Monday, March 29, 2010

The Sorrowful Poetry of Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry

Review here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) A Film by Wes Anderson

After countless viewings, Wes Anderson's formally stunning The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a film that maintains its ability to elicit a childlike awe. Decidedly minor and laid-back, it's like an old toy revisited with nostalgic fondness that conserves the sense of spectacular joy it was met with, albeit in a somewhat antique form. My initial encounter with the film was baffling and revelatory; no one was making films as visually self-conscious and unique as this one, not to mention with such a polished strain of dry, dry humor. I was also hugely impressed to see established actors - Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, and Jeff Goldblum - playing characters that were highly idiosyncratic and flawed, unlike anything they had done before, with nary a whiff of professional elitism. Much of this was of course because I had somehow not yet been exposed to the films of Wes Anderson, so what followed was a passionate trek through the entire oeuvre of his young career, discovering gems like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. My softest spot still resides with the underrated The Life Aquatic though, for no film Anderson has made is quite as unremittingly funny and hermetically sealed.

Its subject, the oceanographer-cum-documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), is a charming tribute to renowned underwater scientist Jacques Cousteau. Garbed with Cousteau's trademark light blue shirt and stubby orange hat, he is a peculiar figure, utterly consistent in his ways and doggedly determined to right his wrongs and accomplish his odd goals. Once a prolific, well-respected filmmaking champion, he is now something of an aging master, still regarded relatively highly by his admirers but also held as a pathetic wash-up by an equal portion of critics. His fall from grace is a result of his unchanging nature, sticking by his guns while the world around him evolves. In the opening scene of the film, at a retrospective of his work in a grand theater, his mission becomes evident: he will set out to sea once again with his last scraps of money to make a heartfelt, vengeful documentary about his search for the supposed "jaguar shark" that previously killed his right-hand man, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel). His hope is that the ambitious project, for which he is left with a diminutive crew of six or seven longtime partners and a handful of unpaid interns, will salvage both his career and his troubled marriage to Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston), whose affair with his seafaring rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) provided the two of them a variety of reasons to part ways, not the least of which was Hennessey's ostensible bisexuality.

The echoes of Herman Melville's Moby Dick are never over-pronounced; instead Anderson and screenwriter Noah Baumbach let the film take its own unusual detours, just as the Cousteau references are not acknowledged too explicitly, allowing Zissou to become his own eccentric individual. One of the major elements that makes the screenplay depart from a mere cinematic retelling of the Great American Novel is through the inclusion of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young, budding sea-explorer and excited member of The Zissou Society (a tight-knit organization used as marketing for the Zissou film franchise) who may or may not be Zissou's estranged son. In a wry joke, he admits to only knowing about his son through an article he read about himself, introducing one of the film's thematic strands of dislodged identity, the way that the knowledge of one's self can drift at sea until something relocates it. Zissou is quite skeptical of fatherhood, leading him to be dismissive when Ned asks him if he can call him "Father", suggesting instead that he use the term "Stevesy". As in all of Anderson's films, the male relationship is something that must always skirt outward emotional involvement, as two clearly sensitive men attempt to project a nonchalant sense of masculinity. Thus Steve and Ned's relationship never really reaches the level of father-son; they are closer to buddies with a generational gap, lending Zissou an inherent air of mentorship even if many times he proves to be the less mature of the two. Impeding their ability to achieve a more familial bond is their romantic battle over the pregnant English journalist that accompanies the crew on their mission, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), whom Ned has clearly won over from the very beginning.

The Life Aquatic progresses like a feather blowing in the wind, in a manner of extreme cool that is so consistent that even discordant action sequences have a detached air to them. This is a quality that has led many to dismiss the film as smug, as if Anderson cares only about his pedantry and not his audience, but it's actually a storytelling rhythm that fits the subject like a glove. Bill Murray has come to be a specialist of disaffected middle-aged men stuck in a vacuous search for love and hope and hindered by their own acquiescence, and Steve Zissou is poised securely in that vein, hardly ever cracking a smile throughout the film. Furthermore, the setting of the open ocean acts as an externalization of his drifting non-presence. Only when he strikes land does it become bracingly clear why he's chosen oceanography as a career; he can't seem to connect with anyone but a few of his own partners, like the childish Klaus (Willem Dafoe) or the faithful Vladimir Wolodarsky (Noah Taylor). Though he seeks order in his small, closed-off world inside the ship - a trait that Anderson illustrates through a magical protracted dolly shot surveying the guts of the boat like a kid reveling over his new doll house - a landlocked life presents a hideous overabundance of order, causing him to grow bitter and dispassionate. The film's opening sequence contains a number of marvelous non-sequiturs that gradually paint a picture of Zissou as a curmudgeonly Larry David-type, yet seemingly without enough energy to fully indulge in his quibbles. First, he signs a long line of movie posters for an elderly fan before telling him to "get lost", then he walks by Ned as he introduces himself, muttering only a drolly hilarious "Ok, man".

Anderson and his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman capture imagery of delicate whimsy and bizarre elegance, making this the Anderson film with the most exuberant formal pleasures. It's an aesthetic of Kubrickian focus, with a striking color palette containing aqua blues, greens, and yellows as well as the occasional red, and an emphasis on individual figures squashed inside widely crammed frames. The film also mixes together the documentary footage of the Zissou team's experiences, perhaps mindfully incorporating a Cousteau-like style, and kitschy underwater animation provided by Henry Selick (the director of Coraline and James and the Giant Peach). The animated fish help to keep things on a playful level, as if any hint of realism would shatter the carefully mounted milieu and suggest that Zissou's a more serious figure than we perceive him as. Finally, Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh scores the film with an anthemic soft techno tune, complete with thunderous orchestral translations. Oh, and David Bowie is the film's other implicit star, springing to life in Seu Jorge's swooning Portuguese renditions.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Indelible Images from the Decade

So much of cinema's power is derived from context and montage that the impact of individual images is often accidentally neglected. On occasion however, one of the many individual shots in a film particularly strikes a chord, standing out from the rest as one that resonates deeply, either with emotional, intellectual, or aesthetic heft. Stephen from Checking on My Sausages has recently issued a call to bloggers to submit their one all-encompassing favorite image in cinema. This tall task has only elicited a strong desire on my part to gather up at least what I find to be among the greatest, and in order to further narrow that down, I have centered my focus on the past decade in film. These 23 shots range from the silly to the mesmerizing to the political, and together they comprise the ephemeral moments from the 21st century that have stuck with me the most. Seeing as it's so difficult to keep the tally low for just one decade, imagine the inconceivable challenge of picking one from all the eleven decades of the medium.

