Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Valhalla Rising (2009) A Film by Nicholas WInding Refn

How many shots of scraggly Viking warriors sitting on a hill, staring out into nothingness, and occasionally muttering portentous pseudo-Biblical lingo can one fit in a film before it becomes absurd? Nicholas Winding Refn was up to this challenge with Valhalla Rising, his latest film about a cyclopic slave-warrior appropriately named One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) who slaughters and escapes his Pagan captors to incidentally find himself connected to a group of brooding Catholic Norsemen who are emphatically searching for the Holy Land in 1000 A.D. Unfortunately, Refn's redundant "tone poem" does tip over into the absurd at times, and it's more mind-numbing than it is hypnotic, but it's tough to fault him for trying; as the film laboriously plodded along with enough Tarkovsky intoxication to sink a ship yet still miraculously itself, I began to wonder if I'd ever seen anything quite like it. Of course, I've witnessed savage Vikings beating skulls before (though sadly it remains for the most part a scarcity onscreen), and the general narrative outline and geographical trajectory of the film is suspiciously congruent with Joseph Conrad's radical anti-imperialist novel "Heart of Darkness" (not to mention having an overall air of mythical timelessness about it that suggests the story has been told in various iterations at least a million times), but something about Refn's strange presentation - his indulgence in gloom and doom or his frequently numb efforts with staging - makes it distinctive. This is closer to Andrzej Zulawski's hallucinogenic, unsettling oddity On the Silver Globe than any of the more common comparisons that have sprang up like Stalker or Aguirre, Wrath of God.

The trouble begins early when Refn titles the first chapter of the film "Wrath", immediately lending it the heavy sense of self-importance that often plagued Lars Von Trier's similarly subdivided gorefest Antichrist last year. What's more, the simple narrative strategy of chaptering proves to be an unnecessary and curious move on Refn's part in the grand scheme of things provided how tonally repetitive each section is and how much imagery feels like it's literally spliced around in different spots. We begin with One-Eye as a caged prisoner to the Chieftain, where he is routinely used for brutal battle games in which he finds himself chained to a stake in the ground fighting for his life. Though there's a perverse thrill in it for the blank Pagan warriors sitting on the sidelines, Refn's roving camera makes it a certainty to highlight the sheer displeasure of this lifestyle, the way the violence is strictly an end rather than a means to anything. This idea extends to the remainder of the "battle" scenes in the film, which for all intents and purposes are bereft of drama. Only elemental motivations - honor, rage, personal safety - guide these brief snippets of bloody violence, and they're meant to simply exist as facts of life, inevitable repercussions of the milieu. Like in ancient Scandinavian prose, Refn's violence is swift, matter-of-fact, and all in a day's work.

If these Vikings are wonderfully adroit fighters, they remain concise and clumsy with their words, and Refn's ponderous dialogue doesn't help. Granted, Valhalla Rising embraces a laudable level of historical realism, a preference for not sensationalizing the bare-bones lifestyles of these straightforward men, so it's only natural and rather wise that Refn eschews a traditional narrative arch in favor of a series of elliptical sequences and dialogue. However, somewhere along the way he mistakes dangerous levels of humorlessness and stoicism for authenticity, and the result is a smattering of wooden line-readings like "it was never for him, but his time is coming" that just sit like dead ducks without any surrounding context. Also, whether it's just Refn's bizarre inclination towards awkwardly up-front voices or the result of a hack sound mixer, Valhalla Rising must be one of the most sonically ragged films I've seen in a while, with disjointed hissing piercing through the vocal threshold time and time again and pounding, suggestive prog-metal building tension with no suitable visual counterpart. This all generates a serious divorce between image and sound that can be both irritating (when Refn refuses to pay off the anxiety he so willfully builds aurally) and strangely compelling, the idea of these two fundamental ingredients of cinema being as remote from each other as the alienated characters in the film.

Without a doubt though, where Refn's film indisputably succeeds is in Morten Søborg's darkly beautiful cinematography. The dirt, the fog, the threatening black clouds, the robust wrinkles on the faces of these weathered men, are all rendered with a stunning palpability via a sickly desaturated color palette. It's no surprise that the film is at its best when it is plainly luxuriating in images, eschewing character development for grim panoramas of both landscapes and faces. However, with such a barrage of photographic ruthlessness, perhaps it was an inevitability that it would overstay its welcome, becoming rather tiresome and redundant after about an hour. As if anticipating this, Refn supplies One-Eye's journey with an unexpected arrival in a refreshingly greener North American nowhere after the ship he was sailing on falls drastically off course in the midst of a thick fog. There he witnesses firsthand the overbearing religious frenzy of the Christians, who find themselves torn apart, often literally, when a few members don't hold the carrying out of Christ's sacrifices as highly as others.

