Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Last Year at Marienbad (L'année dernière à Marienbad) A Film by Alain Resnais (1961)

"...The spectator will let himself be carried along by the extraordinary images in front of him, by the actors' voices, by the soundtrack, by the music, by the rhythm of the cutting, by the passion of the characters...and to this spectator the film will seem the "easiest" he has ever seen: a film addressed exclusively to his sensibility, to his faculties of sight, hearing, feeling. The story will seem the most realistic, the truest, the one that best corresponds to his daily emotional life..."

These are the words of Nouveau Roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, who penned the screenplay for Alain Resnais' famously unconventional Nouvelle Vague film Last Year at Marienbad. What he's saying though, that the film is likely to be the gentlest, most malleable viewing experience possible, would undoubtedly contradict with the overwhelming majority of the film's approximately fifty-year audience. The quote also comes from a preface to the screenplay that was published prior to the release of the film, in which Robbe-Grillet sung sweetly about the perfect osmosis between he and Resnais in working on the project, a sentiment that he gradually and bitterly altered in the years after. The discontinuity between his statement and reality however may be by design, posed as yet another unkempt stitch in an already ruffled patchwork, a film that literally (and many would say figuratively) takes game-playing as one of its subjects. For good reason, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet have been named the biggest fibbers and pranksters in the history of the cinema.

I'd like to think though, with its immensely satisfying visual and aural rhymes, its subtle mutations in tone, and the rigorous performances of its two unnamed leads, that Last Year at Marienbad is much more than just a game. Instead, there is some truth in Robbe-Grillet's assertions: the film, through its unusual alchemy of repetition and minor variation, approaches the mechanics of the mind, specifically the way memory and fantasy work within the human brain. Whether or not this results in the kind of viewing Robbe-Grillet predicts is a different question. It is no way an "easy" film, but rather one that constantly asks questions, or perhaps only appears to ask questions. It can be aggravating or hypnotic, off-putting or encouraging, daunting or lean. Why its effect varies so much from viewer to viewer (the film caused one of the most divisive critical responses in film history) is and always will be a massive mystery, but it says a great deal about Resnais and Robbe-Grillet's achievement, and in a way, is naturally symptomatic of a film dealing with the elusive nature of human thought.

Last Year at Marienbad features three central figures identified only as X, A, and M in the production notes. X (Giorgio Albertazzi), encounters A (Delphine Seyrig) at an opulent hotel getaway somewhere in a void in Europe (possibly Marienbad, but there is no certainty, as the exteriors change conspicuously), and attempts to convince her of their meeting a year back in the same place, where they agreed to reconvene in exactly one year and run away together. Like Resnais' previous fiction debut, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (scripted by Robbe-Grillet's contemporary, Marguerite Duras), the male/female dynamic here takes on an aggressor/resistor stance, with X relentlessly insisting and A guilelessly denying any knowledge of such a meeting. As the film progresses, there are ever-so-slight variations in A's reaction to the stubborn perseverance; most of the time she staidly and somewhat playfully brushes off X, but then her tone grows serious, until in the end the two reach some sort of consensus, though a shaky one at that. X's recollections of specific moments that marked their meeting seem convincing enough to warrant A's continued attention, but he appears to be in pursuit not of a tangible romantic relationship but of something deeper, something essential to his being, something metaphysical perhaps. The enigmatic M, a lanky, stone-faced man who appears to have a significant connection to A, stalks the film in near silence most of the time, strolling down the corridors of the hotel and frequently playing a Chinese strategy game called Nim with X, mirroring the supposed battle between the two over A, and on a larger level emblematic of the film as a whole.

This meeting constitutes the primary conceit of the film, which is more a situation than a plot. Nothing more happens, and it also might be accurate to say that the same thing happens again and again, played out with minor discrepancies. No one scene can be said to have occurred in reality or in the minds of the characters, and with so many fragmented moments to choose from, the film only obscures itself more and more as time passes. We see contradictions arise once again when X's narrated recollections don't match up exactly with the images onscreen, colliding with them in a way that disorients the viewer. Such a mystery yields several potential explanations: X has been lying all along, and his stories are no more certain in his mind than they are in ours; like an instance of déjà vu, X's memories only arise in glimpses, so what he has to work with cognitively is then rearranged as scenes with slight changes; or there is the possibility that the whole film is from the trajectory of A, who is trying with some difficulty to piece together the images created by X's consistent, obstinate words.

An atmosphere of static, free-floating menace permeates through this drama, which Resnais capitalizes on with stunning visualizations of the numerous planes that Last Year at Marienbad inhabits; that is, past, present, future, fantasy, memory, dreams. Sacha Vierny, one of the gifted cinematographers on Hiroshima, lets the camera slide through the hotel and around its premises with both effortless grace and physical detachment, echoing the fluid yet cold forms in the magnificent marble architecture. It is no more likely to focus on its ostensible human subjects than it is to pause and marvel at the icy beauty of its surroundings, tracking across the gilded ceilings, expansive hallways, or palatial spiral staircases as X's voice-over describes the alienating quality of these elements. Yet the human presence in the film tends to be just as lifeless; immobile, unemotional figures dressed in fancy nightwear occupy the spaces in schematic orientations, lending a ghostly peculiarity that certainly, among many other things, influenced Stanley Kubrick in The Shining (1980). Some of the most confounding shots in Marienbad though are the simplest technically, such as the repetitious use of static mirror compositions, which uncomfortably plunge us directly out of the present and into the very embodiment of the temporal refractions that are the film's bread and butter. It is in these moments where Robbe-Grillet's manifesto seems truest, where space and time are obliterated in the name of unique cinematic expression.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Amarcord (1973) A Film by Federico Fellini

To watch Federico Fellini's Amarcord is to step inside someone else's mind as they flip through old photo albums from their youth. The film exists in that ineffable place where the brain constructs its own memories of the past, regardless of whether or not they play out as they did in the photographic scenes. Or at least, that's what Amarcord feels like. In truth, Fellini did not have to resurrect any ancient photographs or memorabilia from his past in order to build the world of the film; he did not need any objective indicators to use as springboards for ideas. That the atmosphere of the film seems so polished, so intimate, and so paradoxically accurate, despite its deliberately fabricated surfaces, speaks volumes about the feverish imagination of Fellini. The subject of the film is Fellini's hometown of Rimini, yet it's a place that he visited only sporadically and for brief periods of time since his youth. Fellini made a conscious decision not to shoot Amarcord in Rimini in order to preserve the poignancy and essential constructive nature of his memory, an intentional sidestep of representational autobiography.

Therefore the film is a work of self-mythology, and is all the more universal for it. Released in 1973 and thus considered one of the initial works in Fellini's much-overlooked "later career", Amarcord is the Italian director's warmest, most nostalgic, and most continually surprising film. Aside from the coherent time span of a year that the film takes place within, signaled by the yellow puffballs of spring that delicately breeze through the air and act as bookends, any semblance of narrative structure is nonexistent. Fellini instead just strings together a series of scenarios, mostly centering around a boisterous family with their pre-teen son Titta, but also expanding to accommodate for other members of the town, such as the impassioned prostitute Volpina, Titta's lovesick friends, and the object of all male desire, the refined Gradisca. Interspersed within the vignettes are brief scenes of meta-documentary, where a lawyer and historian muses about the town's culture directly to the camera, a trope that Fellini would return to in And the Ship Sails On. Emerging from this cacophony of seemingly disjointed scenes is a loving portrait of a community connected by its collective quirkiness.

Amarcord is an ensemble piece in the purest sense of the term, in that no individual character stands out as more important than another. Instead, it is their presence onscreen together, along with their surroundings, which work to form one large character, and it is this character, a spirit more than a physical shape, which proves of interest to Fellini. Fittingly, none of the individuals in the town would seem entirely plausible in this world; they occupy an adjacent universe as faint distortions of recognizable "types" seen through Fellini's mad imagination. He spent the bulk of his pre-production time going on day-trips to search for faces that could occupy his film, figures whom he believed could undergo his warping process from individuals to caricatures to the embodiments of his own crude sketches. The result is a cast of characters who may or may not be based off of real people from Fellini's past, yet each is so fully vested in that it's hard to doubt their existence. From Titta's father's enraged dinnertime fits to Gradisca's endearing poses for a Fascist officer to the priest's odd fascination with when and why the young boys touched themselves, Fellini depicts a town full of spirited oddballs who are grounded less in movie stereotypes as they are in one man's bubbling imagination.

