Thursday, April 17, 2014

Stranger on Horseback (1955) A Film by Jacques Tourneur


“There’s right and there’s wrong, and when you see wrong, you just gotta speak up,” reasons one character in Jacques Tourneur's small-scale parable, but obviously nothing's quite that simple in the wild west, where Joel McCrea's stern traveling judge learns to abandon his law book. Portending the narrative backbone of Joseph H. Lewis’ Terror in a Texas Town (1958), Stranger on Horseback pits a rational outsider against a delusional community, chronicling the attempts made by the outsider to shake the town out of their groupthink. In this case, the snotty son of the Bannerman family (the town’s alpha surname) has committed a murder, but everyone, including the local lawyer, recycles the unexamined justification that it was in the name of “self-defense.” Introducing a layer of political allegory, the members of the community, it seems, have become locked in a groove by which they are able to comfortably repress crimes in their own backyard—in so doing, they are merely perpetuating an unfair society and clearing the path for future corruptions.

In this context, Judge Thorne’s (McCrea) arrival out of nowhere—the film’s opening image shows him materializing in the far distance of a parched landscape, and subsequent narration provides only the barest of an origin story—initially registers as something heroic, almost Biblical. But he is no saint either. He is, after all, one of only a few seen shooting anyone in the film, and several other offhand instances point to his compromised character: he first quells a feisty member of the Bannerman brigade by publicly administering a bloody nose; he swiftly responds to a blowhard’s bullying by socking him in the face and dunking his head in a conveniently placed tub of water, to which the lawyer teasingly remarks, "highly unusual judge, sir"; and later, he throws down Bannerman's daughter (Miroslava Stern) against a table during an argument. Tourneur portrays each side of the law as equally brutally inclined, just as susceptible to violent human impulses; one quick shot of Stern firing a gun at a wine bottle and breaking loose the red liquid across the Earth underneath is pithy visual symbolism. If this is accepted as the foundation upon which this society must grow, the question, then, is not why but matters of how: how to introduce an ethical, just system while also minimizing conflict between parties.

A founding concern in Tourneur’s career was reconciliation and compromise, be it between the real and the surreal, the living and the dead, pragmatism and mysticism, the human and the animal, or the old and the new. This thematic bloodline fits the western genre like a glove, seeing as it's so historically preoccupied with the clash between tradition and modernity, particularly in terms of law and order. Though not exactly an outright optimist, Tourneur makes films that are defined by a frictional grasp towards optimism, and that grasp plays out beautifully in the denouement of Stranger on Horseback. Guns are fired, people are killed, bitter words are exchanged, and hesitant departures are made, but the final sense is that some common ground has been found and a way forward has been agreed upon.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The King of Escape (2009) A Film by Alain Guiraudie

For the lucky souls in New York right now, Alain Guiraudie's The King of Escape screens until Friday at Anthology Film Archives. The success of Stranger by the Lake has occasioned a look back at the earlier works in the career of this unique director, and his 2009 effort is more than worth the trip out. I praised it for In Review Online here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2014) A Film by Lars Von Trier

Writing about Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac has had that special effect of making me like it more, which explains why my new In Review Online piece hits the site’s “Gold” designation. In addition, I've posted some tangential thoughts that didn't make their way into my formal review over at Letterboxd.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mistaken for Strangers (2014) A Film by Tom Berninger

I'm way late on this update, but this past Friday I reviewed Mistaken for Strangers – a new documentary ostensibly about Brooklyn-based rock band The National's recent global tour but actually more about singer Matt Berninger's attention-whoring brother (well, that's a little insensitive, but seriously) – for In Review Online. Read my skeptical take here.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) A Film by Wes Anderson

(Note: This is more a series of somewhat disconnected notes and observations around The Grand Budapest Hotel than it is a formal review with plot synopsis and comprehensive coverage. It's best read after viewing the film—if at all, of course.)

