Saturday, January 30, 2010
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (2009) A Film by Werner Herzog
Of the two loosely connected films that comprise an unintentional diptych of the American law system, Werner Herzog's My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? is unquestionably the proverbial head-scratcher, a bizarre, inchoate collection of non-sequiturs resembling the more erratic projects of David Lynch, who serves as executive producer. The film was decades in the making for Herzog and fellow screenwriter Herbert Golder, who first concocted the script in the 1970's but were unable to find sufficient funding for the production until recently when Lynch showed an interest with his Absurda Productions. Based loosely on the true story of a grad student who killed his mother with a sword after become maniacally invested in his production of the Greek tragedy Electra, by Sophocles, in which he played the lead character Orestes whose actions he imitated, it is indicative of the kind of meta-textual tale Lynch would be sympathetic toward. I asked Herb Golder about the type of creative relationship that Herzog and Lynch shared during the making of the film, and although he insists that Lynch never once set foot on the set, I take his statement that the finished product is completely of Herzog's sensibility alone with a grain of salt. With distinctly Lynchian line delivery, a story whose blurring of reality and fiction is largely INLAND EMPIRE-esque, and the inscrutably random appearance of a midget (Verne Troyer), My Son often times feels like Herzog's sloppy thank you note to Lynch.
This is not to say however that Herzog's footprint is invisible, because after all, we're talking about a director who, above all others, can't help but kick around in the mud of his own work. The central character is a testament to this fact, another peg in a long line of "mad men" that Herzog likes to capture on screen, people who push themselves radically outside of society. Brad McCullum (Michael Shannon) is presumably in his late twenties or early thirties but still lives with his eccentric mother (Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie) in a San Diego suburb, much to the dismay of his curiously complicit fiancé (Chloë Sevigny). His life is superficially hygienic, with a ready-made dinner available for him every night and a home that is garnished by phony implications of the happy, good life - a bright pink exterior, waltzing flamingos, and an ostentatious garden. Yet this showiness is also slightly off-kilter and disturbing, hinting at the unsteady waters of Brad's own schizophrenic persona. The film's first scene is a crude variation on the Twin Peaks opening, with two happy-go-lucky detectives (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) cruising through town right before receiving a call about an unwieldy murder, and from here the film excavates the enigma that is Brad via flashbacks that are elicited by Detective Hank Havenhurst's interviews with Brad's theater director (Udo Kier) and Sevigny's character.
Beneath the guise of bizarreness, there is a standard police procedural, and Herzog seems to want this conventionality only to tweak it with the hypnotic quality of his performers. Despite the fact that Brad is the film's singular oddball, Shannon is very much the actor who seems to embrace the freest manner of performance with wacked-out lines that come entirely out of the blue ("Some people act a role, others play a part!"; "God is here! But I don't need him anymore!"). The seemingly sane citizens are by contrast purely artificial, stilted creations, incapable of focusing on anything outside the crime scene filling up the picturesque street. It is fitting then that the majority of the film's laughs are evoked by Brad, the strange figure who holes himself up in his home with two "hostages" and shouts outlandish orders at the police officials barricading the exterior. In a one-off comment on the somnambulance of the task force, Brad wanders right by Dafoe's investigator when the case is first cracked open, muttering something about his "Razzle Dazzle" coffee cup while Dafoe apathetically ignores him. This comic absurdism does not weigh into the story as much as it should though, for Herzog's exploration of the crazed mind at the center of My Son is for the most part sincere, and with its pseudo-mystical underpinnings, it is hugely unconvincing and leads nowhere.
One element that makes the film uniquely Herzogian is its impulsive globetrotting. For a while My Son appears to be locked in to one locale, but as flashbacks grow increasingly tenuous and inexplicable, we see Brad in the misty mountains and tumbling rivers of Peru and the destitute streets of China. In Peru, he is with a disparate pack of marijuana-smoking free-spirits previously unidentified within the present-day of the story who lounge around on tall rocks and stare at the passionate waters, as alive with elemental energy as the rapid fog in Heart of Glass. Here he is a lone rider, supposedly unaware of the presence of others around him as he speaks nonsensical spiritual babble. One of the film's best images occurs in Peru, which I sense is a lift from somewhere else in his oeuvre, with the camera tracking around Brad in the middle of imposing mountains as he stares into the lens, his voice repeating on the soundtrack: "why is the whole world staring at me?". The brief China segment shows up almost incidentally, giving rise to a documentary quality. Herzog's crude digital footage captures underprivileged men and women as Brad becomes one of them, perusing the crowd conspicuously. These episodes are basically inconsequential in the context of Brad's mental disillusionment, but they have something to do with his increasing interest in an ill-defined New Age Spiritualism that leads him to call himself Farouk and the Greek tragedy he is acting in.
Herzog is mostly screwing around in My Son, letting his thoughts manifest themselves on screen with no inhibition. It's problematic, because the story of Brad McCullum - a matricidal wack-job succumbing to the customs of an ordinary life yet also repelling against them wildly - is potentially intriguing. As it is, the film is awkward and unfocused, drifting around at such a rate that it tends to forget elements that should be essential to its core, such as the Greek tragedy propelling Brad's insanity, or the indifferent, corrupt police force that could have been put to great use. At Herzog's best, he can conjure up transcendent escapism, but his worst work (in which I think My Son must be included, although this is only from my peripheral perspective, having seen it once in a screening environment that was less than ideal) tends to feature a director who is under the impression that he can get by simply with the clout of his own spontaneous genius.
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) A Film by Michael Haneke (2009)
Dualities abound in Michael Haneke's latest film, The White Ribbon. The title refers to the white cloths that a Pastor (Burghart Klaußner) bestows upon his children as a reminder to practice purity and strong morals, yet beneath this facade there is a static cruelty in their own village. Just as righteousness does not come without pain, love does not come without punishment, and healing does not come without violence, revealed singularly by the town's doctor (Rainer Bock) who also is a savage cynic and an incestuous swine. These affirmations of the polarities of human behavior are not uncommon for the Austrian director of such films as Caché, Code Unknown, and The Piano Teacher, in which the slick, masterly surfaces rarely provide fact, but instead conceal something deeply ambiguous underneath, sometimes even contradicting the latent content altogether. This is once again the case in The White Ribbon, where the idyllic turn-of-the-century German village that the film is set in is really an eerie landscape of menace, a place that is cold and uptight from the very beginning of the film - and presumably even before - when the doctor comes home on his horse only to have it tripped by a transparent wire running across two trees. This incident inexplicably paves the way for a longer string of increasingly extreme displays of strangeness and brutality.
