Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Safe (1995) A Film by Todd Haynes

At the core of Todd Haynes' Safe is the idea that the human body is a cage housing fragile, valuable material, and that it's constantly threatened by the harsh and jagged environment around it. When that cage and its components becomes vulnerable for any number of reasons, it stands no chance against the elements. This is precisely the process of disintegration that Haynes documents in his second feature, and it reinforces every aesthetic decision that is made in the first half of the film: the uncomfortably intimate mic'ing technique, wherein tiny microphones seem to rest within the shirts of performers and capture every fidget, swallow, or scratch in precise clarity; the distant, geometric framing that reinforces the endangerment of the individual in the context of larger spaces; the nearly ubiquitous offscreen presence of terror-mongering radio broadcasts; and perhaps even the repeat appearances of sweet, luxury foods like cake and milk, the frequent consumption of which can be undesirable for the digestive system. Haynes makes the audience especially sensitive to even the most innocuous external stimuli (in one shot even a bedroom chair glows with malign purpose), as well as to the internal bodily functions that deal with these forces. It's all a way of framing the supposed "environmental illness" of his main character, the bored, vacant San Fernando Valley housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore).

It doesn't take long to discern the absurdity of this alleged "environmental illness" and begin to identify the metaphorical territory Haynes is working within. But in Safe, it's far easier to realize that Haynes is aiming for metaphor than it is to pinpoint the exact nature of those hidden resonances. Carol wears white throughout a good portion of Safe's first half, one of the first and most salient tip-offs to her hypersensitivity to the outside world and consuming desire for sterility. Also, when asked how she's doing by an equally uninspired suburban housewife or by her skeptical husband Greg (Xander Berkeley), Carol always responds with a timid, clearly half-hearted "well...good," indicating that she's deeply troubled. Haynes applies some of the standard tropes of the horror genre and its repeated emphasis on the clueless female protagonist - consistently having Carol walk her way into uncomfortable scenarios, composing reaction shots that suggest something garish out of frame only to reveal simple domestic items, stranding characters in huge rooms where anything could lurk in the shadows - so that he can undermine them at every turn, forcing the audience to position Carol's rattling psyche as a direct result of her boring, stifling milieu.

As an openly gay filmmaker, Haynes has been exploring these kinds of victimized figures throughout his fascinating career, and in this homosexual context, Safe becomes a charged allegory for the self-perpetuating anxieties of being forced by societal standards to live the "normal" life, a subservient dynamic that the film insists ends only in misery and isolation. The film is structured on the surface as an enlightenment narrative and on the subtextual level as a maddening descent into obscurity, away from any semblance of civilization or happiness. As Carol becomes increasingly vulnerable in her bright, slick domestic environment (displayed in the kind of Sirkian vibrancy that Haynes would expand upon in Far from Heaven), she in turn seeks any method of medical assistance that can ease her discomfort, shortness of breath, and spontaneous vomiting. When conventional doctors fail to see any indicators of sickness and her husband's attitude shifts precariously from revolt to irritation to sympathy (Berkeley's performance is a quietly virtuoso one), Carol's search becomes progressively extreme until it's clear that what she is really seeking is a full-blown escape from her suburban life. As a result, she finds herself attracted to an informercial for a New-Agey self-help clinic set in the middle of the desert called Wrenwood, which boasts to have found the simple cure for the types of "environmental illnesses" plaguing people like Carol.

At Wrenwood, Carol appears to have found a refuge where she is given space and treated with affection by likeminded peers. The head of the clinic, the seemingly benign and respectful Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman), speaks in calming, inspiring tones about his own healing process from the contaminating factors of reality, referring specifically to pollutants but more broadly to social structures, politics, and media. His teaching and nursing at Wrenwood is decidedly laissez-faire, and he encourages his patients to take the same approach to their own acts of personal rejuvenation; at one point, he even states proudly that he has finally ceased reading the newspaper, a blunt declaration of insularity delivered like a presidential keynote address. Haynes' detached, probing camera, however - always distant and wolf-like, glimpsing all the nuances and details that Carol misses - gradually unravels Dunning's thin facade, revealing him to be little more than a nihilistic hippie and a shameless opportunist. One shot in the second-half of this tantalizingly bifurcated film - shortly after Carol has been relocated from an airy cabin with porch-like screen windows to a circular metal cage resembling both an outer-space vessel and a womb (both offer striking potential interpretations) - catches a view of Dunning's modern mansion sitting atop the peak of the valley Wrenwood is nestled in. One senses that Dunning has built his home there not for convenience or pleasure, but merely to reinforce a messiah-like image of himself to his clients.