The film's communitarian spirit is accompanied by an equally unwavering loyalty that the characters have towards God, their country, and their families, three values that are stated in this order throughout the film. Although Fellini's foremost interests are personal and anecdotal rather than political or religious, his examination of the inherent patriotism and faith in his characters proves to be quite crucial to the film. It is through these lenses which we view some of its most significant events. For instance, Titta and his friends' sexual fantasies - this being one of the most omnipresent themes in the film - are triggered mainly by the priest in confessionals. He adamantly inquires about their experiences in vulgarity, launching a hilarious montage of Titta and his friends satisfying themselves in inopportune places due to the smallest of erotic gestures. Later on, in a blazing release of sensual desire, the voluptuous tobacconist exposes herself to Titta and lets his face be consumed by her bosom. Similarly, Titta's plump friend imagines a marriage to his crush Aldina staged in front of a Fascist rally replete with an oversized flower-sculpture of Mussolini, the figure behind the force that puts Titta's Communist father through a scene in which he is coerced into drinking castor oil. Fellini, famously indifferent towards Fascism (a notion which is evident in the largely comic portrayal of the officers in the film), may not see politics or religious institutions as his film's meat, but it is an inevitability that they play a large role in the proceedings, figuring prominently into even the most personal of moments because of how sewn into the fabric of Italy they are.

For its majority, Amarcord is a boisterous film, punctuated almost constantly by joking spurts of foul-mouthed familial anger (a distinctly Italian trait if there ever was one) and Nina Rota's typically wistful, circus-like score. Even when we think we're silently viewing the town center in the middle of the night, with its dog seated territorially as always, a blaring motorcycle zooms by the frame and circles the square only to return and vanish off into the distance with another crackling roar. This continuous clatter emphasizes the liveliness of Rimini, the fact that even when it's ostensibly sleeping, it never quite tips over entirely into stasis. Yet there are a few scattered scenes where the magic of the visuals requires little to no aural accompaniment, and it is during these quiet moments that Amarcord is most sublime and memorable. The calm after the family's zany uncle stops screaming "I want a woman!" from high stop a tree, the thick fog covering the morning route to school where a cow is seen enigmatically sipping from a puddle, the first snow of the winter which, famously, marks the inexplicable arrival of a peacock; such scenes sprinkle mystery and beauty into this otherwise hilarious, irreverent, and charming artistic creation.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) A Film by Wes Anderson

Pushed along by the onslaught of sophisticated computer technology, animation as an artistic medium has lost some of its charm in recent years. Pixar's films look increasingly unbelievable and more approximated to reality, making us marvel at how close the images come to being completely lifelike. More and more, it seems that it is only in the "experimental" quarters where one can witness something truly unique being done with the primitive techniques of animation: line-drawing, stop-motion puppetry, etc. In the mainstream, it has become an anomaly to see a work like this that exploits the self-reflexive potential of the medium or draws attention to its own fundamental artifice. Wes Anderson's latest film Fantastic Mr. Fox is unsurprisingly - given the fact that Anderson has always been a director to only skate on the very fringes of the mainstream - one of those rarities. With its deliberate imperfections and unreal sense of movement, it stands as a welcome critical and commercial success that breaks free from the contemporary trends in digital animation.

When the initial furor over Fantastic Mr. Fox diminishes, I think that it will be remembered first and foremost for these formal characteristics, the way Anderson's fox and opossum characters leap and bound across the frame in a way that seems anatomically impossible, and the way he infuses every whisker with manufactured emotion when in close-up. Often times it seems like frames may have been mistakenly dropped as figures jerk purposefully through Anderson's dioramic tableaux, a result that is at first jarring but ultimately delightful. Every panoramic view is carefully constructed from left to right and top to bottom, with not a pixel of wasted space in a compositional sense. Many have pointed out how this self-conscious manipulation is only a natural progression for Anderson because of how cartoonish and astray from reality his characters have been in the past, but I think it is essentially working to emphasize the reality of these foxes, that they're always pulsing with energy, ready to unleash their animal instincts at a seconds notice.

Anderson's move to animation is also content-conscious. Fantastic Mr. Fox is adapted from Roald Dahl's judiciously illustrated children's book of the same name, a story about a vibrant community of foxes. Its primary focus is on one individual family, the father of which has grown stir crazy from occupying the same underground home for a great deal of time. Once a budding thief, proficient at harassing hens and sneaking into the prized alcoholic cider house, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) has decided, at the insistence of his practical, soothing wife (Meryl Streep), to lay low for a while. In the manner of classic crime movie archetypes however, Mr. Fox chooses to team up with Badger the opossum (Bill Murray) for one last job in hopes of sticking it to the three cruel farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, once and for all. This whopping plan eventually goes haywire when the farmers trap the foxes underground, forcing the entire community to work together to solve the problem.

It is through this predicament that the film mines timeless truths about family, community, and natural instinct. For the majority of the film, Mrs. Fox rolls her eyes at Mr. Fox's go-get-em attitude, preferring for him to settle down and sort out his responsibilities as opposed to complaining about his living situation and the supposed pains it causes him. In the end, Mr. Fox overcomes the farmers because of this overwhelming desire to embrace his own wild tendencies, to flee from captivity. Likewise, Mr. Fox's neglected son Ash - played by Jason Schwartzman in a role not unlike his other semi to fully fatherless characters in Anderson's previous work (Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited) - spends most of the film disappearing beneath the shadow of his athletic cousin Kristofferson (Wes' brother Eric Anderson), but learns to accept his weaknesses and embrace his cousin as a friend. As always in Anderson's work, these somewhat uplifting metamorphoses are treated with a droll and forgiving eye rather than a sentimental one. And it is the acknowledgment of the necessity of compromise - between wildness and domesticity, responsibility and personal enjoyment, self-efficacy and complacency - that makes it a multifaceted children's film as well as an extension of Anderson's characteristic concerns.

Did I say children's film? It's tough not to, but besides the fact that half of its targeted demographic is likely children, and that a children's book is its source material, the bulk of the comedy in the film and the pedantry of its formal treats would seemingly go right over the head of a child. Anderson's "jokes" remain purely situational as opposed to punch-line-oriented, and the closest the film comes to one-liners is in the form of running in-jokes that are usually slipped between the cracks of fluffy, expedient dialogue. The visual world the film creates, now constructed from scratch instead of plowing through the limitations of real world sets, is impressively in step with all of Anderson's work, right down to the two-dimensional look reliant on tracking shots, the ubiquity of the Futura typeface, a clever pop soundtrack, and the presence of an overarching color scheme (in this case a beautiful honey golden). Never before has this aesthetic reached further than its strictly cultish following, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is lighter on the dark undertones that Anderson so frequently likes to entertain and heavier on the fun. It's a remarkably lean, easily watchable endeavor that is hilarious and punchy from its first moment to its last.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Best Films of The First Decade of the 21st Century

(UPDATED 8/15/12)

I'm not one for assigning much meaning to end-of-the-year lists and other games, but I do think they're always a fun exercise. Obviously it's nearly impossible to rank quality, and it's especially silly to assume that one's thoughts couldn't change sporadically, but what I do think these lists do is provide a place for cinephiles to spot a film they have not seen and seek it out. It is a nice way to get some idea of what to bother with and what not to. Of course, I haven't seen every film that has been released this decade, so there are certainly some omissions that many would complain about, but here's what I've come up with for the films I found most fascinating, most gorgeous, most perplexing, and most hilarious.

