Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The River (He liu) A Film by Tsai Ming-Liang (1997)

A small selection of obsessive filmmakers say that they make one film in their career, simply rehashing the same themes with imperceptibly slight changes. If there is a current director to whom this idea can be most aptly attributed to, it is Taiwan's Tsai Ming-Liang. His third feature, The River, is his first spot-on representation of his career-long concerns: existential solitude within the modern, urban consumerist environment, difficulty of communication, meaningless, merely physical sexual consumption, objective struggles as spiritual struggles. In 1997, when the film was released, it was Tsai's deepest, most complex, and most ambitious film to date. Today, a wealth of critics still consider to be his finest work, however I have trouble applying favoritism to any particular film of his considering they do contain such a string of similarities.

Tsai has cast Lee Kang-Sheng as the lead in every one of his films, and he also resorts to several other regulars including Miao Tien, Chen Shiang-chyi, and Lu Yi-Ching (save Tien, these figures are non-professional). For the most part, Kang-Sheng plays drifters either jobless or with a minor job, and usually develops some physical or emotional ailment. The two always inevitably overlap, as in The River, when he develops a severe neck pain following his spontaneous involvement in a film shoot, appearing as a corpse floating in the polluted Tanshui River in the film's opening scenes. Just as he is the source of contrived tragedy in the film that is being shot on the water by Ann Hui (in a special appearance as herself), Tsai plants his camera nearby the film within a film, asserting Kang-Sheng's character (Xiao-Kang) as the narrative catalyst as well. There is a taste of Kiarostami in this scene, a need to make the audience aware of the fact that it is indeed a film. Although Xiao-Kang was initially against the idea of appearing in Hui's film due to the dirtiness of the water, he takes up the offer and pays for it.

Shortly thereafter, Tsai casually begins observing the lives of a man (Tien), who spends ample time bumming around Taipei's gay saunas, and a woman (Yi-Ching), a bored elevator attendant. It is not until about thirty minutes into the film that we see the two and Xiao-Kang living in the same apartment, a triumvirate of lonely souls that hearkens back to Tsai's previous film, Vive L'Amour (1994). This time however, the focus is on a family which is not so much dysfunctional as they are nonfunctional. They barely speak, and if they try to it is in vain, such as when the father calls the mother (the only time he tries to communicate with her in the film) and only receives an answering machine. Nonetheless, the parents feel obligated to do what they can to cure Xiao-Kang; they try acupuncture, medicine, an herbal doctor, folk rituals, and a faith healer, none of which show promise. Meanwhile, there is incessant rain that is leaking into the father's bedroom, an issue he attempts to fix by capturing the water with a plastic sheet and channeling it into the apartment's drain system. When he and Xiao-Kang are out of town to visit the faith healer, Master Lui, this flooding problem becomes extreme, leaving the mother alone in the apartment with little means of solution.

The only escape for these characters comes unsatisfactorily through sex; the mother maintains a silent affair with a pornographic video dealer, the father shimmies through the dark hallways of the saunas, one in a mob of shirtless zombies peering into rooms in hopes of finding another pleading male, and Xiao-Kang encounters several affairs throughout the film made useless by his uncertain sexual identity, one of which involves his father, quite uncomfortably, in the lowly lit sauna. Feelings of confusion and dehumanization run throughout the film, and it is most stirring in the aforementioned scene, which is all the more nerve wracking because the dank lighting of the sauna obscures body parts, most adversely the head.

Tsai's visual style foreshadows his late works, which have reached the extremes of modernist minimalism. In the most complex scenes, the camera will remain fixed in its objective, detached position for minutes on end, acquiring an eerie realistic quality that builds tension until it is almost unbearable to watch. The River does however also contain a surprising amount of camera movement, an element that is entirely done away with in Goodbye Dragon Inn. The symbol of uncontrollable water appears here as the link between the family's several troubling agendas, and one can't help but see that, on a broader scale, it helps Tsai flow smoothly from one film to the next, carrying the same themes and images down the river.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Three Monkeys (Üç maymun) A Film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2008)

The trailer for Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest film, Three Monkeys, left me hoping the talented Turkish auteur had not lost the restrained genius that has made him so distinctive. It includes a host of thriller trailer clichés: ominous flashes of negative, text that detaches from itself frenetically, distasteful solarization effects - in a word, it does not come close to doing justice to the subtle brooding atmosphere of Ceylan's third straight Cannes contribution.

At this point, Ceylan, hotly contagious among fans of high art, has established himself as the contemporary master of domestic tension, almost a Turkish Bergman when taking into account the amount of time he spends silently scrutinizing the emotional complexities of his alienated characters. While Three Monkeys does maintain this thematic bent, the film also introduces some elements that are new to Ceylan, for instance poetic hallucinations (the eerie sight of a deceased child in broad daylight) and cinematographic flexibility (the camera in Three Monkeys frequently spends time scanning faces in close-up or changing shots within scenes, whereas Distant's focus was on wide, prolonged static shots). Also, the film's characters are all well aware of each other's grief but refuse to vocalize their feelings, resulting in a more intense psychodrama than Distant, in which negative feelings were repressed and (just nearly) completely unexpressed.