The finale of the film, when the icy, vacuous anti-hero sacrifices his life in the face of a vast tribe of armed Indians for the survival of the young Danish boy who feeds him and stays at his side throughout, might suggest One-Eye as a worn-out reincarnation of Christ, giving the film a closing note of religious ambiguity as his disembodied face sits ghostly over the hellish landscape. Not only does One-Eye harbor this rare feat of astonishing humility, he also possesses the ability to portend strings of future events, which play throughout the film cloaked in a tacky red filter. But Refn's main character is an even stronger parallel to Odin in Norse mythology, the one-eyed God of War who ascends through a brutal environment to the climactic capital of Valhalla, where creatures feast, fight, and engage in all other acts of instinctual slumber. Whatever the allegory though, it's tenuous and murky at best, and Refn never seems entirely convinced of its necessity to the story. He simply jabs in several directions, prioritizing the visceral impact of the imagery and the violence over any meaning it might all have. Ultimately, Valhalla Rising, albeit messy and fierce in an intriguing way, is such a farcically self-serious production that it gets in the way of any authentic, complex statement on the culture and lifestyle of ancient Scandinavian warriors.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) A Film by Stanley Kubrick

All of the cliches that one could say about Stanley Kubrick's revolutionary sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey - that it's "the ultimate trip", that by the end the odyssey is "really just beginning", or that it's the definitive work of cinematic science fiction - are actually quite true, making it a rare example of a cultural artifact whose reputation is so formidable that the so-called tall-tales forming the foundations of its legacy don't sound preposterous. Fifty-somethings can wax nostalgic about the utopian experience of seeing the film in its initial release, the way it's "supposed to be seen", and I can firmly endorse their enthusiasm. Film scholars and professors can emphatically proclaim it as a monumental turning point in narrative cinema, or that it revitalized the medium's fundamental visual and sonic capabilities, and I can nod my head at their grand declarations. The point is not to say that Kubrick's enigmatic space opera, which catapulted the director into the most creatively vibrant period of his career, is unassailable, but rather to acknowledge its unanimous potency, the way in which it has a visceral impact on anyone who sees it regardless of whether or not they agree with Kubrick's ambitious philosophy, his aggressive nonconformity, or his wayward storytelling structure. Love it or hate it, 2001 leaves its mark.

The question remains, however, unanswered: why exactly does 2001 make such an impression even 40 years after its premiere? In lieu of so many erratic, spellbound personal essays written about the film, and so few serious critical pieces that look with the painstaking precision of Kubrick at the film's peculiar rhythms, there still ceases to be, perhaps inevitably, a definitive written work on it. I think much of it has to do with Kubrick's crafty, subversive manipulation of our expectations, as well as the film's frequent propensity to tap into the collective unconscious with imperceptibly subtle associations. Both of these theses are supported in the film's opening moments, which, to be sure, are where any linear artistic work either grabs hold of you or doesn't. When the film begins, it actually waits. Kubrick holds a black, featureless screen (an abysmal canvas of nothingness that many have proposed to be the vast torso of the rectangular monolith that periodically reappears to thrust the film forward with forceful ambiguity) for all of three minutes while a haunting choir of subhuman "oooh's" churns circuitously underneath the blankness. For a culture automatically programmed to expect an onslaught of imagery right as a film starts (otherwise it would be wasting time, right?), Kubrick's deliberate pause, his curiously vacuous preface, is an enormously destabilizing move, and it sets an immediately apprehensive mood for the proceedings. Kubrick makes the viewer rustle in his seat and scratch his head by literally doing nothing.

The second instance I was referring to arrives right after the three-minute black screen, where many would say the film enjoys its traditional beginning. As Richard Strauss' now-ubiquitous classical piece "Also Spoke Zarathustra" sounds its opening notes, Kubrick's camera peaks up over the Earth to reveal a breathtaking special effects shot of the blue planet, the moon, and the sun in perfect eclipse. But even an ostensibly harmless introductory shot proves to be rife with mysterious associations in Kubrick's grand, prophetic vision. Strauss' musical score utilizes three harmonious tones - two octave pitches and a perfect fifth - that resonate interestingly with the exact pictorial and spatial alignment of the cosmos onscreen, a moment of pure harmony in sight and sound that complicates the prior three minutes that suggested menace, hollowness, and uncertainty. This tonal ambivalence leads the film into its opening chapter, "The Dawn of Man", where a colony of apes perform their daily rituals of howling, hopping, and consuming, before the black monolith inexplicably appears one morning in the middle of a shallow ditch, bringing with it György Ligeti's eerie vocal drone again. The entire sequence is at once supremely matter-of-fact (the detached, anthropological eye, the natural pacing) and faintly off-kilter (the just barely believable ape costumes, the arrival of the monolith and subsequent cosmic reverse shot, or the sudden eruption of the established pacing when Kubrick delivers a series of briskly-cut slow motion shots of an ape demolishing a pile of bones with his newfound weapon).

What results from this long, abnormally wordless introduction is a sense of constant alarm, a desire to look back and find allusions that might supply a hint at what in fact this earthbound foreword might mean in the context of an otherwise largely space-set film. Kubrick does not provide answers by way of plot, dialogue, or other methods of narrative reasoning though. Instead, 2001 is a film, like all of Kubrick's great later works (and to an extent his earlier films too), whose thematic crux lies solely in the dense tapestry of visual and sonic rhymes littered throughout. The bone comes to manifest itself as the orbiting space shuttle, one weapon destined to become another. The numerous symmetrical tube-like shots watching shuttle stewardesses jaunt around the ship visually foreshadows the climactic fit of color and light as what amounts to the film's main character, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), catapults through a narrow vacuum of space and time. I also suspect it's no surprise that the synthetic visage of the HAL 9000 computer - an uncannily human piece of mega-hardware that sabotages Bowman's partner Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) after he suspects them of planning to shut him down in the midst of their mission to Jupiter - resembles both that opening image of the Sun in deep space and the familiar aperture of a camera. Kubrick seems to equate one of the most sublimely mystifying "villains" in the history of the cinema, a symbol of the encroaching corruption of technology, with the very act of filmmaking.