Guiding us with less than a sure hand through it all is the elderly voice (Ernst Jacobi) of the village's schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), who readily admits that he is unsure of how many of the stories he is telling are entirely true. The presence of this unreliable narrator, reminiscent of Citizen Kane, cloaks the film in perpetual doubt. He could be leaving details out inadvertently or skewering the actual events that took place, which is an accurate instrument for Haneke's continuing preoccupation with the elusiveness of truth. In this sense, the schoolteacher shares similarities with the audience, trying to piece together fragments from within the timeline of his life as opposed to our narrower timeline, the film. Such a description can't help but illuminate how Haneke is not much different, the one difference being that he is purposely excising plot points to augment the mystery. As it progresses, The White Ribbon hinges more and more on its central narrative mystery: who is the guilty party behind all of the ominous occurrences? I hazard to say that Haneke is any more suited to find the answer than a given audience member. This is why all talk about Haneke being an overbearing polemicist seems off-base; he's more of an open-minded explorer, always mindful of the various conscious and unconscious implications that his images can evoke.
Fittingly, it seems that for most of The White Ribbon, Haneke is deliberately trying to be as open-ended and neutral as possible. The film's central characters are almost uniformly nameless, and instead are simply stand-ins for the structural mechanisms in society which they represent; that is, the doctor, the schoolteacher, and the pastor position themselves as microcosms of the health system, the educational system, and the church, respectively. While it can be clear when Haneke is condemning a behavior and when he is praising one, the precise reasons behind them are ambiguous. Thus we get a morally nebulous character like the Pastor, who adheres so vehemently to his own austere moral code, leaving no room for all things casual and enjoyable, that he tends to lose sight of what is really right on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. One night, he denies his children dinner and delivers cane whippings the following morning because they wandered into the village without guidance. Yet he also has the capacity to show genuine compassion towards his young boy when he kindly replaces his dead bird with a new one, an emotional dynamic that the acrimonious doctor seems incapable of engaging in with his own offspring. Haneke is less interested in hammering a one-sided "parents-are-bad" or "institutions-are-bad" message home than he is in presenting multifaceted views of complicated, mostly antagonistic figures.
And even more than a bleak character study, The White Ribbon is a broader allegory on the nature of cruelty and hostility, so static across generations that it threatens to be a never-ending cycle. Here Haneke's denouncement is more straightforward and transparent: children are impressionable in the face of their guiding figures, capable of being gradually bent to the way of life around them, and therefore it is the adults who are to blame for this transfiguration of evil. That the film is set directly prior to the point in Germany's history when they would perform the most vicious, monstrous acts of human evil imaginable - one of the more leaden, overtly convenient choices Haneke makes - is heavily significant in suggesting that the negative impact that the adults have on the new generation of children is indeed substantial. The depiction of children in the film is decidedly nontraditional; acting, or nonacting, with the same deadpan, morose theatricality as their older counterparts, the children cheerlessly mope through the village, their most unconstrained human contact coming in the form of playing a wood flute beside a pond or having a delicate conversation about death, as in the case of the doctor's young son and his older babysitter. Yet even in these instances, the weight of oppression hangs over the proceedings, as if an adult is going to spontaneously enter into the scene to deliver some form of unearned punishment. Such an atmosphere is undoubtedly representative of the quiet fear that rests in most of the children's expressions, and manifests itself most directly in a character like the Pastor's son Martin (Leonard Proxauf), who is surely on a path towards deep depression.
Haneke's crisp black-and-white and traditional yet slowly paced mise-en-scene reflects the burdens of the story in a way that is not emotionally distancing, but rather emotionally devastating. While clearly an antecedent of the visual and narrative stylistics of Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Ingmar Bergman (Bergman especially, whose Winter Light involves characters that in some ways feel reborn in The White Ribbon), the film also manages to incorporate some of Haneke's own personal traits as a director, such as the occasional long take and the use of off-screen violence and teasing, elliptical cuts. The film is also characteristically absent of a score, with the diegetic exception of the children's choir that is shown from time to time in the church, as in the final scene. Like Caché, Haneke fixes his camera on a large group of people, this time gathering rather than dispersing, and as the schoolteacher informs us, probably for the last time. While the audience may collectively sigh at the lack of resolution, Haneke has once again managed to instill shrewd poeticism into the most prosaic of surfaces.
Friday, January 22, 2010
A Bucket of Blood (1959) A Film by Roger Corman
Having directed over 50 features and acting as producer on more than 300, Roger Corman established himself as a skillful craftsman with an uncanny ability to work at hyperspeed, and A Bucket of Blood is no exception. The film, just over an hour, was shot in 5 days for a scant budget of around $50,000. Its tale of a naive busboy desperate to fit in with the sophisticated beatniks around him is ridiculous enough to warrant this kind of on-to-go treatment, but what's surprising is how generally entertaining the film is, and not always by way of kitsch. Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) is the central character, a neurotic loner working in a coffee shop filled to the brim with folk musicians, pompous poets, far-out junkies, and art-world hacks. Unaware of their phoniness, and pathetically determined to appeal to them despite his complete and utter lack of artistic talent, he lives a life of starry-eyed clumsiness. His small apartment, kept up about as well as Henry's in David Lynch's Eraserhead, is the only other location he occupies in life besides the cafe. He is in dire need of a rejuvenation.
This of course being a film in the most primitive, campy traditions of genre horror, Walter finds that rejuvenation - and eventually local and art-world fame - through the macabre. After accidentally stabbing and killing his landlord's cat when attempting to retrieve it from between the walls of his apartment, he finds that the best way to cover up the murder, and benefit from it personally in the process, is to cover the whole corpse with clay, fashioning it as a sculpture of a dead cat with a knife in its side. The corpulent poet from the cafe, Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton), and Carla (Barboura Morris), Walter's love interest, immediately deem the sculpture a masterpiece, forwardly impressed by its acute sense of anatomy. Art critics get word of the piece, and soon he is a hidden phenomenon. Unfortunately, they're curious to see more, and this newfound enthusiasm influences the stubborn Walter to continue creating sculptures. Although his next work is also the product of an accident, killing a local cop with a frying pan out of fear when he threatens with a gun to arrest him for drug possession, Walter begins actively murdering members of the town to fulfill his "artistic calling".
In these startling effronteries, as strange as they are loaded with impracticalities, death becomes creation in an in-your-face manner rarely seen in films. Such a concept would normally be explored obliquely, but Corman lays it right on the table, suggesting that art can spring from even the most unlikely sources. Of course, no one (except for the Walter's boss) raises an eyebrow about the continued absence of the cafe regulars that Walter murders, nor do they ever truly inquire about how he gained his artistic prowess, preferring instead to marvel at it as if it stands on a lofty pedestal, a divine creation erected from God-given talent. Not to mention, where is the ghastly smell of fleshy decay? For Corman, these logistical obstacles were of no bother, for he realized his ultimate goal was to create entertaining movies in short periods of time. If anything, the stubbornness of the Paisley fans and their relentless blindness towards Walter's sketchy methods only amplifies Corman's overall critique of the pretensions existing in the art world, the fact that surface details such as words and forms are of more importance than whether or not their sources are authentic. Made in 1959, A Bucket of Blood effortlessly and humorously deconstructs the emerging beatnik counterculture and - with its jaunty jazz soundtrack - the conventions of horror as well.