The film's tension can be attributed to Ceylan's nifty, schematic approach; just about every scene contains only two characters reflecting on unseen wrongdoings, glancing morosely at each other, arguing severely, or lying about a day's events. We only see three people in the same frame in the film's most climactic scene, and those are the three stubborn monkeys that make up the shattered family at the film's center: Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol), the foreboding father who had done time in jail to assist his greedy politician acquaintance and receive a large sum of money in return, Hacer (Hatice Aslan), the deceitful mother caught up in an affair with the politician, and Ismail (Rifat Sungar), the suspicious son forced by the weight of the crisis into committing dreadful acts. Ceylan forges a discomforting quietude within the family, a product of his refusal to show the acts that trigger the dissolution, instead lingering for lengthy amounts of time on the nuances in expression in the solemn faces, the drawn out resonances of Hacer's adultery, Ismail's eventual violence, and Eyüp's shallowness.

Three Monkeys is at the same time a commentary on the greedy nature of politics, the placing of public regard atop the need to take blame for one's faults. This is evident in the character of Servet (Ercan Kesal), the politician whose legal issues are dumped conveniently on Eyüp with money as the saving grace. Servet does not need to worry about his problems with Eyüp available as bait, just as Eyüp does not need to worry about his son's crime when he can simply offer up the punishment to his friend Bayram (Cafer Köse). The mostly minor actors do an outstanding job of manifesting the deep ocean of gargantuan emotions - love, hate, grief, confusion - into a largely wordless spectrum of shadow-eyed facials and tense body movements.

Perhaps the finest achievement of the film however is its technical beauty and tonal singularity. The inherent menace in the script is supplemented chillingly by atmospheric sound design; rolling thunder, rustling winds, crickets, diffused barking dogs, clanking train tracks, and amplified drips create a palpable mood that far surpasses anything a score could have brought to the film. And of course there is the cinematography, which, as is expected from the highly skilled photographer/filmmaker, is absolutely immaculate. Ceylan has crafted a world of shiny, somber faces against huge black clouds, windy terraces overlooking the sea, and wet winding roads containing careless individuals, all adding up to his most riveting piece of cinema to date.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Bagdad Cafe (1987) A Film by Percy Adlon

German director Percy Adlon's American debut is a strange effort, a film that has largely been forgotten but remains adored in small alcoves of film culture. That it did indeed wisp away into the kind of nowhere that the film is set in is more of a justification of its uneven retelling of ancient myths, a subject that has been more interestingly explored in countless other arthouse films, than a testament to its flaws. While Bagdad Cafe is almost arrhythmic and awkward as a whole, it does contain some preciously offbeat characters and scenarios. Adlon does not necessarily assemble a situation in direct reference to a particular ancient tale, but rather modernizes the general notion of a hero that arrives supernaturally to bring about change.

He sets his film in the middle of the desert, somewhere vaguely in the American West, and treats it as a place that is in an anxious standstill, desperate for a change. At the Bagdad Cafe, where the frizzy-haired African American owner Brenda (CCH Pounder) scuffles uncomfortably through the premises sneering at her children and husband and the dilettante Italian chef lounges around without any incentive to reverse the broken coffeemaker situation, one can smell the unease. So from the boonies, lead by an illusory pair of lights in the sky, comes a plump, orderly German woman named Jasmin (Marianne Sägebrecht), fresh off a fight with her husband that left her stranded without a car. She sharply contrasts the disheveled look of both the employees and the regulars, a foreign Goddess in a tightly wound dress (a modern day robe) who brings with her a camouflaged distaste for American sloppiness.

Her arrival immediately sparks suspicion in Brenda and eventually, when Jasmin begins spending time with her children, jealousy. Brenda believes she is in the middle of a cat and mouse game between the two, but Jasmin's intentions are clearly all good. Brenda even prompts the arrival of the sheriff who comes to inspect Jasmin's unusually tidy habits only to find her completely harmless. She acts as a typically stubborn figure for most of the film, but finally upon discovering she may be the only one left with bad vibes towards Jasmin (Jasmin even works up a tender relationship with an ex-Hollywood set painter (Jack Palance), who roams the film as a laughably kind-hearted and nervous cowboy), she rethinks her position. One afternoon, she snaps at Jasmin while she's playing with her kids and immediately, feeling guilty of evil, returns through her motel room door and apologizes. This relationship reversal comes too abruptly, and what follows - a gradual give and take of lifestyles until an equilibrium is reached - feels rushed and unrealistic. Jasmin loosens up her clothing and Brenda allows her son to play on the piano during work hours, an activity that had previously ticked her off greatly. The Bagdad Cafe, previously a haven for sweaty drifters, turns into an entertainment escape, with Jasmin's magic tricks as the main act.