1. Werckmeister Harmonies (Tarr, 2000, Hungary)
2. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001, USA)
3. Songs from the Second Floor (Andersson, 2000, Sweden)
4. The New World (Malick, 2004, USA)
5. There Will be Blood (Anderson, 2007, USA)
6. In Vanda's Room (Costa, 2000, Portugal)
7. Secret History of the Dividing Line / The Great Art of Knowing (Gatten, 2002/2004, USA)
8. What Time is it There? (Ming-Liang, 2001, Taiwan)
9. Before Sunset (Linklater, 2004, USA)
10. Hunger (McQueen, 2008, UK/Ireland)
11. Zodiac (Fincher, 2007, USA)
12. Revanche (Spielmann, 2008, Austria)
13. In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000, Hong Kong/France)
14. Still Walking (Kore-Eda, 2008, Japan)
15. Saddest Music in the World (Maddin, 2003, Canada)
16. Three Times (Hou, 2005, Taiwan)
17. Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001, Japan)
18. In the City of Sylvia (Guerin, 2009, France/Spain)
19. INLAND EMPIRE (Lynch, 2006, USA)
20. Public Enemies (Mann, 2009, USA)
21. No Country for Old Men (Coens, 2007, USA)
22. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Gondry, 2004, USA)

23. Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou, 2007, Taiwan/France)
24. The Holy Girl (Martel, 2004, Argentina)
25. The Life Aquatic (Anderson, 2004, USA)
26. Elephant (Van Sant, 2003, USA)
27. The Intruder (Denis, 2004, France/Switzerland)
28. Cache (Haneke, 2005, Austria/France)
29. Distant (Bilge Ceylan, 2002, Turkey)
30. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Ming-Liang, 2003, Taiwan)
31. Silent Light (Reygades, 2007, Mexico)
32. Summer Hours (Assayas, 2008, France)
33. Birth (Glazer, 2004, USA)

34. Synecdoche, New York (Kaufman, 2008, USA)
35. Gerry (Van Sant, 2002, USA)
36. Dogville (Von Trier, 2003, Denmark)
37. 35 Shots of Rum (Denis, 2008, France)
38. Liverpool (Alonso, 2009, Argentina)
39. Waking Life (Linklater, 2001, USA)
40. White Material (Denis, 2009, France/Cameroon)
41. The Last Mistress (Breillat, 2007, France)
42. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Ming-Liang, 2006, Taiwan)
43. The Man From London (Tarr, 2007, Hungary)
44. The Girlfriend Experience (Soderbergh, 2009, USA)
45. AI: Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg, 2001, USA)
46. Alexandra (Sokurov, 2007, Russia)
47. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Puiu, 2005, Romania)
48. The Squid and the Whale (Baumbach, 2005, USA)
49. The Royal Tenenbaums (Anderson, 2001, USA)
50. Collateral (Mann, 2004, USA)

Once in the list, now bumped out: Millenium Mambo (Hou, 2001, Taiwan), City of God (Mierelles, 2002, Brazil), Three Monkeys (Bilge Ceylan, 2008, Turkey), Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002, USA), Enter the Void (Noe, 2009, France/Japan), Science of Sleep (Gondry, 2006, France), Old Joy (Reichardt, 2006, USA), Heima (DeBlois, 2007, USA/Iceland), Eastern Promises (Cronenberg, 2007, USA/Russia), Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009, USA), Los Muertos (Alonso, 2004, Argentina), Garden State (Braff, 2004, USA)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

There Will Be Blood (2007) A Film by Paul Thomas Anderson

It is difficult to pinpoint the variety of motivations that led me to kick this blog off last year. There have been a great number of films that I've seen in the past in which something occurred - a camera movement, a gesture, an utterly bizarre moment, a mood, a performance, a director, a style - that gradually created a desire inside me to write. Slacker, Damnation, Garden State, Paths of Glory, The Silence. These were all films that made me feel something that I knew needed to be expressed, but yet I remained quiet. Then Paul Thomas Anderson's magisterial There Will be Blood came to theaters. I saw it twice. That was the tipping point. I knew I needed to start writing. It was an especially crucial moment for me considering the film was the only thing I'd seen on the big screen up to that point that I could comfortably call "art". Sad, I know, but I knew it was a powerful sensation that called for action.

Ironically, I never ended up writing about There Will Be Blood for a number of reasons, most notably the fact that I sprung voraciously towards new films and wanted only to write about those. Anderson's work was simply an energizer, a celluloid strip that caused me to throw myself into the blogosphere rather than a film I was truly committed to engaging with in writing. I have now seen it for a third time, and it remains as eye-opening an experience as it was both times in the theater. The epic, Kubrickian scope of it translates decently well onto the television screen (after all, maybe I've trained myself to consume films that beg for theatrical treatment on a dinky home screen, having seen all of Kubrick's films in the comfort of my own basement). The scintillating uniqueness of Jonny Greenwood's score manages to resonate even without the luxury of surround sound. Robert Elswit's Oscar-winning cinematography loses some of its majestic impact on a digital television, but his compositions remain never less than striking. And most interestingly, Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning lead performance only becomes simultaneously more fascinating and more inscrutable through repeat viewings, his layers of mystery only deepening the more he ruthlessly snivels at his opponents.

It is necessary to point out that Day-Lewis, playing Daniel Plainview, the turn-of-the-century oil man who dominates the film physically, emotionally, and and spiritually, considers everyone an opponent. That makes for a lot of snarling. Plainview tells us, in the only scene of the film in which he comes close to speaking his mind, that he is a misanthrope, that he finds nothing to like in most people. He says this to a man named Henry (Kevin J. O'Conner) that falsely passes himself off as his brother to line himself up with success and money, and yet even as Plainview falls for his description, one can sense the distrust and dislike he feels towards him. This is because Plainview is a materialist in the strictest sense of the word, so much so that he devalues all human relationships in favor of personal accomplishment. Family does not matter, other than as a superficial image that will boost Plainview's own ethos. This may be the reason why in the stunningly wordless opening twenty minutes - reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey right down to shot compositions and musical cues - Plainview takes a fellow oil-man's baby son as his own when he injures himself at work. H.W. (Dillon Freasier), as he calls him, becomes his omnipresent right-hand-man, a vehicle that will allow others to apply qualities to Daniel such as family-oriented and loving even though they are noticeably lacking. That is, he is his sidekick until he goes deaf due to a massive explosion at the oil derrick one day, a defect that tarnishes Daniel's sense of self, bearing in mind he cannibalizes H.W. into a fragment of his own persona.

If H.W. - a character who is fittingly kept opaque throughout the film - becomes a fraction of Plainview, then Paul Sunday, the eccentric prophet in the small town of New Boston who turns Plainview's eye towards his land, becomes his mirror image. And yet at first glance, Sunday (a fitting name for a person who leads Sunday mass) appears to be everything Plainview is not: family-oriented, faithful in God, accommodating, gentle. Gradually, the film reveals him as a similarly greedy figure, devoted to turning religion into capitalism in the same way Plainview attempts to maintain his dominance of the oil business. Most aggravating is Paul's complete and utter phoniness when it comes to sermonizing; in order to rid his patrons of demons, he puts on exhibitionist spectacles involving screaming, writhing, and drooling. Paul Dano plays the determined false prophet as if on the same balance beam as Day-Lewis, risking ludicrousness one minute and putting on somber sincerity the next. Although both have the feel of eccentric and iconic figures, they manage to steer their performances towards believability.

Some of the central themes that emerge out of There Will Be Blood, like greed, ambition, and fate, align the film with a greater tradition of mythic American films that tackle such subjects with epic scope and a brooding tone, such as John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Welles' Citizen Kane (a work that appears to be more and more of an influence to Anderson as the film progresses). However, subjects like the oil industry, capitalism, and evangelism seem more timely than they do timeless. Oil is now an atrocious global market heavily dependent on foreign affairs. Capitalism tends to hurt more than it helps. And religion has turned into a marketable, ever-shifting commodity, where conversion to certain beliefs is forced on the innocent passersby more than ever. Anderson's pejorative treatment of all three subjects begs for the film to be interpreted as an allegory on current affairs. Daniel Plainview, who is an overwhelming, suffocating presence onscreen, and in many ways a tangible weight, seems to have the force of an entire landscape. Could that landscape be the United States spiraling into abysmal depths as it equates wealth and achievement with importance?

