Streaming Recommendations: Magnificent Obsession

Contributor: Grant Kerber

With the coronavirus racking our psyche it’s easy to get caught up in the little things. For me, staring at the same interior day after day has lead to an obsessive attention to detail, which got me thinking about the role of obsession in our lives. Taking inspiration from my recent Douglas Sirk kick, I comprised the following list of films around the theme of “Magnificent Obsession”. Each film documents a character (or characters) whose drive to achieve their desires costs them in other areas of their life. Hopefully I (and you!) am not reaching the dizzying heights of obsession on display in these films, but the quarantine isn’t over yet, either…

The Constant Factor

Krzysztof Zanussi, 1980

Witold has a macabre desire to climb the Himalayas like his father, who died there ten years prior. In spite of his father’s horrific fate, Witold longs for the freedom he’d find in the open air of the mountains, a stark contrast to the corruption he experiences in Poland’s dying communist government. In spite of his immense mathematical talents, Witold can never seem to get ahead in life. Virtuous to a fault, Witold’s obsession with doing the right thing costs him opportunities as he frustrates relationships by following the rules. He can’t reconcile the contradiction at the center of his life: his strict adherence to the law only alienates him from society.

Burden of Dreams

Les Blank, 1982
Criterion Channel

A metanarrative masterpiece, Burden of Dreams documents the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo deep in the jungles of Peru. Fitzcarraldo tells the story of Brian Sweeney Fitzcarraldo (Klaus Kinski), who dreams of running an opera house in the Amazon rainforest. In his desperate attempt to make the film, Herzog obsesses in much the same way as Fitzcarraldo, doing whatever it takes to keep the project alive. The documentary culminates with Peruvians pulling a 320-ton steamship over a small mountain (really), showing how far we’ll go to fulfill our obsessive desires.

This Sporting Life

Lindsay Anderson, 1963
Criterion Channel

Frank Manchin is a gifted rugby player whose skills on the field don’t translate to a satisfying personal life. Brutal and vicious, Frank dominates his sport but lacks the tenderness to make human connections. Everything he’s accomplished in life has come from his internal drive to win at all costs, but his focus on physical domination makes his social interactions awkward and forced. Richard Harris’ breakthrough, this film shows the costs that accompany a desire for greatness.

Two-Lane Blacktop

Monte Hellman, 1971
Criterion Channel

Sometimes, obsession breaks things down into their bare elements. This is the case in Two-Lane Blacktop, where the characters’ singular focus on racing strips them even of their names: James Taylor is “The Driver”, Dennis Wilson is “The Mechanic”, Laurie Bird is “The Girl”, and Warren Oates is “GTO”. For The Driver, The Mechanic, and GTO, they eat, sleep, and dream of winning, no matter the cost. An American “road movie” classic, Two-Lane Blacktop explores the existential nature of what drives us in life.

Sweet Bean

Naomi Kawase, 2015
Hoopla, Kanopy

Sentarô’s joyless plod through life has him barely scraping by. Indifferently operating a dorayaki pancake shop outside Tokyo, Sentarô faces increasing debt and uncertainty about his future until he meets Tokue, an elder whose baking skills awaken Sentarô’s passion. By falling in love with his craft, Sentarô gains insight into the importance of one’s calling and how that passion breathes meaning into one’s life.