Bagdad Cafe's strengths are ironically sometimes also the source of its weaknesses; Adlon's wickedly wry humor rides a thin line between amateurishness and intended drollery. Frequently it is an uncertainty whether one is supposed to laugh or take something seriously. Adlon also seems to get a kick out of graceless edits, so that when he is establishing a visual gag, he'll cut away clumsily to a brief shot of a truck passing in the street, silence the music, and then return as if nothing happened. Much of the film is reminiscent of 2004's Napoleon Dynamite however, both in its similar setting and its modern breed of "awkward" black comedy, so the balance between humor and disguised poignancy is understandable. While Bagdad Cafe is indeed forgettable, it stands as a unique departure from most decidedly small filmmaking projects, and is sometimes enjoyable just for its clumsiness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) A Film by Alain Resnais

Alain Resnais and novelist Marguerite Duras were discussing over tea the likelihood of there being dozens of bomber planes circling above them on one afternoon in France. A few days later, Duras listened in on the conversation between a French woman and a Japanese man. These separate events become the unlikely seeds for Hiroshima Mon Amour, Resnais' profound masterpiece of a debut feature. Resnais had beforehand been toiling with a documentary project on the atomic bomb, a work that would hopefully attract Japanese and French interest. After giving it some thought, he found it to be an inane act considering the number of excellent, undistributed films on the subject already. This led him to Duras, whom he hoped to work with on a more classic love story that could feature the Japanese postwar situation simply as a backdrop. Hiroshima Mon Amour however, is anything but a classic love story; in fact, it is quite the opposite. It deals with the anxieties of romance and the personal turmoil it can often bring from a symbolic viewpoint, ruminating within an uncertain environment (dreamy postwar Hiroshima) on how the vagaries of time can both increase the intensity of a relationship and ultimately render it worthless.

The film begins with one of the most incisive, obscure opening acts of French New Wave cinema. For about 10 minutes, we do not see the faces of the two main characters that we spend our time with for the rest of the film: a lovely French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a rigid Japanese architect (Eiji Okada). Resnais intercuts abstract shots of their tangled, naked bodies with newsreel footage of the horrors of the atomic bombing to coincide with the woman's narrated recollections - which may or may not be entirely factual. The woman fleshes out what she remembers from a previous trip to Hiroshima, quite literally at one point, as we see what looks like powdered rubble from the bombing sprinkling on her pale arm. Her soft utterances are continuously denied by her partner in the affair, a metaphor for the suppression of memory. Nonetheless, the woman remains steadfast throughout the sequence as she does for the rest of the film, refusing to stop emptying out her unfiltered memories in the face of the man. Appropriately for two characters that remain nameless enigmas for the film's entirety, Resnais eschews full body shots, preventing the viewer from garnering a solid impression of the characters. Following this cryptic scene - a scene that has an unknowable place in time - the romantic affair between the two feels distant and intrapersonal, a vehicle solely for self-inspection.

As the film progresses, Resnais establishes a tapestry of contrasts. The architect is devoted to getting to know the actress and convincing her to stay in Hiroshima with him rather than returning to Paris, whereas the woman stolidly denies his offer, realizing that he is damaging her. When reminiscing on a similarly brief love affair she had with a soldier in Nevers, France years back, she begins speaking with "you's" instead of "he's", personifying the architect as the lost lover of her memory. Therefore, the architect's presence unceasingly reminds her of the pain she experienced back in occupied France simply due to the fact that her situation with him is nearly congruent. This sets off a split in the actress' own personality, on display in a compelling scene where she enters the empty hotel room the two are staying in and immerses herself in sink water, her self-directed statements alternating in and out of voice-over. One side of her urges not to get involved in another passionate fling (a subconscious transmission) and the other is torn between the love she inevitably feels and the prospect of future anguish due to the loss. There is also the political context of postwar Japan. The actress heads there with the task of acting in a film that is vaguely about "peace", but on another level, her purpose is simply to ground her identity in something concrete. She hopes to find herself in Hiroshima, a place rife with the strength of humankind (rallies take place in the streets), but conversely is thwarted by her own lack of clarity.

Hiroshima Mon Amour was described by the cohorts of Cahiers du Cinema - including Godard, Rohmer, and Rivette - as perhaps "the first modern film of sound cinema". It denies classical aesthetics, warps traditional narrative dogmas, and simultaneously references a very current theme (for 1959) and embodies universality. Alain Resnais was truly constructing an inventive way of creating films; his temporally chopped-up method of voice-over, fragmentation, and flashback imagery roots itself in the theories of Eisensteinian montage but also takes them further, allowing him to tell a story that perceptibly only occurs over a few hours in the present but stretches to the dark corners of the past and ahead to the future. It is an introspective drama that utilizes subtle shifts aurally - a scene where Riva's character vents to the architect in a tea house amplifies the ambiance when her memoirs become heavy-handed and muffles them when she realizes she is getting carried away - and visually - Michio Takahashi and Sacha Vierny's pristine monochrome cinematography captures nuances of feeling in a distinct way in each scene - to expand on the psychology of its characters. The crushing final lines (the woman calling the man "Hiroshima" and the man calling the woman "Nevers"), suggest the assignment of the two as objects, the complete and utter extinguishment of a relationship that, as time passes, will inevitably be forgotten.