It is not that Anderson has never grappled with such multi-layered subject matter before. In fact, his films all critique American ways of life to some extent, but it is the clarity and cohesion with which he pursues his key questions that distinguishes There Will Be Blood as his finest work. Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love tend to put forth a broad smattering of ideas but lack overall focus, whereas There Will Be Blood maturely stays true to a distinct flow, even as its backstory is left cloaked and its pace may be described as deliberate. Anderson seems to have a firm grasp of the implications of his stirring images, such as the scene when Plainview literally rubs Paul's face in a pool of oil, or its supposed power shift later on when Paul conducts the salvation of Plainview, a blackly comic look at the facade of religious conversion. He also deftly incorporates Greenwood's tense string-based score, using it not just to supplement the drama but to embody the spirit of the film and its characters in a way that brings to mind, once again, Kubrick, who would frequently realize the full potential of dissonance between soundtrack and image.

All of this comes to us through one of the most cleverly self-referential titles I've ever heard. It's rare that I ever give a title too much credit, and I'm certainly not the kind of person that will watch a movie with the title in mind and go back and dissect it afterward. However, There Will Be Blood's is a standout; its blunt four words are an acknowledgment of the different permutations of blood that are spread across the film: the blood of the land (oil), the blood of the human body, and the blood of Christ. It is also a mouth-watering warning of the unsavory act that closes the film, which is really its only graphic outbreak, leading some to ask the question, "where is the blood?" I love the tension that Anderson creates by naming the film what he does, a claustrophobic tension that is only fully solved in the final minutes when Plainview lets out the multivalent last line, "I'm finished", in a symmetrical composition set to anachronistic string music. The sequence makes me want to jump for joy. It is great, fulfilling cinema.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

World of Glory (Härlig är jorden) A Short Film by Roy Andersson (1991)

During an aggressively confrontational scene of mass genocide that inaugurates Roy Andersson's essential short film World of Glory, a lanky man, the figure who becomes the center of interest for the rest of the film, turns around in his fixed position to look directly into the lens. He does so amongst a larger group of stiffly dressed men and women who inactively loiter around a horrific scene: a truck full of naked people is taken on a trip around a parking lot while the diesel exhaust fumes of the truck empty into their space. He also does so vacuously, either unaware of the immorality of it or unwilling to express any feelings that would contradict those of his peers. It's safe to say that the man looks at us, the provoked viewers, but it is perhaps more accurate to declare that he turns to gaze at humanity, the cumulative force that positions itself in close proximity to such horrors but only impassively looks on. The camera also assumes the weight of history and the unfortunate tendency for deplorable events to repeat themselves in different forms and for different reasons over a large span of time. It is Andersson's prerogative to lament the fact that, much to our ignorance, these acts have become progressively less visible to society as a whole.

This stance is decidedly more precise and polemical than those taken in Andersson's other films, ones that usually lean towards the existential, the unknown, and the unsolvable. Songs from the Second Floor was a somber and at times absurd riff on the meaning of life, and the more levelheaded You, the Living focused on the trials and tribulations of quotidian existence. World of Glory, an accomplished precursor to these two films, adopts the same histrionic, punctilious static-take style but fixes its attention on one character rather than shifting extemporaneously between vaguely related stories. The lanky man, camouflaged within his grayish surroundings by a thick coat of white makeup, stands in the middle of a series of perfectly composed frames to take us on a tour of his day-to-day life. He shows us his unremarkable possessions, like a small car, a bed, and a plain kitchen, and his similarly struggling family, with a mother on her deathbed, a dead father in a graveyard, a silent brother stuck in the throes of a mechanical job, and a young son getting the word Volvo carved into his forehead. The line between morbidity and black comedy is always played with in Andersson's films, but here it most closely leans towards the former. There is a frequent tension between whether it is right or wrong to laugh, but at times Andersson can't help but stage scenes with such caustic wit that his comedic side comes to the fore, such as when the man guzzles from a wine glass at mass for several seconds too long as a way to drink away his repressed sins.

The dire life of the central character, and the presumably miserable lives of the static figures that surround him, hint at the collective guilt of humanity. Andersson physically manifests this notion in the exaggerated mise-en-scene, one where characters hardly move an inch or crack a smile and stand with their shoulders hunched like zombies in foggy graveyards. World of Glory also introduces Andersson's concern for the force of consumerism, emphasizing the way materials dominate the lives of his characters, specifically in the shot of his little boy with the forehead imprint. The film's eerie classical soundtrack - which periodically rises in volume over the entirety of the film - weaves in and out of the scenes and the long black leader that separates them, creating a persistent mystery. It's a film that is absolutely brilliant in its deadpan simplicity, and positions itself as one of the medium's finest short works.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Road (2009) A Film by John Hillcoat

I'll come right out and admit that I have not read Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, the basis of John Hillcoat's new film adaption. Yet I hope that this will help to provide a new perspective, considering nearly every review out there unfairly places every aspect of the film version beside those same aspects in the book and compares them. In most instances, it turns into this petty game where it seems as if the critic is trying to prove that the bigger brother will always be stronger, smarter, and more unique. Yes, Hillcoat is certainly a devotee of McCarthy's literature considering he has chosen to follow it so closely. But no matter how reverent he is, his film is a separate object altogether composed of images rather than words; it warrants its own judgment as a singular piece of cinema. Otherwise, reviews become biased and tell more about the critic's preoccupations than the film's. If there's ever going to be intelligent debate about the cross-section between literature and film, both need to be digested on their own first instead of immediately becoming such a comparative match.

Now that I have that out of the way, I'll go forth with my discussion of the film that has garnered knee-jerk descriptors such as "depressing" and "bleak". While The Road does take place in a post-apocalyptic Earth where evil cannibals massively overshadow the good guys and no solution is in sight, its ostensible core qualities - hope, love, and perseverance - fall several notches short of misanthropic. To give an idea of how diminutive the moral population is, the central father/son relationship (between Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) appears to be its lone presence for a great deal of the film, whereas snarling, toothless figures tend to peruse the devastated landscape in wild packs. There is no indication as to what caused the environmental disaster, but whatever the case, it was muscular enough to cast a lifeless gray over the entirety of the land, which is scattered with rusty cars, tipped powerlines, and fallen tree branches. Curiously, many houses remain structurally intact, and instead of containing measly scraps of food, they have turned into torture chambers where cannibals keep ravaged humans they plan to devour. At times, this imagery veers dangerously close to the overdone vistas of I Am Legend (2007), but in its more subdued moments, boasts dazzling, almost painterly visual invention.

It is across this terrain that The Man and The Boy travel, headed - in suggestively mystical manner - towards the sea. The crux of the film takes place on "the road", interrupted on occasion by decidedly idyllic flashbacks of life before the disaster, where images of flowers, sunlight, and The Man's beautiful wife (Charlize Theron) often times come across too mannered to be taken as convincing recollections. To be sure however, this dreamt up perfection is supposed to be in the context of a lovesick husband who is damned to spend the rest of his existence warding off enemies with his remaining two bullets in a loveless setting; the unexpectedly quick excisions of these visions only accentuates their ephemerality. It is also through these flashbacks that we get an ambiguous lesson about why the wife is not with the two of them in their journey. Apparently, Mortensen knew only how to give (evidenced by a scene from the past where he slips his hand between his wife's thighs at an upscale theater), and Theron was done with taking, so their relationship went south. Theron is seen somberly leaving the film into pitch darkness during what seems to be the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

The Man's ceaseless attachment to his wife may help explain any believable lack of this with his son. Instead, his protection of his son feels entirely animalistic, the kind of instinctual urge that causes him to cover his son in his coat and rope him into his bosom when predators are near. Their discussions are limited to the here-and-now (The Boy regularly asks questions like "are we gonna die?") rather than rooted in any sort of tenderly shared experiences. Therefore, it appears that Mortensen protects his son for his wife, knowing that she brought him into the world, and has only the utmost dedication to act as his personal security guard. Unfortunately, Hillcoat doesn't handle this tricky dynamic too well, and before one realizes this may be the case, Mortensen and Smit-McPhee have already delivered a string of tepid scenes lacking much chemistry, stitched together by Mortensen's inconsistent narration. On individual terms, especially in a scene when The Man speaks timidly with an old blind man looking for food (Robert Duvall as a product of an expert makeup department), Mortensen is typically magnetic, yet one gets the sense that he can only deliver so many performances involving a dirty face and crying before it becomes a comfortable formality. As for Smit-McPhee, there were multiple pouty scenes that encouraged me to laugh.

