In the short space of three films, actor-turned-director John Cameron Mitchell has proved both an original and versatile talent. His debut feature, an exuberant adaptation of the stage musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, imagined the weird and wild journey of a transgender Eastern European glam rocker rattling through middle America, while his acclaimed follow-up, 2006’s notorious sex comedy Shortbus, gave us — among other treats — the particular cinematic experience of watching three naked gentleman perform the American national anthem with their rear ends.
This week, marking yet another impressive change of pace, the director returns with the moving Rabbit Hole, a heavy but often humorous drama about a married couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) trying to negotiate their relationship in the wake of losing their son.
We caught up with Mitchell recently, where he shared his Five Favorite Films of all time.
I think my favorite film is A Woman Under the Influence, by Cassavetes. Something about its documentary force, this unseen structure of what it means to be a woman in our society. I still think Gena Rowlands’ performance is probably the best I’ve ever seen on screen. You see her desperately trying to be all these things a woman is supposed to be — a great lover, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter — and she’s trying so hard that her mind fragments. It’s just heartbreaking and it’s so full of love and everybody’s right and wrong in it.
I love Fanny and Alexander; Bergman’s masterpiece. I love the five-hour version, the television cut. I think you should see the three-hour version first. It’s almost like a Hansel and Gretel story: it’s this very complex fairy tale of Fanny and Alexander, whose father dies and they have to go live with the evil bishop, and their mother seems kind of brainwashed by him. It’s full of ghosts, but the real scary ghosts aren’t the ones who are “oooh!” — they aren’t Americanized ones, they pop up at the weirdest moments, in a very realistic way. The ending is very spooky. It’s the most beautiful fairy tale I’ve ever experienced that’s not written by a folk tradition, but written by one person — Bergman.
I really love Nights of Cabiria, which I think is Fellini’s best film; starring his wife, Giulietta Masina. I realize that, in retrospect, it may have influenced Hedwig, because it has this hooker who is almost a cross between Ana Magnani in Mamma Roma and maybe Charlie Chaplin, because Giulietta Masina is almost like a silent movie comedian… she’s very kooky. There’s a lot of almost mimed scenes where she’s like Buster Keaton or something — but imagine a female hooker Buster Keaton. She gets knocked down by various lovers and she thinks she’s found that other half and then she’s just knocked down again but she gets back up, and it’s got this incredibly hopeful ending that, in theory, seems impossible — you know, people are dancing around her and music is happening. It’s that weird thing that happens, only in Italy, where there’s that understanding of the melancholy of life — a laughing understanding. It’s just like, “This is life — it involves tears, it involves laughter.” It’s incredibly optimistic, even though the worst thing happens to her.
I love Nashville. It’s my favorite Altman film, for sure — and I’m a big Altman fan. Another long film that young people don’t always understand the pace of: you know, “Are they really gonna sing all of those songs, straight through?” It’s the pace of life. And the country music scene in Nashville in 1975 being a metaphor for America at that time — the end of the Vietnam War, after Watergate, after the assassinations of some of our most prominent citizens — is encompassed in this comedy with, like, 25 main characters. Lily Tomlin was a revelation as a serious actress in that; there’s an incredible scene where she’s being sung to by Keith Carradine, it’s just heartbreaking. I find it incredibly funny and incredibly moving, and it feels like America.
There’re a lot of runners up… The Conversation, The King of Comedy… I think I might have to say Dr. Strangelove. The most perfect satire ever made, that I’ve ever experienced in any form — literary or cinematic. Tone perfect. Really a cautionary tale for what it means to be a man in America. It’s all about penis size. That missile? You can’t miss it: it’s between his legs, you know — he’s going down, weighed down by the weight of his penis to destroy the world, and laughing all the way. That’s one film that my parents — who are super-conservative — and I can agree on that’s a great film. My dad was a General. He loves it. He’s some kind of a cross between George C. Scott and Noel Coward. Sense of humor is one of those places where people with different philosophies can commune. We can all agree that it’s absurd. Not always in an objective way, but in a comic way. Kubrick found a kind of consensus, a certain way of looking at the world that’s tied up with what it means to be a man — insanity, and it will lead to tragedy. And Peter Sellers, you know — my favorite comic actor of all time.
Rabbit Hole is in theaters this week.