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988) A Film by Richard Linklater

A twentysomething ditches a semester in college to look for something to do, taking train and car rides across the West while meeting friends and family along the way. Sometimes he spends his time in a worthwhile way (hiking to see a glacier in Montana), but for the most part his activities are meandering (sleeping on a train, watching TV, moseying around empty towns, driving and fiddling with FM radio). This is the extent of what happens in Richard Linklater's debut, It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (I'll call it It's Impossible from here on out for obvious reasons), and now that I look at in writing, it sounds more eventful than it really is.

Linklater's early work is marked by its meditative attention to the humdrum, its careful observation of Generation X, and its general flavor of early 90's nostalgia (high-rise acid wash jeans, retro Nike's, tall striped socks, sleeveless shirts). It's Impossible was handled entirely by Linklater on Super-8 film, including the casting of himself as the primary drifter. He describes the project as a visual experiment and a diaristic study on the boredom of everyday life, the transience of emotions, and the mindset of travel. Here's where it gets tricky; to be sure, creating a film that evokes the "boredom of everyday life" can perhaps be the laziest way to make an "experimental film". Indeed, it could just take planting the camera lackadaisically and observing the most mundane events life can offer, most of which are, quite frankly, on display in It's Impossible. It's tough to decide at face value whether the film is the work of a pretentious hack or of a modest, zen-like observer. It could be a bit of both, but thankfully, keeping in mind the similarly attentive, undeniably tremendous work that followed from Linklater, I choose the latter.

The film unfolds entirely in long, static takes, a style he maintained with his next feature, Slacker, with the exception of the lack of camera movement. Slacker glides ceaselessly with its characters, whereas It's Impossible sits like a dead duck, reminding us bluntly of the directionless state of the inhabitants (the camera rarely breaks the barrier of ten feet from its subjects). It is a vacuous film about sad and lonely people who hide their disconnectedness with cordiality and useless, time-passing behaviors. Linklater's screen persona has no dignified purpose for his travel; rather, he is surveying the suburbs and countrysides in an attempt to discover something that will substantiate his transitory nature and lift him from his alienation. In a train lobby at one point, he brushes against connection, sitting silently beside another seemingly listless young woman and eventually drawing a picture (or is he writing a note?) for her while she sleeps. One can sense the desperate need for the protagonist to release his inner feelings, but he remains locked in the dreamy, drifting state that is most keenly evoked by the shots of him transitioning from one train cabin to the next, bumping around precariously while the camera remains static.

There's no doubting that Linklater achieved his goal - the film feels like you've entered another person's dull life and are seized by the lack of accomplishment during every fleeting moment - but the question is whether or not the film is good cinema. Technically, It's Impossible is ragged, with poor sound quality and relentless grain (although, this is something I see as raw beauty). However, the film utilizes the two most essential ingredients of cinema (image and sound) with clarity and purpose, so the entertainment value is on a whole different level. It's Impossible is at least a comfortable preamble to Linklater's later work, and the distinct mood it builds assures it's a success given its humble ambitions.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Age of Gold (L'âge d'or) A Film by Luis Buñuel (1930)

Age of Gold is an unparalleled early example of surrealist filmmaking, and indeed a landmark of cinema in general, in which Luis Buñuel cracked open his thematic toolbox in as over-the-top a manner as possible. An Andalusian Dog (Un Chien Andalou) - his previous collaboration with surrealist painter Salvador Dali - was technically his first film (albeit with a short running time at 16 minutes), but whereas that film favored the poetics of irrationality, Age of Gold follows a thin storyline and makes several anarchic statements that were wholly absent from the former. One can actually grasp at the several meanings apparent in any given image from the film and tie them together as one coherent, if broad, commentary, as was not the case in the general euphoria of Un Chien Andalou's images, which mainly arose out of Dali and Buñuel's dreams and contained only scant, inconsequential meanings. The film is essentially the first true Buñuel film, less a product of Dali's uncompromising imagination and more of Buñuel's own sensibility, indicated by Buñuel's declaration that Dali only imagined a very small portion of the scenes in Age of Gold.

The society that Buñuel is targeting with the film is metaphorically evoked in the opening scenes which demonstrate the lives of scorpions with an instructive voice-over. Scorpions are creatures that smugly refuse the company of others during solitude, devour creatures lower than them with nonchalance, and appear genuinely intimidating. High society in Buñuel's France does not stray far from these oppressive traits. The film's protagonist, a mustachioed man with a magnetic attraction towards the glistening daughter of a clergyman, is perpetually a victim of this society, caught first in a mud bath making love to her beside religious furor led by the Majorcans, a symbol of the dominating upper class (so dominating in fact that before this, a troupe of bandits fell defeated simply for deciding to approach and attack them). He also is dragged ruthlessly around urban France by two authorities, during which he imagines the woman's advertised fashion poses as desirous sexual behavior, until he finally slips free, booting a blind man in the chest while he's at it.

