Saturday, February 25, 2012

Screening Notes #10

Luck (Episode 1 and 2) (2012): A beautiful case study of why I do not watch episodic dramatic television much is Luck, a new HBO horse-racing show which has so far produced two episodes, the first of which is directed by Michael Mann and the second of which is directed by hired hand Terry George, the generically hacky director behind Hotel Rwanda and Reservation Road. Mann brings his characteristic visual flair to the first episode and incidentally introduces a serious digital video language to the realm of television. He continues on the controversial aesthetic paths taken in Collateral, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies - disorienting use of wide angle lenses, unstable, impressionistic staging, downplaying of dialogue in favor of telling body language and facial contortion, distinctly digital rendering of speed and velocity, and general embrace of the industry's cinematographic no-nos. As a result, there's something genuinely exciting and unpredictable about the first episode of Luck. But, as is the trend in television, directorial duties are tossed around to others who attempt to replicate the established style of the show. It's not that the second episode is bad television, per se, just that it's routinely ordinary and unmemorable television defined by the claustrophobic-long-lens-character-drama so commonly accepted as the only way to make dramatic television. Milch's dialogue is sharp, especially given its subcultural specificity, but he needs Mann's unique audiovisual instinct and skill with male actors to make Luck something that is worth the effort to continue watching.

Skinflick (2002): Thorsten Fleisch's seven-minute experimental short Skinflick is an unapologetically surface-oriented film, studying the surfaces of the human body, those of celluloid, those of the camera, and those of light, as well as those of all the mysterious shapes and forms arising from Fleisch's abstracted imagery and relentless editing. Using dichotomous cinematographic methods (direct contact with film, conventional shooting, optical printing) that frustrate the urge to compartmentalize the very nature of film production, Fleisch's film presents an assault of close-up footage of skin set to an unnerving soundtrack of distorted rubbing and scratching. About halfway through, Fleisch slows the montage to reveal a perfectly "legible" image of human skin only to rapidly undermine that sense of foundation and comprehension. Suddenly, his shots begin to take on a life of their own, resembling caves, waves, mountains, snakes, and spiraling vortexes. It's a brilliant interrogation of visual perception and the short distance between familiarity and revulsion.

Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971): Most Robert Bresson films feel like entirely one-of-a-kind works that could have come only from him. Situated between the melodramatic heaviness of Mouchette and Une Femme Douce on one side and the philosophical starkness of Lancelot du Lac and The Devil, Probably on the other, Four Nights of a Dreamer is a comparatively straightforward romantic comedy, and the shift in genre seems to have provoked a rare quality of intertextuality (probably most of which is unintentional) in Bresson's work. The film's naïve romanticism, presented with arid restraint, is the logical seed of a number of future trajectories: the deadpan comedies of Wes Anderson, the swoony European romance of Linklater's Before Sunrise/Sunset series, the detached inquiry into the nature of desire revealed in Jose Luis Guerin's In the City of Sylvia, among other things. But there's also Rohmer, Truffaut, even Godard in here somewhere, all of which is to say it's a fascinating film.

Beats Being Dead (2011): Class warfare dominates in this tonally ambiguous made-for-TV drama directed by German filmmaker Christian Petzold, so much so that it overwhelms authenticity and narrative coherence. Beats Being Dead is part of a tripartite project (other entries are by Dominik Graf and Christoph Hochhäusler) that ostensibly riffs on the same overarching narrative in a small German community, but it's hard to imagine even a larger episodic design lending an air of thematic, dramatic, or aesthetic satisfaction to this sterile dirge about the unlikely romantic relationship of a lower-class Bosnian refugee and a higher-class hospital worker. Petzold's oppressive message - that the rigid borders of class contain individuals and suffocate personal desires - weighs gloomily over the romance from point A (the boy's predatory pursuit of the girl) to point B (the boy's sudden and unconvincing abandonment of the girl in favor of a rich blonde), never allowing anything approaching emotional honesty or complexity to blossom. Toss in a ridiculously forced serial killer subplot that supplies some cheap scares at the end and Beats Being Dead is not only offensive but laughable.

Bergman Island (2004): It was raining the other day and there was a bitter chill in the air, so I thought it best to ignore the pressing work before me and sit down with Ingmar for an hour and a half. It's the second time I've seen Bergman Island, yet its extraordinary simplicity and candidness felt completely new to me. Marie Nyreröd gained access to Bergman's life in his precious Fårö Island only a few years before his death, and the result is one of the most moving documentaries on a filmmaker out there, an essential firsthand look at the creative, personal, and social journey of a world-class director. Some of the archival footage here - an overexposed Bibi Andersson grinning wildly in 16mm on the beach used for The Seventh Seal's opening scene, a young Bergman greeting Victor Sjöström at the Svenska Filmindustri, in-depth glimpses of rehearsals at the Royal Dramatic Theatre - is invaluable, and Bergman's surprising openness is treated with minimal editorializing by Nyreröd and her crew.

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