Approximately halfway through the film, after HAL has managed to chillingly detect the words being spoken from the movement of Dave and Frank's lips, even against their careful precautions against HAL hearing them, Kubrick makes another unusual move that assures the film doesn't feel too comfortable. He returns to a black screen with Ligeti's music, only this time a bold title appears in Kubrick's characteristic typeface Futura: "INTERMISSION". This not only destabilizes due to the utter disregard of convention involved in the notion of providing an intermission in a film, as if it's primarily some theatrical event, but it also extends the extreme tension in an oddly effective way, insuring that the audience is pinned to their seat for the sudden reentry into the film's world. The ensuing hour of 2001 is one of the most exquisite, memorable stretches of cinema I can name, a quiet, brooding trip from the unknown to the unknowable in which Dave gradually disconnects HAL (in a scene of casually sustained death that instantly trumps the majority of conventionally "human" deaths in films) and as a result finds himself careening through psychedelic vistas and eventually a sterile, Victorian room of the soul where he participates as a voyeur in his own aging and death, kick-started by the third appearance of the monolith. It's difficult to write an all-encompassing essay on 2001 because of magisterial sequences like these, ones which can hardly be done justice to by words. Better to leave the film the lava flow of visual music that it is, a true celluloid oddity that is both Kubrick's greatest achievement as a filmmaker and one of the most convincing portraits of human self-destructiveness ever made in any medium.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Wind Through the Cradle

If I've been particularly unproductive over the last few months here at Are the Hills Going To March Off? and elsewhere on the blogosphere, it's because I've been working tirelessly on my latest short film (well, if you can call 27 minutes short), entitled Wind Through the Cradle, in order to prepare it for a few festivals. I am now finished with the film, which I co-directed with a good friend of mine, Michael Basta. It was shot in Antrim, NH this past April, and stars Clifford Blake and Natasha Mogilevskaya. Mike and I both handled almost everything from pre-production to post, with the exception of a wonderful crew that assisted during the shoot. It's tough to talk a lot about one's own work, understandably, and at the risk of involving myself in too much shameless self-promotion, I'll keep the expository detail to a minimum. As far as the film itself goes, I'll let my own blurb on IMDB do the talking:

"A retired writer (Clifford Blake) who once had a passionate intellectual following has since retreated to the woods to live in complete isolation. Wind Through the Cradle involves the arrival of his distant relative, a young journalist (Natasha Mogilevskaya) for an unspecified source who comes to immerse herself in his lifestyle and probe his inner being in an attempt to bring his enigma to public light. A tension builds as the journalist stays for longer than intended, which builds to a deeply ambiguous climax. Told with languorous narrative rhythms, minimal dialogue, and a graceful observational camera, Wind Through the Cradle is a mysterious examination of the limits of familial bonds in the foreboding silence of the forest."

Blah, blah, blah. That's the gist. My purpose in posting this is 1) to explain why my posts have, for the most part, been few and far between, and 2) to hopefully prompt some of my readers to see it for themselves. I'd of course love to hear any feedback you might have, so if you're compelled, please leave a comment (or two!) on this post, or shoot me an email at the address kept in my blogger profile. I really look forward to anything you might have to say!

Wind Through the Cradle can be found here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Inception (2010) A Film by Christopher Nolan

In his heavily commercial, post-Memento stages, Christopher Nolan has proven a better con artist than filmmaker, seducing the American moviegoing populous with grand schemes while not rewarding it with much of anything emotionally, intellectually, or aesthetically worthwhile. Sure, Nolan's elaborate ruses - of which his latest Inception has to be considered at the head of the ranks - are complicated and thrilling enough, and they're certainly capable of occupying a restless mind for about two hours, but I've yet to discover anything too distinguishable about them, no thematic continuity that would suggest he's a filmmaker with something to say. The Prestige, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight were all big, self-contained movies in bold that otherwise suffered from one or two fundamental flaws, and were always so filled with ideas that they threatened to collapse. Inception, for me, did collapse. And it did so relatively early. Despite the heap of critical praise that has so far been lobbed at it (sensational tag words like "visionary", "groundbreaking", and, worst of all, "Kubrickian" have been particularly common), the film I saw was a dull, daunting, emotionless flop.

Nolan has always been an enormously exacting, matter-of-fact director, one for whom rationality and a concrete sense of internal logic always supersedes any indications of the fantastic, the surreal, or the unpredictable. He goes at his films with tweezers, painstakingly arranging the ingredients, making sure not to nudge anything even slightly out of place. And yet he has now repeatedly gravitated towards extravagant, exotic material: magicians, sleazy criminal underworlds and costumed vigilantes (a subject previously given the Tim Burton treatment, Burton being a director who couldn't have any less in common with Nolan), and now dreams, the most perplexing ability humans possess. There's nothing inherently wrong about Nolan's dichotomous approach - formal realism in the face of far-fetched, speculative fiction - and evidence can be found in Batman Begins, Nolan's moodiest, most consistently effective work in this recent crop of films, but the elusive, complex nature of dreams has Nolan floundering in the dark, approaching their mysterious beauty the only way he knows how: with cold, analytical rule-making. Dreams are not governed by the linearity and logic (both spatial and temporal) that Nolan applies to them here. They are just separate battle zones, new layers of reality onto which Nolan can stage ever craftier, more bombastic fight scenes. Thus, the possibility of exploring dream states as they pertain to actual human experience is squandered, while Nolan replaces erotic impulses, perpetually unstable landscapes, and the wonderful superhuman powers one can obtain in the recesses of their own mind with a near replica of what already exists in the film's ostensible "reality". But alas, Nolan might be saying, after all (though it certainly wouldn't be a particularly radical move), that this ontological disorientation is precisely the point. These questions, I'm afraid, are drowned out by the film's primarily muscular, action-packed presentation.