In doing so, Buñuel greets for the first time his distinguished theme of desire, although it is understandably portrayed most frankly here. Once the hero finds his way into the bourgeois gathering that makes up for nearly three quarters of the film, he at last meets back up with his lover only to find his erotic appetite not entirely satisfied; an obligation and the mounting pressure of the elite sitting nearby listening to a classical music performance force him to abandon his female (leaving her to her own devices sucking sensually on the toe of a garden statue) and explode in rage in an upper story room (firing inanimate objects out the window). The film concludes with perhaps its most controversial stretch: a demented staging of "120 Days of Sodom" which features a Christ-like figure surfacing from an orgy to the repetitive clamor of the drums of Calanda. Of course there are times when Buñuel's images simply emerge out of an interest in the absurd and shocking, for instance the appearance of a cow seated like a pet atop the object of desire's bed. Moreover, this gives the film its surrealist badge, and it works splendidly as a trip through the uninhibited subconscious. It's enough of an accomplishment that Buñuel had the audacity to kick down the door to what is socially, politically, and religiously acceptable and cause public outrage in response.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel) A Film by Ingmar Bergman (1961)

Almost unfathomably, Ingmar Bergman managed to extract a different atmosphere out of his beloved Fårö Island for each film he shot there. His exterior shots of gentle waves hitting the scattered rocks or the shoreline punctuated by a miniature summer house are usually composed in extremely similar ways, however, the context of each film brings unique dimensions to the environments. In Persona, Fårö nearly seems sunny and enjoyable to contrast from the competitive tension mounting in its characters. Hour of the Wolf's Fårö is utterly frightening, a brooding bearer of bad memories and mysterious people. In Through a Glass Darkly, the first installment in his Silence of God trilogy, the island seems like it exists at the end of the world. The four characters have little immediate connection to what exists outside their remote summer retreat (besides the novelist father David's (Gunnar Björnstrand) discussions of book signings and the helicopter which arrives remedially at the end), so the island takes on an empty, drifting remoteness that works perfectly as a vehicle for the characters to console in each other or, as it frequently and detrimentally works out, themselves.

When placed aside the two films that followed, Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963), Through a Glass Darkly may be the lesser effort. However, when Bergman reminisced about the "trilogy" decades later, he believed the tagging of the films as a trilogy was something that came about in the primitive stages of development, and upon completion, that the films had less thematic parallels than they were described as having. Granted, most of Bergman's films are about faith and isolation to some extent, but perhaps Through a Glass Darkly is best viewed, at least thematically, through a different lens than that of its successors. Otherwise, the film is similar in its small ensemble character study foundations and its ascetic visual approach.

In Through a Glass Darkly, Bergman places a dysfunctional family in a spiritual freeze; there is Karin (a scintillating performance by Bergman regular Harriet Andersson), a gleaming schizophrenic recently released from a mental hospital, Martin (Max Von Sydow), her endlessly loving husband with a lack of faith, David, the writer exploiting Karin's sickness for the sake of his art, and Minus (Lars Passgård), Karin's hopeful, neglected brother who shares an almost incestuous relationship with her. Nearly everyone holds a secret about another. Minus has bitterness towards his father, Martin scorns David for his insensitive attempts at artistic truth, and David deprecates himself when confronted about his falseness. These inner family battles only send Karin into retrograde motion, propounded by her discovery of David's journal. Like a psychic gripped by a celestial insight, she convulses in the spare upstairs bedroom, her eyes clinging to the door behind which she claims she has seen God. Her movements and gestures are utterly disturbing; Andersson truly plumbs the soul of a schizophrenic with her disconnected squirming and illogical, shape-shifting actions. At one point, Minus finds her lying blankly beneath the deck of a small boat toppled beside the shore (a visually compelling scene with dripping water and rays of light). He embraces her limp body remorsefully, partly out of brotherly affection but also out of an insistence upon proving his love for her to his father as a way of attempting to receive love in return.

In what Bergman describes as the "epilogue" - but which is really just the ending - David does offer guidance to his son, explaining rather banally and explicitly his take on the nature of God. Minus responds prosaically: "Daddy spoke to me." This is unevenly didactic in relation to the subtlety of the rest of the film, but fortunately it does not completely damage the power of the finale. Bergman asserts that the return of Karin's disease was possibly caused by a lack of love, and therefore an intangibility of God. Sven Nykvist's cinematography is absolutely remarkable in Through a Glass Darkly as well; his extremely perceptive use of contrast and shadow on the faces of the characters beautifully counterbalances the weight of the familial crisis.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Twin Peaks (1990 TV Series) By David Lynch and Mark Frost

Every episode of Twin Peaks commences with the same sappy, tacky credit sequence, one that manages to act as the kind of cozy pleasure that is so often established only to implode upon itself in David Lynch's work. Angelo Badamalenti's sentimental keyboard anthem rings over featherlight shots of the woods, a gentle stream, a classic town welcome sign, and the giant waterfall that rages beside the town's inviting hotel, "The Great Northern". There are also tight images of the gears pumping away in the local lumber mill, which gently asserts itself as the backbone of the entire series, aesthetically and narratively. Twin Peaks has a very mechanical, strained quality to it, as clearly a product of human creation as the gears and saws that spin inexorably in close-up. This is nothing new in Lynch's work, as his films often extend laughably "over-directed" scenarios, but his work on this early 90's television show is some of his most deconstructive in terms of the creation of his own cinema and cinema in general; the bulk of the show is set up like a nauseatingly melodramatic small-town murder mystery, but in Lynch's unceasingly creative world there is biting parody, and, to disrupt the comfortable flow, the cryptic surrealism he is most loved for.