Monday, January 18, 2010
The Intruder (L'Intrus) A Film by Claire Denis (2004)
Claire Denis' The Intruder is loaded with Marxist Dialectics, the kind of suggestive cutting collisions that were pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein. A man describes a scene in the woods to his wife as a way of setting an erotic tone between the two of them, followed by a cut to the man's father sitting amidst tall pine trees relaxing with his dogs. A priest speaks about the variety of immoral beings in the world, followed by a cut to the film's blank protagonist, Louis Trebor (Michel Subor). The intentions of these techniques are of course not always cut and dry, for the range of potential associative meanings that could arise out of them is infinite. However, it's important to at least attempt on some level - even if it's subconscious - to interpret and assign meaning to these faint jabs, because they're likely to be all Denis will give you.
The story, as it is, is left deliberately shrouded in mist, replete with seemingly significant gaps in between the action Denis does show. In order to gather any semblance of narrative momentum, one has to look towards the way that the film is essentially divided into three parts, each comprised of a different locale, though not entirely limited to it, and connected by the theme of travel and intended self-renewal. For Trebor, his renewal is both physical and emotional; with a failing heart, he must make a trip to acquire the new organ on the black market (for reasons unknown) and in doing so feels the desire to make a pilgrimage to the remote island of his youth, Tahiti, where he abandoned a son generations earlier (also for reasons unknown). Therefore, the three distinct settings of the film are his lonely woodland cabin on the French-Swiss border, Pusan, and Tahiti. In the lead role, screen veteran Michel Subor plays a man of few words yet capable of making an indelible physical impact. Although he searches for his son, an action that normally would imply grief and sadness, Trebor is really a brooding object more than an emotional human being, his pursuits marked by little perceivable motivation. Instead, we are supposed to dream up some scrape of a backstory when Trebor's married son (Grégoire Colin), whom he neglects, says to his wife after a brief, unexpected encounter with his father: "What a lunatic."
Though The Intruder's primary mode of expression appears rooted in realism, the film subliminally shifts between reality and imagined moments, supposedly in the mind of Trebor. Inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy's book of the same name, Denis permeates the film with a complex sense of impending death, coupled by the frightening situation of heart transplant and the idea that one's own body is foreign to one's self. Given this framework, it is evident that Trebor is aware that he is facing the end of his life and the fact of his own body being invaded by an organ from another, so the film appears to take place in an eerie twilight zone between life and death. Sinister visions bubble up out of obscurity, like Trebor cutting the throat of an unknown teenage boy in the night and wrapping up his body fastidiously, or the image of a bare heart in the middle of a snowy field, being sniffed out by his two watchful huskies. Because of the lack of stylistic dissonance between these scenes and the more explicitly "real" scenes, there is a deep uncertainty as to whether or not they actually occur in the timeline of the story. Similarly, there is inconclusiveness in the depictions of Trebor's human relationships in the film: Bambou, who plays an unidentified pharmacist in the story, sleeps with Trebor but appears to not live with him; a woman labeled in the script only as Queen of the Northern Hemisphere (Béatrice Dalle) is a sassy dog breeder who he desires sexually but receives no requital; and a Russian vender (Katia Golubeva) from whom Trebor purchases his heart transplant violently stalks him afterward.
Each third of the film consciously involves a different style to coincide with the fatalistic progression of the story. The first section, taking place on the French-Swiss border, is arguably its most interesting. Denis' cutting rhythms here are about as radically unconventional as they get. Switching startlingly from close-ups to long shots, subjective point-of-views to objective point-of-views, static shots to suffocating handicams, and from one character to another without introduction, she creates a montage of abstractions that is more a flow of sensuous images than it is a progression of linearity. One of Denis' strong points will always be her knack for shooting entangled bodies, caressing the details of the conjoined figures with effortless eroticism, such as when Trebor's son gets in his wife's pants while their young children whine in the neighboring room. After this section the film's tempo steadily decreases, containing less and less spontaneous interjections. By the finale in Tahiti, The Intruder feels like a completely different work than what its opening anticipated. The shots lengthen, the soundtrack becomes quieter, comedic scenes appear, and Denis begins interspersing the action with footage from an unfinished 60's film called Le Reflux, also set in Tahiti and starring Michel Subor.
All of this curiously approximates the pace of the gradually failing heart of a man apprehensive about the shaky relationship between him and his sons, as well as the locations that he travels through dispassionately, and his internal body and external body. The film's title is fittingly multi-faceted in this light. The heart is an intruder of the human body. Trebor is an intruder himself, infiltrating both his past, his son's life, and the places that are not home to him. There is also a veiled theme woven into Trebor's past of some sort of political fugitivity, as we see him several times throughout the film involved in clandestine transfers of money in Swiss banks. Such scenes though - which could have gained dramatic significance in a more traditional political thriller - are downplayed like the rest of the events that comprise the story, a homogeneity that Denis aims for to encourage viewer participation. While it's difficult to come away with anything concrete after watching The Intruder, with Denis' and collaborator Agnes Godard's ravishing imagery and Stuart Staples' disquieting minimalist score, you're likely to experience a unique and tangible atmosphere within which a puzzling tale of coming death and ephemeral globetrotting exists.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Satantango: Take 2
Bela Tarr puts me into a trance. If you haven't been able to infer from my numerous appreciations of his films in the past, I can't help but be drawn to his work. I also can't help but feel the overwhelming desire to write anew about individual films each time I rewatch them, to revise my own sloppy thoughts, to expand upon something only hinted at, or to express something entirely new that came out of a viewing. I don't want to give the impression that I think Tarr can do no wrong, or that I would kiss his feet if ever in his presence, because I will readily admit that his films certainly have their moments - however rare - of tedium, moments where I just wish he would get on with it. Yet at the same time, I feel something extremely special when I watch his films. Something tells me he is a savior of the cinema, a sign of clairvoyance whose importance will most likely not be fully recognized until after it's too late. In a sense, he is the messiah that the ill-fated characters in Satantango only hoped the ominous Irimias would be, a man who could lift them from their mundane existence towards a more comfortable and sustainable future. So it is with this outlandish enthusiasm that I return to his films, even at their most taxing, which is certainly the case with Satantango.