The labyrinthine film world (as opposed to plot, for what it has of this is surprisingly straightforward) of Inception is so gratuitously multi-layered that it requires a hefty chunk of the film for dense expository dialogue alone. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) involves himself in a highly specialized, illegal performance called extraction, which entails the literal invasion of dreams to pluck out useful information from others. It's a dangerously powerful act, capable of providing access to the subconscious states of important authority figures or of going horribly wrong if used for the wrong reasons. Of course, in a role not unlike his turn earlier this year in the much superior Shutter Island, DiCaprio's Dom does use it for very personal reasons (after all, this is DiCaprio); he's actually compartmentalizing his own memories of his deceased wife Mallorie (Marion Cotillard) and visiting these subconscious physical spaces from time to time, which is visualized in the most blatant manner possible, an elevator that descends to different mental "rooms" and eventually reaches the basement, where the darkest, most repressed memory lies. Several long scenes of dialogue between Dom and his newly acquired dreamscape architect, the bright grad student Ariadne (Ellen Page), belabor the backstory of this quietly tortured soul, a man who experimented with extracting on his wife until she lost utter grip on reality, finding herself meandering in a limbo state of raw, unfiltered subconscious, which in Inception is something akin to death. Now Dom is exiled from his children, facing a murder accusation from Mallorie's parents, and desperately wishing to reunite himself with some semblance of family. There's also a good chance it doesn't matter to him on what level of reality this occurs.

Less comparable to dream logic than it is to virtual reality, these so-called "levels" - reality, the initial dream, the dream within a dream, and the dream within a dream within a dream (yes, this film goes that far) - have a peculiar lack of progressive disorientation, with the only notable effect being the exponential inflation of dream time. This allows the dream team to smoothly traverse from one level to the next uninhibited by the increasing disorder and free-associations one might expect, as if they're just playing a video game, completing one mission and moving on to the next. The idea of "pure creation" raised by Ariadne would have made an interesting bedfellow to this particular angle had Nolan slanted the movie purposefully in the direction of virtuality, an ever more relevant issue. But Nolan doesn't seem to realize the relationship, or at least doesn't show any evidence onscreen, so it comes across as a stale way of using the multivalent phenomena of dreaming for strictly convoluted narrative purposes. In a separate 101 session on the film's skewed universe, Dom's sidekick Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explains this extraction network to Ariadne (Page is getting quite the education at this point), and he does it so thoroughly and without any gaps that once Nolan reaches the climactic invasion, or "heist" as it really is in conventional terms, he can focus solely on the spectacle, letting the residual lessons learned from Arthur earlier stand in for the gaping lack of intellect in the second half of the film.

The central heist involves a corporate oil tycoon, Robert Fisher Jr. (Cillian Murphy, whose significant acting talents are more or less put to waste), the lone heir to his superior father's legacy, which Dom's crew, or more precisely, their American employer, is wary will expand into an omnipotent monopoly. A prized safe appears to be the extractor's incentive, and it is a man from a competing corporation, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who insists they plant the idea into Fisher's subconscious that he destroy his own empire. A couple of experienced extractors - Eames (Tom Hardy) and Yusuf (Dileep Rao) - join their team and bring their own respective merits: Eames is a skilled impersonator, and can literally morph his corporeality in the dreams, and Yusuf knows of a mighty sedative that can put Fisher into a sleep deep enough to allow for multiple dream levels. Unlike in his past films, Nolan creates no defined villain here, with Fisher turning up as a rather naive and modest businessman with a daddy complex. Instead, the enemies prove to be strictly of the subconscious, defense mechanisms established by Fisher that materialize as well-dressed gunmen, or the recurring personal projections of his family and malicious wife that threaten to squander Dom's missions.

The emotionality that drives this complex operation is insubstantial and, frankly, pretty cruel. Any rewards the team receives after their inevitable success are at the expense of ruining one man's personal and professional life, pounding into his head that his father never loved him and was disappointed that he tried to repeat his own path. When this emotional epiphany does come in a deathbed scene whose quiet pathos are entirely extinguished by the fact that Nolan is at the same time weaving an intricate climax around it and intercutting between several chest-pumping action sequences, it falls flat, reiterating how loosely tethered it was to the thematic sweep of the film in the first place. As much as the bittersweet romantic tale of Dom competes for the human spotlight of Inception, Nolan does not supply it with the conviction, passion, or darn screen time it deserves. What we do learn of Dom's marriage is fleeting and flashback-ridden, which is partly suited to emphasize his regret and inability to capture the past, but nonetheless does little to assign any weight to the few scenes when the two connect in abysmal dreamspace, with she attempting to coax him into what she perceives as a reality and he staunchly but dramatically refusing.