(Click on image to view large-scale.)

Silent Light (Carlos Reygades, 2007, DP: Alexis Zabe)

The most tranquil, breathtaking, and formally impressive shot I can recall from this decade is this one from Carlos Reygades' powerful Silent Light, a dolly shot depicting a sunrise in real time, and then at the end of the film, a sunset. Reygades turns his camera towards a natural event so ordinary and quotidian to remind us of how extraordinary it really is, capturing the eerie placidity of the cosmos in sumptuous, painterly tones.

Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)

The 2nd of a mere 37 shots in Bela Tarr's allegorical opus Werckmeister Harmonies is actually the image I submitted to Checking on My Sausages as my single favorite shot in cinema, though I obviously can't stand by that claim forever. But the fact that this lilting scene set to Mihaly Vig's gorgeous musical score always jumps to mind immediately when probed about the visual power of film is enough to grant it a place in a gallery of prized images. When I first heard about Bela Tarr, this was the first screen shot I found from his work, and its murky, otherworldly beauty continues to fascinate me. I can still watch this scene on its own and be profoundly moved, for there is something remarkably timeless about its lone figure strolling down a featureless Hungarian street.

Songs from the Second Floor (Roy Andersson, 2000, DP: István Borbás, Jesper Klevenas, Robert Komarek)

Religion on the left. Government on the right. Society on the horizon line. Youth blindfolded at the edge of a cliff. Roy Andersson couldn't cover much more in this jaw-dropping image, probably the most symbolically loaded moment of the decade that lasts nearly ten minutes and stings of pessimism in the context of the morbidly masterful film that surrounds it.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2006, DP: Pen-jung Liao)

Tsai Ming-Liang routinely explores the personal disconnection and disillusionment of modern urban life, and few of his shots are more telling than this one: two figures, isolated by a line going down the middle of the frame, posed silently and overlooking a bizarre, musty construction site that looks like something from a science fiction film. Besides that, this shot is just damn pretty.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007, DP: Janusz Kaminski)

Generally, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly doesn't work after it leaves the astonishing optical perspective that comprises its first twenty minutes, resorting to trite flashbacks and visual metaphors to tug at the viewer's heartstrings, but this frenetic burst of life is one of those rare instances when it really really works without being weighed down by director Julian Schnabel's nagging attempt to make everything so desperately sentimental. A wistful shot of a woman's hair blowing wildly in the wind on a past joy ride set to boisterous pop music, the moment is a brief breath of fresh air (literally), and it's all the more precious for its transience.

Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006, DP: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom)

A handful of critics have made the astute comparison of this image - which comes late in Joe's Syndromes and a Century - to the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, another black void of seemingly endless metaphorical possibilities. This sinister dolly towards basement machinery sucking up fog in a hospital however does not feel too "easy" or mindlessly open-ended; instead, it's in line with the countless other enigmatic diversions in the film, a reminder of the dark corners that lurk behind all of the joyous moments in life (and this is a film with plenty of those).

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003, DP: Harris Savides)

Elephant is a startlingly effective film, even if we expect its ultimate denouement from the very beginning, and this comes from Gus Van Sant's pedantic pursuit of real-time. In the end, after having fallen into familiar rhythms, the sudden outburst of violence is substantially destabilizing, an approximation of the kind of shock that real, unexpected horror brings. Therefore, this shot, which gradually comes into focus as the distant figure nears the camera, is a perfect visual representation of the utter confusion we feel in the face of such a tragedy. All of a sudden the world is no longer clear.

The Intruder (Denis, 2004, DP: Agnès Godard)

It's difficult to select one single shot from Claire Denis' The Intruder, because in some sense it feels like it was consciously constructed of moments meant to burn in the memory without explanation. Denis knows that some of the best visuals are the ones that leave the screen just before we can make sense of them, augmenting the visceral impact. Here is one of those examples. A character pushes snow aside to reveal a face hidden beneath ice, a murderous act that we know of only tangentially from earlier in the film.

Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, 2009, DP: Anthony Dod Mantle)

For those who have seen Lars Von Trier's batty Antichrist, I'm sure you'll agree that there are several frames in it that are far more memorable, more damaging, and more brain-stamping than this one, but in the interest of decency, I have chosen one of the film's equally divisive throwaway moments, one that, love it or hate it, has been remembered. Endlessly parodied and recycled - most cleverly in this hybrid poster with Fantastic Mr. Fox - the spontaneous talking fox is simultaneously monumentally stupid and oddly disturbing.

Fire and Rain (Ruhr) (James Benning, 2009, DP: Benning)

James Benning's tantalizing trailer for his latest digital experiment Ruhr, which is several minutes of an industrial machine process going about its mechanized routine, feels like it was made in the spirit of my opening credo. It's a scrap of media that strips away all context and montage, except of course for the context and montage that you bring to it. Benning rediscovers the primal allure of smoke, fire, and water.

In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2000, DP: Chris Doyle)

The fact that this image is the first that comes to mind when I think of Wong Kar-Wai's lovely In the Mood for Love is a testament to how pleasurable the film's little details are. Kar-Wai and cinematographer Chris Doyle make Maggie Cheung's trip to the underground lo-mein market a dazzling feast for the senses, shooting in slow motion and with a shallow depth of field all while the pizzicato strings induce a state of mysterious hyperreality.

Garden State (Zach Braff, 2004, DP: Lawrence Sher)

After receiving an undesired gift from a relative, Andrew Largeman wanders awkwardly into a nearby bathroom to try it on. The next cut is to him standing and looking in the mirror while the shirt matches the wallpaper in the room uncannily. Zach Braff, who also directs, plays the part perfectly, sustaining the same deer-in-the-headlights look he does for the entire film. It's a poignant, wryly humorous shot that stands as one more odd diversion during his lukewarm existential crisis.

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008, DP: Sam Levy)

With just a few features under her belt, Kelly Reichardt has become a quintessential American independent. Wendy and Lucy may currently be her crowning achievement, and this shot from the film - a selfless monetary gift given to Michelle Williams' down-and-out character by a similarly destitute supermarket security guard - is one of the most moving moments in the film, a tribute to the prevailing humanity in the face of larger socioeconomic problems. It also epitomizes recession-era America just as Umberto D's weathered face epitomized postwar Italy, realizing how the only source of income for many is the good nature of others.

Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso, 2004, DP: Cobi Migliora)

Lisandro Alonso's films always teeter on the edge of a scant narrative without ever quite getting there, yet manage to somehow quietly thrill regardless. It is perhaps significant then that the most indefinably effective shot in his oeuvre is the one that most pointedly abandons any remote sense of narrative stricture. After following the same ex-convict through the Argentinean jungle for an hour and twenty minutes, Alonso slowly tilts his camera down and lets him walk out of frame with a little native child, focusing on a pair of stray toys in the dirt. If there's one image in this list that proves that film has the ability to work in such curiously moving ways even when a narrative is thrown out the window on a dime, it's this one. When I saw it, I held my breath until the credits rolled.

Transformers 2 (Michael Bay, 2009, DP: Ben Seresin)

Yes, Transformers 2 is an unprecedented antithesis to quality cinema, a garish collection of all of the disposable gratuities in contemporary American media, an example of the tasteless objectification of women, and an insult to the sensitive viewer, but somewhere beneath Michael Bay's boyish need to blow things up and ogle at Megan Fox's heinie is a unique maximalist sensibility. The above still frame is indeed probably just a natural result of the kind of scrappy metal play he indulges in, but try to prove to me that this is not some form of brilliant subconscious art worthy of being displayed large-scale in a museum. The candy-coated colors, swirling Autobot detritus, and cramped composition create an opulent abstraction that feels like a cinematic update to Robert Rauschenberg.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006, DP: Luke Geissbuhler, Anthony Hardwick)

The image plays like a print from "Where's Waldo?". Like Waldo, Borat, one of the absurdly larger-than-life creations of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, has become a culturally ubiquitous figure, instantly recognizable for his idiosyncratic look. Unlike Waldo however, Borat sticks out like a sore thumb; a complete book of "Where's Borat?" would be a frustratingly quick skim-through for even young readers. It is precisely this recognizability though that makes this frame from the uproarious Borat an important one. No other mug from 21st century media immediately provokes something so strong in the national consciousness, whether it is seething anger or fond hilarity.

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2008, DP: Robert Elswit)

Robert Elswit won one of the few deserved Oscars of the decade for his cinematography in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, bringing superior technical skill and an understanding of the psychological effects of the vast landscape shot to this gritty turn-of-the-century parable of greed and oil. No other American film this decade felt as effortlessly grandiose and old-fashioned, utilizing big panoramic shots of its charismatic star Daniel Day-Lewis in the center of the imposing heartland that have a way of recalling John Ford and Sergio Leone. The above frame is one of them that particularly stands out.

Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001, DP: Linklater, Tommy Pallotta)

Richard Linklater's a filmmaker who's not normally known for remarkable visuals, but by the time he began work on Waking Life, it seemed he was ready to invent a new aesthetic. Utilizing initial footage and then grooming every frame with writhing animated flourishes, he devised a form of radical rotoscoping, resulting in a lively film that is impossible to stop looking it. It's also a uniquely dreamy, metaphysical work that is perpetually open to the possibility of sheer randomness, of spontaneous thought materializing. This shot is one of those instances, involving an embittered outcast who suddenly sets himself aflame after a rant. Made, incidentally, in conjunction with 9/11, something feels disturbingly timely about it.

Caché (Haneke, 2005, DP: Christian Berger)

An alarming burst of violence in a film that, up until this point, sits completely static, poised in a state of cerebral quietude, is enough to jolt a viewer out of complacency. The scene, as it turns out, involving the main character's estranged brother's suicide, eventually turns out to be a brutal physical manifestation of his own feelings of repressed guilt. This does not make it a detached abstraction though; Haneke is one of the few narrative directors willing to show real violence and human blood in its unglamorous nature, in a way that does not titillate an audience but rather confronts them.

The Life Aquatic (Wes Anderson, 2004, DP: Robert Yeoman)

This has to be one of the few moments in Wes Anderson's filmography that does not divide believers and non-believers, that is indeed unquestionably fantastic. In what I believe to be his best film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Bill Murray gives a lengthy description of his treasured ship while Anderson nimbly surveys the rooms in a continuous tracking shot, making the boat into a life-size dollhouse. The cartoonish set design, precise lighting, and playful color scheme of salmon pink, turquoise, and tan make this a marvel of concise visual storytelling.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009, DP: Robert Richardson)

Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew whose family was massacred during World War II, goes up in a blaze of light and smoke while laughing maniacally at the antagonistic Nazi's seated before the silver screen. Tarantino's explosive climax to his latest film Inglourious Basterds was as cleverly staged as it was provocative, using the cinematic image as a grand way of revising history. For all his flaws, he's definitely one of the ballsiest American talents.

Birth (Jonathon Glazer, 2004, DP: Harris Savides)

Rarely does an actor or actress pull off the kind of feat that Nicole Kidman does here, wrenching through an entire three minutes with her subtle facial expressions alone. The camera stays fixed and relies on her to carry the weight of the scene, which she does beautifully. Not to mention the complexity of the scenario: her character has just begun to believe that her deceased husband has reincarnated in the form of a ten-year old boy.

INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006, DP: Lynch)

The two-second path that David Lynch takes to get from this to the above frame is an unexpectedly frightening one, culminating in what is likely the most petrified expression that has ever washed over Laura Dern's face. Of course, Dern is owed the lion's share of the credit for making this such an alarming frame, but a portion of what makes it so destabilizing is Lynch's fearlessly unconventional aesthetic. Shot on a consumer-grade camera, he deliberately lets the digital video blow out, distort, and smear the look of its subjects, an aesthetic that has forever been a sacrilege in Hollywood. This shot singlehandedly epitomizes Lynch's trailblazing experimental sensibility, and shouts a "screw-you" to major studios that think that films must be pristine on the surface to be effective.

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Birth (2004) A Film by Jonathon Glazer

Jonathon Glazer's sophomore effort Birth boasts a central premise as silly on the surface as a Disney Channel comedy: Anna (Nicole Kidman), still grieving after her husband Sean died of a heart attack ten years prior, begins getting visits from a ten-year old boy claiming to be the reincarnated Sean, arriving prepared with copious information about their marriage. It's the kind of scenario that seems to invite skepticism, loaded as it is with innumerable potential comical situations. Glazer proves to be dead-serious though, riffing on the idea in ways that are convincingly metaphysical and deeply enigmatic. The result is a film whose individual moments, taken out of context, could very well feel laughable or tasteless, but come across exceedingly well in the grand scheme of things as the terrific cast embodies the roles of real earthbound adults, reacting to the circumstances with great verisimilitude. Anna is not a simply a lonely widow either; engaged to the sententious Joseph (Danny Huston) and surrounded by family and friends in New York City, it is clear that she cannot just deal with the dilemma on her own. And when little Sean (Cameron Bright) shows up at a dinner party in Anna’s Manhattan apartment and boldly demands that she not marry Joseph, a dilemma it is indeed.