I:

Cultural theorist Arjun Appadurai wrote about a concept he called “nostalgia without memory,” which he defined as a new phenomenon of globalization in which the markers of one culture escape from their historical, geographical context and become another culture’s past, resulting in a vague nostalgic longing for an experience that the participants of that culture have not directly accessed. His point was made in a specifically post-colonial context (the flaunting of American symbols by Filipinos), but the human core of his argument – an indefinable feeling of longing for a past that you never experienced and which can only be witnessed through cultural detritus – is something that haunts The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Here, Anderson’s nostalgia is for a world prior to a descent into fascist homogenization—specifically a decadent early 20th century sensibility when institutions still could have a measure of flamboyance and style. His titular hotel becomes the embodiment of this utopia, a fleeting vision of cultural excellence tucked away, at least at first, from the corrupting forces of the outside world. Gustave H., who presides over the alpine institution with a punctilious attention to detail, is an obvious director surrogate, and, in a generous touch, all of Anderson’s most notable regulars (Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzmann and Bill Murray) appear in minor roles as the concierges across the film’s several timelines. Having crafted elaborate mini-universes in film after film, the hotel represents simultaneously the most idealistic and most self-conscious expression of the pure, untainted world Anderson’s films and characters have strived for.

What gives the film such poignancy is that its utopia is acknowledged as something elusive and illusory. Anderson erects four layers of temporal and psychological remove – girl in the park (modern times?), novelist (80s?), his younger self (60s?), and the older incarnation of lobby boy Zero Moustafa – to separate himself from the story proper, which takes place in the fake northern European region of Zubrowka just before the onset of WWII. He also peppers his script with reminders of the impermanence of life: the film’s final line, narrated by the novelist who wrote the tale of meeting the hotel proprietor, is devastatingly concise: “it was a charming old relic, but he never did see it again” (paraphrased). Compromised by the rise of evil in Europe – here manifested as a fascist police state that ends the film festooned with logos landing somewhere in between the Zissou emblem and the swastika – the hotel can’t maintain its fanciful identity. Grim historical realities (real or imagined) have hovered just beyond the contained, bittersweet surfaces of Anderson’s cinema before; here they are shown protruding into the plot.

Described as “too decadent for modern tastes” by Zero in his old age, the hotel of the 1930s is an elegant getaway carefully decorated in welcoming shades of pink, purple and red. By contrast, the 60s iteration is a crumbling, orange-hued downgrade more in line with brutalist design tendencies than the Victorian qualities of the original (a sly visual joke shows “Boy with Apple” – the fictional artistic masterpiece that is so valued in the 30s and plays a key role in the plot – askew on the wall behind the concierge desk). That even this renovation looks opulent by today’s institutional standards points to Anderson’s fundamental idea about the aesthetic sterilization and increasing cultural neglect that runs alongside supposed historical “progress.”



II:

The Grand Budapest Hotel seems to represent the logical, highly advanced live-action extension of the frame-by-frame thinking of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Animation seemed to really get Anderson’s gears churning, forcing him to think on an atomic level more than ever before; every frame counted in the film’s mathematical design. If Moonrise Kingdom, aesthetically Anderson’s loosest movie since Bottle Rocket, was a slight move away from that level of control, TGBH finds him back on that wavelength in an extravagant big-budget context. Anderson may be orchestrating the movement of bodies and objects rather than miniatures, but the dexterity of his direction is no less staggering; this is a film that feels timed to a metronome. (I kept thinking of a Kevin Barnes lyric: “We've got to keep our little click clicking at 130 B.P.M., it's not too slow.”) Scenes pile atop one another, details accrue, and comic motifs weave in and out, all set to the near-constant time-keeping pulse of Alexandre Desplat’s score. Perfume sprays and cable car squeaks witnessed in the diegesis become part of the symphony, which is only the most conspicuous example of the harmonious fusion of music and drama here. The less tangible impression is of long stretches of verbose dialogue timed to a stopwatch. I wouldn’t be surprised if each shot has at least 30 alternate lives sitting on the cutting room floor due to being a few frames out of pace.