And yet, despite all of the analytical chops I like to think I have acquired throughout my years of film viewing, Tarr's glorious hunker of celluloid maintains a core of inscrutability, of cosmic cinematic feng shui that may never be understood logically, despite all of the director's steadfast denials of metaphysics. Something sacred is going on here, and perhaps it would take seven viewings (that is, one for every hour that the film runs) in order to grasp it or articulate it, but this lack of knowing precisely does not slacken the impact of the present experience. Quite the contrary, in fact. It seems that for every plot thread that is either slightly underdeveloped or left deliberately ambiguous (and I mean deeply, deeply ambiguous; Tarr doesn't give much of anything to assist in interpreting some parts of the film), and for every blatant diversion from the ostensible "story" that Tarr unabashedly indulges in, Satantango grows more tantalizing, beckoning you further into its simultaneously prosaic and sinister atmosphere. Consider the IMDB-ready synopsis of the film: a dilapidated farm collective in post-Communist Hungary awaits their yearly wages while becoming anxious about the impending arrival of a prophetic figure named Irimias and his sidekick Petrina, whom they know could potentially destroy their well-being or enhance it. Ultimately, following tragic events in the village, Irimias lures the rural folk into his convoluted plan, ending up with all of their treasured wages in his coat pocket.
This straightforward aggregation tells you everything and nothing about the film. It's true that it covers the major narrative action in it, and it would suffice if you were to ever to be put in the situation of informing someone of what the hell a seven hour movie could be about, but it would almost have to be followed by an acknowledgment of the scant importance the story plays in the overall cinematic experience. Instead, the events that take place are more a vehicle for exploring Tarr's characteristic concerns, for putting characters - or more fittingly, real people, given his affinity for using the same non-professional actors time and again - into situations that test their dignity and moral certitude, but even more for simply immersing us in a powerfully concrete space and time. Before trying to decide what the film is about, Tarr would prefer you to shut down all interpretive frameworks and give yourself over to the visceral presence of the film, to literally live alongside the characters for the duration, if not physically then pretty damn close to it. The in-your-face tactility of Satantango may explain why it is so difficult at times to grapple with on a narrative level, for the purely experiential dimension of it supersedes the dramatic details. After all, this is not a Lisandro Alonso film we're talking about, where the physical weight of the film is the be-all and end-all, but rather a film that is equal parts physically immersive and substance-driven.
An episode of Satantango that would be instructive in this regard - that is, it embodies the balance the film tries to maintain between these two viewing apparatuses - is the first sequences with the doctor (Peter Berling), the third chapter of the film (out of twelve, a number rooted in Laszlo Krasznahorkai's novel of the same name). The episode is possibly the film's most intimate, and therefore most penetrating and direct, in terms of its relation to the audience. The silently pirouetting camera observes the obese doctor sitting before a messy gathering of papers and such at his desk, peering out at the comings-and-goings of the local villagers and recording their actions in his notebook, the image alternating focal trajectory several times over the course of one unbroken take, an amazingly unfussy act of technical wizardry. Nothing much occurs in this sequence other than the repetitious heavy breathing of the doctor interspersed by his periodic swings of Fruit Brandy and his dispassionate murmurs while jotting down notes. Yet because of Tarr's extremely tight observation in claustrophobic, grimy quarters, we are completely, even uncomfortably submerged in the physical moment. The near silence further accentuates this intimacy, because such quietude in films is usually reciprocated by something unexpected, something to jolt you out of your seat, but when that moment is prolonged further and further, a strange tension is born out of the interplay between the verisimilitude and the expected change of pace.
With all of these simple surface preoccupations that accompany the viewing experience of this individual scene, it's easy to miss the narrative and thematic undercurrents that it establishes. For instance, the episode is introduced by a classic binocular effect assuming the doctor's point-of-view as he focuses out his window on the rainy, muddy streets. We see this before we even see who is using these binoculars. The voyeuristic nature of the scene is a self-reflexive device used by Tarr; by first supplying us the subjective experience of looking through the binoculars, he is aligning us, the audience, with the doctor as his surrogate. We too are observing the disjointed events that take place in the village, gathering hard evidence and making overall assumptions based on it. This stance acquires added significance in the final scene when the doctor, in a striking bit of cynicism, boards up his windows for good, blocking off his view from the outside world, and by extension ours. The film ends, and we can no longer see what happens. What also occurs in the scene is the fascinating, potentially multivalent line that is drawn from the doctor to the police investigators who are seen throughout the film seemingly in cahoots with Irimias, because of the doctor's propensity to oversee everything and make judgments at face value. Perhaps it is significant that Tarr makes him a retired doctor, a profession meant to singlehandedly help people rather than punish them. Social critique seems to inadvertently attach itself to this equalization of the law, the doctor, and the moviegoer.
Like the doctor, it is frequently difficult to refrain from judging the characters based upon their actions. Tarr however, separates himself from a director like Terrence Malick (at least in a film like Badlands), who supplies the audience no inkling of a backstory to help understand a character's motivations, leaving us only with their physical behavior and surroundings. Granted, you're unlikely to ever get any explicit mention of motivations in Satantango, and storytelling devices such as flashbacks or foreshadowing are basically extinct from Tarr's cinematic vernacular, but at the very least he discovers a way to weave in some assistance. The infamous cat torture scene, when a young, mentally challenged girl named Estike (Erika Bók) scurries into a loft and disturbingly asserts her power over a stray cat, attests to this. Earlier in the film, her older brother Sanyi (András Bodnár) informs the approaching Irimias and Petrina of the conditions in the village, even telling them what a headcase Estike is and how she is beaten by her mother as punishment. Prior to the cat scene, Estike is forcefully instructed by her mother to remain seated outside their house on a dirty chair, and directly before this, we watch Sanyi trick her into believing that she can plant a money tree. She is clearly a lonely, neglected girl, and her spontaneous desire to express her dominance over the innocent cat is a displacement of that angst, a way of mirroring her own mother's actions towards her.
What follows is one of the most devastatingly sublime scenes in the film. First, she watches the cat's slow demise after force-feeding it rat poison. Then, after wandering into the rainy night and being viciously ignored by the doctor (a moment witnessed earlier in the film from the doctor's point of view), she escapes into the remains of a wooded church (a location that has all the spiritual dissolution of a similar spot in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev) and consumes the rat poison herself. Resting the cat lovingly in her bosom, she lies down to face her passing and Tarr introduces an excerpt from Krasznahorkai's novel about her peaceful death. It's a beautiful, forgiving moment that urges us to reconsider any automatic judgments we made based on her treatment of the animal. Though Tarr's a decidedly earthbound auteur, the scene is effortlessly transcendent. The most curious part about it though is her clinician's approach toward putting the finishing touches of both her and the cat's life, acts that feel as calculated and premeditated as the vile, selfish acts that they inspire. With all the deftness of a frighteningly precise dictator, Irimias twists what starts as an eloquent elegy to Estike's life as well as an acknowledgment of the collective blame required into a discussion of his own plan for the villagers, which involves them shamefully handing their wages over to him.