Carol never seems to realize this though, and the film becomes increasingly unsettling as she warms up to Wrenwood, eventually appearing to be at relative peace with herself in this stale, limiting community. Whether or not her husband buys into the mumbo-jumbo about a full healing and return to ordinary domesticity supplies the film with potent ambiguity; Berkeley and Moore's scenes together at Wrenwood possess a morbid awkwardness, as if he is slowly realizing his complicity in the act of gradually burying his own wife alive. In the second-to-last scene of the film, Carol, at the encouragement of Dunning, gives a birthday speech to her environmentally ill peers about how good she feels at the clinic and how much she believes she has improved since leaving her San Fernando Valley existence. In the pale desert cafeteria and under Dunning's vaguely ominous scrutiny, it's staged as a personal breakthrough, but Haynes' stiff mise-en-scène still renders it cold and lifeless, perhaps even more disengaged than at an earlier at-home-mom get-together in the film's first half, where at least there was color and non-diegetic sound to spice up the atmosphere. Any epiphany here is mired by the indistinct rhetoric of Dunning, by his shallow understanding that to retreat entirely from society and relevance is to find yourself. Even Carol herself makes an unintentional effort to prove him wrong in an enigmatic final-act moment when an implied love interest (James LeGros) prompts her to finally proclaim self-love in front of her small, dingy mirror. Perhaps people are necessary after all.

Safe is a scathing critique of the false promises and damaging hidden side effects of supposed "cures" for "abnormalities," which Haynes might identify personally as AIDS. It's not hard to draw a line from Dunning's preachy spiritualist to a clueless conservative posing the idea that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured through self-reflection. But its greatest strength is that it is also many other things: a metaphor for political manipulation and the widespread dumbing-down of civilians, a plea for the equal rights of women in a masculinized society, a cautionary tale about the necessity of exercising freedom in your own life choices, an argument for active engagement in the world, particularly in those things that are readily available to you such as family and community, and a chilling dissection of both the numbing plainness and the ubiquitous hazards in the modern world. Despite his many peaks, Haynes has not made a film this viscerally affecting since.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Turin Horse (2011) A Film by Bela Tarr

Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse would seem like The End even if the director himself hadn't boldly declared it his final feature. Brooding, angry, apocalyptic, and bathed in the kind of deadly seriousness that only accompanies major artistic statements, the film is a lugubrious retreat from civilization, narrative, perhaps even existence and - in its final moments as gas lamps fail to ignite in the darkness - illumination, the stuff of cinema itself. This is a massive, earth-shaking film, even as its geographical specificity and narrative simplicity seems to imply something smaller and humbler than anything Tarr has done before. Taking the episode that allegedly launched Nietzsche's prolonged madness and near-comatose state in 1889 as its starting point, the film then builds a world around the horseman who the famous philosopher witnessed beating his stubborn animal. In a career filled with subtle Breughelian moves, it's Tarr's most overt yet, a deliberately withholding maneuver that hearkens back to the painter's Fall of Icarus, where the more historically notable, titular scene was similarly disregarded. It's also an immediate reminder of Tarr's fundamental concern: the overlooked, the misunderstood, and the seemingly unimportant people, whom he always proves to be irrevocably human in one way or another.

The horseman, named Ohlsdorfer and played by Tarr regular János Derzsi, sustains a meager livelihood in a harsh, arid Hungarian plain with his loyal and hard-working daughter (the familiar Erika Bók). A torrential windstorm presses on day and night, never ceasing, picking up vicious tornadoes of dirt and leaves and making it so that any trip outside is an epic pilgrimage. Their stone cottage, practically crumbling from the incessant beating it takes from the weather, is dark and grimy. The dirt caked on its every surface is paid vivid attention by Tarr's camera, and painterly shafts of light slip in through the house's few tiny windows, creating a cavernous space of deep blacks and ethereal whites. Within this tactile yet otherworldly location, the father and daughter enact and reenact the same domestic routines day after day, their lives consumed by the labor required to maintain even the slightest sustenance. This work demands so much of them that they have nearly ceased verbal communication entirely, save for the occasional unintelligible grunt from the father and curt declarative statement from the daughter ("It's ready," referring to the two boiled potatoes that comprise their every meal, is a common one).