The result of this rhythmic command is a mode of comedy that’s heavily reliant on pacing. Some of the film’s most clever details emerge out of slight disruptions to an established tempo. When the police arrive at the hotel to charge Gustave H. with murder, the camera stays for an extended moment in the room he and Zero leave in order to catch the seemingly inconsequential detail of the lobby boy briefly returning to hang something up. Later, during a hysterical prison escape, there’s a visual gag regarding exceedingly long ladders; in each case, Anderson waits until the ladder passes fully through frame to cut to the next shot. Then there’s the tall prison inmate whose torso blocks our vision every time he approaches, forcing a framing adjustment that throws off the balance of the scene. If these moments achieve their humor through a sudden lag in cadence, the film’s climactic alpine chase sequence is hilarious for the opposite reason: it’s impossibly fast, sending an otherwise speedy movie into comical overdrive.

All of which is to say that Anderson’s sense of rhythm and tempo now matches the great purveyors of silent comedy.

III:

A minor note: Saoirse Ronan’s quiet presence is extraordinary. That fourth-wall breaking close-up of her on a merry-go-round, carnival bulbs swirling behind her and sending ripples of reflected light across her face, nearly stops the film dead in its tracks. It’s TBGH’s equivalent of Margot Tenenbaum arriving off the train in slow-motion.

IV:

After several years of relative indifference, I’m excited again by Wes Anderson.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Master Discussion

When Phillip Seymour Hoffman passed away unexpectedly nearly two months ago, my immediate mental image of the actor was as Lancaster Dodd, aka "Master," in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. There's a good chance it's because it's the most recent film in which I've seen Hoffman, but I also believe it to be his most impressive role. As a way of paying tribute to this towering screen icon, Kenji Fujishima and I decided to make Anderson's latest movie the focus of our second Passing Notes feature at In Review Online (following our January discussion of Mean Streets). I'd already written about The Master at length upon its release, but this discussion burrows into far more specific nooks and crannies of what I still consider to be a slightly overlooked achievement. If you're up for a long, long read, the results can be found here.

Screening Notes #25

Night Train (1959): Director Jerzy Kawalerowicz – an unfamiliar name to me prior to seeing this – waits until his final shot to deliver a clarifying horizontal dolly shot view of the film's titular setting, up until then a boxy, spatially confusing labyrinth rife with visual obstructions (sliding doors, bunk beds, tiny cabin windows, curtains). Shooting in 4:3, he busies his shots with layers of information tunneling toward the center of frame, faces stacked up against one another in competition for the viewer's focus. This visual strategy muddies the surface intrigue of the film's mystery-romance plot, which, like in Antonioni, gradually withers away. There's at least four characters who at one point or another seem to be the primary subject of interest, and four or five shots in the final twenty minutes that only appear to be capping off the film. Claustrophobia, irresolution and distraction are thus suffused into Night Train's nervous silence, which makes the sudden escape from the train into an open landscape late in the movie such a liberating sigh of relief. But even this hint of release, a resolution to the murder mystery plot, proves only temporarily cathartic. Greater existential loose ends still await the characters before their final, lonely trips off frame. Overall, this is a fairly discomfiting guide to what it must have felt like to live in the haunted stillness of Poland post-WWII.

Beeswax (2009): I'll need to revisit Mutual Appreciation and Funny Ha Ha pronto, because my feelings on Bujalski have radically changed for the better after experiencing Computer Chess and now Beeswax. I'm hard-pressed to think of an American filmmaker (off the top of my head, maybe Katz and Baumbach land in the same echelon) who better understands the vernacular and verbal rhythms of contemporary middle-class, educated, independent-minded white people in their 20s and 30s—that is, the language as it's lived and spoken. In this regard, Beeswax is riveting on the level of uncanny recognition alone; I feel as though I've met every character in this film. The moment-to-moment reactions, advances, innuendos, pauses, and compromises are perfectly judged and performed by Bujalski's band of non-actors (excepting Alex Karpovsky, who does a more pronounced, less engaging variation on this semi-clever sensitive guy in Girls). No one's particularly thrilling to watch, and Bujalski certainly doesn't build any kind of high-stakes plot around them, but together their interactions take on a humbling dramatic momentum wherein every minor decision is inflected with the weight of the preceding moments. That's how Bujalski is able to end on an action as seemingly insignificant as a character shutting the door in the corner of the frame and inscribe it with such pathos.