If Tarr's primary goal is to not judge his characters, thereby implying the audience should not judge his characters either, he certainly pushes more buttons with Irimias, albeit in a more ambiguous manner when placed aside the directness of the cat episode. Satantango's most continuously probing question, at least on a narrative level, is this: is Irimias truly interested in helping the villagers or is he a selfish conman, focused primarily on squeezing the most money out of the situation for himself at the expense of a group of people? Being mindful of Tarr's preference of "real people" - meaning rural peasants - over bureaucratic organizations, it seems inevitable that his sympathies would lie with the villagers, even though they are often presented as conniving and greedy, such as in an early scene when Schmidt (László feLugossy), Mrs. Schmidt (Éva Almássy Albert), and Futaki (Miklós Székely B.) plan on ditching the town with all of the wages. Yet at the same time, there are moments that suggest that Irimias is not so bad after all, like when he sends the group to an abandoned manor, leaves them thinking he will not reconvene with them (he has the money at this point anyways), but eventually shows up with new plans and unerring dedication. Is this only a move that will set him up for more monetary gain later?
Of course, Tarr ultimately does not reveal the final result of this supposed plan, ending the film on the most enigmatic note possible instead. He simply shows us the last exchange between Irimias and the villagers, which involves him providing them directions in town as to how to acquire the jobs he has set up for them. This, he tells them, is a necessary step to take on the way to achieving the prosperous farm they hope for. They vanish into town and we never hear about how it worked out, if there were even jobs at all. The telling scene occurs afterward, when two police officials transcribe a report written to them from Irimias speaking negatively, and very harshly, about the state of the villagers. This prolonged, dispassionate jibber-jabber between the two cops (one of those rare scenes I was talking about when Tarr really pushes it) persuasively suggests that Irimias sold them down the river for good, but simultaneously they could be lies off his pen. After all, what exactly is the link between Irimias and the policemen throughout the film? Is he a loyal spy for them, or is he like the figure in Pickpocket, as resistant to the law as he is devoted to true freedom?
Questions like these pile up throughout the experience of watching Satantango, in every one of the film's carefully orchestrated scenes. They're enticing questions that propel the film forward even during its more static stretches. I see this essay as part of what may become an ongoing series, perhaps to be expanded upon every time I rewatch the film, perhaps even as a fitting seven-part series. It's nearly impossible to fully address the sprawling majesty of the work in one all-encompassing essay; rather, it's something that would warrant an entire book. For instance, I haven't even begun to hammer away at what this all means, although I do have my theories. I can't imagine though that I'll ever truly have this masterpiece fully figured out. Still, that won't stop me from trying.
Monday, January 11, 2010
Europa (Zentropa) A Film by Lars Von Trier (1991)
How does a filmmaker induce a state of hypnosis in his audience, partial or otherwise? Ask Lars Von Trier, master of subtlety, and he'll tell you the easiest way is to literally attempt hypnosis via a blurred, repetitious image and a lulling narration. Such is the case with Europa, whose first five minutes are spent in this very manner, with Max Von Sydow's almighty basso advising us within a hesitated countdown to sink deeper into our own bodies, over a rapid traveling shot pointed straight down at a pair of train tracks. The intention is clear: Von Trier wants his audience to watch the fast approaching film (if we're going with the train analogy) under a spell. He does not want the film to be viewed under the consciousness that marks one's waking life, but rather a notch or two in the direction of the subconscious. This move is designed to approximate the somnambulistic quality of his lead character, Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American pacifist who comes to postwar Germany in 1945 to take a job with his uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) as a sleeping-car conductor. Kessler tries with all his might to remain neutral to the simmer of political activity in the film, yet he is unknowingly pulled in several directions. He has come to Germany blindly, a stubborn American with scant knowledge regarding the state of the war-torn country he is entering.
Europa is the first film to introduce Von Trier's seemingly unfounded anti-Americanism, and his ploy of hypnosis comes off as a clumsy attempt to let the audience sympathize with Kessler. Given Kessler's intended lack of involvement, it is very likely that Von Trier is indicting Americans for not taking action against the Germans early enough, for allowing the continuation of the Holocaust. The biggest crime, then, is not taking a stance. This neutrality is put to the test however when Kessler finds himself romantically involved with the stone-cold, impersonal Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), the daughter of Lawrence Hartmann (Udo Kier), the owner of the Zentropa train line which Kessler now works for. With the purpose of verifying his honest and non-judgmental nature, Katharina reveals her connection to the Werewolves, a subversive terrorist group who murders members of the allied forces. Kessler accepts her dissidence, if hesitantly, and marries her. Obviously, as the film progresses and Kessler becomes further entangled in the political plotting of those around him, he is forced into making a decision.
This is the general framework that the film follows, but it's nearly impossible to keep up with the minute-by-minute interactions of characters and new scenarios. Looking at the list of characters in the film, I find myself having trouble remembering half of them. I'd like to think that this is a natural byproduct of Von Trier's intentionally choppy, hazy narrative progression rather than my own viewing deficiency. Since we are experiencing the film through the eyes of Kessler, it is as much of a blur for us as it is for him. Von Trier blatantly intends for this confusion to occur, but whether that enhances the experience of the film is questionable. The only film to spectator relationship that occurs is a manipulator to manipulated one, guided along by Von Sydow's omnipresent narration, hinting at the construed artifice of the story (his voice exists on its own plane, frequently mocking the action or summarizing it objectively and only occasionally breaking through the barrier to speak directly to Kessler) and lending the story a sense of inevitability and fate. Since Von Trier's aspirations clearly amount to inducing a dream-state, a fantasia of a re-envisioned historical moment, this screen relationship is detrimental, for we are not manipulated in our dreams.
It is also troubling that Europa calls attention to itself so often. This has long been one of Von Trier's great weaknesses, his aggravating propensity to add unpleasant, distasteful elements to an otherwise interesting, well-constructed aesthetic. The maladroit attempts at hypnosis aside, Europa - which is shot in black-and-white for its majority - luxuriates in mindless switches to grainy color. Von Trier's application of color never achieves a rhyme or reason aside from his own giddy desire to mix things up. It would be inaccurate to say that black-and-white resembles nightmare while color resembles reality, or vice versa, because neither possibilities are backed up on screen; color is used so infrequently and in such unusual circumstances (one brief close-up, the middle of a scene which was previously in monochrome, not to mention individual frames which include both black-and-white faces and color faces) that it defies logic. The film also wears an influence in German Expressionism, Film Noir, and early silent cinema on its sleeve. A brief, superimposed image of Kessler sprinting across a back-projected clock embodies the classic Film Noir theme of racing against time, the luscious (and rather Hitchcockian) black-and-white imagery and use of looming close-ups recalls Murnau, and Sukowa's icy performance as the quasi-femme fatale seems to resurrect Marlene Dietrich (although, to be sure, it wasn't until 1992 that Dietrich passed).
For all of these cannibalistic elements, I couldn't help but imagine how well Europa would play alongside Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009) in a double feature. Both films utilize diverse tactics from film history to ostensibly strengthen their central conceits, both are revisionist, somewhat absurd World War II stories, both deal with a group of radical political activists (the Werewolves and the Basterds), and both involve an explosive finale resulting in the death of a mass of people (in Europa's case, this means the explosion of the train on a bridge, leading to an admittedly breathtaking scene of slow, painful drowning set to Von Sydow's God-like voice). Each work has its own merits as well as its own frustrations. In the end though, Inglourious Basterds would have to screen second, to emphasize how comprehensible, measured, and exciting it is by comparison.