The adults, including Anna, first react as if there is a clever little prank being played on them, but soon find Sean’s relentless methods of communication with Anna – letters, phone messages – to be a mild form of personal terrorism. He suggests that she meet him in the park, claiming she’ll know precisely where to go, and soon enough we find her walking down the same path that introduced the film in a protracted shot hovering over the adult Sean as he jogs through the snow-covered park. This opening sequence’s operatic tone – set to thumping, jovial, anachronistic music by Alexandre Desplat – is immediately contradicted by Anna’s somber meeting with the young Sean under the bridge where the adult Sean knelt down to die. To attempt to convince her, he offers to schedule a meeting with Anna’s brother-in-law Bob (Arliss Howard) for intimate questioning. The ensuing scene, a riveting cross-cut between the interrogation and the family sitting listening to the tape recording, is as revelatory as it is tense, forging unspoken rifts between Anna, her fiancé, her mother (Lauren Bacall), and her sister Laura (Alison Elliott).

One of the film’s major strengths is identifiable in this very moment and continues to intensify over the course of its duration, and that is its propensity to create significant dramatic tension through little more than an accumulation of nondescript glances emphasized by Glazer’s selectively probing camera. Broader scenes will occur while he simply focuses on one face, most memorably orchestrated in an extraordinary shot that zooms in slowly on Anna’s expression as she sits in a crowd at an opera. Kidman’s performance here is stellar, a showcase of subtle transformations in the eyes, cheekbones, and mouth; though a spectacle occurs around her, she is virtually disembodied from the immediate, instead deserted within her own thoughts. Desplat’s score once again complicates the drama onscreen, a bombastic orchestral swell that curiously manages to shape Anna’s introspection. Without saying much, we sense Kidman’s ultimate metamorphoses from disbelief to romantic longing, and equally silent is Huston, who also conveys a gradual change from modesty to jealousy so that his eventual violent outbreak towards Sean - bordering on maniacal child abuse - feels emotionally justified, albeit not fully expected. Part of this is a result of Glazer's storytelling tactic of showing something mysterious and only letting it be naturally explained later, such as in a lovely sequence where Anna's best friend Clara (Anne Heche) scurries into the night and buries an unidentified envelope while being followed unknowingly by the young Sean. Fleeting emotions bubble up and only gain credence as the film progresses.

Birth operates with glacial formal poise, and it is through its exacting aesthetic that a Kubrick influence seems apt. Glazer works with the exemplary cinematographer Harris Savides to devise an austere yet elegant color palette bathed in shades of gray, brown, and green and filtered through high contrast. The film's world of dreamy New York nights and supernatural mysteries feels uncannily aligned with that of Eyes Wide Shut, not to mention that the presence of Kidman is enough to elicit strong echoes. Glazer's employment of the occasional slow zoom and an expressive musical element that feels like as much of a character as any of the film's humans further recalls Kubrick. Yet Birth lacks the gargantuan, otherwordly quality of Kubrick's later work, and generally appears to be shooting for something more pragmatic, at least on the level of character. The film functions within reality and is only infused by a sense of the metaphysical and sensual, which has more to do with the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski. Many have suggested that Kidman's performance is aloof and buttoned-up; on the contrary, I find it to be sensual in a remarkably subtle way, with her suave upper-class facade failing to cloak her desires during her more unrestricted displays of emotion. Furthermore, her short hair suggests a woman unguarded, primal. A controversial scene that takes place between her and the young Sean in a bathtub further substantiates this, as the staging of the scene within the bathtub feels like an attempt to announce a domestic womb.

A sudden third act twist regarding Clara and the mysterious envelope from earlier threatens to confuse the film's well-mounted themes, veering it uncomfortably towards an utter contradiction of what it was building to, but the final sequences manage to redeem it, culminating in a beautifully ambiguous final shot on the beach after Anna and Joseph's wedding (sounds like Shutter Island, huh?). Glazer's objective seems to be to probe the intricacies of love, to question whether or not it can be strong enough to transcend physical boundaries. By all accounts, Anna's consuming connection to the young Sean is socially unacceptable and morally questionable, but not necessarily spiritually misguided. After the audience learns that the adult Sean was unfaithful and the young Sean delivers the deliciously enigmatic line "I can't be Sean, because I love Anna", it calls into question whether or not the idea of a reincarnated Sean was ever actually physically manifested, or if it was just an elaborate symbolic ruse to allow Anna to find closure. Either way, the young boy's presence is an affirmation of Anna's ability to yearn for love even when its corporeal existence ceases, and in this sense, the gripping Birth is a significantly humanistic work.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Naked (1993) A Film by Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh's Naked is a film that comes at us with words, yet in its own way is wholly cinematic. Many of the keys to understanding and appreciating it are coiled up in its rapid-fire dialogue, buoyed in the sense that words are mostly peripheral, mere sonic blips that point to something more ineffable underneath based on the way they are framed, delivered, and received. What prevents the film from becoming a straitjacketed talkfest is the fact that half of the emphasis is on the words and half on the spaces between the words, which Leigh's unblinking camera captures effortlessly and his actors convey miraculously. Front and center in this affair, both the biggest supplier of language and physical presence in the film, is David Thewlis' Johnny, a nasty, embittered vagabond who pops off the screen in displays of carefree violence, rambling intellectualism, and fortuitous tenderness. So poised and realized is Thewlis' performance that it calls to mind Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, and Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood, other instances of a character seeming to have already been fully formed in an existence outside of cinema only to be eavesdropped on with a camera. Johnny is, almost without exception, an off-putting beast, a man so encumbered by the world that his lashings of cruelty, delivered with a startling regularity, feel like mild afterthoughts in the midst of a more cosmic tirade against the universe. Yet by the end of the Naked, having spent a great deal of time with Johnny, one is not left with a sour taste in the mouth. Moments of transcendence abound, and the gulf between good and bad is kept appropriately narrow, much like it is in life.

