Weekly Top Five: "Violence is not funny"—the best of William Friedkin | Bleader

Weekly Top Five: "Violence is not funny"—the best of William Friedkin

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Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon in Bug
  • Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon in Bug
In preparation for director William Friedkin's forthcoming appearance to promote his new memoir, The Friedkin Connection, Harold Washington Library Center (400 S. State) is screening The Exorcist at 6 PM on Tue 4/9 in the Pritzker Auditorium. Prior to reviewing Killer Joe for the Reader last summer, I wasn't all that familiar with Friedkin's work. I knew the basics, of course, but as with many worthwhile filmmakers, his truest virtues were hidden in some of his lesser-known movies. He's not for every taste, but for every instance of sex, violence, and cynicism in his work, there are just as many moments of sheer artistry, indicative of a filmmaker with a keen understanding of how audiences watch, relate to, and process cinema. He's fully aware of the comforts people seek in movies, but rather than honor those comforts, he challenges, distorts, and otherwise exploits them, forcing the audience to find other avenues of connectivity to the work, almost like a puzzle.

Friedkin's appearance at Harold Washington, in which he'll be joined by Filmspotting's Adam Kempenaar, is set for 6 PM on Tue 4/16. In the meantime, catch my five favorite Friedkin films are after the jump.

5. The Exorcist (1973) This depraved and deliberately antagonistic horror film is pure Friedkin. These days it's mostly interesting as a case file for 1970s American cinema, standing alongside films like Deliverance and Straw Dogs as part of the seedy underbelly of New Hollywood. Whether or not it's the "scariest movie of all time" is a trite and pointless discussion, but there's no denying the twisted inventiveness of the film's more horrific scenes. The outright gleefulness Friedkin has for tormenting his audience is either his best or worst quality, depending on whom you ask.

4. Rampage (1987/1992) Nihilistic and strangely devoid of style, Rampage is a no-frills, almost essayistic survey of the Reagan era.Though it masquerades as a sort of serial-killer thriller, this cruelly underrated drama is the most political film Friedkin ever made. Based on the true story of the murderer Richard Chase, the film criticizes the U.S. court system, the death penalty, and mainstream media. When the film finally saw a U.S. release five years after production wrapped, Friedkin decided his opinion on the matter had changed—he reedited the film to express a somewhat softened opinion of capital punishment and a more pronounced opinion on gun control, which he advocates. The original 1987 cut is the superior version, but both are worthwhile.

3. Bug (2006) After a pair of mainstream flops (2000's Rules of Engagement, 2003's The Hunted), Friedkin self-financed this bizarre chamber piece based on the famous Tracy Letts play. Energized by Letts's text and free of studio restraints, Friedkin hit a creative wave he's been riding ever since. Virtually the entire film takes place in a dingy motel room in which Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, convinced they've been infected with bugs, slowly lose their minds. Friedkin matches their unraveling with an increasingly bonkers aesthetic design: soft lighting gives way to intrusive, neon fluorescents; conventional framing gives way to extreme angles. Friedkin orchestrates insanity.

2. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) An erratic, sun-soaked crime thriller whose influence can be felt in any number of contemporary Los Angeles stories. The film is a virtual time capsule of LA in the mid-80s, as Friedkin and his small crew worked entirely on location and in some of the city's worst neighborhoods. The shoot was hasty, with Friedkin instructing legendary cinematographer Robby Muller, who had lensed Repo Men and Paris, Texas the previous year, to "just shoot the actors. Try and keep them in the frame. If they're not in the frame, they're not in the movie. That's their problem." This frenetic style is felt throughout.

1. The Birthday Party (1968) This adaptation of Harold Pinter's classic chamber drama represents Friedkin at his most focused, capricious, and antagonistic. It features a style he'd replicate in his best films, most obviously in the aforementioned Bug. Friedkin injects Pinter's play, already menacing and unnerving in its own right, with a deeper sense of dread. Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Friedkin understands the oppressiveness of tight spaces. In The Birthday Party, he frames the action in tight, unwavering closeups that heighten a sense of claustrophobia unattainable in a staged version of the text.

Honorable mentions: Cruising (1980) just barely missed this list, and I'd also mention The French Connection. I'm sad to say that I've yet to see Sorcerer (1977), Friedkin's unappreciated remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, which some cite as his best film. Luckily I'll soon have the chance, as Friedkin himself is currently overseeing the film's digital restoration.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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