Friday, January 8, 2010
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) A Film by Chantal Akerman
First client, dinner, lessons, leisure, bedtime, morning, breakfast, cleanup, errands, dinner prep, lunch, coffee break, second client, potatoes, dinner, leisure, bedtime, morning, breakfast, cleanup, errands, dinner prep, the wait, chores, the wait part 2, lunch, errands, third client, rest.
These are the chapter titles to Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles. Jeanne Dielman refers to the central character (Delphine Seyrig), an orderly housewife working as a prostitute on the side in her own apartment. The second half refers specifically to the location of her domestic space. The nondescript chapter titles comprise the entire action of the story, a documentation of three days - Tuesday through Thursday - in the life of Jeanne, who lives with her bookworm son Sylvain.
It's a film about the tactility of real spaces. The yellow tiled walls in Jeanne's kitchen, where she spends the bulk of her time. The black and white tiles on the floor and the small breakfast table in the middle of it, with two always perfectly positioned white chairs on either side. The bland, patterned gray wallpaper. A perpetually pulsing neon light that diffuses through the window shades in the living room. Muted, retro yellow sofas beside the dinner table. Short, claustrophobic hallways acting as the epicenter in a maze of domestic ennui. Long, familiar streets lined with shops. Plain white cars. And Jeanne's clothes: blank cardigans, turquoise nightgowns, beige button-ups.
It's about the possibility for cinema to construct its own space and time, seemingly congruent with real time yet only existing in three hours. We wonder, watching all of the extended, static takes of real-life chores, where the remaining fifty or so hours went. Akerman toys with invisible ellipses; suddenly, Jeanne is changed into new clothes, or once she's done doing the dishes, she is downtown running errands. Such quiet transitions feel continuous and natural, the filler time in between deliberately left hanging. Rarely does a film feel so in sync with our own lives. Rarely does a film convey through every moment the presence of an outside world beyond the frame, where other people are going about their schedules.
Although superficially simple, Jeanne Dielman subtly provokes questions. Why does Jeanne feel compelled to keep everything so consistently tidy, when it is only her and her son living in the apartment? Why does she turn the lights out every time she leaves a room, a way of further compartmentalizing her already boxy space? Why does she not ask Sylvain about his school day when he comes home and eats dinner, but instead simply recites a boring letter she receives from her sister in Canada? Where do the two go in the night after dinner, an enigmatic action that seems almost obligatory, for they go even when it's especially late? Why does Jeanne keep the money she earns through sex right in the pot on the dinner table? Is it to hide the most secretive aspect of her life in the most obvious, overlooked centerpiece? Why does she house a fellow tenant's baby boy for only five minutes everyday? Why is she complacent with her monotonous life?
The biggest question of all is elicited by one of the most shocking conclusions in film history. Her unexpectedly violent act comes without warning. It comes right after we are finally let into her bedroom during the sex act, after previously being kept outside the door twice, left only to watch the monetary transaction at the door. Following it, Akerman watches for approximately seven minutes as Jeanne sits motionless at the dinner table. She sits in a room with the lights out for the first time in the film, besides when she goes to sleep. Her expression changes in the subtlest way possible. The final face she makes is one of inconspicuous bliss. Has she finally transcended the mundanity of her routine? Did she see herself in the man, caught in a loathsome routine by visiting her every Thursday at the same time? Was the murder an act of male antagonism, forged by the unexplained loss of her husband, or is the act equally unexplainable, driven by a supernatural impulse?
Jeanne Dielman is also a film about routine, about the rhythms of modern life. Jeanne's behavioral quirks often times seem unnecessarily obsessive, but at the same time, what she is doing is wholly indispensable. Sylvain needs to be fed. She needs to eat too. Their clothes need to be clean. The dishes need to be clean. Maybe the beds don't need to be made constantly, but for Jeanne's sanity, maybe they do. Yet simultaneously, the film is about the disruption of routine. During the second day, Jeanne's demeanor begins changing. She drops a utensil that was just cleaned. She overcooks the potatoes. She forgets to turn on the radio at the usual time. Such minor details are extremely dramatic and noticeable given the precision with which these acts were previously carried out. Her change in behavior, though subdued, is frightening.
To be missing the fact that Jeanne Dielman is primarily about film form though is to be missing the point entirely. Akerman explores the limits of what can be conveyed with one static camera angle, a frontal, symmetrical view of the proceedings. She eschews all typical cinematographic techniques that should accompany a film narrative, such as the close-up, the reverse shot, and the point-of-view. She tries to see how basic a story structure can be while still providing tantalizing forward momentum. Her formal rhythm is astounding: the audience begins to expect that there will be three doorbell rings throughout the day, and knows who will be behind the door for each. We also anticipate the coming of a title card, announcing the end of the given day. The effectiveness of this repetition brings to mind Bela Tarr's Satantango, a similarly marathon-like work.
After seeing Jeanne Dielman, I knew a conventional review would not be appropriate. I needed to somehow convey the rapidity with which thoughts ran through my head while watching it. Although it takes patience, it is a powerful, unique experience. It is also a disturbingly applicable one that holds a mirror up to our own lives. Most potently, it shows how a person's life becomes so invested with repetition and routine, yet time still moves forward. And how much of a tragedy that is.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Empire of Passion (Ai no borei) A Film by Nagisa Oshima (1978)
Nagisa Oshima's Empire of Passion involves a plot that could work its way into any average mystery, thriller, or melodrama (and indeed does singlehandedly with Tay Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)): Seki (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), a working-class mother, begins a doomed affair with the 26-year younger Toyoji (Tatsuya Fuji), behind the back of her humble, rickshaw-driving husband, Gisaburo (Takahiro Tamura). Themes such as guilt, passion, dishonesty, and fate almost inevitably bubble up. We expect the adulteress to be placed under suspicion by both her own husband and the people whom she is close with, and ultimately punished for her infidelity. Perhaps we anticipate some violence in one way or another. Oshima is without a doubt aware of the conventions he is working within, and though in several instances he embraces them with open arms, allowing them to guide his film instinctually, Empire of Passion is in many ways a deconstructive effort, a revisionist melodrama that takes its origins through interesting transmutations. The influence of Hollywood is coupled with an equally humble tribute to ancient Japanese folktale traditions, specifically the ghost story, or the Kwaidan. Oshima roots the film in these guidelines only to spin off of them into a stifling exploration of sexual politics, repressive social schemes, and the natural rhythms of small village life.