Wise Blood (1979): Like the best Flannery O'Connor stories, the diagrammatic nature of the script for John Huston's version of Wise Blood is gradually complicated, and the final result is far more flexible than the sum of the often rigid parts. The film deals heavily in contrasts: a sour, old-fashioned atheist allergic to pleasure and an undiscriminating whore disguised as a puritanical Catholic girl; two shamelessly opportunistic salesman-preachers, one true to the illusion that he's faithful and the other unafraid to revel in his materialistic impulses; a gung-ho street-dweller boy hungry for meaning and a crooked entertainer dressed in a gorilla suit. There's also the old city/country dichotomy, but Huston keeps twisting and turning these frameworks, aided in no small part by the weirdness of the movie's Macon, Georgia and the bottled-up madness of Brad Dourif's performance. The film's bleak final movement feels like a precursor to that of Leigh's Naked: a social outcast faced with a choice between a matriarchal domestic arrangement and absolute vagabondage, one determined to produce restless dormancy and the other likely to result in an eternal lack of fulfillment, if not death. Wise Blood's last shot blends both outcomes, showing such a person to be truly damned either way. Are they not for this world, or is this world not for them?

The Kremlin Letter (1970): The showy casting of Huston's talky Cold War espionage thriller – spanning stars/cultural figureheads of different nationalities, backgrounds, niches, specialties, and acting styles – may have emerged as an effort to give audiences some semblance of familiarity in a murky world of double (and sometimes triple)-edged political maneuvering, illicit financial transactions, routine world traveling, and a knotty vernacular predicated on official lingo and double entendres. But if facilitating comprehension was what Huston and his producers intended, they failed. The mutual presences of Orson Welles, George Sanders, Richard Boone, Max Von Sydow, Patrick O'Neal, Bibi Andersson, and Huston himself only produces cognitive dissonance; by the time one has mentally reconciled the idea of a multi-talented American heavyweight and a soulful Bergman muse occupying the same frame, an entire chunk of plot has passed between their lips. (The movie's tagline is "If you miss the first five minutes, you miss...the key to the plot" (ed.), and though that's not false advertising, the same could be said of any five-minute stretch.) Alas, while The Kremlin Letter defies moment-to-moment understanding, its overarching air of grim fatalism is unmistakable; to this end, Huston's mise-en-scène, a tactful blend of low-key lighting and suggestive choreography between camera and performers (plenty of two-shots of people looking away from one another), is commanding.



Stranger by the Lake (2013) and Sunshine for the Scoundrels (2001): Caught up with both of these at the tail end of Harvard's Guiraudie retrospective and felt foolish for missing the first half of the program. I saw Stranger by the Lake once before at NYFF and spoke about some preliminary thoughts here, but I know now that my snap consensus (solid but unremarkable slow-burn arthouse thriller, typically exemplary on a technical level) was insufficient. This time around I was more taken with Guiraudie's achievement, and I scribbled down a bunch of terse notes about patterns and variations (most of which are useless to me now) in an attempt to wrap my head around the brilliance of the film's airtight design. The earlier short – an ambling interpersonal chat-fest that distinguishes itself by being set in a desert and punctured by cartoonish characters and plot quirks – is a curious little work that makes one yearn for appropriate predecessors (Beckett? Godard? Rivette? Rohmer?) even as it carves its own thoroughly idiosyncratic bubble. It goes without saying, but both need to be watched again.