Tarr, more faithful to the chronological flow of daily life than ever before here, molds these endlessly repeated routines into a linear six-day structure with title cards indicating each new day. It's one of the two structural decisions that allows the film to somewhat closely resemble Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman - the other being his decision to vary the camera's relationship to these routines throughout. Like Akerman, Tarr has discovered brilliantly simple ways to induce a kind of quotidian hypnosis and lend the film an unlikely sense of propulsion. In The Turin Horse as well as in Jeanne Dielman, a curious tension is maintained between predictability and unpredictability; while the narrative rhythms and repetitions make perfectly clear what the actors will perform in the next scene and roughly how they will perform it, there is never any way to guess how those actions will be composed, and the subtle distinctions in the cinematographic design dredge up emotional depth and complexity beneath the seemingly mundane flow of everyday life. (For instance, the first meal portrays the father as animalistic, the second conveys the calm subservience of the daughter, and the third detects a kind of harmonious intimacy between them in two-shot). Furthermore, any disruption to the actual content of the repetitions is doubly unnerving, because audience awareness has been heightened by the relative redundancy therein.

In this light, The Turin Horse establishes a set of narrative patterns to be performed roughly in order: 1) the daughter wakes, only to be followed shortly after by her father; 2) the daughter, after adding fire to the hearth, heads outside to retrieve water from their well and returns to help dress her father in his day clothing; 3) they both take a swig of palinka, the father's preferred hard liquor; 4) she prepares two boiled potatoes for them to eat; 5) he heads out to the barn, where he takes the horse out of its stable for a ride into town to fetch amenities; 6) upon return, she helps him back inside and dresses him into his night clothing; 7) they sleep. These activities are broken up by portions of rest and sizable chunks of time sitting and looking out the window at the featureless Hungarian landscape, as if in a church pew. They occur over and over, passionlessly and without blemishes, yet there's something too lived-in about their movements, too ancient about their behaviors, to compare them to robots programmed for work. These are people who are fully aware of their destitute situation and who despise every minute of it, yet they are at a loss to change it. Like the stubborn drunks from Damnation, the poor and gullible small-town farmers from Satantango, or the brooding bay watchmen from The Man from London, their lives are victim to a brutal fate machine that they are forced to either endure or be defeated by.

Yet there are always signs of change for better or worse, little hiccups in the drudgery of existence that suggest a reversal, or at least a slight turn, of fate. In Tarr's work, these instances often stand in metaphorically for misleading forces of authority, false promises that lead only to greater misery. Other times, they merely reinforce a vision of the contemporary world as disharmonious, chaotic, and cosmically imbalanced. In The Turin Horse, they act as gradual reminders of mortality, the notion that none of our consistent routines can last forever and we are all bound to die. First, a strange guest (Mihály Kormos) arrives, at first seeking to refill his supply of palinka and then launching into a vague, extended rant on the rotten state of existence that seems to mirror some of Tarr's recent, only-slightly-more-specific musings on the "shitty" current state of society. (Few directors can pull off allegorical dialogue that is this generalized and open-ended, but Tarr lets it absorb fluidly into the vaguely unreal mood of his cinematic world.) Second, a band of hysterical America-bound gypsies raid the well that provides the father and daughter their only source of water. Ohlsdorfer shoos them away with wicked verbal aggression, but not before they steal some of the water, drop a curious quasi(anti?)-Bible in the daughter's hands, and potentially cast a spell on them that is the cause of their dry well the following day. Finally, in the throes of all this, and likely inspired by the never-ending gale outside, their horse refuses to take the father into town and accept food and water.