Over its 30-episode run, Twin Peaks tells two different stories, interchanged midway through the show's run. The two directions the show takes are loosely linked and are best looked at separately. In its first few episodes, the show presents Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, who is the knight in shining armor throughout, a quintessentially "good" character and a moral prototype for the rest of the town), who arrives in the northwestern town of Twin Peaks to investigate the shocking, incomprehensible murder of the well-respected high school homecoming queen, Laura Palmer. The initial season depicts Cooper gradually unlocking the cumbersome, elusive mystery, which is finally solved a few episodes into the second season. After this, the plot line branches out into a yarn dealing with the mystical powers of the Twin Peaks' woods and a battle of wits between the corporate king of the town, Ben Horn (Richard Beymer), and the sly owner of the lumber mill, Catherine Martell (Piper Laurie). A legion of fanzines would avidly discuss theories on who killed Laura Palmer, so when the momentum that the show carried for so long disintegrated into a new act, Twin Peaks undeniably lost critical and commercial steam. To add to this, Lynch himself became disgruntled by the network airing the show (ABC) and therefore ceased to direct many of the episodes that followed the revelation of Laura Palmer's murderer.

In the pre-revelation stages of the show, Lynch molds the plot around rather conventional soap drama/mystery tactics. As well as advancing the expanding mystery, half of the time is spent simply finding a firm footing in the kind of sanitary small-town environment Lynch is known for being attracted to, evidenced most tellingly by Blue Velvet. A laundry list of characters is introduced (far too many to mention here) that all seem to know each other personally. People act in an uncommonly cordial way, and their motivations and interests rarely extend further than their tightly knit community. For instance, there is Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), who is devoted solely to running the town smoothly and loving his mysterious Asian girlfriend with sinister ties, Josie Packard (Joan Chen); the town's angelic diner manager, Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton), who never fails to speak in a soft, reassuring manner to her customers; and Donna Hayword (Lara Flynn Boyle), the loyal best friend of Laura Palmer who transforms from sincere investigator to femme fatale and back again without ever losing her interest in understanding the town's myriad of secrets. The bulk of Lynch and co-producer Mark Frost's characters have a hilarious quirk or two, Cooper's being his boundless enthusiasm for simple pleasures such as black coffee and cherry pie. Elsewhere, Jack Nance, whose sullen face permeates Lynch's macabre debut, Eraserhead, plays Catherine Martell's down-to-earth husband Pete but still manages to project surreal, awkward character traits that rub off on those around him. Perhaps the oddest of them all is the "Log Lady", an uptight woman with thick-framed glasses who shows up everywhere with a log slung across her bosom and provides before the start of every show kitschy musings or nonsensical anecdotes that outline in some way the theme of the coming episode.

From very early on, Twin Peaks declares its intentions: Lynch does not want it to be an average television show. In the second episode, Agent Cooper has an outlandish dream that provides clues that assist him in his investigation. Of course the clues are vague and nearly unworkable (as they are in all of his hallucinations), but Cooper is whispered to by a somnambulistic Laura some sort of divine knowledge that allows him to pursue the case intuitively. Within this dream, some of the most memorable images of the show and indeed of Lynch's oeuvre are introduced. A seemingly never-ending labyrinth of red curtains and alternating, jagged black and white floor tiles are home to the spirits of many of the characters involved in the case, only they are bereft of any life and speak in a jumbled, disconcerting manner (which is achieved by the actors learning their lines in reverse and the sound being manipulated later). A well-primped midget dances smoothly around the rooms to Badalamenti's dreamy jazz tunes, speaking in a coded language to a now elderly Cooper who just stares intently in hopes of picking up any semblance of cogency. The first time we enter this dream world, titled "The Black Lodge", it is as unexpected as it is thrilling. Unfortunately, it does not return until the final episode, which certainly contains the most brilliant moments that the show has to offer. Granted, it was Lynch's return to direction after a disappointingly prolonged leave of absence.

Periodically, yet only when Lynch is at the wheel, Twin Peaks does drift back into dream logic. The no-name directors who attempt to insert Lynchian surreality into the plot only end up achieving lukewarm thrills, incapable of harnessing the unabashed originality of Lynch's vision. Several times Cooper is also greeted enigmatically by a giant wearing suspenders who moans inexplicable clues like "without chemicals, he points". The entire set that Cooper is inhabiting tends to darken and the soundtrack shifts to a deep synthesizer hum to signal the arrival of the giant, who fades in a la superimposition and stands toweringly above Cooper via baroque camera angles. His two most stunning appearances come during the performance of a jazz singer in deep red lipstick (think Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet) at a midnight show and in Cooper's hotel room after being shot and greeted in a cheery yet oddly insincere manner by an old room service attendant (a hilarious example of Lynch's use of deadpan comedy). Unsettling as these scenes are, they don't show up often enough to balance out the amount of otiose melodrama that is present in the episodes.