For all its minor mistakes though, The Road is a compelling, if at times repelling, portrait of post-apocalyptic survivalism. Its tone is admirably consistent and unflinchingly bleak (to give in and use the oft-quoted adjective). The remarkable high-contrast, dimly lit cinematography is its standout feature. Yet for all its riveting, brutal suspense, Hillcoat can't manage to completely sidestep the melodramatic influence of Hollywood. After a series of tear-jerking close-ups set to Nick Cave's slightly manipulative score (which can supplement the visuals perfectly one moment and intrude jarringly the next), The Boy is left alone beside the sea. He believes he is the only human left who "carries the fire", his metaphor for possessing goodness, but conveniently, the Great American family arrives on the scene in the nick of time to take The Boy under their wing. If Hillcoat had resisted the desire for a tidy resolution, The Road could have concluded as the relentlessly dark parable it was for its majority.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Pickpocket (1959) A Film by Robert Bresson

It's easy to miss narrative details of Robert Bresson's Pickpocket. So much becomes of so little. The story, that of a compulsive thief named Michel (Martin LaSalle) and his repetitious existence, is constantly expanding outward and the claustrophobic frames which contain it seem to be choking for breath, looking for a way to accommodate for any plot threads that are left unexplored. Yet this effect is all carefully devised by Bresson to approximate the perspective through which the loner Michel sees the world, and also the one-sided state of mind he has backed himself into. It is with rigidly uncompromising minimalism, eerie silences, and austere performances that Bresson is able to achieve this unique atmosphere. With Pickpocket, he manages to effectively render the damaged subconscious of a criminal by supporting the film throughout with his lead character's narrated diary entries, a technique that acquires the confessional immediacy of Claude Laydu's musings in the aptly named Diary of a Country Priest.

Not only does Pickpocket reach back towards Bresson's own oeuvre, but it also is heavily influenced by one of his favorite writers: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The film is often said to be the cinematic equivalent of the Russian author's Crime and Punishment, although it makes no attempt to adapt it note-for-note. Both films ponder about the nature of the common man and morality in society and deal with pro(anta?)gonists who commit illegal acts based on a justification of some sort, although the precise one in Michel's case is in question. His character is solemn and blank for the film's entirety despite the several options he has before him that could improve both his spiritual and financial well-being. There is Jeanne (Marika Green), an unassumingly gorgeous woman who lives in the same apartment complex as him and occupies a space directly next to his dying mother. Even when she suspects him of crime, she offers her guidance. There is also Jacques, a teasing friend who nonetheless is willing to help Michel find a job. With all of this help, one assumes he should not feel so alone in the world. Why then, does he resort to pickpocketing?

Bresson's cinema is famously a cinema of questions, questions that permeate through every aspect of the film, be it related to mise-en-scene, narrative, or theme. Where is this scene taking place? Who was he just talking to? What leads him to behave the way he does? These often lead to dead ends when considered logically. But it's also necessary to point out that Bresson wants you to feel before you comprehend, and also wants you to acknowledge that the journey you take to reach supposed answers is just as important if not more important than the answers themselves. It is significant, then, that the title of the film is as succinct and pragmatic as it is; Bresson wants us to first and foremost get inside the head of a pickpocket. Consider the life of a pickpocket: isolated, focused, sneaky, drifting. We experience these traits through Bresson's exquisite cinematography, which creates an endlessly self-contained world of hands, doors, mechanically moving crowds, wallets, and blank glances. Bresson does not show us any exteriors in their entirety, nor does he ever reveal Michel's whole room at once. When on a subway or on the street, the camera stays fixed on Michel, following him as he scouts victims who are diminished to black blurs across the screen. The film's quietly elaborate centerpiece, in which Michel and his new accomplices devise a ballet of theft in the train station, is the towering technical achievement of the film, yet it is never ostentatious. Instead, the form perfectly reflects the action.

The film also makes mindful use of sound as well as image. Reminiscent of Bela Tarr's application of post-synchronized sound, Pickpocket exists in a Paris where the clatter of footsteps is cumulatively louder than the sound of human voices and even motor vehicles. It all works to deindividualize the masses; after all, Michel prefers not to see them as separate people with individual strengths and weaknesses, but rather as a collective whole which he has elevated himself above by reading books. Nearly everyone wears black suits and is ripe for the picking, or pickpocketing, rather. It also should not be noted that hands, which take greatest precedence visually, create not the faintest of sounds. To Bresson, hands tell as much about a person as anything else on a physical body, and here, their silence helps to emphasize their deft movement and underscores the fact that Michel speaks only through action. The whole of his existence is defined by the choices he makes with his hands, as they are both the vehicles of his downfall and the sources of his pleasures.

If pleasure sounds like a impossibility in the life of Michel, take into account the different meanings of the word. When he commits theft, he gets a perverse and - as some critics have argued - sexual thrill out of it, no matter how briefly that thrill lasts. It is the danger of the encounters that excites him, the rush of being inches away from someone breathing on your neck while still slipping a hand into their coat pocket. Pickpocket is indeed a thoughtful inquiry into the way we live our lives, the meaning of our existences, and the shaky divide between right and wrong, but it is also a film that speaks strongly about compulsion and the intangible force that drives people to continue harmful behaviors. Michel gets his due in the end when he foolishly, and perhaps deliberately, steals from an undercover policeman, but his imprisonment is not a judgment on Bresson's part as much as it is another question. When he finally embraces Jeanne between metal bars and the emotion breaks through, reaching a level of transcendence, as Paul Schrader suggests, we wonder whether or not Michel's crimes were worth it.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ponyo (2008) A Film by Hayao Miyazaki

All of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films are ostensibly "for children", but never has that element been as pronounced as it is in Ponyo, an earnestly minor effort about a fish who longs to become human to be with a young boy named Sosuke. In several instances, the film straddles a thin line between genuinely poignant simplicity and twee juvenilia; for proof, notice the film's laughable closing credits, which smash down the barrier in a blaze of Comic Sans type and bouncy pop music that I haven't heard outside of birthday parties for three year-old's. But I know Miyazaki has these tendencies - certainly traces of them litter the sublime Spirited Away (2001) and even the surprisingly heady Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind (1984) - and I've learned to look past them to discover the more furtive merits underneath. After all, were it not for my ardent belief in Miyazaki's artistry, I probably would never bash an eyelid at Japanese anime.

My somewhat clouded response to Ponyo has to do with the fact that it manages to juggle, often times within the same scene, everything I adore about Miyazaki's work and everything I despise about it all in one 103-minute film. For starters, the story: little Sosuke lives with his nurse mother and sailor father in a small village beside an ocean with a vibrant ecosystem filled with unidentifiable blob fish and fantastical reefs. He's a boy who longs for all the excitement and variety of the underwater world and Ponyo - the fish who arrives at Sosuke's shore stuck in a bottle - is a creature who pines for the sobriety and innocence of a human life. Their mutual needs are met when Ponyo licks a wound on Sosuke's finger and unknowingly sets off a mutation that will allow her the ability to vacillate between human and fish, but will also disrupt the balance of nature. Ponyo's potion-making father Fujimoto is the figure who for a moment comes closest to being a traditional antagonist in the film in his relentless search for his daughter, but soon enough we realize his intentions are reasonable. He wants his daughter to be happy in one state or another without destroying the natural order, and the potions he concocts are made in order to combat the omnipresent dumping of human waste into the waters.

The absence of the normal mechanisms employed to further narrative is one of Ponyo's virtues. There is no snarling enemy in the film as usual; instead, all of Miyazaki's characters wind up being multi-faceted in one way or another. (Recall No Face from Spirited Away, who sparked xenophobic shrills in the members of a bathhouse at first but proved to be an honest soul with some common needs.) I admire this magical ability to dredge up a full-blown story out of limited means, and it immediately makes Miyazaki's films distinct from the Pixar and Disney fare, where the trials and tribulations of the main characters are never in question. Ponyo does not always adhere to its plot either, wandering off on tangents meant to revel in imagery or illustrate transient, on-the-fly moments that most children's films leave out. Take, for instance, the quiet moment we share with Fujitsu in his private dwelling as he sifts through potions without doing anything significant, or the prolonged opening montage detailing the kaleidoscopic movement of underwater creatures. As always, Miyazaki's spectacular technical ability astounds us throughout, and in some ways the tranquil setting of Ponyo suits his adeptness with color and liquid marvelously; the sequence where the ocean becomes a writhing animal and Ponyo runs atop the violent waves is particularly a stunner.