Each of these domestic interruptions points towards the film's blackly comic absurdity. Tarr's always had a nasty sense of humor, but here it reaches its darkest and most biting. At the end of Kormos' speech, the longest stretch of dialogue in the film, Ohlsdorfer unleashes a sharp brush-off that instantly puts into question the integrity of the man's ideas: "Come off of it. That's rubbish." Later, when the father and daughter choose to leave their home, Tarr holds a long, long shot of the nearby hill and lonely tree over which they passed, only to watch as they slowly return after a minute or more from an empty, static frame. It's a gag that wouldn't be out of place in a Monty Python film. That being said, there's nothing funny about the horse's slow, assertive abstinence from activity, which seems as much an active rebuttal to her owner's often harsh ways as it is an act of resignation to the unforgiving grimness of her life. She stares her own mortality in the face, which supplies additional poignancy to the existential perseverance of the father and daughter. Who comes away with a better scenario in the end is one of the most intriguing questions Tarr leaves on the table.

Whatever the case, The Turin Horse undoubtedly creates a world that is perpetually on the brink of finality and asks its characters to allow civilization to fail or push it onwards. Every one of the film's major aesthetic contributions underlines this idea. The single musical piece by the always impressive Mihály Víg is relentlessly churning and circular, its minor-key organ arpeggios and wheezing violins insistent reminders of the redundancy of quotidian life, and its dark, intense forward motion a hurdle towards an impending doom. So constant and menacing is this triplet dirge that it underscores the banalities of daily life with a throbbing dramatic pulse. Fred Keleman's cinematography, meanwhile, finds expressive ways to outline every dimension of the film's limited chamber space with elaborate camera moves - often on a steadicam, a device that is used more consistently here than in any Tarr film, but which is wholly necessary given the drastic single-shot trips from hushed interiors to blustery exteriors - that draw attention to the feebleness of the human body and the weight of time. László Krasznahorkai, the writer of every Tarr film since Damnation, supplies the film's enigmatic monologues and narrations (including the Nietzsche anecdote that opens the film), as well as the fictional sacred text that Bók reads, phoneme by phoneme, in a haunting scene on the fifth day. Tarr's wife/editor Agnes Hranitzky, always finding the perfect beat in her husband's majestic tracking shots to cut to the next, is also credited as co-director.

That this is reportedly the last time this visionary team will collaborate seems to have nudged them all to the top of their game, with each distilling his/her own special talents to cohere with the tantalizingly bare-bones texture of Tarr's film. The Turin Horse, despite its repetitiousness, its tiny ensemble, and its utter narrative void, is an unfailingly evocative and affecting achievement, a film that possesses a raw, wordless power. It bears the sense of a single individual expressing his deepest, most sincere thoughts about existence and the state of our world, which he perceives to be tarnished by authority and political manipulation, corrupted by capitalism, and exhausted by poor quality of living. This is, for sure, Tarr's bleak worldview, but it's not without a beacon of gleaming optimism, a permanent love for even the most destitute people and a belief in their essential dignity.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) A Film by Jacques Tourneur

In the Val Lewton-produced, Jacques Tourneur-directed RKO horror classic I Walked with a Zombie, the "zombie" is chiefly a metaphor for the steady encroachment of a dark past, the messengers of a long-overdue retribution. Placed beside the contemporary predilection for zombies as empty purveyors of shock and gore, the film's thematically charged representation of the folkloric figure is a refreshing difference. Set on an island in the West Indies during what is presumably the time of production (1943) - that is, only a short 75 years or so after the Civil War and right in the final three decades of Jim Crow-era America - the film focuses on the arrival of a young nurse named Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) to care for the vegetative wife of Paul Holland (Tom Conway), a wealthy plantation owner. The precise cause of Jessica Holland's (Christine Gordon) mysterious illness is unknown, though metaphorically there is a suggestion that it is some kind of karma-like punishment for an affair with Paul's brother Wesley (James Ellison) that the script hints at vaguely. On the outskirts of this melodrama is a strange voodoo camp lead by the African-American workers at the plantation, and although only revealed in the second half of the film, the camp has a constant, menacing presence in the film, its eerie tribal drums and atmospheric chants echoing through the humid Caribbean air.