The film's exasperated opening shot shuffles in towards Johnny while he engages in rough sex with an anonymous woman in a Manchester, England alleyway. As well as adding a preliminary air of distaste around Johnny's enigma, this sequence contains the mystery of whether or not the sex was initially consensual or forced, announcing the ambiguity that will dictate the moral compass of the entire film. Right after Johnny finishes, he is frantically pursued by the woman's angered mobster family, a sweeping montage that occurs in a matter of seconds as if there was only a slim window of time that was afforded to the act before Johnny had to flee the scene (running of course, to approximate the ensuing pace of the film), steal a car, and cruise to London, where he bombards the private space of his ex-girlfriend Louise (Lesley Sharp). Within minutes a sexual energy is forged between Johnny and Louise's living mate, the perpetually kooky, drugged-out Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge). Leigh makes quick and painless work of establishing these three characters early on through their particular manners of speaking, their gestures, and the ping-pong of expressions that arise throughout their conversations. It is clear that a vibrant connection once existed between Johnny and Louise, and perhaps still does, but whatever is there is thickly masked by Johnny's incessant sarcasm and rude verbal attacks. Hearing the sound of Louise going about harmless routines while Johnny reads is enough to launch him into an agitated rant that starts local and ends universal, spiraling into a condemnation of people's short attention spans and their ability to get "bored" so easily.

This introduces a tendency in Johnny's vernacular that is constant, a nitpicky ability to detect small, prosaic behaviors or attitudes and relate them to some fundamental human issue, something that presumably went profoundly awry with the concept of society. When asked by Louise why he "looks like shit", he wryly responds that he is "just tryin' to blend in with the surroundings", suggesting that England has become a vast wasteland both aesthetically repelling and impersonal (referring to one building as a "postmodern gas chamber"). Later on, in the film's most flawlessly directed and scripted episode, Johnny evaluates the working philosophy of a night-shift security guard and swiftly discourages him that the future is anything to plan out, explaining through meticulous, erudite reasoning why mankind is set to dissipate in 1999. Despite his abrasive personality, Johnny is undeniably intelligent, brilliant even, spitting out bold theoretical musings at a rate that seems unimaginable until it's exercised by Thewlis. Furthermore, he's damn funny. Both of these facts issue a reason to reevaluate any initial judgments made about Johnny. Beneath his rough, mustachioed snarl and stringy coiffure lies a brain that is always processing and creating, a personality that is tirelessly in search of something better, mirroring in some ways his restless vagabondage and the fact that the only home to him means sleeping somewhere different every night.

In this way, Leigh seems to be deliberately toying with audience perceptions, pointing out how much they can share in common with prejudicial modes of thinking in society and how dissonant they can be from fact. Though Johnny is homeless, unstable, and vastly unhealthy (his cigarette habit is on par with Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless), he is clearly well-educated and functions on a level high above most of the people around him. A foil to Johnny is Louise's smug landlord Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell), a man who has reaped the benefits of the same postmodern England that Johnny condemns as a hell but proves to be an even more vicious evil. Posturing as a suave, reputable businessman, he barges into Louise's apartment claiming to be meeting her other roommate Sandra (Claire Skinner), who is actually on vacation in Zimbabwe, and proceeds to assert himself with Sophie in a scene that is unquestionably staged by Leigh as a rape. Jeremy spends the rest of the film covered only by underwear lounging around the apartment disrespectfully. When Louise suggests calling the cops, Leigh includes one line of dialogue that is a direct acknowledgment of this thematic strand: Sandra wisely posits that the police will believe the landlord before the occupants because of their messy habits, always leaving the apartment littered with drugs and cigarette butts.

These are the only scenes that really abandon Johnny's presence, but even when he's not onscreen there remains the detritus of his big personality, a strong sense that he has covered all of the film's ground and made a lasting impact, negative or positive. The tragedy of Sophie and Louise is that they have been consumed by the fact of Johnny, unable to function without him being somehow bound to their thinking. For Louise, it is lament for whatever he was like when they were together, which has clearly been replaced by cruelty and disaffection. Sophie's infatuation is far stronger, as much of an addiction as her relationship with drugs is. Yet her almost pathological attraction feels unfounded, traceable as it is to merely a few disposable sexual encounters. She is a character who longs to feel a connection to something and will jump at even the slightest hint of one, assigning worth to behaviors that are actually vacuous. It is inevitable, then, that Johnny and Sophie's premature relationship will never work, because Johnny stands in harsh contrast as a man with an "infinite number of places to go" but who has trouble with the question of where to stay. This leads him to have a nullifying effect on women. What often begins to emerge as genuine interest - he inquires about Sandra's job as a nurse and sparks up a conversation with a Scottish yuppie in search of her boyfriend on the street - is overcome by an aggressive drive for sex that culminates in coldness and more anger. Leigh is acutely aware of this self-destructive tendency in Johnny's persona, heightening the film's worldview above mere misogyny.

Despite all of its time-specific elements such as an impending doomsday and a disillusioned English working class, Naked has the timeless, epic feel of an ancient tragedy filtered through the guise of contemporary realism. The strongest issues explored in the film are elemental ones like those in Johnny's rants, issues about human relationships, pessimism and optimism, the roles of sex, and society. There is an occasional image that bubbles up from the mostly fluid, naturalistic visual style that matches the gravity of these themes; Johnny standing alone in a deserted parking lot while fog breezes by, two silhouetted figures positioned before a row of windows in a dark room speaking floridly about biblical prophecies, and the disarming final shot, with Johnny limping down the middle of the road towards an uncertain future, a deeply poetic moment that uncannily recalls the death dance in Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Naked is a remarkably rich, engaging, humorous film that manages to break free from its initially off-putting premise, eventually reaching mysterious territory that is presented with astounding conviction from its cast. It's an amazing feat, but as Johnny would say, "there are some things in this world that you never ever ever ever ever fucking understand."

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton) A Film by Ingmar Bergman (1953)

Ingmar Bergman's career prior to his international arthouse landmark The Seventh Seal is shrouded in mist and routinely neglected as inferior to later successes, a director merely refining his chops before fully realizing his capabilities. But Sawdust and Tinsel has actually been referred to by Bergman as his first good film, one with which he was finally able to express something personal. It's a ragged effort without the lofty aspirations that typify Bergman's finest films, and never quite reaches the kind of complex psychological tension that is his trademark, but it uncannily anticipates many of the technical and dramatic features that would show up consecutively throughout his sixty-year career. Released a year before La Strada, Bergman, like Fellini, centers his film around a group of traveling circus entertainers, many of which are reduced by the public to their fundamental shortcomings: there is the "idiot", Frost (Anders Ek), the "whore", Alma (Gudrun Brost), and The Dwarf (Kiki). This is lowbrow art, or "artifice" as it's defined at one point by the local theater director (Gunnar Björnstrand), in the truest sense, garish displays of physical buffoonery and odd feats that delight the lowest of townies, but Bergman is never condemning the group. Instead, Sawdust and Tinsel unveils the humanity in these people with an ever-watchful eye towards the unfairness they face, and, as in much of Bergman's work, attempts to blur the line between art and life.