One of the almost painfully dull attributes of the show is the numerous romances that are glazed over. Donna Hayword has what seems like an eternal pact with the gleaming, virile, hopelessly grave and contemplative James Hurley (James Marshall), formed out of their mutual lament for the death of their close friend (and in James' case, lover) Laura. The two of them share a love song that James sings 50's style, utilizing only a guitar and a microphone drenched in reverb. Their relationship comes across as schmaltzy and unrealistic, two high-school students with an unbelievable amount of insight into the metaphysical aspects of friendship and community, and the mawkish music that accompanies their scenes together does not help. Another waitress at the town diner, Shelly Johnson (played by the beautiful Mädchen Amick), leaves her malicious trucker husband Leo (Eric DaRe, who is involved in much of the sinister underworld of Twin Peaks) to be cheaply wooed by the typically rebellious high school football captain Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook). While these cheeky romances are usually overtly hammed up in the interest of parody when Lynch directs, they feel as if they are common ground for the other directors that grace the show, and therefore do more to degrade than to provoke laughter.

The problem with aiming for art on television is that television is available to such a wide range of viewers that networks do not want to risk airing a program that could be considered daring or provocative. The open-ended finale of Twin Peaks is just that, although it's rather bittersweet considering the span of episodes Lynch seemed not to be heavily involved with. Upon realizing that the program was dipping itself into ever deeper mysteries that seemed unnecessary to package up, Lynch took it upon himself to finalize the show's run in a boisterous fashion. Unfortunately, this results in several ambiguities regarding expedited relationship quarrels that were introduced in the concluding three episodes; Donna's confusion over her real parents, the stress of James Hurley's father's wife Nadine- who'd been in a nostalgic trance for a lengthy amount of time after an attempted suicide - after springing back to life only to realize her husband is with another woman, Bobby and Shelly's relationship future, Sheriff Harry S. Truman's jumbled state following the death of Josie, and Pete and Catherine's uncertain marriage are all left dangling to be ruminated on by the audience. However, it is difficult to say what impact these unanswered questions have on the meaning of the story as a whole, if any at all. It feels like a "get-out-of-jail-free" card played by Lynch out of desperation to finish the work he started but was getting fed up with. The undeniably interesting ambiguity is the complete and utter reversal of Dale Cooper due to being hosted by the menacing enigma "Bob" (the snickering evil, manifested by ominous owls, indirectly responsible for the deaths of both Laura Palmer and Josie Packard, and the threatening injuries inflicted upon Cooper's newly developed love, Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham)) following his trip to the eerie woods of Twin Peaks.

On the whole, Twin Peaks is thoroughly engaging, comedic, and frightening if only sporadically shameful and sentimental. The cult status it achieved feels wholly reciprocated given its unusual credo of television as art. In its finest moments, the show does come the closest I've experienced to American television, even major network television, as art. The contributions across the board are inspired and unique; of course Lynch's direction is wholesome and visionary, Badalamenti's score is terrifically coherent (if at times annoyingly intrusive), MacLachlan's acting is top notch, Nance's character is hilariously histrionic, and the screenplay work (divided up between Mark Frost, Lynch, Barry Pullman, Harley Peyton, Robert Engels, and a few others) is invigoratingly complex and takes a number of ambitious turns. Although you'll spend half the time scratching your head trying to figure out who killed Laura Palmer and subsequently becoming bothered by the story's new direction, you'll eventually become swept up by a whole new string of mysteries inside the seemingly perfect world of Twin Peaks.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Eastern Promises (2007) A Film by David Cronenberg

In David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen says he's "just a driver". However, there is a charismatic coolness on the surface of his Nikolai that disguises the tight rope of loyalties he must balance towards his fellow Russian mobsters and towards Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife required to handle a dying woman during childbirth whose diary of heinous chronicles leads her directly to the Vory V Zakone (the old-world Russian mafia stationed in London). The film marks the second straight pairing of Cronenberg and Mortensen, and while it may represent a slightly more commercial bent than what is expected of Cronenberg, the fusion is tantalizing.

Mortensen is outstanding as the chauffeur Nikolai, mustering up believable Russian mannerisms to coincide with his phlegmatic Russian accent. The intricate tattoos covering his chest (standing in as Cronenberg's motif for his characteristic interest in the human body) detail years of unwieldy criminal experience, but by the same token, he possesses a sliver of humanity that proves, in the end, enough to break his calculated, know-it-all smugness. Through the mob victim's diary, which must be translated with some difficulty for Anna, she learns that it was the Vory who was responsible for the trafficking crimes and that the father of the baby is likely Kirill (Vincent Cassel, who recalls Reinhold from Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz), the drunkard son of the crime lord Semyon.