Non-Stop: By aligning the audience with a paranoid protagonist from the get-go (even going so far as to saddle that protagonist with the consuming American anxiety of the Muslim-looking, only to undermine that anxiety later in revealing that Muslim as the selfless doctor aboard the flight), Non-Stop flirts with an ambitious thesis regarding the largely illusory nature of terror in the contemporary world, the idea that fear begets fear and grows exponentially. A disappointing third act reveal puts a concrete face (two, actually) to the terror and ultimately stuffs a good-bad dichotomy into what is initially a very grey ecosystem, but, prior to that, director Jaume Collet-Serra cleverly orchestrates a parade of red herrings within the cultural melting pot of a compromised red eye flight. Several actors, particularly Julianne Moore (who I'm still not convinced is innocent; Non-Stop 2 might have something to say about that), do terrific, darting work with their eyes, lending credence to the escalating belligerence of Liam Neeson's police work. Another key element is the arrangement of the aircraft, which Collet-Serra subtly emphasizes; the positioning of certain characters relative to Neeson provides much of the suspense, and the swish-panning shallow focus camerawork – often pivoting around the man's head – makes sure to catch blink-and-you-miss-it glimpses of suspicious activity in the background. Ho'Wood watering-down notwithstanding, Non-Stop leaves numerous thorny implications that suggest greater fears than the two post-collegiate tools that spoil everyone's vacation—namely, its disquieting impressions of the totalitarian efficiency of technological info-transfer, the media's lack of suspicion at the hands of visual data, and the resulting mob mentality that surrounds it.

Climates (2006): Three 30-minute chunks, three climates, three (slightly) different emotional registers, three different ways of displacing existential frustration on women. I've long swooned over the photographic eye of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, but the man's notion of narrative structure could use some loosening, at least on the evidence of his first three features (I haven't seen Anatolia yet, but I expect it to change course). Climates is the worst offender in this regard. In the service of a pretty passé thesis – true connection is an impossibility – Ceylan expends high levels of directorial finesse weighing every scene down with gloomy dead air; in one particular long take in the back of a bus, he controls the background action for dramatic effect to a scientific degree. The compositions are perfect, the atmosphere sounds are enveloping, the temporally destabilizing cuts are beautifully timed, and the money shots – always revealing characters to be more alienated from one another than initially expected in a given moment – never fail to elicit the desired emotions (mostly sadness, dejection, pity). But a suspicion that Climates has little more to offer than stern masculine navel-gazing steadily arises. Ceylan himself plays the lead (formidably, I should add), and the film's occasional self-reflexive gestures suggest that the director may be coasting on fumes of personal romantic disappointment; fair enough, but it all starts to reflect quite badly on him when one considers the clinically staged, beginning-to-end dominant/submissive sex centerpiece.

Gummo (1997) and Trash Humpers (2009): "What, are you guys watching Gummo?" is what a friend of mine years ago would sarcastically remark every time he'd barge into my childhood basement/neighborhood hangout zone while I was watching a film. The joke was that I was never watching Gummo, even as it so obviously exemplified the kind of hipster film-snobbery of which he (probably rightly) assumed I was guilty. Anyway, such assumptions were part of the reason I never mustered up the energy to wade through the film's annoying cultish reputation en route to the goods. And, coming around to it now for the first time, I think they are goods. To engage with Korine's proudly anarchist cinema, one has to first meet him on his turf—that is, the domain of smart-ass skate videos and public pranksterism that was presumably so integral to his youth. Roll with that stuff – certainly the pushiest, most divisive aspect of his work even though I see it as mostly innocent – and you'll open yourself up to what is ultimately a curious, restless vision, the unchecked imagination of a guy with a colorful take on the mythology of the South that yields passages of transcendent oddness. Gummo's crowning moment is a haunting scene of haphazard euthanizing in a shadowy basement so littered with junk it suggests a subterranean jungle. That moment taps into a mesmerizing garbage-strewn exoticism – an anthropological feeling of dipping into a completely alien existence that is nonetheless undeniably part of our world – that Trash Humpers more or less coasts on in its bedraggled VHS haze. Seeing both films in close proximity to a very big screen surely enhanced the extraordinary force of their hallucinations; I'll probably have to report back after less visceral encounters.