It's of course necessary to acknowledge that for Bergman, to create a humane film is not to make something deeply compassionate and light; it's to be attentive to the humility that reveals these aspects, and it's bound to be a rather bleak outing. Work is not coming too easily for these carnies. The ringmaster, Albert Johansson (Åke Grönberg), is having regrets about abandoning his wife Agda (Annika Tretow) and his children for life on the road, for he is finding it difficult to make ends meet. At the same time, he is conflicted because of the fact that he cannot handle stasis. He considers his wife's life on a quiet street to be trifling and inactive, but when the troupe returns to Albert's hometown in need of new costumes from the town theater, he feels a desire to be in her company once again. Meanwhile, Albert's voluptuous mistress Anne, played by Bergman's wife of the time, Harriet Andersson, drifts towards infidelity herself, flirting temperamentally with the theater's androgynous Shakespearean actor, Frans (Hasse Ekman). When Frans essentially has sex with her against her will, an indecent act which is only suggested by Frans' bogus offer of a precious amulet after locking the doors, it triggers a threatening power play between Albert, Anne, and Frans, one that Albert is most passionately involved in.

Sawdust and Tinsel is one of the first times Bergman embraced the themes of shame and humiliation in a sexual context. Fear of disloyalty pervades the film, only augmented by Andersson's frank, domineering beauty, which is evident in the way she commands the ring during performances and the way she criticizes the theater's actresses for their flat chests. There is almost a masculine bravado to Anne's presence, even if most of her expressions tend towards inertia or anxiety, and it's as if the glimpse of underarm hair during her seductive talk with Frans is a conscious visual signifier of this. One can understand Albert's brute possessiveness towards her, and the fact that he is so enraged when after relentless questioning he discovers her informal tryst with Frans. Yet this scene also begins as a remorseless display of power, with Albert threatening Anne with violence, and ends as a pitiful showcase as he moans about the futility of life while perspiring profusely. After nearly taking the life of Frost, who spontaneously shows up in the trailer during Albert's most heated moment, he turns the gun haphazardly on himself, lamenting the "pity that people must live on this Earth", but quickly pulls it away in subservience.

This startling act of near suicide seems to prefigure Albert's later decision to commit what amounts to a figurative suicide, a self-punishment of sorts. In a fit of histrionic emotion, he retreats to the cage of a grotesquely treated bear owned by Alma and shoots it, with Alma following behind him in tears. Murdering the bear means destroying something beastly and impotent, which is what Albert proves to be in the scene directly prior. At a circus performance, he is taunted by Frans who is seated in the front row of the ring while Anne circles on a horse. Frans shouts derogatory remarks that clearly reference the sexual encounter he had with her the previous evening, which riles up the crowd more than anything in the actual show. Bergman builds up an enticing editing rhythm that echoes the crescendo towards a shoot-out in a Western, alternating between increasingly tight close-ups of Albert's infuriated mug and Frans' jeering expression. Eventually there is a succession of shots focusing on one of Frans' eyes, all mascaraed up to emphasize one finishing touch of effeminacy. Albert finally reaches his boiling point and a duel is declared, in which Frans makes an absolute fool of him in front of his own audience, kicking him in the dirt until he is swinging in the air wildly, a defenseless bull that Frans simply laughs at. At this point, in order to redeem himself, Albert has nowhere to go but down, and Anne feels racked with guilt.

The film does not only build to a climactic moment of mortification though, for Bergman announces shame right from one of the earliest scenes of the film, the only overtly dreamy and expressionistic sequence in Sawdust and Tinsel. While the troupe rides their horse-drawn trailers through what appears to be murky late afternoon, the woman sitting in the front of the caravan recounts a story from the past to Albert about Frost experiencing his wife Alma bathing in the sea naked in front of an Army regiment. Shown in flashback, the scene is luridly overexposed, presaging a later dream sequence Bergman would shoot for Hour of the Wolf, and boasts an oddly unreal use of sound. Amplifying the soldiers' raucous laughter one moment and falling into complete silence the next, it acutely represents Frost's sudden humiliation in the face of his wife's lewdness. Aside from this one artful interjection, the film's visual style is primarily sedate, with a sprinkling of unique tracking shots that obscure space in the backstage of the theater. The most notable visual feature however is Bergman's frequent employment of a bifurcated frame with two floating heads, one in the foreground facing the camera and one in the background, something that he would later use to stunning effect in Persona. This technique manages to separate the two figures spatially and emotionally, and Sawdust and Tinsel is rife with emotional distance. Yet the final shot of the movie is not so hopeless, suggesting that the show, and by extension life, must go on regardless of the troubles that are faced.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Shutter Island (2010) A Film by Martin Scorsese

(DISCLAIMER: It would be absolutely silly to read this essay without having seen the film yet. Needless to say however, there will be spoilers, and very significant ones at that. I promise that this essay will ruin your experience of the film if you read it beforehand.)

With Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese has made his best, most distinctly personal film since 2002's Gangs of New York. It's a bold, reflexive work that puts conventions to their greatest possible use while simultaneously expanding upon them, and it's the most enjoyable big-movie experience I've had in a theater since Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007). On the other hand, the film has received a passionately polarized mix of responses in the blogosphere, and ironically, the flaws that many well-respected bloggers point to are ones that I do not vehemently disagree with. Shutter Island does occasionally luxuriate in too many red herrings, moments that retrospectively are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It also has a denouement that smacks of didacticism and only for a moment threatens to compress a harrowing cinematic yarn into the constraints of a cheap storytelling gimmick. I do, however, object strongly to the popular critical contention that the film too often confuses what it is and what it should be. Why should Shutter Island be anything? It doesn't know whether it should be a drama or a mystery? That's absurd. I say it actively blends these genres, becoming a collage.

Martin Scorsese has never been a director to firmly cement his films in an audience's preconceived notions. Naturally, I went into Shutter Island under the impression that it was a thriller, if only for the advertising and critical brouhaha surrounding it. But was I prepared to be confronted with a film that would subvert this genre early and often? Absolutely. Saying the film is a clear-cut thriller is as silly as saying Mean Streets is a gangster movie, Raging Bull is a boxing movie, and After Hours is a dark comedy. Shutter Island is not nearly as raw and unrestricted as many of his early gems, but it's equally confrontational; Scorsese is still asking striking questions about the self, about violence, about guilt, and about movies, he's just doing it in a way that is superficially more streamlined and accessible. I don't think it buries the gravity of his inquiries to know that the film is fun, pulpy, and game-playing. In several instances even, these seemingly lowbrow traits are inextricably bound to the film's themes.