So in place of all of the hugely absent emotion, Nolan inserts headache-inducing spectacle, as well as the most laughably prolonged slow-motion I've ever seen on this side of Brian De Palma. But the most troublesome thing about it is that I didn't even find Inception particularly enjoyable on a visceral level. Its fight scenes, to compare them to another mind-bending film with which it shares a great deal, pale in comparison to those of The Matrix. They are overblown, absurd (one has the crew doing a ski chase in the arctic that recalls On Her Majesty's Secret Service), and clumsily machinated, a frenetic burst of close-ups that wrongly equates immersing the audience in the action with disorienting bravado. For what it's worth, I enthusiastically looked forward to Inception, and I certainly can't fault Nolan on the grounds of ambition. Only a film this sprawling and ambitious could fail this big. It's mechanical, dispassionate, and hopelessly unenlightening, and in the end, it just does a little with a hell of a lot.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Seventh Seal (1957) A Film by Ingmar Bergman

The Seventh Seal is an unusual film in Ingmar Bergman's oeuvre; baroque, emphatic, and devilishly witty, it's everything his work strayed from as he veered progressively into what many would call more "mature" territory. It's intoxicated with a kind of grandiose, almost Shakespearean dramatism that is often associated with a particular breed of Bergman, evidenced mainly in films like Smiles of a Summer Night, The Virgin Spring, or The Magic Flute. Yet it also possesses a relentless experimentation, an idiosyncratic sense of artistic soul-searching that sets it apart from simply being a solid piece of drama. Taking death as his subject with alarming frankness, Bergman crafted a cleverly interweaving narrative that was both a means through which to grapple with his own immense fear of death and an attempt to discover the fruits of life that could put a damper on such anxiety. Evidence of Bergman's forthrightness comes early and often, initiated only five minutes into the film when after a boisterous shot of waves crashing against the shore under a setting sun, a tall cloaked figure appears on a silent beach. "I am Death," he says in an uninflected tone to a Knight who is taking a momentary rest on the shore.

This eerily straightforward reveal was instantly radical at the time, for no other quasi-mainstream picture, regardless of cultural background, had made such a direct stab at personifying man's mortality. Bergman presents Death (Bengt Ekerot, whose naturally morbid appearance perfectly fits the part) as an amorphous black frame with a white face nestled inside, part clown, part skull, who speaks plainly and has no answers to the lofty inquisitions fired at him occasionally by Max Von Sydow's weathered, penetrating knight Antonius Block. Instead, he confronts him and tells him his time is up, to which Antonius impulsively offer s up a game of chess that acts as the metaphorical platform for the rest of the film as he and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) - and soon a hodgepodge of theater performers they collect along the way - traverse through a hysterical, plague-ridden Swedish countryside. Aided by Death's unpredictable appearances, Bergman injects the proceedings with a sustained atmosphere of anxiety, which gives way to a variety of responses in the Swedish populous from distrust and paranoia to mania and anarchy. One of the most memorable scenes in the film involves a parade of flagellants - presumably once believers who have since cast their hopefulness aside in the face of the widespread plague, preferring to believe God a malicious, traitorous omnipresence - interrupting a traveling theater performance in a small village. The deathly shrill of lashes, chants, and, in one instance, the screech of an apocalyptic preacher drowns out the playful entertainment nearby.

But The Seventh Seal is far from being a relentless exercise in doom and gloom. Though it is largely what the film's lasting reputation has rested on, it's also perhaps Bergman's most darkly funny work, rich with a philosophical sarcasm that cuts from Jöns' plentiful one-liners right through to Bergman's presentation of some of the more fearful characters, who come across as half-witted, rabid, and physically awkward, the proverbial village idiots. One such character, an oafish actor messing around with the wife of the corpulent blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell), reaches his end when Death cuts down the tree he's sitting in promptly after he gets in a silly argument with Plog. After the tree falls, a squirrel steps up to the remaining stump. The suggestion is, perhaps, that the brash and unwieldy actor was reincarnated as a lesser, more simplistic life-form, one immune to the insanity caused by the plague. These figures are also incessantly mocked by the sly, quick-witted Jöns, a man who possesses a hopelessly earthbound worldview partly in common with what Bergman himself would come to sympathize with as his life went on, and antithetical to Antonius' restlessly searching spirit, trying as it is to find any potential indicator of God's existence. One can sense Bergman slowly approaching the skepticism of Jöns, especially when he courageously takes such lengths to make impish and foolish those who allow death to become such an all-encompassing fear, a veiled crack at alleviating his own condition.

If these elements gain their subtle richness from a preliminary understanding of Bergman as an artist and an individual, much of The Seventh Seal pulls heartily from elsewhere. Amazingly, nearly every image in the film contains some degree of symbolic resonance, a poetic mining of the collective unconscious triggered from centuries of religious artwork. Consider the fact that three of the film's major scenes - the chess match between Death and the Knight, the death of Plog, and the culminating "Dance of Death" - are pulled directly from a majestic fresco painting in the church of Bergman's youth. Also, a very early scene that introduces the saintly traveling theater family - comprised of Jof (Nils Poppe), his wife Mia (an extraordinarily beautiful Bibi Andersson), and their little son - involves Jof receiving a pastoral vision of the Virgin Mary in the field next to him (the second instance of the film directly materializing an iconic religious figure), which portends his later ability to be the only other character in the film to see the form of Death without dying subsequently. But the majority of the film's references are trickier, more subliminal: the strawberries and milk served to the Knights by Jof and Mia as symbols of nourishment and rejuvenation, the self-referential nod to the painter that paints life as he sees it and thus stands as a surrogate to Bergman, who claimed to try to make The Seventh Seal like a church painter might make one of his frescos, and the quintessential Bergman scene of humiliation in the tavern when Jof is made to act as a bear to the perverse joy of a horde of miserly, faithless drunks, which feels uncannily like a reprise of some Biblical scene that nevertheless escapes me. The film's dense iconography has an elemental purity to it that might go unnoticed on a cursory viewing.