If simple charm and visual bravura were enough, Ponyo would be an indisputable success. However, we've come to expect both of these things with Miyazaki's work. The recurring themes are what is especially interesting about his career, but they should warrant a consistent heft from film to film. Here we only get a brief acknowledgment of the dangers of human pollution (a subject that usually becomes, in one way or another, the hefty subtext of his films) and a treatment of parents that is too infuriatingly unconvincing to be taken as a serious critique of Japanese parenting. Also, Miyazaki's trademark tick - having characters directly state their actions and emotions in an annoyingly over-expressive manner - starts to become too necessary to the film's meaning, whereas in the past it could be dismissed as a minor blip shrouding more understated messages. It's as if Miyazaki opted only to delight rather than to challenge, and the hammy wrapped-in-a-bow conclusion further underlines this fact. Hell, the presence of Disney B-listers Nick Jonas and Noah Cyrus as the voices of Sosuke and Ponyo, respectively, is enough of an indication of Miyazaki's tender embrace of whimsical entertainment over environmental polemic.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) A Film by Wim Wenders (1987)

If you have ever wished you could fly, see Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire on the big screen. This may mean suspending your disbelief however and accepting that you have become an angel to Wenders, because in our secular world, Wings of Desire is an unabashedly spiritual film. That may take some getting used to for some people, but if you can warm up to the idea that the protagonists we sympathize with are indeed immortal spirits lovingly observing life in holy black trench coats, you are in for a gloriously elegant visual symphony. In it, Wenders does not just want you to watch the angels go about their business; he wants you to be an angel too. His camera hardly ceases its weightless movement throughout the film, hovering flawlessly over the mundane moments that make up the lives of Berlin citizens. Wenders has a way of making the mundane seem extraordinary though, and this is very much the purpose of the film, which ultimately surfaces an unusual irony: to grow accustomed to an empyreal perspective is to gather a paradoxical longing for the concrete, sensual pleasures of real life.

Such is the case with Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an angel who has grown bored of his task to spend eternity without human sensation. Instead, he mournfully watches both public and private moments unfold, periodically resting a hand on a woeful victim's shoulder without being seen or felt. He has the uncanny ability to tune in to the inner monologues of random pedestrians, catching snippets of their thoughts before moving on to new subjects, a tactic which sometimes results in a whispered aural collage. For instance, he'll track down a line of subway passengers or peruse around a spacious public library witnessing testaments that range from the humorously momentary to the abysmally philosophical. His partner in voyeurism, Cassiel (Otto Sander), goes about the same routine, although his pursuit is far more ascetic; he treats it like the deeply compassionate activity that it is rather than an unfortunate inevitability. In Wenders' Berlin, the immortals are very much in coexistence with the mortals, even when neither realizes it. Both seem equally relevant to the flow of everyday life.

Evidence towards this is present in the starry-eyed gazes that children cast in the direction of the angels once in a while, and also in the character of Peter Falk (playing himself) who admits to having made the "transition" long before the film begins. Falk is the good-natured, gruff film actor starring in the film-within-a-film, which appears to be some sort of concentration camp thriller. In the middle of Wings of Desire, while ordering coffee at a concession stand on the side of a drab street, he begins addressing Damiel directly, claiming he senses his presence. He starts explaining how the blissful combination of coffee and cigarettes is what swayed him towards switching to a mortal life. Despite the odd impression Falk makes on the confused passersby, Damiel is touched by the unfettered joy he gets from the simplest of human excitements. At this point, he has made up his mind: he wants to become mortal.

Falk is not the only factor in this persuasion however. The other - a beautiful trapeze artist Damiel is enamored with - ultimately thrusts the film in a wayward direction. Throughout the film, he sits in at circus rehearsals in which the woman, Marion (Solveig Dommartin), contorts in phenomenal directions high above the rest of the performers while the camera downplays its graceful movement to be replaced by her astonishing displays. Damiel even observes her privately in her trailer home swooning to records and relaxing in her bed, a privilege that thousands of peeping toms spend their lives yearning for. Wings of Desire's final chapter, in which Damiel makes the transition to mortality and guilelessly searches Berlin for Marion, essentially feels tacked on and insipid, as if Wenders could not resist an urge to endorse the film with conventional appeal. The contemplative tone of the long black-and-white preface is dropped in favor a color-drenched romantic fable that is burdened by the melodramatic nature of Damiel's cloying naiveté. Although we sense that Damiel's lust for sensation is finally met, the overlong ending makes Wings of Desire needlessly bifurcated.

Yet the meditative perfection of the majority of the film overshadows its near spoiler of a conclusion. Working with exemplary cinematographer Henri Alekan and assistant director Claire Denis in her early stages, the film is a recipe for beauty. The soaring but cautious crane and dolly shots that capture elaborately choreographed scenes adopt the first-person perspective of the angels and emphasize their affectionate scrutiny. To accompany the magnificent visuals, Jürgen Knieper's minimalist cello score pairs with the inner monologues of Berlin citizens to create intricately layered sound design. All of this works to exhibit a Berlin that is stung with an acute sense of melancholy that is similar to that of Angelopoulos' Greece, yet it is not without its celebration of life's pleasures as well.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

35 Shots of Rum (35 Rhums) A Film by Claire Denis (2008)

Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum - like Hirozaku Kore-Eda's recent Still Walking - uses a beloved Yasujiro Ozu film as a jumping off point but ultimately morphs to its own context and sensibility. The story of Lionel (Alex Descas) and Joséphine (Mati Diop), an intimate father/daughter duo living together in a Paris apartment building mirrors that of Shukichi (Chishû Ryû) and Noriko (Setsuko Hara), a similarly affectionate but physically closer relationship evolving in Tokyo; both tales contain their fair shares of trains and reveal the weight of passing time as it influences the lives of family members. I won't sing about the ways in which Denis deftly reintegrates the elements of Late Spring into 35 Shots of Rum, as if the film can only be seen as a particularly bright spot in a long shadow of greatness cast down by the monumental Japanese work, but instead take it as the rich, plaintive gesture that it is, a singular entity as much as it is an homage.

Much has been made of Claire Denis in recent years, especially on The Auteurs Notebook and in the BFI's Sight and Sound Magazine, where Nick James declares her the finest filmmaker in the world. 35 Shots of Rum comes directly before her most recent fest-film White Material and it potently evokes a mood of tranquility. It eases us ever-so-gradually into a not-so easy sentiment: that we must find peace in our own routines and submit to the fact that the lives that run beside ours do not run on parallel tracks, that they criss-cross, intervene, and sometimes lead to isolation, as we see in the opening frames which assume the rickety point-of-view of Lionel as he yields to his occupation as a train driver. Shortly thereafter, he reunites with his daughter Joséphine in their apartment for a quiet night of brief expressions of admiration and modest downtime. A pattern is established that the film effortlessly maintains of work in the day and home at night, a seemingly endless systemization of separation and reconvening.

It is only through the passing of time that this pattern is mildly obstructed, ushered along by two figures - Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue) and Noé (Grégoire Colin) - who tug lovingly and desirably at our respective main characters. Gabrielle is an ex-lover of Lionel and also acts as the quasi-mother figure for Joséphine, and Noé is a young man living alone on a floor above them. Together, the four presume the awkward stance of a real family, with the two not linked by blood filling in the holes that are left enigmatically gaping. Not until the final quarter of the film does Denis subtly reveal to us hints of the mother through dusty material remnants in the apartment, and the exact state of affairs that defines her absence is left unanswered, just as the tangible course of events that lead Lionel and Joséphine to tension remains flexibly open to interpetation. Those familiar with Denis' work will acknowledge these ambiguities as par for the course; she never once judges her characters but at the same time does not take this opacity to an extreme, providing us evocative evidence in the behaviors of characters that suggests potential inquiries.