Watts' character stands in for the audience, jostled from the ordinary life she leads with her parents after a damaging divorce to investigate the story of the woman. She is inevitably lured into the subculture of the mafia, partly out of a confident search for justice but perhaps also out of a mysterious curiosity further propounded by Mortensen's swaggering allure. Her parents, and most specifically her brutish father (played by Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski), dissuade her from getting involved with the mob or attempting to swing any deals.

Although Anna's story is an essential plot element, taking us within the Vory V Zakone in the first place, the triptych of Nikolai, Kirill, and Semyon is the crux of the film. Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is the ubiquitous, dominating figure who manages to dodge a crime boss caricature, resulting instead in a seemingly benevolent restaurant owner who unleashes quiet intensity behind closed doors. He is most often angered by his suspicion of Kirill's homosexuality, and to a degree there is indeed pent up homoeroticism imbued in the film. Kirill frequently accuses Nikolai of being a queer, but at the same time hangs on desperately during their embraces. He is also expedient in his willingness to order Nikolai around forcefully (he is the upper hand), likely aroused by a jealousy that stems from Semyon's preference of Nikolai to him. Therefore, there are oedipal as well as erotic impulses that are repressed or projected elsewhere for Kirill.

Eastern Promises is successfully as much of a textured ensemble study as it is a shockingly violent, searingly tense portrait of the Russian mob in London. It has been suggested by some that Cronenberg has lost intrigue as a director due to his excursion into more "mainstream" fare, but what A History of Violence and Eastern Promises make up is a new development in Cronenberg's career, one that favors measured pacing over the freewheeling bizarreness that typifies his earlier Sci-Fi work. The film is by no means a commercial film as far as I'm concerned; the only real outbreak of elongated violence occurs during a brilliantly staged bathhouse sequence - which features a nude Mortensen held at knife-point by two shady figures - and it eschews the pounding music that may have accompanied the scene under the wing of a generic director. In fact, the scene would not have been considered by another director in the first place. Eastern Promises is by all accounts a Cronenberg film, still withholding the ability to make an audience squirm and think at the same time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Heart of Glass (Herz au Glas) A Film by Werner Herzog (1974)

Heart of Glass is quite unlike much of anything I've seen. It is rambling but sublimely beautiful, excruciatingly slow but curiously enthralling, plotless yet carved out of a simple Bavarian folk legend, and gimmicky but intuitive. The entire cast (lest the prophet Hias) performs under hypnosis induced by director Werner Herzog, constituting one of the bravest conceptual decisions by a seminal director who otherwise has eaten a shoe, dragged a ship over a mountain, leaped into a cactus patch, and would most likely climb K2 naked if he had the chance.

The barest scrape of a story is conjured; in a Gothic, pre-industrial Bavarian village, a glass factory owner dies without a chance to pass down his renowned secret recipe for producing ruby glass and therefore sets off a moral crisis in the town - hammered home most tellingly by the younger glass mill owner who comes to fetishize the art of the secret - and elicits the arrival of an apocalypse-dwelling prophet. It's difficult to decipher most of the drivel that slips of out of the mouths of the hypnotized actors, thus causing elusiveness, but this is often precisely what adds magic to the film. Herzog was enthused by the idea of presenting people on the screen in a way that we have never seen them before, and the somnambulistic lull that results is indeed mystifying, less a form of Bressonian stiffness and more a warped Theater of the Absurd. Characters stare blankly, laugh uncontrollably, scream awkwardly, smash beer glasses on each other's heads, and wear droning patinas of gloom on their faces at all times in a way that brings to mind Roy Andersson's work. In one scene in a bar room, men sit posed like statues, the grave stillness in the room a poetic image of a civilization that refuses to fix its problems, declining rapidly while vainly fiddling with silly things like a glassblowing secret. Hias sees things on a global, even spiritual level, which is evoked in a nonsensically pessimistic way but reaches a sense of hope by the final scene, an anecdote about a group of spirited thinkers living on a rock island who finally decide after years of rumination to set off on canoe to discover whether or not the Earth is flat.

Heart of Glass is essentially an example of Herzog's conceit. The film is relentlessly formal and concept-based; most scenes unfold with a small number of cuts and the fixed, detached gaze echoes Bela Tarr (one bar scene involves a man playing a bizarre accordion-like instrument) and Tsai Ming-Liang's work. Herzog also periodically inserts stunning nature footage of the misty, mountainous Bavarian landscape to the kind of operatic accapella music he so frequently utilizes. There are a number of truly astounding images of hyperspeed fog rolling over trees, through swamps, over gorges, and around waterfalls. The film is at its most transcendent in such instances, when Herzog takes a break from his often times frustratingly oblique tale and does what he does best: capture "adequate images of our civilization". This phrase has an applicable ring to it as well; although the film takes place in Gothic ages, we are viewing a village that can be seen as a microcosm of human civilization as a whole. His recent succession of environmentally aware documentaries would certainly substantiate this.