Contrary to the film's grim, self-serious reputation, The Seventh Seal is actually one of Bergman's most tightly plotted works, which runs counter to the idea of the director being at his dreariest when he's at his most meandering. The film propels forward with headlong determination, while Bergman's own piercing curiosities about the elusive nature of God, faith, death, and human connection constantly refract in various shapes and sizes through the terrific ensemble cast, each character a shard of their maker's persona. Antonius the probing believer, Jöns the skeptic, Jof the naive visionary, Mia the endless purveyor of love, and the mysterious silent woman who Jöns saves from danger earlier in the film the desperate, introspective enigma. When these figures finally spare a moment free from the morbid clamor pervading their native land in a quiet, sublime scene of mealtime at dusk, it amounts to a vital dismissal of death, an affirmation of the importance of human ties, and a unity of Bergman's doubt, fear, and unexpected optimism.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Vanishing (Spoorloos) A Film by George Sluizer (1988)

At the center of George Sluizer's original 1988 version of The Vanishing (that is, before he made the inconceivable move to recreate it in Hollywood) lies a brutally existential question: is it better to live a life with a perpetual uncertainty or to die having finally understood? It's the stuff of hard, speculative fiction, the kind that challenges presuppositions about life and death and isn't afraid to reveal abysmal ambiguities. The conflict is posed to the film's main character, Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets), a young Dutch man whose girlfriend Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) inexplicably disappears at a highway rest stop in the first twenty minutes, and one could say the capricious viewer as well, who is constantly deciding whether to keep watching this creepy, insistent work or turn it off prematurely and never know the answer to its rigorously sustained mystery. But Sluizer avoids some standard whodunit. In fact, very early on The Vanishing signals the kidnapper, and goes so far as to intimately observe his life. Yet the film maintains a taut air of anxiety. There are tougher, more slippery eggs to crack here, and quite literally so (Saskia has a nightmare that she and Rex meet as a pair of golden eggs in space, which is later refrained by Rex in his climactic terror).

Ironically, the film's tag of "psychological thriller" is disingenuous and ultimately false; this is a film whose fundamental mysteries would be made foolish in the face of reductive psychological readings. Attribute this largely to the villainous concoction at the crux of the story, Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), as genuinely unnerving a monster as any, and one of the finest screen enigmas to emerge from the 1980's (who strikes again once again, laughably, as a suave, unthreatening Jeff Bridges in the later version). What makes Lemorne such a chilling criminal is his utter banality, the precarious sense that he just might not be so much of a criminal. Throughout the film, Sluizer emphasizes the more respectable aspects of this man's domestic life; working as a chemistry professor, he has constructed a tame lifestyle for himself with an agreeable, though seemingly emotionally comatose wife and two daughters (surely, two of the most oddly, suspiciously forward daughters to hit my television screen in a long time), and he has recently acquired a peaceful country home. When the film shifts gears early on to focus unremittingly on him, it even seems to lighten its mood, if such a notion could be possible when portraying a subliminally quack abductor. Cheesy 80's music, whose tempo and tone are often times reminiscent of the kind of music that would accompany slapstick comedy, collides with the footage of Raymond rehearsing his kidnappings and subsequently checking his blood pressure, making tonally ambiguous what should be eerie and disturbing.

It's funny then how it is precisely this ironic detachment that makes the scenes so eerie and disturbing. It also speaks to the tactic which makes The Vanishing so effective as a thriller. Not that it is loaded with dialectics like these, but that it is so routinely apathetic towards its potentially lurid, B-movie subject matter. Everything about the film exudes commonplace: Raymond's calm, invisible demeanor, Rex's slow, lukewarm pursuit of his girlfriend's abductor, the cosmopolitan scene of the initial crime, and most of all Sluizer's cool, reserved direction, witnessed in the way he drops the expected narrative trajectory after the linear first act. Nothing stands out as an attempt to manipulatively raise the stakes. The ingredients kept secret in most thrillers of this order - the mysterious antagonist, his personal life, the amount of time passed since the crime in question - are front and center in The Vanishing, on display for intense scrutiny, and yet the suspense does not shrivel as a result. Sluizer punctuates the film with ominous synthesizer moans and arpeggios created by composer Henny Vrienten but rarely follows up on what they suggest dramatically, instead leaving them dangling in thin air. The result of all these accumulated sonic red herrings is a general sense of discomfort and dread, the idea of the payoff being suspended indefinitely, poised to release once it has reached the pinnacle of its momentum.

