Thursday, May 8, 2014

Screening Notes #26

Arraianos (2012): For a good portion of this I had an anxious feeling that I was watching an otherwise proudly, at times stubbornly open-ended mode of cinema materializing into a fashionable set of mannerisms. The contemporary documentary-fiction hybrid—resistant to conventional notions of ethnography, flexible in its treatment of time and place, and preferential toward non-actor-filled scenarios that blend observation and artifice—has seen its fair share of rural community portraits, and in each of them you're bound to witness some combination of a collection of trendy happenings: forest fires, foggy landscapes, animal births/deaths/brutality, manual labor performed by laconic peasants (wood-cutting is a special favorite), and lethargic sing-alongs in dark taverns. Director Eloy Enciso finds room for all of these elements in Arraianos, in addition to presenting a prophetic shawled figure like someone out of a Tarr film. I really don't mean to pick on Arraianos in particular (though I assume inevitably I am); it's only that, on the surface, it comes across at times like a fairly conspicuous object of self-parody. Still, peering a little closer yields a refreshingly non-idealistic take on rural, pre-modern patterns of living, its metaphorical mid-film apocalypse segueing not to the typical sun-rising rebirth imagery but rather to a series of tattered photographs displaying the haunted faces of who we can only presume represent a prior generation of the same community. Life moves forward in the film's final half, but only under the shadow of history's losses, begging the question of how many more threats of dissolution a border community (in multiple senses) such as that of Arraianos can outlast.

Fat City (1972): Grainy, underlit, lap-steel-scored Americana about lonely, often times boozing souls at existential crossroads is kind of a sweet spot for me, so there was never any real doubt that I would enjoy this. I didn't, however, expect to find John Huston in such confident command of tone, coasting on an unassuming neutrality that siphons out any extraneous dimension of metaphor or subtext from the small-time boxing world he observes—especially welcome given the number of boxing movies that use a character's fighting as a vehicle for some larger psychological or political implications. Boxing is just boxing here, often photographed as if from a first-row audience member's perspective with a telephoto lens and never set to musical accompaniment. For Tully (Stacy Keach), who no longer seems to derive pleasure from the sport, it's just something he does; if it's able to distract him from his consuming loneliness, that's a bonus. At the film's post-screening Q&A, one-time screenwriter Leonard Gardner, a former boxer himself and by all accounts a relatable blue-collar guy, imparted the welcome impression of being befuddled by the silly machinations of Hollywood (he even let on about some skepticism he felt around the prospect of Monte Hellman directing the film, trusting that it was best suited to someone experienced with the sport), and it's his slow, quiet, pragmatic demeanor that seems to have washed over Huston's movie. Fat City poignantly and very specifically charts the everyday drift and small delusions of the anonymous American male.

Daughters of Chaos (1980): One of the truly magical things about Marjorie Keller's highly subjective miniature is its unwillingness to conform to any structural schema, ignoring rational construction in favor of a loose, flowing stream of visual impressions: a pair of girls chitchatting in the back of a motorboat, a formal church ceremony peeped through a nearby window, passing glimpses of the Statue of Liberty, a garden of sunflowers on a sunny day, overexposed footage of children cartwheeling and horsing around in a park, a girl in a red bikini seen from behind wading into the ocean. But what separates this from mere lyrical picture play is its convulsive organization, its sense of being consciously arranged as if to mimic the processes of thought and recollection: six-frame leader jolts resemble blinks, both literally (optically) and figuratively (cognitively); the soundtrack moves in musical and verbal chunks rather than as one harmonious entity, often arriving in belated association to preceding images. These scenes—or rather, something like breaths seems more appropriate—are relentlessly turned over, rearranged, and recontextualized in a manner less indebted to dance or trance or ritual than to notepad sketching and its attendant self-editorializing. Personal identity is ushered along by pre-ordained forces only gradually understood: national ethos, sexuality, communal commitment, religion. Keller's film dramatizes the process of becoming, knowing full well that no self is fashioned in a linear, comprehensible manner; the autobiography of one's life is developed by skipping recklessly backwards and forwards in time. Though the film's in a specifically feminine context, it nonetheless feels exactly like how I remember my life.