35 Shots of Rum is formally splendid and has an admirable inclination not to ogle at pleasurable images. Instead, Denis' exquisite cutting rhythms create a precise flow that matches the interconnecting nature of the characters and constructs what is specifically a montage of abstractions. Time and space are delicately scattered when Denis promptly excises the the conceivable payoffs of a scene to pursue other plot lines, a move that approximates the abrupt veering of a train at a fork. Even when the four central characters occupy the same space, leaving nowhere for the film to exit to, Denis discovers a way to obscure the ontological surfaces of the scene. Most memorably illustrating this is the rainy night that is in some ways the crux of the film. The four characters are heading to a concert when their car breaks down en route, leaving them defenseless in the pouring rain. During the drive there, Denis resists all-encompassing views of the car, instead shifting rhythmically between tight close-ups of their lowly lit expressions as the droplets of water on the windows blur the outside world they are contained within. The "family" then makes a spontaneous decision to have a rendezvous in an African restaurant on the side of the street, and once again Denis limits her vision to the central figures in comfortable but indecisive motion as they sway to the music in what is surely one of the most sublime renderings of the wit's-end-waltz-scene I have ever witnessed.

Moments like these stand out beautifully in what is otherwise an extremely consistent film, absent of many significant tonal or narrative leaps (besides a particularly unexpected and chilling moment of gore when Lionel confronts a dead friend in a train tunnel). Denis has an elegant way of suffusing profundity into the elliptical gaps where more conventional directors would resort to an emotional apex, such as when Joséphine arrives at Noé's door after a tension between the two in a previous scene. We expect a flush of emotion culminating in a kiss but instead get a cut to a new scene, letting mysteries regarding what happened simmer over. Similarly, one could argue that the final scene is a more fundamental example of this restraint; the characters dress up and Joséphine dons her mother's necklace, but the true content of the sequence is mysterious. Is it a marriage, linking Joséphine to Ozu's Noriko? And if so, for whom? The answers are left within the viewer's own projection, and Denis supplies enough emotion to want to search for them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dogville (2003) A Film by Lars Von Trier

Lars Von Trier's Dogville is a remarkably dense film unafraid to put forth a discursive string of unsettling questions about the baseness of human nature. This sentence could quite comfortably form the one-line review to any of the Danish director's films, and it's not necessarily always a clear-cut indicator of success. Von Trier's films are hardly prone to elicit black or white opinions, but of what I have seen, Dogville is the one that most closely approaches perfection. The film, three hours long with plenty of intellectual chutzpah, is one whopper of an experience. It is a rock-in-the-shoe of a film, the kind of significant work of art that defies you not to react, to the point where very few next-day reviews will really come across with utmost sincerity. As a disclaimer, it has been three days since I saw Dogville and it has taken me this long to wrestle with my thoughts; the same occurred with his latest provocation Antichrist. Point being, his films have a way of detecting some universal safe zone that exists inside viewers, entering through the back door, and hiding behind the walls when chased.

Magically, Von Trier manages to do this even when he crafts a world with no walls. That world is Dogville, and it consists of a rectangular soundstage smack dab in the middle of a colorless, intangible ether. Dogville represents a minuscule town in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado during the Great Depression, but with its Monopoly-like etchings of houses and pathways, we understand it as being far more universal, an emblem of the blueprint by which all American (and perhaps international) small towns abide. It has a spot for the town dog that is reminiscent of silhouetted dead bodies from slapstick comedy films, a central road donned the common name "Elm St." despite the lack of elm trees, and a bench at the edge of the town designated with pedantic specificity as "the old man's bench". It doesn't matter if these things seem implausible given their assigned context (never does a certain old man even sit on "the old man's bench"); rather, they are meant to evoke a folksiness that might remind us of the small communities we have visited in our lives. Dogville is just an archaic slab of concrete onto which Von Trier has placed a group of living, breathing humans whose oblique naturalism contrasts starkly with their deliberately artificial surroundings.

It is not long though before the initial novelty of the unique setting dissolves and becomes invisible in the face of the film's plausible drama. That is not to say that one may mistake a real door for what was really just an actor pantomiming the opening of a door to a dubbed sound effect, but there is some heightened sense of conviction that these characters are actually living a customary life on a game board. This stems from the ability of an electric cast (including Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Chloë Sevigny, and Stellan Skarsgård) to bring to life a believable community, fraught with their own idiosyncrasies, prejudices, and routines. For all this though, Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), the soft-spoken writer in the town, feels the community needs a moral readjustment. He sees a certain coldness in the attitudes of those around him that may be a cause of the absence of a church in Dogville.

Then, as if struck down from God, the conveniently-named Grace (Nicole Kidman) arrives in town one night to the tune of gunshots. She is a radiant blond fugitive whose seedy ties with gangsters suggests she has stumbled out of a noir film from Hollywood in the 1940's. Tom, always willing to lend a helping hand, offers to have Grace hide out in Dogville, and he sees her presence as an immediate opportunity to put the townspeople's tolerance to the test. He holds a vote on keeping her and Grace just barely survives it. Although she understands she has placed a burden on the town and is more than willing to leave without bothering anyone, she is extremely enthusiastic about assisting wherever she is needed to reverse the skepticism of those around her. Not only that, but Grace also sees Dogville as a minuscule land of opportunities, a cozy place where "hopes and dreams are pursued". Her wide-eyed eagerness in the town is similar to that of Naomi Watts' character in Mulholland Drive, albeit in a less cartoonish manner. Consequently, both actresses deliver fearless performances that require their spirits to be up one moment and down in the dirt the next, laying bare not just flesh but dignity as well.

Because of this, Dogville gradually becomes an emotionally unpredictable parable of the xenophobic tendencies inherent in a group mentality and the evil that ensues when an outsider invades the group's space, among a confluence of other issues. While Tom continues to support Grace, if not publicly then privately, the rest of the town is progressively less accommodating. Despite Grace's unerring work ethic, her schedule is pushed to extremes in order to maintain acceptance in a community that runs stolidly on the ideal of utilitarianism. Her jobs, delegated to menial tasks such as making daily conversation with the repudiating town blind-man (Gazzara) who speaks of lavish sights out his window, do little to boost her integrity as a citizen in the community. Instead, they eventually afford her rape (by an old-world farmer named Chuck, in an ascetic portrayal by Stellan Skarsgård) and a mix of glaring eyes by women who disapprove of her actions. To complicate things, Grace and Tom develop an intimate but opaque love, and by film's end, Tom is about the only male in the community who has not had the sexual privilege of Grace's body, although none of these instances are voluntary. One of Dogville's most stirring images involves the town going about its business while in the corner of the frame, through the invisible walls, Grace is being taken advantage of violently, an eloquent statement on the prevalence of violence in the most unsuspecting of places.

As well as being heavily self-referential - the film contains chapter markers that explicitly state what is about to happen - Dogville pulls abundantly from other art forms such as literature and theater and also runs through a gamut of religious allusions. Grace's predicaments align themselves well with the martyrdom experienced innocently by Christ, only here the crucifix is replaced by a heavy wheel that gets chained to Grace's body via her neck, and the people around her further echo mythological significance with some of their strategic names: Pandora, Athena, Olympia. Von Trier's penchant to mix up different reference points (Christianity and Ancient Greece) within one film is nothing new, and why exactly he does it here is open to various interpretations, but its presence undoubtedly gives the story a feel of timeless universality. More coherent is the continued use of John Hurt's ebullient narration, which offers up storybook witticisms that contrast the harshness onscreen. In this way, Dogville almost functions as a critique of the "Great American Novel", questioning the reliance on conventional storytelling as a mode of sorting out the complexities of human nature, because in the end, Hurt's narration does little to actually punctuate the intangible qualities working beneath Dogville, a film that - in all its conscious artificiality - boils down to thematic and emotional levels beneath the surface.

