitchcock film could be eligible for this list (I mean canonical Hitchcock, of course, which excludes most of his early work in Britain and his comedies). But I think North by Northwest is Hitch's most iconic, most pleasurable and precise film. If Psycho is my favorite Hitchcock and Vertigo is the best Hitchcock, then North by Northwest is definitely the most perfect Hitchcock. It blends everything that typifies the director's suspense thrillers without being too heavy or too light. Vivid Technicolor, attractive and charming leads, political intrigue and sexual innuendo abound. Although a long film, the pacing achieved by Hitch and screenwriter Ernest Lehman is superb, engaging and spritely when necessary but never too slow to bore or too fast to confuse. Hitch's control of the cinematic space and expert editing in the crop duster scene is legendary. To be able to halt a chase movie in the middle of the action, strand Cary Grant in the middle of nowhere, elicit gasps from his audience instead of the chuckles you might expect when you ponder the absurdity of trying to kill a man with a biplane, and then re-adjust the film to an espionage thriller is beyond skill. It's perfection. 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969)

The structure of this screenplay by William Goldman is so perfect, it's used as a model for screenwriting students. Goldman's 1982 book about writing in Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade is still considered an industry Bible for wannabe filmmakers. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of a number of screenplays reproduced and analyzed in the book, and having read the full text I can tell you it's just as entertaining to read the script as it is to watch the film. Although technically a revisionist Western, about as far as you can get from John Wayne, the timeless qualities of BCATSK has launched it into the Western film canon. It has a pleasing buddy comedy structure that's still popular today, so instead of a more traditional film like Stagecoach informing the popular conception of a Western, it's Butch and Sundance (along with the ever-popular spaghetti Westerns of Leone and others). Not that I'm complaining. It wouldn't be on the list if it wasn't perfect. From the incongruously charming Burt Bacharach score to Goldman's endlessly quotable script and note-perfect performances by Paul Newman and Robert Redford as the world's most handsome outlaws, BCATSK is a pleasure and a great film I never tire of revisiting. 

Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)

If you held a gun to my head and asked me to name the funniest and most romantic romantic comedy, I'd probably start crying and then say Annie Hall. To me, Annie Hall is perfection, pure and simple. It works its magic on you subtly and eternally. As Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) fall in love with each other, you fall in love with them. And even though they don't stay together, it doesn't ruin your appreciation of the movie--it deepens it. There are plenty of classic moments, including the lobster scene, which I'm convinced inspired this equally classic bit from Friends. Well, anyway, what're you listening to me for? Just watch this: 

Well, that's it for Vol. One. Thanks to everyone on Facebook who contributed their Perfect Films!