Consider the film's opening frames as evidence of this very fact. Leonardo DiCaprio - a government agent named Teddy Daniels - is vomiting beneath a ship deck, experiencing a bad case of seasickness, before ascending onto the main deck to have a word with his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo in a role that flawlessly channels noir sidekicks). The two begin conversing about their destination, a remote island off the coast of Boston called Shutter Island where there is a massive institution for the criminally insane. A supposedly dangerous patient named Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer) has disappeared inexplicably from her cell, and these two Federal Marshals have been assigned the duty of investigating this mystery. Something immediately feels off-kilter during their conversation - the editing is awkward, the line delivery is stilted and caked in a caricatured Boston accent, there is a distinct lack of whipping wind, and most distastefully, we can palpably sense the scene is shot in front of a green screen. Scorsese's too adept a filmmaker and technician to allow these blemishes to grace the screen unmotivated, yet at this point any logical explanation for them is elusive. They simply exist, noticeable maybe on only a subconscious level to many, but the fact is that whether it is acknowledged implicitly or explicitly, this is indelicate filmmaking. This is also to say nothing of the fact that the scene's clumsy back projection could very well be a perverse reference to Alfred Hitchcock's films, which often had this type of technical inferiority even if for their time they were thought of as immaculately constructed.

Teddy and Chuck arrive at the portentous Shutter Island and get to work on their investigation, steadily growing more and more uneasy by the place, which seems inescapable with its thick security and layers of barbed wire fencing. Though the film progressively builds a tighter technical gloss, shaking loose elements that announce themselves as incompetent, the bizarreness of the opening moments spills over uncannily. The clear delineation of foreground and background also establishes itself as a figurative parallel to the shifty play with reality that starts occurring in the film. Oblique reference points - the well-kept office of the head doctor on the grounds, Dr. Cawley (an endlessly menacing Ben Kingsley), the Mahler spinning on vinyl beside the booze-swigging Dr. Naehring (another strong portrayal by the always reliable Max Von Sydow) - begin activating enigmatic visions in Teddy's mind, fragments that are at first mere ephemeral indicators of violence and trauma, only gradually revealing themselves as being linked to Dachau concentration camps and Teddy's past as an American soldier involved in the camp's liberation. There are also faint jabs at a romance with a woman (Michelle Williams) associated with heartbreak and tragedy. Water is the trigger for these recollections, and in his sleep, nearby drips induce one of the film's most lilting, visually dazzling dream sequences, a long dance of disconnection between him and the woman, ostensibly his past wife, in their old home that is crumbling around them. The scene recalls Tarkovsky's Mirror and is set to Max Richter's "On the Nature of Daylight", one of my favorite contemporary classical pieces - a divine combination.

All of this firmly implants the sense that something is suffocatingly intimate about Shutter Island for Teddy, something so fatefully bound to his psyche that the landscape both evokes primal emotions from him and reflects those same emotions - the island is witness to a violent hurricane the second day Teddy and Chuck arrive. Teddy starts having convincing suspicions about the institution being a vast repeat of the Holocaust horrors, an evil place where people are forced into being labeled insane and are subsequently exploited for inhumane testing, the biggest-kept secret in the history of human experience. It's a hypothesis that is preposterous only at face value, for in the context of the film Scorsese weaves in hints towards it with such deftness that it makes us deeply sympathetic towards Teddy, who DiCaprio plays with the ideal mixture of despair, hubris, and subdued kookiness. Yet there remains the potent sense of discomfort and distrust announced by the opening scene as well as several odd moments after, which hints at something more mysterious and unreachable beneath, something only half-validated by the unexpectedly sudden appearance of the missing woman who turns out to have an intense emotional connection to Teddy that he does not openly admit having an awareness of.

At this point, with the film presumably nearing an explosive climax, Scorsese has two options: resolve the mystery in a startling twist or leave things hanging on a note of delicious ambiguity. He chooses both. Many would likely object to this reading, because it is easier to push it aside as an ill-fitting backpeddle towards referencing M. Night Shamyalan, a dull way of wrapping up the story in a neat little bow. But it's a great deal richer than that, and while I agree that the dialogue during the reveal is several notches too pat, too explanatory in regards to the plot, it does not quite wrap up the mystery entirely. Instead, the revelation of Teddy really being Andrew Laeddis, a patient for two years at the institution struggling from severe post traumatic stress - which has been criticized for being hinted at too early - only introduces another mystery, a mystery about the human soul and its ability to disguise its own flaws. Telling the story in a more linear manner, one in which we are aware from the beginning that Teddy/Andrew is indeed insane, would sacrifice the powerful experiential nature of the film, the way that it manages to make us feel as delusional as him in those final moments which have us doubling and tripling back on our preconceptions. Whatever conclusion is reached by the roll of the credits then just infuses the preceding two hours of the film with multi-layered meaning, an a-ha moment if there ever was one. And equally, I don't think this relegates the early scenes to mere cinematic fluff and genre tomfoolery; they are loaded with magnificent imagery and clever narrative detours that provide indefinable insight into the troubled psychology of DiCaprio's character.

If structuring the film around a massive scenario of role-playing wasn't enough to suggest the apparatus of the cinema, Shutter Island embraces another level of meta in the fact that it is steeped in classic Scorsese tropes as well as tropes from classic films Scorsese admires. That might need re-reading, just as this is a film that requires tireless unpacking in order to markedly pinpoint the layers of artifice, delusion, and reality that are interwoven. One of the clearest reference points is Hitchcock's Vertigo, in its use of frightening heights (the apogee of Teddy's delusion is situated symbolically on the precipice of a cliff), female doppelgängers, and a spiral staircase that positions itself directly prior to the climax, a suggestion of ascent to epiphany that is immediately and curiously complicated by his wife's ghost telling him that "this will be the end of you". The film also makes stunning use of allusions to Kubrick's The Shining; along with the more blatant presence of ghostly reminders of Teddy's tragic past in the image of his bloodied little girls, there is even a shot of a red door being overcome by the torrential rain outside, a combination that creates the optical illusion of flowing blood. Of course, the plot's similarities have so many parallels as to be unnoticeable. Shutter Island is also the story of a man coming to a place he may or may not have been before, and who we find is hiding something that drives him insane.