The visual and geographic division between the slave laborers in the corn fields and the Americans with their petty dramas in the palatial estate is an immediate sign of Tourneur's intent. This is a film about the massive, often unaddressed exploitation of blacks by white men and women of privilege, a history of condescension and subservience that continues today in subtler iterations. Late in the film, the mother of the Holland brothers as well as a nurse sympathetic to voodoo, Mrs. Rand (Edith Barrett), gives a matter-of-fact description of zombies as "both living and dead," which might as well be in reference to the film's underlying subtext: the ceaseless struggle between blacks and whites. For the plantation owners, the African Americans are both living - living enough to complete work for them - and dead, totally peripheral to their lives of luxury. Even more unsettling in retrospect is the notion that our collective memory of the atrocities of 20th century America (and before) jibes with the same description. They can never quite be snuffed out, even as many try so desperately to block them from consciousness.

I Walked With a Zombie traces the ways in which the African-Americans gradually infringe upon the tale of Betsy and the Hollands and ultimately reclaim the land as their own. First, Betsy, an audience surrogate stumbling into this uneven social landscape, is introduced to a strangely foreboding statue within the Holland's gates of St. Sebastian with arrows shot through its heart that was allegedly ushered into the island on a slave ship. It's a striking, multivalent image and one that seems to be a self-congratulatory emblem of equality for the white folk, as if their use of laborers in the corn fields is an act of salvation from their prior exploitation as slaves at sea. Yet it carries a secondary, possibly unintentional meaning as well: the notion that the African-Americans can be freed from brutality in death, which is particularly ironic given the progression of the narrative therein. A tall, black zombie known as Carrefour (Darby Jones), the guardian of the late-night voodoo tribe, eventually finds his way into the grounds of the plantation, silently beckoning forth the comatose soul of Jessica, knowing that she too longs vacantly for the blissful release from her pitiful worldly existence. She is also a victim of a powerful white, patriarchal grip.

Tourneur keeps the ostensible narrative of the film to a minimum. What is revealed is mostly fragments of a past story weighing on the present, which deepens the film's circular idea of history and shifts the emphasis to the metaphorical implications of the horror. Betsy is made privy to the Holland backstory through the gossip delivered in song form by a black man (Sir Lancelot) crooning near her afternoon lunch with Wesley. Clearly, the island's inhabitants have made a fuss about whatever happened between Paul, Jessica, and Wesley, and the rumors fly across the town, taunting the rich, snobby men. When Wesley overhears the song, he fumes angrily and quickly puts an end to the man's entertainment. In a scene shortly after, the man signs the song again, this time at dusk in a quietly menacing tone. He trudges slowly towards Betsy during his airy calypso ballad, his face becoming fully submerged in shadow. What was at first a harmless tune is now a dark omen through Tourneur's chiaroscuro light and somnambulant staging. The same effect is achieved in the film's horror centerpiece when Betsy guides the sleepwalking Jessica through the corn fields at midnight, stalling occasionally at portentous indicators of death such as a skull, an animal carcass, and the towering Carrefour. Tourneur's minimalistic staging and lighting, as well as his lingering, evocative close-ups, makes it easy to forget the sequence was crafted in a soundstage with cheap props.

Such is the essential lesson of Tourneur and Lewton's cinema: that careful, crafty wielding of sight and sound, as well as a purposeful use of space, absence, and metaphor, renders production value and budget quite negligible. I Walked with a Zombie is so unsettling, so politically and racially motivated, that it's almost as if Tourneur's entire purpose for the relatively measly $150,000 granted to Lewton from RKO was to unravel a disguised attack of white privilege and historical disregard. It's possible to make the case that Tourneur's reliance upon the African-American figure as the source of schock and horror merely perpetuates negative stereotypes, but the film actively denies presenting these "zombies" as malicious monsters, instead treating them as melancholy figures seeking acceptance. In this light, Darby Jones gives a truly haunted performance as Carrefour, the zombified slave carcass with beady eyes and a perpetually sad, disheveled deer-in-the-headlights expression. Shirtless so as to expose the lung churning determinedly inside his bony frame, and with dark pants too short to extend the entire distance down his lanky legs, Jones glides through the film enigmatically, a specter from a dark past that just won't go away. And Tourneur's film operates in a similar fashion, its creepy, insistent rhythms and vital worldview still possessing a raw energy today.