Wednesday, December 30, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Amarcord (1973) A Film by Federico Fellini

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Best Films of The First Decade of the 21st Century

(UPDATED 8/15/12)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 10, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Road (2009) A Film by John Hillcoat

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

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

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

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

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