This is not to propose that the film is a mere pastiche of references though, for it finds plenty of ways to become distinctly its own. The film's multivalent final line - delivered with sublime redemption - is fascinatingly continuous with Scorsese's ongoing interest in the reputations we face in our looming deaths. Just as Travis Bickle needs to do something, whatever he can, before dying to make his mark on the world, Andrew Laeddis must choose whether or not he can live a dignified life even after regaining sanity. It's a frank look at the process of Catholic guilt and atonement, the all-consuming question that means life or death. I found it terribly moving, especially after that intensely emotional flashback where DiCaprio and Williams have finally synched up in realistic terrain (the scene includes one of the most piercing gun shots I've ever witnessed, both emotionally and sonically). And needless to say, the cinematography is remarkable (the only exception being a few errors in continuity), with harsh backlighting that becomes one of the primary visual motifs - perhaps suggesting the blinding truth always behind Teddy's back? When the final ominous orchestral chugs bellow in black screen space, echoing the beginning of the film, and suddenly signal the first title card, there's no question for me as to the singularity of this work in Scorsese's long career.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Play Time (1967) A Film by Jacques Tati

While watching Jacques Tati's exuberant 1967 film Play Time, during every shot you are confronted with an alarming decision of what to look at. Almost right after you make this choice, you are left with another feeling, a lament for what you did not get a chance to look at: damn, I should have spent more time watching the funny guy sampling the lurid desserts at the convenience store, you may think to yourself. Fortunately, this is a not a setback, for I suspect it opens up the potentiality for completely new viewing experiences each time it is watched and re-watched, a broad sampling of new mini-narratives and a chance to divert your attention to the stubby guy with the sad look on his face rather than the ostentatious American grandma. With Play Time, Tati achieved something rare in cinema: the ability to give the audience total freedom as to where the gaze wanders. It is not a commonality for individual cinematic images to be as democratized and uniformly frantic as they are in Tati's whimsical evocation of a day in the life of Paris, and the result is a monolithic work of go-for-broke art that simultaneously overloads the senses with quotidian silliness and breezes by with a perpetually light tone.

The squeaky clean polish of the film's metropolitan Paris does not just look artificial, it is. The most salient of many markers of artistic kinship with current Swedish director Roy Andersson is the fact that the film's setting is entirely constructed from scratch in a vast studio. This is an impressive, but also hugely exorbitant feat for Tati and his crew, for the set is adorned with massive urban conglomerations of seemingly full-size glass buildings, traffic circles, and a fully functioning populous. Pervading the film is a firm sense of this fakery, and Tati will often subtly draw attention to the fact that it is less a reproduction of Paris than a cartoonish prototype of a city in an increasingly modernized world, one whose idiosyncrasies are suppressed in the face of consumerism, technology, and globalization. For instance, the architectural landmarks that are a stamp of Paris's cultural heritage, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, are only seen via transitory reflections in swinging glass doors, and are otherwise conspicuously absent from the film. Ultimately, the world of Play Time, dubbed "Tativille", could be anywhere, a hypothesis made clear in one visual joke involving a series of posters on a wall depicting different countries with the same box-like twenty-story building nudged next to a stereotypical image of one of the defining characteristics of that country.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Tati looks at the changing world not with an eye for dissociation and confusion but rather for genuine enjoyment and discovery. The film drifts in and out of different subjects extemporaneously - a group of bemused American tourists, a drunkard, and of course Tati himself, playing his famous Monsieur Hulot character in typically short pants and long jacket - and each perceives the environment as something alien yet altogether compelling, a playground for endlessly inspiring possibilities. Hulot is the most profoundly unsettled of the bunch, constantly being thrown off his intended path to meet with an American official by the exciting new trinkets of urban life; he marvels at the odd way in which the waiting room chairs in an office building make a vulgar plop sound and reform themselves every time he presses down on them, stands shocked and transfixed when all of a sudden the room he thought he entered suddenly transforms into an elevating contraption that sends him up a number of floors and into a new, undesired labyrinth of office cubicles, and looks on in bafflement when indistinguishable faces from his past experiences at war resurface and compete for his company. Whereas he is literally jolted involuntarily off his path by these uncontrollable forces, the tourists burst headlong through the consumer jungle without any deterrents, advancing on to more exciting attractions before they've even had time to truly process one.

The comic irony with the tourists is that they're relishing nothing more than banal commodities of a competitive industry, unoriginal and wholly unpractical inventions that have nothing to do with Paris and everything to do with a desire for a faster, more convenient way of living. One gets the sense that the souvenirs the women salivate over (all of the tourists are old women, presumably reaping the fruits of their husbands' retirement funds) - sound-proof living room doors, brooms with headlights - could have been manufactured in any industrially mature nation, America included. What matters instead is the infatuation with the glamor of travel and foreignness, and even though they spend only a day there and wax ignorant about the nearest Americanized options, they get their coveted share of exoticism. Tati's presentation of them is teasing yet not overly critical, only a fun-loving gesture of mockery that illuminates the garish fashions, bland homogeneity, and short attention spans of some American tourists. Furthermore, he seems to celebrate their ecstatic myopia and the fact that its enough to wring pleasure out of an antiseptic maze, reducible as it is to a series of lifeless grids.

This is most tellingly conveyed in the 45 minute sequence that is very much the film's nucleus, a meticulously detailed opening night at a high-class restaurant. It must be one of cinema's most methodical build-ups of accumulated sight gags that doesn't so much culminate in one explosive punch line as it does gradually pile on the absurdity until the night reaches its inevitable conclusion. The tourists and other wealthy, snobbishly dressed patrons swarm the place before it has even been fully constructed, a premature act of excitement that ultimately costs them the structural integrity of the restaurant. Tati layers on little quirks, letting certain characters appear several times in similar shots. One particularly well-executed joke is the couple who have a large fish fillet on a platter in front of them but are unable to dig in because new waiters keep coming over to season it under the impression that no one else has, only to get distracted and abandon it. The entire scene vibrates with life, and the frames are absolutely filled by the end of it with dancing bodies. Although Play Time is an impudent satire, Tati is as attuned to the economy of people's behavior as he is the silly trivialities and hypocrisies, the way that they can make the most out of their situations and be delighted by even the most artificial and literally unfinished surfaces. It's a stunningly visual film that exploits the medium's fundamental faculty of sight, and is all the more stately on the biggest screen you can find.