Appointment in Honduras (1953): With minor-key string sections rumbling along like an encroaching thunder storm for 79 minutes and contextual details kept well out of reach, Jacques Tourneur's thrifty RKO adventure flick plays less like an expanding and contracting narrative feature than a sustained, slowly crescendoing bellow. The plot is meat-and-potatoes and delivered fuss-free: within the first ten minutes, a laconic gentleman by the name of Corbett (Glenn Ford) has acquired an impromptu crew from aboard a tugboat off the coast of Guatemala to accompany him on a mission predicated on a vague set of instructions involving a hefty chunk of money and a Honduran counterrevolutionary. His team includes a gang of imprisoned bandits pledging their allegiance as tour guides and the unsuspecting American couple they kidnap as a protective shield against possible capture for reward money. It's a lot to digest in a compact prologue, but there are really only a few things we need to know: six people, one canoe, a dense jungle, and incoming, unseen forces trailing both Corbett and his prisoner posse. Plot details get more convoluted and, frankly, dumber as the film continues, but Tourneur, transforming the damp, foggy, untamed void into yet another of his cramped interior spaces, is essentially working with the B-narrative as a vehicle for a series of high-pressure situations between a tight-knit group of disparate people whose contrasting motivations place them in vulnerable opposition to one another—the better to uncover the fragile gap separating moral choice from animal instinct. Shooting largely in visually overabundant master shots and playing with spatial confusion, Tourneur never allows a break from the consuming vegetation—or, for that matter, a hint of escape for his three competing units (Corbett, the bandits, the American couple), who are often spaced out as though corners of a sturdy, unbudgeable triangle. This being a Tourneur film, feral wildlife (insect swarms, alligators, snakes, tigerfish and, of course, a leopard) appear early and often as recurring nods to the enormity of Earth's life forms and, therefore, the minuscule place within it of the characters presented here, who dissolve (quite literally in the penultimate shot) into the jungle by the end of the movie.

Meet John Doe (1941): Frank Capra too often and all-too-flippantly gets filed today as a shamelessly sentimental populist, a characterization that has earned him the unflattering "Capra-corn" designation. But discovering and revisiting his films as part of Harvard's current retrospective has, so far, been a consistently rewarding endeavor, revealing a filmmaker whose work complicates his reputation more often than it confirms it. Put broadly, there's a lot of darkness in these movies. Meet John Doe documents the process by which the good-natured modesty of a penniless former baseball player is co-opted as part of a cynical pro-happiness publicity stunt that will fill the wallets of a roomful of greedy bigwigs—all of which pushes the man to near-suicidal despair. Then, when the whole enterprise is revealed as a charade, a smiling populace rapidly turns horde-like, leaving the disturbing impression that an unhappy society can't release dormant benevolence until it's advocated for under the banner of a pre-packaged promotional campaign, an opportunity to turn kindness to thy neighbor into a generalized political stance. The film ends up reaching for resolution (distant ringing church bells and picturesque falling snowflakes signaling a hopeful new beginning), but it sure kicks up a lot of dust along the way.

American Madness (1932): A decade earlier than Meet John Doe, Capra arguably had his finger even more closely on chaos, instability, and despair. American Madness distills the looming black cloud of the Great Depression in the form of a dysfunctional national back that becomes a playhouse for a disgruntled civilian mob in the film's elaborately staged third act. Capra's sympathy aligns quite clearly with the altruistic President of the bank, Tom Dickson (Walter Huston), who finds his entire board railing against the loose business model he practices with his clientele—a system reliant upon loans on good faith. The film's denouement rests on the utopian notion that that same good faith is bound to ultimately be reciprocated rather than taken for granted, and furthermore that that reciprocity can (and will) defeat the cynicism of big business. In a post-recession era of widespread corporate facelessness, it's a tough leap of faith to swallow, and it doesn't help that the film's optimistic turnaround is so abruptly patched-together, but give Capra enormous credit for illuminating the reckless speed with which things can spiral out of control when people are desperate and afraid. Crowds of customers pound and holler for tellers to come up with their misplaced savings while indifferent bank employees mill about in their offices, inefficiently plotting out solutions or, worse, dwelling on petty personal problems. Cross-cutting ramps up to a McCarey-esque velocity in conjunction with the volume and density of the dialogue (spitballed by a terrific cast including Gavin Gordon, Pat O'Brien, and Robert Emmett O'Connor). Further adding to a sense of collective descent is the repeated Langian visual touch of the circular bank safe door, a big, far-from-impervious barrier implying the interconnectedness of the nation's finances.

Forbidden (1932): Psychologically and dramatically, this is a bit of a clumsy, stop-and-go mess, but one made all the more interesting for its unwavering commitment to its female protagonist. It's never clear why Lulu (Barbara Stanwyck) falls so hard for district attorney Bob (Adolphe Menjou), what with his awkward initial flirtations and eventual unaccountability for problems with the affair, but Capra seems entirely unconcerned with the why or the how. When Menjou disappears for a significant portion of the film's middle, Lulu herself, not her affair, becomes Capra's lone dramatic subject. Like Pialat's We Won't Grow Old Together, Forbidden studies the inexplicable nature of romantic obsession, which keeps people bound together at the expense of obvious incompatibilities. And, to continue an unlikely comparison, Capra shares with Pialat an ambivalent directorial perspective on self-destructive souls, simultaneously sympathetic to Lulu's persevering commitment to her desires and attuned to the larger failures in her personal and professional life. Blazing an individualistic trail, Lulu resists the expectations of marriage and motherhood (her daughter is little more than a vaporous enigma throughout), but in the end winds up lonely and vulnerable. The question of whether this tragic conclusion is a cosmic punishment for accumulated individual mistakes or a natural byproduct of a society ill-equipped to entertain nontraditional expressions of desire is one left tantalizingly unresolved.

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