Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Gebo and the Shadow (2012) A Film by Manoel de Oliveira

105-year-old Portuguese filmmaker (sorry, it's tough not to cite in awe his age) Manoel de Oliveira's superb, haunting Gebo and the Shadow premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2012 and is only now getting a (severely limited) stateside release at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Talk about respect for your elders, eh? Anyway, I wrote about why you should go see it if you have a chance at In Review Online.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Locke (2014) A Film by Steven Knight

Locke’s secret ingredient is its modesty, a quality that, in this case, is both a virtue and an achilles’ heel. The film is, at its core, a pressurized look at problem solving—not problems with Earth-shaking stakes, but with immediate, definable ones. After 85 minutes of smooth, continuous freeway driving and incessant speakerphone Bluetooth calls, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) reaches a point where his predicament is, if not fully solved, at least temporarily mitigated. Damage has been done, but Locke has tried his best to minimize it. Then the movie ends, with no emotional fireworks display necessary. Its matter-of-fact conclusion may leave viewers in a sort of blue-balls state, surprised or even baffled by the film’s final refusal to provide any twist on such a grounded scenario, but it’s fairly clear that, on a narrative level, Locke doesn’t overstep its boundaries. With so many spring releases at the multiplexes trying to ingratiate their audiences with razzle-dazzle (convoluted plot mechanics, robust special effects or state-of-the-art technology), this unexpected storytelling economy is worth recognizing and applauding.

Laid out by screenwriter/director Steven Knight, the parameters of Locke’s modest setup are not (nor do they need to be) terribly intriguing on paper: a Welsh construction worker skips town one night without warning, ditching a crucial concrete pour to be in London for the birth of a baby he seeded during an extramarital affair, all while he struggles to assuage the explosive frustrations and uncertainties of his newly informed wife back home. It’s an Everyman crisis, the sort of accumulation of mistakes and sacrifices that every once in a while clogs the complacent flow of daily life. Knight’s borderline-paranoid-thriller visual vocabulary – a plethora of close-ups of a man in a constricted space, often offset in the frame as if implying unseen onlookers and surrounded by the dancing lights of an anonymous outside world – is prone to giving the impression (problematically, I think) of a conspiratorial subplot just waiting to break through the small-scale edges of the central storyline, but none ever comes. For better or worse, every detail of Locke’s dilemma is made clear. It’s also clear that that any resolution (or lack thereof) to this dilemma will be due to his actions alone. There are no impediments. There’s not even any traffic.

Issues start to arise when Knight’s direction shows traces of wavering commitment to the cinematic potential of the chosen material. Repeated glances at flashing police cars raise suspicion about a potential criminal edge to Locke’s backstory, and intimations of a rapidly worsening sickness (complete with ominous swigs of Nyquil) become irrelevant once Locke’s symptoms suddenly and miraculously vanish—both are temporarily labored-over, tension-heightening non-sequiturs for which productive use is never found and which are therefore dispensed with on the fly. The most misguided peripheral bit is Locke’s embittered running commentary to his empty backseat, where he imagines his deceased failure of a father to be smugly looking on. Break up the monotony of the film’s otherwise entirely phone-based dialogue though these scenes may, they nonetheless offer up an authorial point-of-view on Locke’s steadfast dedication to staying calm where the rest of the film smartly withholds one. Knight’s incorporation of this dime store psychoanalytic self-therapy actually trivializes the gravity of the situation rather than deepening it.

This is, after all, a film whose greatest source of success lies in its attempt to distill human experience down to actions and reactions. Save for some corny montages set to Dickon Hinchliffe’s uninspired score (Explosions in the Sky-like jams that could have been excavated with a “melancholy” search on Audio Jungle), Locke is basically an end-to-end succession of phone calls, a blunt approach that allows Ivan (and, by extension, Hardy; the film was allegedly shot in one go) little time for reflection. Hardy, for his part, injects plausible human rhythms into Knight’s fairly graceless dramatic formula, only rarely resorting to actorly shorthand (slamming or leaning onto the wheel to signal Frustration, ruffling his beard to telegraph Uncertainty). What results is an unrelenting study of poise under pressure that is itself quite poised, as well as a dissection of uniquely masculine psychological habits and codes of behavior: selective avoidance of truth-telling in instances when spilling the beans would have predictable negative effects; a certain bluntness (Locke may avoid confronting his marital mistake verbally for a while, but when he does his confession comes swiftly and without any beating around the bush, a tactic that could be construed as a lack of empathy); an unwillingness to dwell on the past and a failure to assess the likely future. At its best, the film is quite despairing; it subtly ponders whether firm, diplomatic actions in the present can ever fully correct errors in the past.

Still, coming away from Locke I’m left with a nagging impression of fundamental banality. At one point, Bethan, Locke’s defiantly one-time mistress/mother of his baby, jokingly remarks in reference to his impending arrival, “it’s like waiting for God,” only to swiftly correct herself: “Godot.” Her offhand Beckettian call-out doubles as Knight’s most officious announcement of the existential terrain he aspires to, but considering Beckett as a particularly useful reference point would be misleading. Locke’s existentialism is general and accessible, relying on familiar storytelling strategies and motifs: a single location, a dark night (of the soul), and the open road. The film’s incessant nocturnal bokeh is less an inspired aesthetic imposition than a near-inevitability under the on-location circumstances (low light means wide aperture, and single seated subject surrounded by horrible places to fit a camera means no wide shots) opportunistically recruited as “style.” It therefore becomes a stretch to see the blurred highway movement as any specific thematic idea beyond a vague notion of the road as a symbol for the unstoppable, often chaotic forward motion of life. All of which is fine, but it does little to carve out an original identity for a film that so comfortably embraces such a prosaic narrative.

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.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Apocalypse: A Bill Callahan Tour Film (2012) A Film by Hanly Banks

If you like Bill Callahan, particularly his excellent 2011 album Apocalypse, you'll probably like Hanly Banks' new tour documentary. I discussed its merits at In Review Online.