It is not long before the film dives into the meat of its situation. Without even spending much time on characterization (the narrow exception being a few short scenes in Seki and Gisaburo's small thatched hut, one in which Gisaburo asks her if she thinks Toyoji has eyes for her, the only instance of his suspicion shown by Oshima), we see Seki and Toyoji in the throes of a passionate affair clearly motivated by sex, with love only as an end result. Before we know it, Toyoji has cunningly convinced the gullible Seki that murdering her husband is the only way the two can truly achieve happiness and comfort together. The plan is clinically laid out by Toyoji: Seki will get Gisaburo maddeningly intoxicated on sake after his daily trip into town with the rickshaw, then, once passed out, the two will strangle him with a rope in the interest of expediency and silence. After that, he will be taken into the woods, thrown down one of the several wells that line the village's perimeter, and never be spoken of again. When asked, Seki will say Gisaburo has taken a trip to Tokyo. It's a highly specific plan that we are deliberately let in on, allowing the suspense to be heightened both in the act and in the aftermath, when the close-knit villagers whisper about the continued absence of Gisaburo. We begin to empathize with the murderous lovers without even taking into account right or wrong, because it is there viewpoint which Oshima observes.
A period of guilt and grief follows the murder for Seki, while Toyoji earnestly insists on her acceptance. She is now free from the reigns of what he perceives as an oppressive marriage, instead opened up to a new, more spontaneous manner of love. The unorthodox nature of their affair is mirrored by the extensive age gap which separates them, and also emphasized in an early scene which hints at the Oedipal slant of it; during his routine trip to present her with treats, Toyoji kneels down on the wood floor where Seki is breast-feeding her young boy and playfully ushers him aside, wondering when he gets a turn. It's an odd moment with traces of Freudian perplexity that spotlights the weird mother/son tension between the two and the inherent immaturity that accompanies Toyoji's younger age. Eventually, as years fly by and the collective chatter of the villagers regarding Gisaburo increases (the majority wonder whether he's alive or dead, while Seki indifferently brushes off these inquiries when questioned), the lovers must be extremely secretive about their meetings, even choosing to cease contact entirely at one point. This decision irks at Seki, for it was the promise of salvation and free love (however impermanent and momentary) which lead her to murder her husband. Adding to her disarray is the sudden presence of Gisaburo's sorrowful ghost, who doesn't so much actively haunt her as he does occupy the same space, quietly signaling for a comforting swig of sake in the middle of Seki's hut. However, this deeply disturbs her, so she believes that the two should meet at Toyoji's home, where he lives alone with his mentally disabled younger brother, despite the danger of being caught by one of the police officials patrolling the village, an interrogative bunch lead by the farcically portrayed Officer Hotta (Takuzo Kawatani). Therefore, contrary to the classical femme fatale, it is Toyoji who leads Seki down a troubling path towards murder based on the allure of sex.
Three quarters of the film is spent on this tense back-and-forth after the crime is committed, with Toyoji and Seki almost always disagreeing on the best steps to take to account for their safety or well-being. This erratic character interplay is guided, and perhaps fundamentally shaped, by the equally unpredictable presence of weather in the film. Oshima hardly ever maintains a natural temporal evolution between the four seasons, lingering on some longer than others, and always acknowledging their impact on the everyday lives of the villagers. Not only does this add uneasiness to the atmosphere, lending it the sense that the villagers understand their life patterns and therefore know one of their own is hiding a secret, but it also requires that we see the lovers in a distinct context each time, forced to make different decisions in different situations.
Empire of Passion's primary visual motif, a circle, seen both in the recurrent shots of Gisaburo's rickshaw wheel and the trademark images from inside the well looking up at the outside, indicates the ourobouric flow of life, that the truth is inevitably encircling the two until it is fully revealed. Yet it also seems that Oshima wants to destabilize that supposed determinacy, hence the erratic progression of the story, as if keeping alive some hope that Toyoji and Seki will be able to find redemption from their crime and transcend the limits placed upon them by the rigid, authoritarian society. And to some extent, they do towards the end when they both argue that the other should survive and therefore free themselves from the suspicious eyes of their peers, while their apparent impending suicides only fuel sexual desires. These acts of selflessness and rebellion are curious hybrids of pleasure (sex and revitalization) and pain (death), echoing an earlier scene when Toyoji begins violating Seki sexually with her son crying in the neighboring room, an action that effortlessly transforms into one that Seki finds pleasure in.
Oshima's visual sensibility is superficially naturalistic, yet a sense of manufactured artifice belies the proceedings, further cementing the influence of Hollywood. For its majority, Oshima sticks to detached, humbly attractive compositions that capture a village that seems perfectly believable: a cluster of warm brown cottages nestled inside lush vegetation and intersected by dirt roads. Once the murder is committed however and the seasons unpredictably shift, a swirling mist begins to find its way into the village. Cinematic techniques are used to emphasize this agitation of naturalism: in a wonderfully eerie scene where the ghost of Gisaburo takes Seki for a ride home on his rickshaw through a densely fogged path, and in a shot when Gisaburo's body is first dumped the well during winter, Oshima utilizes slow motion to great effect. Further pitched away from reality is Toru Takemitsu's typically moody soundtrack, which infuses even the mundane with malign purpose. These elements overwhelm the film's oddly inconsistent narration, spoken with tell-tale objectivity by an old woman, and its sometimes overly histrionic acting. Empire of Passion's fateful conclusion is punctuated by bursts of the macabre, including an especially enigmatic blindness that overcomes Seki in what appears to be a dream state. When the inescapable punishment comes and Gisaburo's corpse is revealed, it is possible that Seki can see for just a moment, forced by the ineffable hand of nature to stare directly at her mistakes.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Synecdoche, New York (2008) A Film by Charlie Kaufman
The decade's most revealing, complicated, and self-lacerating filmmaker surrogate is Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), standing in for first-time director but seasoned screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in his sprawling Synecdoche, New York. Cotard is an artist grappling with the great question of how to depict life in all of its mundane, difficult, and sometimes inexplicable glory through arguably overdone methodology; Kaufman is the writer of such singular films as Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Human Nature (2001), and Spike Jonze's Adaption (2002) and Being John Malkovich (1999), works that have now and then elicited accusations of Kaufman as a convoluted hack exploring important themes in a way that spotlights only his own cleverness. Indeed, Synecdoche, New York is heavy on the convolution, and one can't possibly make it out of it without attesting to the fact that Kaufman's damn clever, but the film's exploration of its central figure - an upstate New York theater director - is intense and all-encompassing, rivaling There Will Be Blood (also from 2008) in its unflinching study of a man invested for better or worse in his vocation.