And perhaps inevitably, it all pays off in a sublimely shocking manner. Because of the way Sluizer crafts the whole film like patchwork around the clincher moment, its success or failure lies totally and massively in the hands of a strong dramatic epiphany. What does finalize The Vanishing is as savagely beautiful as it is unsettlingly indefinite, one of those earth-shattering climaxes that has the kind of ineffable impact it does for a distinct reason, in this case the complete and utter lack of rationality. Years after Saskia's disappearance, Rex is still, to the dismay of his current girlfriend Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), cultivating a search campaign, and yet his most likely solution is knocking at his door. He is receiving mail from Raymond offering a meeting between the two in which all of the answers will be revealed (if Saskia is alive, where she is, and what happened to her on that day at the rest stop). Finally, Raymond tracks Rex down himself. He takes him in his car across the French border, dishing out enigmatic philosophical platitudes on the way. If the setup of the film sometimes wavers clumsily in tone and conviction, these final twenty minutes are tense, haunting, first-rate filmmaking. Raymond is supposedly sympathetic towards Rex's irritation, and he wants to save him from "eternal uncertainty", which to him is worse than death. But he's also revealed as a sociopath, a man whose motivations exist on an imperceptible plane. All this multifaceted moral ambiguity is handled expertly by Sluizer, culminating in a blurry close-up of Raymond shot through the rainy windshield of his car right before the momentous revelation, suggesting an inability to grasp the full truth, to really understand him.

This is a deeply pessimistic but ultimately cautionary worldview that Sluizer endorses, the idea that the most savage of evil, as irrational as nature itself, can exist behind the most comfortable surfaces and go entirely unnoticed. The number of times Sluizer frames Raymond and his family in tight, affectionate medium shots is enough to imply that nothing is what it seems, that the ideals of family and love that we create are not without their blemishes. Similarly, the otherwise harmonious relationship of Rex and Saskia harbors its own shade of grimness when Rex abandons her in their broken down car in the dark of a road tunnel during the opening scenes to angrily fetch gasoline. Such subtle observations are what lend a deep, lasting power to The Vanishing, a film that grows more frightening and confusing the more you think about it. It's no ordinary family, it's no ordinary relationship, and it's no ordinary thriller. As always, there are tougher, more slippery eggs to crack here.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

La Pointe Courte (1955) A Film by Agnes Varda

With little money, little experience, and little knowledge of the cinema, Agnes Varda made her peculiar debut film La Pointe Courte. The result is one of cinema's oddest and most quietly groundbreaking inaugural works, an atypical, amorphous salute to the titular fishing village in France, a specific locale within Sète, the neighborhood of a portion of Varda's youth. Haphazardly perched in an ambiguous middle ground within documentary and fiction - and occasionally making strong, definitive stabs at both - the film vacillates between a quasi-Bressonian study of a dissolving marriage and a nondescript portrait of the various comings-and-goings of the townies. Neither section makes a case for being the driving force of the film, but rather, they interject back and forth with graceful chaos. Coming from a young woman with no grasp on cinematic vocabulary (at least from an academic standpoint, for she definitely has intuition), it's understandable hearing that Varda claimed to pull structural inspiration from William Faulkner’s The Wild Palms, an adventurous novel that swapped, chapter by chapter, between two disparate narratives.

Here, Varda takes Faulkner's conceit further, transposing his quintessentially literary form to the mutant canvas of film with two strands that are both arguably non-narrative. First, there is her almost ethnographic documentation of the lives and travails of the local fisherman and their families, all of whom are portrayed by real inhabitants of La Pointe Courte but who often times "perform" for Varda rudimentary mini-narratives. After a credit sequence in which Varda's camera is poised on the interior of a log, a gentle wind seems to blow it upstream and into the back streets of the village, incidentally settling into this initial mode. Secondly, there is the boldly distinct story of Lui and Elle, played by relatively established theater actors Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort, in which the two middle-aged lovers visit Lui's old hometown (La Pointe Courte) and feverishly contemplate the state of their relationship, wondering if any life remains in it. Their roles are simplistically archetypal - the meditative country boy and the erratic city girl - and Varda's treatment of them is deliberately droll and lifeless. They speak their lines with no inflection, and the film's post-synchronized sound makes no attempt to give them spatial coherence, as if pinning them down to their self-contained, artificial universe. It's almost as if Varda is decidedly unsympathetic towards them, suggesting that it is the townspeople, not the transient others, who are to be paid utmost respect.

This idea extends to the particular way Varda shoots both sections. The episodes with Lui and Elle have a cryptic stylization to them: baroque compositions, scrupulous blocking, and often exacting camera movements. It's the kind of visual style that would suit psychological analysis, but it is complicated by how much Noiret and Monfort are stripped of emotion, given very little evidence of external character depth. Their dialogue has the kind of meandering, poetic tremor to it that would never exist in real-life conversation. On the contrary, the stories of the fishermen - the group who are interrogated by the fish inspectors, the paunchy, raunchy mother whose children nearly overflow her concrete dining room, the daughter of a disapproving fishermen who falls for her father's younger co-worker - are shot in a direct, neorealist manner, denied the more elegant lighting that embellishes the married couple to achieve a rougher, sometimes sunburnt look. Yet these episodes are also punctuated by some surprisingly majestic tracking shots that have an almost Tarkovskian beauty to them; the camera will float through the village, sliding in and out of open houses and glimpsing windy clothing lines on the way. Hints of Varda's striking formalism, progressively more evident as her career went on, is on display here entangled with a quite paradoxical vérité look.

What's particularly fascinating about La Pointe Courte is the way that so much of it feels offhand and improvisational despite Varda's own insistence that the film was carefully and minutely pre-planned on a shot-to-shot basis. Besides the novelistic blueprint that vaguely guides the proceedings, there seems to be very little internal logic. The notions of when exactly to traverse the line between documentary and fiction, when to cut, and what to cut to and why are obscured deeply. Thus the editing, surprisingly courtesy of Alain Resnais, who Varda asked on a whim, borders on the anarchic. One such cut electrifies the screen with a hand swiftly slapping a boy's face, an unusually brief shot whose function is similar to that of Orson Welles' audience-awakening superimposed chicken in Citizen Kane, restocking the film with life after a longer, quieter episode. Moreover, much of the documentary-like sequences contain very detailed, off-the-cuff shots, like the close-up of a young child's feet before she jumps from a long piece of wood into the water, an image that communicates an aura of the decisive moment, a candid glimpse that supposedly delighted Varda as she conducted the scene. But when one realizes these were all given prior thought, it speaks to Varda's unique cinematic instinct, her ability to capture the ephemeral.

