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.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (2009) A Film by Spike Jonze

Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, a succinct, poetic tale of a young boy's imaginative escape from reality, is one of the literary pinnacles of my youth. It is the kind of perfect little book that succeeds on all fronts; its eloquent tableau illustrations please the eye and tell as much if not more of the story than the words do, and its brevity only enhances the potency of its ambiguous but acute childhood themes. Understandably, Spike Jonze's recent film adaption of it has elicited great bursts of nostalgia from a 16-21 year-old target audience. Just take a trip down to Urban Outfitters, where Wild Things merchandise has infiltrated, and you'll know what I mean. In a nutshell, there's a lot riding on the shoulders of Jonze's film. Thankfully, Jonze appears to have lovingly adapted his source, packing a great deal of sentimentality into his own elongation of it, suggesting that he's clearly as reverent as we are. Jonze's own radically different quirkiness comes to the fore however, eventually suffocating most of the genuine emotion he was shooting for.

The film kicks off promisingly though. An abrasive cut jars us out of an opening musical cue (the first in a soundtrack written entirely by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and into Max's (Max Records) aggressive sprawl down the stairs to chase his dog. The frenetic bound of the camera introduces the film's dynamic sense of physicality and hyperactive movement to compliment Max's shifty thoughts. Then there is a scene that manages to delicately balance the cuteness of childhood and the harshness that breaches it in a way that is believable. Max is playing out by the street in his snowy neighborhood, fiddling with snowballs in a primitive fort. He then sees his older sister leave the house with some friends and slyly decides to attack them from behind a fence. The bigger boys with her fight back and overstep their boundaries by body-slamming Max who is hiding within his fort. The boys awkwardly and insincerely apologize. All is fun and games until someone gets hurt.

In this instance, Jonze effectively brings to life this cliche. Otherwise, it is not very often that Where the Wild Things Are achieves this universal poignancy. The impulse of self-conscious cuteness progressively impedes on the action; Jonze and screenwriting partner Dave Eggers sugar coat an especially heartstring-tugging scene following the snowball episode when Max tells his mother a story from his dreams about vampires. The film then overplays the book's admirably restrained advance into Max's fantasies, substituting a melodramatic sprint to a nearby boat on the water for the transformation of room to jungle. Once Max does reach the island where the wild things are, he witnesses a group of bizarre creatures burning sticks in the woods for fun. Immediately there is a disunity between the book and the film that is somewhat grating: the wild things are voiced as if in a petty conniption fit with each other by James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, and Forest Whitaker, among others. Their mystery in the book is replaced by doleful ranting about loneliness.

Max, out of self-defense against being eaten, optimistically claims himself to be their King. With it comes not just great fun with the wild things but also great responsibility. One of Jonze's mistakes here is providing Max with the ability to constantly sort out problems, albeit with some hesitance, and deliver a verbalized solution that hammers in a particular lesson of the film. He also frequently resorts to a pouty face when placed in a predicament, with O's music layering on thick the bathos. Moreover, Jonze's ideas for expanding the simplistic storyline are hit-or-miss. For a moment, the attempt to create a huge stick fortress to fulfill the head wild thing's dream boasts some terrific potential, a deviation that will end the sadness once and for all, but ultimately it turns into more quarreling. Not even the joy of creation can tame these wild things.

The building of the fortress also points towards something else that is partially lacking in the film; fantastical settings. If we are supposed to believe that the entire film stems from Max's creative mind, it is not only unconvincing that the wild things bicker like adults but also that the landscape they inhabit is decidedly bland. In Sendak's book, each image has a faintly distorted sense of scale, color, and texture. Nature is gentle but mystically stylized. Jonze's relentless use of Cassavetes-style camerawork only reinforces the disconnect between book and film. Sure, Jonze should be able to mold the story creatively to his own instincts, but not to the extent that he loses the exaggerated distinction between reality and fantasy. Where the Wild Things Are stumbles upon a striking image once in a while - a snowy night in the woods, Max and Carol trudging across the desert, Max lumbering underneath the empty teepee, the animatronics-made wild things in general - but Jonze does not let them hold the power. His direction does not match the enigmatic nature of his content, and it constitutes a fairly lackluster adaption stripped of emotional complexity.