It is precisely this ability on Von Trier's part to convey things subtly that distinguishes Dogville from the rest of his oeuvre. So many of his films are dirtied from beginning to end by his fingerprints, and it is not often that we get that sense of unnecessary intrusion in this film. Of course, a Von Trier film is always a Von Trier film - Dogville contains handheld camerawork that is a clear descendant of his filmmaking manifesto Dogme 95 and it also boasts the director's characteristic cynicism towards humanity - but he is more often than not sitting back and letting his actors carry the film from its slow build to its shockingly apocalyptic finale, obtaining exquisite performances from Nicole Kidman and several others as a result. It's rare that I can say this so confidently about a Von Trier film, but Dogville is indeed a deeply thought-provoking, mature work of art.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Liverpool (2008) A Film by Lisandro Alonso

It is a curious thing to be so thoroughly moved by a film that is less an authorial work of art than it is a fact of life, a spontaneous creation devised out of instinct as if a necessary tool for survival. Such seems to be the case with the work of Argentinian Lisandro Alonso, a filmmaker who is resolute in his insistence on a laissez-faire approach, yet deeply impassioned in his curiosity for observing life. The central figure in his latest film Liverpool is not an actor; Alonso found him working as a caterpillar operator, spoke with him briefly while pretending to be a magazine photographer, asked him to be in a movie, which was met with disbelief, and so Alonso returned a while later and persisted in asking him to be in a movie. That Juan Fernandez is a real person stripped from a real environment and not a performer tells a lot about Alonso's desire to approximate nature. Incidentally, Fernandez, playing a silent seaman named Farrel traveling to the southernmost portion of the world, delivers one of the most fascinating performances in recent memory without ever saying or doing anything significant.

Early on in the film, Farrel leaves the cargo ship he is stationed in to travel to Tierra del Fuego, the diminutive farming village he grew up in but has not returned to for many years. This introduces a pattern the film gradually creates of leaving spaces empty and moving on to a new setting. The entirety of Liverpool involves movement from one place to another yet it feels perpetually on the brink of greater movement, indicated by Farrel's nervous fidgeting when positioned alone in a space. He is constantly on a path, but the destination of this path becomes more and more ambiguous once we observe Farrel leave Tierra del Fuego as soon as he arrives. His estranged mother is bedridden and forgetful, shrugging off Farrel's attempts to jog her memory of his identity. He only exchanges a few words with his father and otherwise discovers his disabled daughter that he had never met. The snow-covered village is nestled between foggy hills so as to insulate it entirely from the outside world. The few people who exist there, blank and beset by everyday chores, are mirrors to their extreme landscape.

Left fulfilled but ultimately unsatisfied, Farrel leaves the village abruptly. But, in a move that takes Alonso's cinema in a new direction, the camera remains static as he trudges away. Once he's about as far from the camera as any of Alonso's protagonists, the film cuts back into the home of his family. Alonso abandons Farrel and completes the final twenty minutes of the film in Tierra del Fuego; "he's always leaving, so then he leaves the film," Alonso says plainly. This is not the only difference between Liverpool and his previous features though. Los Muertos followed its similarly unreadable protagonist unceasingly through a homogeneous environment, hardly ever letting him out of the frame, whereas Liverpool seems interested in more than just its enigmatic central figure. It is also consumed by the physicality of spaces, both interior and exterior, on ocean or on land, at night or during day. There is overwhelming authenticity in the objects positioned in the frame, the aged paint on the wall, the off-kilter positioning of a window shade, and the startlingly beautiful natural light. One gets the sense that these are real spaces that are lived in and are not tampered with, and of course this is the truth. Alonso wants his film to smack with the pang of reality so that you can feel the physical as well as emotional weight of it.

These types of formal pleasures in Liverpool are countless. Every composition is mesmerizing yet never overly planned out; there is instead a sense of fragmentation and improvisation in the shots. Several of the opening scenes conceal views of seemingly crucial objects, such as Farrel's inscription on the side of one of the boat's pillars. Similarly, Farrel stares out of the frame at emptiness which we do not see, directing our attention at a world outside of the cinema, at worlds which have yet to be explored. Alonso illuminates as many of those neglected locations as he does mysteries about Farrel and his family. The film's thought-provoking final shot operates as a vehicle through which to piece together the events that take place over the course of the film. Great melancholy washes over the screen in the image of a red "Liverpool" keychain.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Brood (1979) A Film by David Cronenberg

A conversation between a father and a son begins casually. The two figures wear robes are engulfed in black space. Before any verbal indications tell us so, we can infer what kind of father/son relationship is being studied: it is one where the father is a calculating authority and the son is a nervous, fidgety outcast. Slowly, these characteristics become pronounced and a gentle chat turns into a father's unflinching condemnation of his son's lack of masculinity. The son, actually a young adult with a full-grown beard, whimpers and fails to find a way to deflect his father's stern blows. When his emotional state is at its nadir, he lifts his shirt to reveal grotesque sores dotting his torso and back. The two lugubriously embrace in an air of tension and seemingly unrequited intentions.

And so begins David Cronenberg's deeply unpleasant but invigorating film The Brood. The scene is deliberately unexpected and disorienting, arriving on screen without any sort of warning or rundown as to what is going on. In fact, it is not until mid-scene, when Cronenberg cuts away to a crowd in a dark lecture hall watching this discussion that we have any sense of place. Cronenberg is teasing us in several ways; not only geographically and temporally, but also in terms of our perceptions of the characters. It turns out it is not a father/son dynamic that we are observing but instead an abstract role-playing game where the "father" is actually psychiatrist Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) and the "son" his disturbed patient (Gary McKeehan). The scene effectively sets the tone for the rest of The Brood, positing the connection between psychiatrist and patient as an ambiguous one with unusual consequences, and establishing the film's tendency for moody guesswork.

Of course, then, Dr. Raglan is no ordinary psychiatrist. He actually specializes in an experimental technique called Psychoplasmics at the Somafree Institute, a method which aims to rid patients of painful emotions from damaging past memories by manifesting them physically in the form of epidermical deformities. (Such a bizarre premise is common ground for Cronenberg, who has made a long career out of presenting hideously tangible body horror as a way of channeling his lofty ideas about "the new flesh".) Dr. Raglan receives a patient named Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) who recently divorced her husband Frank Carveth (Art Hindle). Under only her father's care, the pair's young daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds) begins witnessing terrible murders of both her grandmother and babysitter. Frank investigates these freak killings because Candice represses all memory of them in an eerie silence reminiscent of little Danny in The Shining. The intricacy of the cases and the spots Frank finds on his daughter's arms leads him to begin speculating about the nature of Psychoplasmics, finding himself conversing with one of Raglan's past patients, Jan Hartog (Robert A. Silverman), a man who wears a thick white scarf to cover the worm-like entrails that protrude from his neck. Frank discovers that Raglan has actually discarded all of his current patients as a way to better centralize his attention on Nola, who receives daily checkups in a log cabin in the woods. At this point, he becomes thoroughly suspicious of Raglan's motives and increasingly protective of his own daughter.

Cronenberg had recently gone through a difficult divorce himself at the time, and the film's themes attest to that. There is a great deal of reticence and fear in The Brood, and I don't mean on the surface. Somewhat of a pessimistic, uncertain view is directed towards the concepts of birth and the sacred mother/daughter relationship. Ultimately, the bursts of violence enacted against central characters in the film are an indirect product of Nola, for we find out that the results of her psychotherapy are far more extreme than most. When Nola's father becomes another spontaneous victim of murder, Frank finally discovers the guilty party and, with the help of a scientist, discounts it as completely human. The murderer - or murderers it turns it out - are small unorthodox "children" absent of belly buttons, suggesting they were not born in the first place, yet they possess oddly human traits such as their bright blue snowsuits which closely resemble those of Candice. The film's doozie of a climax has Frank pretending to have rekindled feelings for Nola in an attempt to settle her down so as to give Dr. Raglan the ability to save Candice in the attic of the cabin where she is surrounded by scheming killers, the vehicles of Nola's rage.

Not all of the film is so pulse-poundingly tense however, and it is precisely this restraint that classifies Cronenberg as a filmmaker of great maturity rather than simply a purveyor of cheap exploitation, as his first two features may have suggested. The Brood's closing minutes certainly contain intensely graphic imagery, but it is elevated by its metaphysics, which are carefully implanted in the largely gore-less first 75 minutes. There is a great deal of probing dialogue on display, foreshadowing music courtesy of Howard Shore, and melancholic observations of the Canadian setting. Stylistically, the film's sober build-up would have you believe that nothing nearly as shocking and provocative could ensue in the final minutes. Cronenberg excels when snapping expectations and genres however, and in doing so manages to reveal the complex dynamics that exist within a family, specifically how the mistakes of parents can do irreparable damage to children.