With the obvious finesse afforded to all of the film's ingredients, down to every last detail, it's clear Kaufman is one of these very figures. The film represents an amazing example of an artist working from the outside in, pining to explore his own inner-being and the relationship between his art and his life. Yet it is important not to see Synecdoche, New York as a work of insularity, telling us about its creator but nothing else, for it constantly strives to understand the lives around its protagonist as well as the links that connect them, and often times even condemns Cotard's irrational thoughts, showcasing the negative ways in which they manifest themselves on-screen. An early example of this is when Caden's artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) leaves with their daughter Olive to Germany due to a great deal of mounting anxieties regarding his increasingly paranoid and hypochondriachal tendencies (on a day-to-day basis, Caden believes he has extracted life-threatening diseases that make him more miserable by the minute) as well as a seemingly marriage-long tension between Adele's extroverted, art-chic personality and Caden's introverted, worrisome one. The first few scenes of the film show the family in cramped, rather ungainly quarters going about their own business, Olive inquiring nasally about her "green poop", Adele balancing her daughter's woes with her own busy morning routine, and Caden sitting at the table complaining, for all intents and purposes, to himself about his psychosomatic conditions. Adele and Olive ultimately never return from Germany, and their physical dismissal from the film sets in motion its slow, exacting departure from reality.
Prior to their exit, Caden sees his reworking of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (staged with young actors, a prescient nod to Caden's fear of mortality and aging) open to glowing reviews, causing him to receive a hearty "Genius Grant" with which to create a bold theatrical work. He embarks on this project with little more than a loose feeling: wanting to create a play that expresses the sorrows of life and the difficulty of leading one's own life with the constant pressures of providing for those around him, he devises the concept of a lifelike replication of the city of Schenectady, New York that he lives in (the title then is a play on words, with the replacement word "synecdoche" actually a figure of speech meaning a part representing a whole). He casts familiar actors in the parts of his family, his friends, and his co-workers. This process becomes an attempt to recreate his entire life, his entire environment, and it inevitably grows increasingly complicated and multilayered as Caden's personal life steadily collapses. Romances come and go, tending to add only misery rather than joy, augmenting the grief he feels about his lost family. In fact, women are a constant struggle in Caden's life; although he is unromantic, it seems that a women is always grasping for his attention, and he uses them as a way to combat his loneliness rather than evolve a relationship - love as a vehicle for forgetting.
The character of Hazel (Samantha Morton) is one of the few figures who is consistent throughout the film, and she is also an important aspect of Caden's troubled self. At the theater where Caden works, she is the box office attendant, and displays her giddy affection for him early on when Adele is still living with him. Caden clearly reciprocates the feelings, but is too withdrawn to act upon them comfortably, but when Adele finally leaves, the two begin dating. It is not long though before Caden screws things up in a typically neurotic manner, whining about his confusion and deterring Hazel. Soon enough, she finds her own husband and starts a new life, but Caden's interest does not waver (in a distinctly Gondry-esque visual flourish, Hazel's house is constantly burning with flames of desire). During this time, Caden goes through the motions with his own new wife, the young, passionate, but phony actress Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), with whom he has a child that he basically dismisses as not his own. Things start out well but end bitterly. Meanwhile, Caden is haunted by the now ubiquitous art-world images of his wife, who has found success with her miniaturized impressionist paintings, so small in fact that they have to be viewed through microscopes, and the image of a flock of museum-goers crowding around the portraits like scientists studying amoebas is a hilarious critique of the increasingly absurd mannerisms of modern art. More stinging is Caden's anguish about his lost daughter, who he finds has transformed into a tattooed lesbian imprisoned by the pornographic industry and the misguided hand of her mother's eccentric friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Evidently, between the chaos of his present romantic situation, the torment of wondering whether or not his daughter remembers him, and the constant fear of sickness and death, Caden has the material to produce a far-reaching, searing portrait of existential blues. Yet it is this burning desire to create something "real" out of things that are painfully real, this meddling approach to art as a form of objective projection, that paradoxically sends him further away from emotional truth and deeper into his own obsessive competition with loneliness. Fittingly, he finds a massive abandoned warehouse to begin staging his play, and in it he builds a stroke-for-stroke replica of Schenectady, which naturally includes the same warehouse within it. This results in a life-size, urban version of a Matryoshka doll, the literal embodiment of escapism for Caden, who frets layer upon layer over every minor detail. The characters in his play mirror this layering effect, because those who represent real figures in Caden's life eventually get represented within the play by other actors, and so on and so forth. Adele's artwork gains an added dimension when we witness the grandiose scale of Caden's, proving that success and artistic merit needn't be proportionate to scale. Towards the end of the film, Caden shrinks within his cavernous surroundings, disappearing amongst the other "actors", and he loses a sense of coherence and control over his blooming production.
Without any warning, decades have past when sometimes it feels like only months. In truth, we see Caden age from a middle-aged father to a brittle old man, and the gaps in time are hardly apparent. The only evidence we get to the contrary is in the slaps of reality that Caden receives: Hazel informs him that his family has been gone for several years when it feels like a few frames have past since their departure, and he hears news of his parents and daughter dying. Kaufman's tricky methods allow the film to sneak up on you. By focusing adamantly on Caden, the film purposefully neglects all other aspects of the story, emphasizing his own static mindset and self-absorption. Because of this, he becomes disconnected and uninvolved in anyone else's life, shown in a scene when Caden finally sits at the deathbed of the grownup Olive and the two literally speak in different languages (German and English). This is not simply sloppy narrative mechanics; Synecdoche, New York effectively captures the effects of passing time, the feeling that one gets about things moving forward at an unnaturally rapid rate. When nearly all of his loved ones pass away in the blink of an eye with no portents about their approaching fates, Caden's overwhelming paranoia and morbidity is that much more potent.
For much of Caden's production, a pressing question is who will play himself. At an interview for the part, a lanky old man with gray hair and glasses (Tom Noonan) boasts to have complete knowledge him, stating that he has followed him for years with utmost fascination. The audience may recall several scenes earlier in the film where the man lurked in the background impassively. For all its well-written, thoroughly explored elements, the film lacks clarity in this figure. He begins as what seems like a conceptual enigma, perhaps indicative of some fragment of Caden's psyche, perhaps a forewarning towards a more metaphysical role he will play later in the film, but instead he abruptly transitions into just another character with his own motivations, falling for Claire and Hazel and eventually committing suicide.
When he's out of the picture however, a new, more beguiling character comes into play. Ellen, the cleaning lady of Adele's high-rise apartment that Caden stalks for some time, believes she understands his essence despite her lack of acting experience. She revamps the production, even taking over Caden's role as director. A play (well, more of an installation) that has for decades been stagnate and ill-prepared for an audience suddenly seems to come alive, yet Caden shows clear signs of submission. Kaufman is probing at the utter necessity of creating art, but also the importance of finishing it the right way. Caden loses his creativity and perhaps a sense of grounding in reality as he grows old and retreats further into his creation. Soon after, his life, and his production - which begins to look like some of the post-apocalyptic vistas in this year's The Road - ends. But of course, "genius grants" do not sustain themselves for such a long period of time in the first place. There is no play, only a man and his troubles, as well as the lessons he learns. This is Kaufman's maniacal, twisted, brilliant idea of a character study.
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