Given how seemingly uneducated in film culture Varda was in the early 1950's when she began work on La Pointe Courte, it's amazing how much the film manages to portend many subsequent cinematic benchmarks. Various sequences with the central couple manage to uncannily predate some of the iconic imagery from classic Bergman films, albeit in much rougher, more abbreviated iterations: the married couple's faces squashed together against a flat landscape to become one (Persona (1966)), the scene in the bottom of an abandoned row boat (Through a Glass Darkly (1961)). And of course, there is a whole school of thought that likes to consider La Pointe Courte as a spiritual predecessor to the French New Wave, the kind of unconventional, personal vision that encouraged filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut to take their own courses off the beaten path. It's certainly a bracing, daring film (so daring in fact that it sometimes threatens to stretch the attention span to a level of alienation), one that effectively communicates the essence of this small, closed-off fishing village.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Last of the Mohicans (1992) A Film by Michael Mann

If there's ever been a film that has made me itch for the hypothetical notepad and pen that I never keep while watching films, it's Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans. What's so interesting about the film for me is the way that almost everything about it feels traditional, old-fashioned, typical, yet something is subtly off about it. There lies a particular intrigue in Mann's moment-by-moment visual filmmaking plugged into the facade of a big-budget romantic costume drama that made my critical faculties run wild. Mann embraces the traditional Hollywood epic format, passed down from Lean, only to infuse it with his own distinct, and distinctly modern, sensibility, favoring, like a great impressionist, the key moments rather than the general sweep. And all this with a big melodramatic story adapted from an 1826 James Fenimore Cooper novel that feels ripe for a dull rendering: in primitive North America, the French and the British engage in a bloody war for control of the colonies, while a fierce Indian tribe lead by the vengeful Magua (Wes Studi) betrays the British to capitalize on a long-standing anger towards Colonel Edward Munro (Maurice Roëves). Meanwhile, a separate tribe of Native Americans called the Mohicans, which has been whittled down to a measly but prideful three, tries to negotiate for their freedom, with one orphaned settler named Hawkeye (Daniel Day Lewis) falling in love with the British colonel's daughter Cora (Madeleine Stowe).

Obviously, this results in major conflicts, like the awakening of an age-old rivalry between Magua and Hawkeye, the perpetual endangerment of the Colonel's two daughters, or the skepticism and resultant hostility of the Colonel towards her daughter's chosen suitor, which of course runs counter to his conventional notion of who she should marry. But Mann seems oddly and compellingly indifferent to his material, less interested in following up on its sentimental potential than he is in using it as a broad window to transcendence. One can sense his impatience during any number of the film's more theatrical scenes, like he's just gnawing at the bit for the actors to get on with it so he can toss off another emphatic set piece. And Last of the Mohicans is nothing if not a flurry of immaculately staged large-scale battle sequences achieving the kind of savage poetry that Sam Peckinpah regularly practiced. Mann's camera becomes a feisty participant in the action, flailing around as if it's dodging the dangerous whiz of bullets and spears, and it is edited to be disorienting, oppressive, and enthralling. As visceral as it is though, it never becomes pure spectacle for its own sake because Mann makes sure to almost subliminally implant the sequences with extreme emotionality, cutting momentarily to the heroic desperation of Day-Lewis or the fearful expressions of the Colonel's daughters. I haven't felt this particular kind of chest-pumping excitement and emotion in a film in a long time.

The film is refreshingly not very character driven, preferring to let them act more as archetypes: the noble savage, the vicious Indian, the beautiful, defiant love object, and the conservative British officers. On one hand, this could come across as shallow and uninteresting, but Mann's clearly working in postcard cinema territory. He understands the lack of visible depth in his characters to be symptomatic of the died-in-the-wool tale he is telling, and of greater importance is the acute sense of time and place he captures with such astounding authenticity. Dialogue and dramatic exposition are clearly not Mann's forte, and nothing better to hammer that home than to literally downplay the voices, suffocating them in the mix so that they're just another democratic ingredient in the mise-en-scene. Technically, we shouldn't empathize so strongly with Hawkeye and Cora in light of how few scenes of serious bonding they actually have (and even what does exist is temperamental and meandering), but Mann lets them come alive through their actions. Even when they have their big first kiss, he seems more smitten with the movement of their entwined bodies, the way they rock back and forth and contort in the moody orange light, than he is with what's actually happening. As if to accentuate the point, when their lips first meet his camera misses the contact, denying the audience the expected payoff immediately. In Farber's terms, Mann is like a termite disguised in white elephant territory, using the Hollywood epic as a palette through which he can discover these tender, explosive moments. He's a filmmaker who understands and reflects our times, consumed as they are by transience and fleeting emotions.

Instead of trying to commit to language all of the stunning individual instances in Last of the Mohicans, I felt it would be most suitable to reflect it in a series of images. Here are some of the shots that spike the senses while experiencing the film and prove Mann's superb visual instincts.